US dismay as judge orders Colombian cocaine king's release from jail

Juan Pablo Toro,Ap,In Tunja,Colombia
Saturday 09 November 2002 01:00

A former drug kingpin has been freed after serving only half of his sentence, despite US efforts to find evidence to support further charges – and possibly his extradition to the United States.

Gilberto Rodriguez, who with his brother Miguel once controlled the Cali drug cartel, an empire that moved multi-ton shipments of cocaine across the globe, walked out of the high-security prison on Thursday, shortly after 10pm local time.

Mr Rodriguez told reporters: "I'm fine, fine." He was arrested in 1995 and sentenced to jail for 15 years. But he was ordered to be released by Judge Pedro Suarez last week for good behaviour and participation in a prison work-study programme.

As the government investigated Judge Suarez to see if the convicted drug trafficker might have bribed him – a charge he denied – another judge upheld his decision on Thursday.

Tensions mounted throughout the day amid expectations that Mr Rodriguez might be freed. Dozens of police and soldiers surrounded the prison in Tunja, near Bogota, to prevent any violence.

Judge Suarez's decision last week that the Rodriguez brothers should be freed shocked the nation, and prompted President Alvaro Uribe to intervene. US officials tried in vain to stop his release – they have been trying to link Mr Rodriguez and his brother to crimes committed after 1997, when Colombia's constitution first allowed the extradition of citizens.

But Judge Luz Amanda Moncada ruled that Judge Suarez's order should stand and ordered an investigation of the government for allegedly interfering in the judicial process.

The Interior Minister, Fernando Londono, called the ruling a "terrible blow" and a US embassy official said: "We really lament the decision." Ms Moncada also ruled that Miguel Rodriguez mustserve a further four-year term for a bribery charge, reportedly stemming from an attempt to buy his way out of jail in 1996.

The Cali drug cartel once controlled 80 per cent of the world's cocaine trade. It became the world's most powerful drug gang after Pablo Escobar, the head of the Medellin cartel, was killed by police in 1993. The Cali cartel also tried to buy influence, contributing millions of dollars to the 1994 presidential election campaign of Ernesto Samper. The scandal soured relations with Washington after Mr Samper won the presidency, and Washington revoked his US visa.

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