Revealed: the blunders that allowed Biggs to remain free

Slipper of the Yard won £50,000 libel damages against the BBC in 1990 for a documentary which portrayed him as "incompetent" in his efforts to secure the return of Biggs from Brazil in 1974 after he escaped prison.

The robber evaded extradition on a legal technicality as a result of what Slipper claimed was the laxity of the Brazilian authorities and the politicking of British diplomats.

But previously unseen Foreign Office records today reveal a catalogue of legal and diplomatic blunders by the Yard and its most high-profile officer which allowed Britain's most famous fugitive to remain at liberty for another 27 years.

Biggs returned to Britain voluntarily in 2001 suffering from ill health. He is serving the remainder of his 30-year sentence in Belmarsh Prison.

The documents released by the National Archives in Kew, west London, show that far from tracking Biggs down themselves, British police only found out Biggs' whereabouts in 1974 because of a tip-off from the Daily Express newspaper.

They then managed to cause a diplomatic incident by rushing to arrest Biggs without giving the Brazilian authorities prior notice.

The incident led to the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police making a personal apology to the British ambassador in Brasilia, and the Brazilian government amid a growing row between the Foreign Office and Scotland Yard over who was to blame for the farce.

The encounter between Detective Chief Superintendent Slipper and Biggs, a key player in the 1963 mail train robbery that netted £2.6m, entered criminal legend when the detective tracked the convict down to his Rio De Janeiro hotel room one morning in February 1974.

As he entered the room, Slipper famously said: "Long time no see Ronnie". To which Biggs replied: "Fuck me, how did you get here?"

The Yard had been doggedly pursuing Biggs since his audacious escape from Wandsworth Prison in 1965, scaling the walls with a rope ladder and jumping on to the roof of a van.

The documents detail how the robber, who paid £30,000 to a "fixer" to engineer his disappearance including plastic surgery and false passports, ended up in Brazil in 1970 after narrowly evading capture in Australia.

British diplomats and Brazilian authorities only learnt of the operation when Slipper called them from outside the Trocadero hotel on the Copacabana beach where Biggs was staying.The lack of an extradition agreement between the two countries meant that hopes of persuading the Brazilians to deport or expel Biggs rapidly diminished amid an increasing chill in diplomatic relations.

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