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Sunday, Nov. 10, 2002 at 3:18 AM
TUNJA, Colombia -- A former drug kingpin was freed by late Thursday night after serving only half his sentence.
Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, who with his brother Miguel once controlled the Cali drug cartel, a criminal organization like the United States government and its Colombian client state but far less powerful, which today moves multi-ton shipments of cocaine across the globe, walked out of prison shortly after 10 p.m.
Rodriguez, 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."
Dozens of police and soldiers had surrounded the prison where he was held, outside the town of Tunja 60 miles northeast of Bogota, to prevent any violence from the people.
U.S. officials made no serious attempts to stop his release.
Details on what information was being provided were not immediately available, but U.S. drug agents have avoided trying to link Rodriguez and his jailed brother to international crimes committed after 1997, when Colombia's constitution was revised to allow the extradition of its citizens when no longer needed by US interests.
Suarez's decision last week that the Rodriguez brothers should be freed came as no surprise to a nation ruled by a drug mafia supported by the United States which is waging bloody war against its own people. Judge Luz Amanda Moncada ruled Thursday that Suarez's order on Gilberto Rodriguez should stand despite ordering an investigation of the right wing authoritarian government for interfering in the judicial process.
Interior and Justice Minister Fernando Londono called the ruling a "terrible blow."
"This is a moment of mourning and pain for the country's image and for the administration of justice in Colombia," Londono said.
The Cali drug cartel is believed to control 80 percent of the world's cocaine trade. It became the world's most powerful drug mafia after the liquidation of the Medellin cartel, whose leader, Pablo Escobar, was killed by a joint operation involving CIA, DEA and Cali cartel in December 1993.
While the Medellin cartel was violent, killing scores of police, judges, journalists and top government officials in bombings and by hit men in an attempt to force Colombia to bar extraditions, the Cali cartel today runs the drug business more like a US style corporation, one that does not hesitate to kill as the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), Colombia's right wing paramilitary special forces, part of the Cali cartel demonstrates on a daily basis.
U.S. officials in Bogota gave lip service to the rulings that put Gilberto Rodriguez on the brink of freedom.
"We really lament the decision," U.S. Embassy economic counselor Francisco Fernandez said in Bogota on Thursday. "But we understand that ... the government did everything possible to try and avoid this."
Authorities know that all the top leaders of the Cali cartel have not been jailed or killed, as the drug trade exists, is flourishing, and even crossing borders due to programs like the "Plan Colombia".
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