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Cali Drug Cartel Kingpin Escapes from Bogota Prison

January 12, 1996

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ Guards thought they were waving a prosecutor’s car through the gates of the maximum-security prison. They didn’t know they had just let the No. 3 man in the Cali drug cartel escape.

Jose Santacruz Londono removed a one-way mirror from a prison interrogation room Thursday and slipped through the opening, apparently with the help of accomplices, said Norberto Pelaez, head of the national prison system.

The ranking member of the world’s largest drug gang drove out of La Picota prison in a getaway car that resembled a prosecutor’s car, officials said. Prosecutors’ cars are not checked when they enter or leave the prison.

RCN radio said Santacruz’s absence was noticed at a 4 p.m. head count.

Pelaez resigned today as police across Colombia searched for Santacruz at roadblocks and airports.

The escape angered U.S. officials, who believe Colombia’s justice system is too lenient with drug traffickers. The United States has indicted cartel kingpins, but Colombia’s 1991 constitution forbids extradition of its citizens.

``It’s a very sad and depressing show of the power of drug corruption which will hurt Colombia internationally, especially in the U.S. Congress and the executive,″ the U.S. Embassy said in a statement.

The embassy said the escape will affect Washington’s decision in March on whether to certify Colombia as an ally in the war on drugs. Without certification, Colombia could lose some U.S. aid.

President Ernesto Samper called an emergency meeting of his ministers Thursday evening to discuss the escape. Arrested July 4 in a Bogota steak house, Santacruz, 53, had been awaiting trial on charges of illicit enrichment, conspiracy and the murder of a state governor.

The government offered a $2 million reward for information leading to Santacruz’s recapture, and sent an elite squad known as the Search Block to lead the hunt.

``We’re shocked by his escape, but if he was captured once, we can capture him a second time,″ said Justice Minister Carlos Medellin.

Prosecutors had interrogated Santacruz earlier Thursday, said Prosecutor General Alfonso Valdivieso. Impostors returned later in a similar-looking car and spirited him away, Valdivieso said.

During a three-month period starting in June, police put six of the seven leaders of the Cali cartel behind bars, including brothers Miguel and Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, the cartel’s other top leaders.

The remaining five were all accounted for in jail Thursday, said Miller Rubio, spokesman for the prison system. The other drug kingpin at large is Helmer Herrera, who is believed to lead the cartel’s military wing.

The Cali cartel is responsible for most of the cocaine distributed in the world. Its former rival, the Medellin cartel, has dwindled in power; its leader, Pablo Escobar, escaped from a luxury prison in 1992 and was killed by police a year later.

Santacruz, known as ``Chepe,″ a common nickname for Jose, was believed responsible for consolidating the Cali cartel’s distribution network in New York years ago. He has been linked to the New York murder of journalist Manuel de Dios Unanue, who was investigating cartel operations in the city.

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