- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 28, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) - One of the most notorious Colombian cocaine cartel kingpins will not be released early from a U.S. prison over claims of ill health and fears of the deadly effects on him of a potential coronavirus infection, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.

U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno found that Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, the 81-year-old former chieftain of the Cali cartel, did not have serious enough health problems to merit early release. The judge also said doing so would be a blow to the U.S. justice system.

The cartel led by Rodriguez Orejuela and his brother, Miguel, smuggled over 200,000 kilograms (441,000 pounds) of cocaine worth more than $2.1 billion into the U.S. in the 1980s and 1990s. The organization succeeded the Medellin cartel once run by drug lord Pablo Escobar. Both used violence and killings extensively for intimidation and enforcement.

“The court can only imagine the far-reaching, destructive effects of this much cocaine in the United States,” Moreno wrote. “How many thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of lives were affected?”

Rodriguez Orejuela has served about half of a 30-year prison sentence imposed after he and his brother reached a 2006 plea deal with federal prosecutors in Miami. His attorney, David O. Markus, said he is “saddened and disappointed” by the decision.

“We should let old and sick inmates die at home with their families, not alone in a prison cell,” Markus said in an email.

In his argument for compassionate release, court documents show Rodriguez Orejuela suffers from a range of health problems including colon cancer, prostate cancer, two heart attacks, high blood pressure, skin cancer, gout, chronic anxiety and depression. The documents paint a picture of a frail old man who often must use a walker and frequently visits the infirmary at his prison in Butner, North Carolina.

The coronavirus that has killed tens of thousands of people worldwide, and has been a problem in many jails and prisons, is another concern, the documents say.

Prosecutors acknowledged that Rodriguez Orejuela has multiple health issues but added that he can still get around and generally take care of himself under medical supervision.

Moreno ruled that those health problems are not enough to merit compassionate release - even under the possible threat of the coronavirus.

“Rodriguez Orejuela’s medical condition, while far from perfect, is also far from extraordinary and compelling,” the judge wrote.

Under the brothers’ 2006 plea deal, more than two dozen family members were removed from a Treasury Department list designating them as part of the Cali cartel. That spared some of them from prosecution for obstruction of justice or money laundering and also allowed legitimate family businesses in Colombia to continue operating.

As of now, Rodriguez Orejuela’s prison release date is Feb. 9 2030, when he would be in his early 90s. His brother, 76-year-old Miguel, is serving his sentence at a Pennsylvania prison.

In a separate case, a different Miami federal judge is weighing whether to permit early release of Fabio Ochoa, 62, a former leader of the Medellin cartel. Ochoa’s lawyer argues he should get out of prison because of a change in sentencing guidelines that would shave five years off his 30-year sentence.

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