BOGOTÁ — China's recent execution of a Colombian arrested for drug trafficking — and the uproar it caused here — underscore just how inhumane the death penalty is and offer a helpful reminder of why we don't have capital punishment in Colombia.

And yet we need to be careful, in situations like this, not to fall into the trap of blaming the Foreign Affairs Ministry for failing to repatriate citizens who've broken the law in other countries. Because when the government does bring those people home, it creates a perverse incentive for criminals, especially so-called "drug mules."

The case reached its cruel climax shortly before 10 p.m. on Feb. 27, when Chinese authorities executed Ismael Arciniegas Valencia, a Colombian captured in 2010 with 4 kilograms of cocaine. Arciniegas had been sentenced to death in keeping with Chinese laws mandating punishments of between 15 years in jail and execution for smuggling more than 50 grams of cocaine. During his trial, the Colombian pleaded guilty and said he knew the drugs he was carrying were illegal. He also said he'd been paid $5,000 to transport the cocaine. He was a mule, in other words.

The sentence, no matter how you look at it, was excessive. For a state to dispose of a person's life in this way is inhumane. On that we can all agree. But there's another element in all of this that needs to be considered.

Unfortunately, Arciniegas's situation isn't all that exceptional. There are 15 other Colombians presently facing death sentences in China for drug trafficking. Another 15 are serving life sentences in prison. Of the 163 Colombians held in China, 147 are in detention for suspected drug offenses. And the number is going up.

As a sovereign state, China is entitled to enforce its laws as it sees fit.

The Foreign Affairs Ministry has tried, for several years now, to secure the release of Colombians caught for breaking the law in China. But this is no simple matter. Numbers provided to El Espectador by the Colombian government suggest that every time a Colombian detained abroad is repatriated, the number of Colombian nationals arrested for drug trafficking goes up. Worldwide, 57% of all Colombians detained are held for drug-related offenses.

This is how the perverse logic works: Traffickers tell their "mules" not to worry if arrested. "Our government will do absolutely everything to bring you back to Colombia," they say. In this way, an essential humanitarian act becomes a tool for criminals.

That's why it's unfair, in these cases, to criticize the Foreign Ministry. The death penalty may seem despicable to us. But as a sovereign state, China is entitled to enforce its laws as it sees fit, even if they contravene the customs of other countries. It is also very telling that many of those arrested say they knew of the risks they incurred as couriers for crime.

The message from the Colombia government must be firm: We utterly reject the irresponsibility of aiding drug trafficking but will, within the bounds of the law, do everything possible to avoid smugglers paying an inhuman price. And for Colombians entertaining the idea of dabbling in this type of illegal tourism, they need to remember that the law is the law, however harsh and exaggerated it may seem.

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