Judge Luz Amanda Moncada ruled Thursday that Rodriguez Orejuela, 56, was eligible for release after serving seven years of a 15-year prison sentence on drug trafficking charges. Moncada also arranged for dozens of armed guards to escort Rodriguez as he departs the prison grounds.
Rodriguez Orejuela and his imprisoned brother, Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, together once operated Colombia’s largest drug trafficking business, responsible for supplying most of the world’s cocaine from 1980 to 1995, and reaping some $8 billion in profits annually, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration [DEA].
Colombian Interior Minister Fernando Londono said the decision is a setback for his government’s efforts to crack down on drug traffickers and the terrorist organizations profiting from the drug trade.
“It’s terrible, terrible, terrible. This is a moment of mourning, of pain for the image of the nation, and for the justice system of Colombia,” Londono said in a press statement.
Colombian President Alvaro Uribe was reportedly caught by surprise last Friday when another judge, Pedro Jose Suarez Vacca, originally approved the brothers’ release.
The Uribe administration immediately issued an executive order to halt the judge’s decision to release the men, who topped the U.S.’ most wanted list until their capture in 1995.
Uribe’s executive order sparked protests by Colombia’s Supreme Court, which overturned the decree on Tuesday. In its decision, the Supreme Court charged the Uribe administration of trying to usurp judicial power and reprimanded the president for “interfering” with the judicial branch.
At the same time Judge Moncada approved the Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela’s release, she rejected his brother’s parole request, ordering Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela to serve a four-year prison sentence for trying to bribe a judge. The government brought the bribery charges against Miguel Rodriguez last week in a last minute effort to keep the Orejuela brothers behind bars.
Uribe has called for an investigation into Suarez’s conduct, while Interior Minister Fernando Londono has said he suspects Colombia’s powerful drug lords may have corrupted the country’s entire justice system.
The U.S. has not publicly commented on the release of Rodriguez Orejuela — a man the DEA sought to arrest in order to cripple the Cali cartel’s massive narcotics enterprise.
The decision comes just one day after the U.S. announced it uncovered a major international arms-for-drugs deal involving a major Colombian paramilitary group.
U.S. authorities in Houston, Texas filed an indictment on Wednesday against four people, accusing them of organizing the deal on behalf of the AUC, or Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, the right-wing paramilitary force the State Department added to its international terrorist organizations list in Sept. 2001. The AUC has been blamed for hundreds of assassinations, kidnappings and massacres; the right-wing nationalist group claims its goal is to rid Colombia of left-wing subversives.
U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft said the four alleged AUC members planned to trade $25 million in cash and cocaine for weapons, including shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles, 9,000 AK-47s and other assault rifles, grenade launchers and nearly 300,000 grenades, 300 pistols and about 53 million rounds of ammunition.
Ashcroft said the case illustrated the “deadly nexus between terrorism and drug trafficking” that poses a serious threat to American security.
“Narco-terrorists from South America to Southeast Asia are less able to threaten American lives and American security,” Ashcroft said.
DEA chief Asa Hutchinson drew a comparison between drug traffickers and terrorists, saying both groups “work out of the same jungle; they plan in the same cave and they train in the same desert.”
U.S. Attorney Michael Shelby of Houston told the same press conference that drugs “are the currency of terrorists.”
The sting that netted the four men, called “Operation White Terror,” began more than 12 months ago, during which FBI and DEA undercover agents in London, Panama City and the Virgin Islands gathered videotapes and audiotapes of meetings in which the four suspects allegedly discussed exchanging drugs for weapons.
Two of the suspects were identified as Cesar Lopez, known as “Comandante NAPO” (or Comandante Napoleon), and another man identified only as “Comandante Emilio,” both Colombian nationals and alleged AUC paramilitary leaders.
Officials on Tuesday arrested the two Colombians and a third suspect, identified as Carlos Ali Romero, a U.S. resident, in San Jose, Costa Rica, where the three men traveled to meet with U.S. agents posing as arms dealers. The U.S. is seeking to extradite the two Colombians. Authorities also detained a fourth suspect, identified as U.S. resident Uwe Jensen, in Houston, Texas.
U.S. authorities uncovered the alleged deal when Romero and Jensen tried to buy five containers of Warsaw Pact weapons for the AUC from undercover FBI and CIA agents in London, the Virgin Islands, and Panama City, Ashcroft said.
The indictment alleges the four men also wanted to acquire Russian-made IL-76 cargo aircraft for the purpose of transporting large quantities of cocaine from South America to Europe.
According to the indictment, Romero told the undercover agents he wanted to establish an ongoing drugs-for-arms business relationship on behalf of the AUC and its longtime leader, Carlos Castano, a lead figure in the AUC’s drug trafficking operations, based in northern Colombia.