San Juan, Puerto Rico: Federal authorities arrested a fugitive alleged drug kingpin Saturday after a decade-long chase through the Caribbean marked by his narrow escapes and public taunting that he paid off police to remain free.
Known as the Pablo Escobar of the Caribbean, Jose Figueroa Agosto was caught wearing a wig while driving through a working-class Dominican neighborhood of San Juan. When he realized he was being followed, he tried to run on foot as he had last September in the Dominican Republic after a pursuing vice squad shot out a tire on his Jeep.
But this time U.S. Marshals, FBI, drug enforcement agents and Puerto Rican police caught up.
"We asked him his name, and he simply answered that we knew who he was," said Antonio Torres, who heads the U.S. Marshal Service`s fugitive task force in Puerto Rico.
"It is a tremendous arrest, definitely," U.S. Attorney Rosa Emilia Rodriguez told a news conference Saturday, where she was surrounded by other cheerful federal authorities.
Escobar, the Colombian drug lord of the 1980s, was an escaped convict who died in a shootout with police in 1993.
Figueroa, who was 45 in March, is suspected of shipping Colombian drugs to the U.S. mainland through Puerto Rico, where he escaped from prison in 1999 after presenting a forged release order. He had served only four years of a 209-year sentence for killing a man suspected of stealing a cocaine shipment.
He moved to the Dominican Republic a month later and was briefly detained during a 2001 drug investigation, but was let go because he was using an alias. Though no one can say exactly how much cocaine he moved, the scale of Figueroa`s empire emerged following the botched September raid, which netted several cars, including an armored Mercedes Benz with $4.6 million in cash inside, and a laptop computer full of evidence.
With leads on several new aliases, police intensified the search. Six of his properties were confiscated — among them a million-dollar apartment in the Dominican resort area of Puerto Plata and a ranch outside Santo Domingo with a small zoo.
A man claiming to be Figueroa called a popular Dominican radio show in December to say he got away after paying police $1 million. He called again in February and pledged $800,000 to anyone who would kill one of two top Dominican police officers.
U.S. and Dominican officials said the man probably was Figueroa.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder personally pledged full cooperation to capture the fugitive, who was wanted on a U.S. Marshals warrant for his prison escape and for filing a false passport application. He also was the target of a U.S. task force focusing on major drug suppliers to the U.S.
He is wanted in the Dominican Republic on kidnapping, money-laundering, drug-trafficking and murder charges. Summoned by President Leonel Fernandez, Dominican officials met behind closed doors for more than two hours after Figeroa`s capture. They said they would announce on Sunday what actions they will take against him.
"This had been the Dominican state`s biggest challenge," Police Chief Rafael Guillermo Guzman said, referring to the hunt for Figueroa. Wanted posters are plastered across Santo Domingo, the Dominican capital, for Figueroa and his lover Sobeida Morel, the country`s second-most wanted fugitive, who was detained on money-laundering charges last year. She posted bail and vanished before the extent of her alleged involvement with Figueroa became clear.
Morel is still at large. Federal authorities said the investigation is ongoing and that more arrests could be announced. "We know that the tentacles of Mr. Figueroa Agosto are long," said Luis Fraticelli, special agent in charge of the FBI in Puerto Rico.
Added Javier Pena, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration`s Caribbean division: "We have a message for fugitives: Sooner or later you will be caught."