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Colombian Government Blocks the Release of 2 Jailed Drug Lords

A judge had ruled that the brothers who headed the Cali cartel could leave prison early.

November 03, 2002|From Reuters

BOGOTA, Colombia — The Colombian government blocked the release from prison of two former bosses of the Cali cocaine cartel a day after a judge infuriated President Alvaro Uribe by ruling that the two powerful drug lords could go free with less than half their sentences served.

"The government has ordered that the prisoners not be released while many doubts exist," Uribe said Saturday.

Uribe took office as president in August on pledges to crack down on illegal armed groups and the drug trade that is fueling the nation's 38-year-old civil war.

In a surprise move, Judge Pedro Jose Suarez on Friday ordered the release of brothers Miguel and Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, who were sentenced to 17 years and 15 years in prison, respectively, after their 1995 arrests by elite Colombian police and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

The Rodriguez Orejuela brothers controlled up to 80% of the world's cocaine after the 1993 killing of drug lord Pablo Escobar, who led the rival Medellin cartel. The DEA estimated that the Cali cartel hauled in $7 billion in profits annually in its heyday, and a top Colombian anti-drug official has said the Cali cartel is still alive.

Allowing the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers to walk out of prison would be an international embarrassment for Uribe and would likely damage Colombia's relations with the United States, which has spent $1.5 billion in mostly military aid to help Bogota fight a drug industry that exports about 580 tons of cocaine a year.

The United States has long sought their extradition.

The Colombian government accused the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers of using their "gigantic power" to buy justice, and it immediately pledged to halt their release from a maximum-security prison near Bogota, the capital.

The judge said he had ordered their release because they had maintained "correct social behavior in prison."

Speaking from the Colombian island of San Andres, Uribe said: "These are issues of profound national and international sensitivity. Their dealings involve the dignity of a nation, the people's credibility in their institutions, the prestige of justice and international respectability."

Uribe, a former mayor of Medellin -- the city that saw the rise and fall of Escobar's multibillion-dollar cocaine empire -- insists that fighting Colombia's drug trade is key to ending a war that claims the lives of thousands every year. He wants more U.S. cooperation in the war on drugs.

Anti-drug officials have said that leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitary outlaws now control Colombia's drug industry.

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