Sources: US stops ex Colombia warlord's deportation to Italy

FILE - In this May 13, 2008 file photo, Colombian paramilitary warlord Salvatore Mancuso is escorted by U.S. DEA agents upon his arrival to Opa-locka, Florida. A legal battle is quietly brewing in the U.S. in 2020 over Colombias request that this former paramilitary warlord be sent home after completing his drug sentence in the U.S. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz, File)

MIAMI – The Trump administration has blocked the scheduled removal of a former Colombian paramilitary boss to Italy and now intends to deport him to his South American homeland, where he’s been found responsible for hundreds of war crimes.

Salvatore Mancuso received notification of the surprise reversal on Sunday, according to two people familiar with the matter who discussed the proceedings on condition of anonymity. His lawyers have 14 days to challenge the deportation order.

Mancuso's removal to Italy, where he also has citizenship, was ordered by the Department of Homeland Security in April after he completed in March a 12-year sentence for cocaine trafficking.

But he's been held in federal custody ever since as Colombia's government fights to have him returned to continue with truth and reconciliation efforts that stalled in 2008 with the extradition to the U.S. of 14 warlords, including Mancuso, the former top commander of the United Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC.

Just a week ago, Justice Department attorneys reaffirmed before a Washington, D.C. federal court the Trump administration's pledge to remove Mancuso to Italy no later than Sept. 4.

Attorneys for Mancuso went to court seeking to force Attorney General William Barr to carry out the April 15 order removing Mancuso to Italy, arguing that that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had “illegally detained” their client beyond the maximum 90 days allowed for the removal of aliens.

However, in substituting Colombia for Italy, U.S. officials cited a provision in the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act that allows the Attorney General to disregard the country designated for an alien's removal if it is deemed that carrying out the order would be “prejudicial to the United States," according to the two people familiar with the proceedings.

The Justice and State Department declined to comment, referring all inquiries to DHS, which didn't respond to the AP's request.