A Colombian court ordered one of the country's former top drug lords released from prison today as government investigators scrambled to find evidence to support further charges and possibly his extradition to the United States.
Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela and his brother, Miguel, once controlled the Cali drug cartel, an empire that moved multi-ton shipments of cocaine across the globe, including to the United States.
Judge Luz Amanda Moncada ruled today that the government must release Gilberto Rodriguez in line with an order issued last week by Judge Pedro Jose Suarez. Suarez had also ordered Miguel Rodriguez freed, but Moncada ruled that he must stay in prison to serve an additional four-year sentence for bribery. That sentence reportedly stemmed from a 1996 attempt to buy his way out of prison.
The nation was stunned last week by Suarez's ruling that both Rodriguez brothers should be released after having served just seven years, about half their sentences, for drug trafficking. Justice Minister Fernando Londono immediately accused Suarez of falling prey to the brothers' "gigantic economic power" and began a bribery investigation.
Suarez defended his decision, saying the brothers deserved early release because they had participated in a work-study program in prison.
President Alvaro Uribe halted the release on Saturday as officials attempted to keep the brothers behind bars. After Moncada's ruling, however, Londono said the government would respect the judge's decision, even though it was "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 told RCN Radio.
Unless U.S. and Colombian investigators file additional charges against Gilberto Rodriguez, he could leave prison soon. Dozens of police and soldiers surrounded the Combita prison, outside the town of Tunja, 60 miles northeast of Bogota, to guarantee his safety when he came out.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration was trying to link the brothers to international crimes committed after 1997, when Colombia's constitution was revised to allow the extradition of its citizens. The men were captured in 1995, so authorities would have to prove that any new crimes were committed from their cells. In the past, drug lords have been accused of continuing to run their operations from prison.