Colombian Drug Boss Dies in US Prison

Gilberto Rodriguez-Orejuela helped run Cali cartel in Colombia
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Mar 18, 2020 2:28 PM CDT
Updated Jun 1, 2022 6:40 PM CDT
Cocaine Kingpin Wants Out of Prison Due to Virus
This combination of 2019 and 2002 file photos shows Michael Cohen, left, President Trump's former personal attorney, outside his apartment building in New York and drug kingpin Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela leaving the Combita maximum security prison in Tunja before extradition to the US in 2004.   (AP Photo/Jonathan Carroll, Javier Galeano)

Update: Gilberto Rodriguez-Orejuela, who helped lead Colombia's Cali cocaine cartel, has died in an American prison, two years after losing his bid for compassionate release because of his poor health. The cause was lymphoma, the Guardian reports. Rodríguez Orejuela, who was extradited to the US in 2004, built his organization with his brother, Miguel, and they battled Pablo Escobar and the Medellín cartel for dominance in the illicit drug trade. Our story from March 2020 follows:

Coronavirus has become a "get out of jail" card for hundreds of low-level inmates across the country, and even hard-timers are seeking their freedom with the argument that it's not a matter of if but when the deadly illness sweeps through tightly packed populations behind bars. Among those pleading for compassionate release or home detention are the former head of the Cali drug cartel, President Trump's former personal attorney, and America's most infamous Ponzi schemer. A sampling of their arguments, per the AP:

  • "He is in poor health. He is 81 years old," David Oscar Markus, the attorney for cocaine kingpin Gilberto Rodriguez-Orejuela, wrote in emergency court papers this week seeking his release after serving about half of a 30-year drug-trafficking sentence. "When (not if) COVID-19 hits his prison, he will not have much of a chance."

  • The 81-year-old Madoff, who is serving a 150-year sentence for bilking thousands of investors in a $17.5 billion Ponzi scheme, had just asked last month to be released early in light of his terminal kidney disease. Now his attorney is calling on all at-risk federal prisoners to be released for their own safety because of the coronavirus. "The federal prison system has consistently shown an inability to respond to major crises," said Brandon Sample.
  • The Twitter account of Michael Cohen, Trump's former attorney who is serving a three-year sentence for crimes including tax evasion, shared over the weekend an online petition seeking the transfer of non-violent federal prisoners to home confinement. Addressed specifically to Trump, it argues the move would "give the prison facilities additional (and much needed) medical triage and logistic space for those who will become infected. Without your intervention, scores of non-violent offenders are at risk of death, and these people were not given a death sentence."
  • It's not just attorneys for the wealthy and powerful seeking release. In New York, public defenders asked judges to release older and at-risk inmates from the city’s beleaguered federal jails, saying pretrial confinement "creates the ideal environment for the transmission of contagious disease." The motions cite a provision of the Bail Reform Act allowing for the temporary release of pretrial inmates under “compelling” circumstances.
(More coronavirus stories.)

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