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Federal Judge Denies Cali Drug Cartel Kingpin Early Release

81-year-old Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela will continue to serve his 30-year prison sentence.

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A Miami federal judge has denied an early release from prison for one of the kingpins of the Cali drug cartel, ruling that his health and the threat of the COVID-19 coronavirus are not sufficient grounds to end his incarceration. The decision from U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno means that Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, an 81-year-old former leader of the Cali cartel, will continue to serve his 30-year sentence at a federal penitentiary in North Carolina.

Rodriguez Orejuela and his brother Miguel, former leaders of the infamous Cali drug cartel, pleaded guilty in 2006 to trafficking more than 200 tons of cocaine from Colombia to the United States during the 1980s and ‘90s. The brothers reached a plea deal with federal prosecutors in Miami that allowed dozens of family members to avoid prosecution for money laundering and obstruction of justice charges as part of the agreement.

Rodriquez Orejuela’s attorney had filed a petition with the court requesting early release for his client on compassionate grounds. Attorney David O. Markus argued that Rodriquez Orejuela’s medical history, which includes colon cancer, prostate cancer, two heart attacks, high blood pressure, skin cancer, gout, chronic anxiety and depression, qualified him for compassionate release. Markus also cited media accounts of the threat that the COVID-19 poses to prison inmates as cause to let him out of prison.

“Because there were already sufficient reasons to release him, this crisis gives the court further reasons to grant his motion,” he said.

‘No Ordinary Defendant’

But Moreno disagreed, saying that Rodriguez Orejuela is “no ordinary defendant,” and denied the request for early release in a decision that was handed down on Tuesday.

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

Moreno also said that while the threat of the coronavirus pandemic is real, the outbreak “does not move the pendulum any closer towards compassionate release.”

The judge noted the violent nature of the cartel once led by Pablo Escobar, which often employed murder as a tool of intimidation and enforcement. The judge also cited the impact that the flood of cocaine had on Americans.

“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?”

“The court is totally unwilling to undermine and undo such public respect for the law, as well as the gravity of the offenses committed,” the judge added.

The release was welcome news for federal prosecutors, who had argued against releasing Rodriguez Orejuela. Markus, who filed the petition for release on compassionate grounds months before the COVID-19 outbreak began, responded to Moreno’s ruling after it was handed down.

“We are very saddened and disappointed in the judge’s decision,” Markus said. “We should let old and sick inmates die at home with their families, not alone in a prison cell.”

With Moreno’s ruling, Rodriguez Orejuela will continue to serve his sentence in federal prison. He is due to be released in 2030, when he will be in his early 90s. His brother Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, 76, is incarcerated at a federal penitentiary in Pennsylvania.

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