A former drug kingpin was freed late Thursday night after serving only half his sentence, despite a U.S. effort to find evidence to support further charges -- and possibly his extradition to the United States.
Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, 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 prison shortly after 10 p.m.
Rodriguez Orejuela, who was arrested in 1995 and sentenced to prison until 2010, was ordered released by Judge Pedro Suarez last week for good behavior and participation in a prison work-study program. As the government investigated Suarez to see if the convicted drug trafficker might have bribed him -- Suarez has denied it -- another judge upheld the decision Thursday.
Tensions mounted throughout the day. Dozens of police and soldiers surrounded the prison where Rodriguez Orejuela was held, outside Tunja about 60 miles northeast of Bogota, to prevent any violence.
With the clock ticking, U.S. officials tried in vain to stop his release, providing documents that sought to block it.
Details on what information was being provided were not immediately available, but U.S. drug agents have been trying to link the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers to international crimes committed after 1997, when Colombia’s constitution was revised to allow the extradition of its citizens.
Suarez’s decision last week that the brothers should be freed shocked the nation and prompted the president to intervene. But Judge Luz Amanda Moncada ruled Thursday that Suarez’s order on Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela should stand. She also ordered a probe of the government for allegedly interfering in the judicial process.
Interior and Justice Minister Fernando Londono called the ruling a “terrible blow.”
U.S. officials in Bogota criticized the rulings.