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Cali Drug Cartel Kingpin Escapes from Bogota Prison

January 12, 1996

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ One of the top three leaders of the world’s biggest drug cartel escaped Thursday from a maximum-security prison in Bogota.

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

He then drove out of the La Picota prison in a getaway car disguised as a prosecutor’s car, officials said. Prosecutors’ cars are not checked when they enter or leave the prison.

RCN radio said his absence was noticed at a 4 p.m. head count.

President Ernesto Samper called an emergency meeting of his ministers Thursday evening to discuss the escape.

The assistant chief of police led a team of officers, including an elite squad known as the Search Block, to recapture the drug lord. Police set up roadblocks in some areas and stepped up security at Bogota airports.

The national police chief offered a $2 million reward for information leading to Santacruz’s recapture, RCN radio reported.

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

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

Santacruz, 53, was arrested last July 4 in a plush Bogota steak house. He was awaiting trial on charges of illicit enrichment, conspiracy and the murder of a state governor.

During a three-month period starting last 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 on Thursday, Rubio said. The other drug kingpin at large is Helmer Herrera, who is believed to head the cartel’s military wing.

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

Santacruz was involved with the Rodriguez brothers in the late 1960s in a gang accused of kidnapping two Swiss citizens for ransom. They were later released.

Known in those days as ``the Student″ because he had studied engineering, Santacruz went into the construction business and is said to own thousands of apartments in Cali and hundreds of rural properties.

In the 1980s, Santacruz used his immense wealth to build a full-size replica of an elite Cali social club after its members refused to admit him.

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.

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