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Police Search For Escaped Drug Kingpin, U.S. Officials Angry

January 12, 1996

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ As U.S. officials fumed, thousands of police across Colombia searched Friday for a Cali drug cartel kingpin who escaped out of a high-security prison.

The United States angrily said Thursday’s escape of billionaire Jose Santacruz Londono will affect its decision in March on whether to certify Colombia as an ally in the war on drugs.

``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.

Colombia, source of most of the world’s cocaine, could lose U.S. aid if it fails to keep its anti-drug certification.

Santacruz, the No. 3 man in the powerful Cali cartel, has been linked to drug trafficking since the 1970s and has been indicted in several U.S. cities.

He is believed responsible for the 1992 killing of journalist Manuel de Dios Unanue, who was investigating cartel operations in New York, as well as the 1989 car-bomb murder of a Colombian state governor.

The national prison director, Norberto Pelaez, resigned in the wake of the escape. Police set up roadblocks, searched airports and bus terminals, and wardens stepped up security at prisons around Colombia.

An elite police unit planned to focus operations in and around the southwestern city of Cali, the cartel’s base where Santacruz owns hundreds of buildings and rural properties. The government has offered a $2 million reward for his recapture.

The escape of Santacruz, who drove out the main gate of a Bogota prison in a car that guards thought belonged to prosecutors, raised questions about the ability of the Colombian justice system to deal with wealthy drug traffickers.

Five other cartel leaders, including brothers Miguel and Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, were arrested last year and are in jail. A seventh, Helmer Herrera, has eluded capture for months.

U.S. officials believe drug kingpins are doing business from jail and want Colombia to extradite traffickers to the United States to face tougher sentences. Colombia, however, forbids extradition of its citizens.

``Incarceration in a secure detention facility in the United States is what (Santacruz) and the rest of the Cali mafia fear the most,″ Thomas Constantine, head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, said in Washington.

Constantine expressed concern about prison security for drug kingpins in a Nov. 16 meeting with the Colombian defense minister.

Police were questioning guards at La Picota prison, where accomplices apparently helped to whisk Santacruz to freedom.

The driver of the car in which he escaped entered the prison without showing any papers as visiting prosecutors had done earlier in the day, the prosecutor general’s office said.

Cali traffickers, who took control of the cocaine trade from the more violent Medellin drug cartel, have long manipulated judges, prison guards and prosecutors with bribes and threats.

In a corruption purge last year, 670 prison guards were fired and 1,000 were transferred to other jails.

``It is a problem we’ve had for 40 years,″ said Miller Rubio, spokesman for the National Prisons Institute.

In other prison escapes involving drug traffickers:

_ Pablo Escobar, leader of the Medellin cartel, fled with his lieutenants from a luxury prison in 1992 where he allegedly ordered murders and directed drug shipments. Security forces killed him a year later.

_ Juan Ramon Matta Ballesteros, a Honduran considered a key dealer for the Medellin cartel, escaped from a Colombian jail in 1985. He was captured in Honduras and is serving a life sentence in the United States.

_ Jorge Rojas, a former army captain and a security chief for the Cali cartel, escaped from prison in 1993. Military officials were allegedly involved.

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