Cocaine jailbreak stuns Bogota

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Latin America Correspondent

Jose Santacruz Londono, alias "The Student" and alleged number three man in the Cali cocaine cartel, calmly unscrewed the one-way mirror from his prison interrogation room, climbed through into the empty viewing room and out to a waiting getaway vehicle in the prison yard.

The guards at Bogota's maximum security La Picota prison politely waved the vehicle through. Its occupants had earlier flashed identity documents from the Attorney-General's office, and a similar vehicle had brought bona-fide government interrogators to the jail earlier in the day.

Thursday's cool escape was the biggest setback for President Ernesto Samper since his police and troops detained Santacruz and five other alleged leaders of the Cali cartel in a three-month sweep last summer.

The smooth way in which Santacruz, 53, pulled off the escape from what is supposed to be the most secure prison in the nation stunned Colombians and infuriated US diplomats and anti-narcotics agents who have long suspected that the cartel's tentacles reach to "the highest levels of government". A US diplomat said: "There's something rotten here."

To make matters worse, Santacruz escaped almost at the moment a new Justice Minister, Carlos Medellin, was sworn in and was promising swift trials for the alleged cartel bosses. Colonel Norberto Pelaez, director of the national prison system, has resigned.

The escape could hardly have come at a worse time for Mr Samper, who has been accused by his former campaign manager of accepting cocaine money from the Cali cartel while campaigning in 1994. The President insists any such money came in without his knowledge but polls show most Colombians do not believe him.

Colombian police are offering a $2m (pounds 1.3m) reward for Santacruz's recapture.