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These Fugitives Were Caught In Argentina — But We Still Don't Know How They Escaped

The arrest of the fugitives opens a new chapter in a political scandal that allegedly involves high level members of the government of former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in an ephedrine trafficking ring.
January 13, 2016, 10:59pm
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Three convicted murderers, whose escape from a high security prison in Argentina, triggered a major manhunt closely followed by national media, have been recaptured.

The arrests of the fugitives begins a new chapter in a burgeoning political scandal that revolves around wider allegations that high level members of the last government ran an ephedrine trafficking ring.

It has also allowed President Mauricio Macri's government to claim it is delivering on promises to tackle drug trafficking and corruption.

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Victor Schillaci, Cristian Lanatta and his brother Martín, escaped from jail on December 27.

On that day, they suddenly disappeared from the high-security N30 Penitentiary, about 155 miles away from Buenos Aires.

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The only clue came from a security camera which filmed the three men boarding a black truck at 2:30 am. Prison authorities said they used a toy gun to control the guards and ran out of jail through the main gate.

At first, the manhunt was only concentrated in the Buenos Aires region, but later the police tracked the fugitives to a rural area in the center of the province of Santa Fe, about 300 miles away.

After the pursuit left Martín Lanatta spending days hidden in fields, he reportedly approached a person working in the area and said, "Kill me or turn me in, but give me water."

The man called police and Martín was arrested.

The other two fugitives were traced to a rice mill near the city of Cayasta, where they took a worker of the mill hostage on Monday morning.

After 40 minutes, the worker was liberated and the fugitives taken in.

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The three fugitives were convicted to life imprisonment for the murder of Sebastián Forza, Damián Ferrón and Leopoldo Bina— three pharmaceutical businessmen— that occurred in August 2008

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A month before the murders, Argentine police raided a synthetic drug laboratory and detained 10 people, 9 of whom were Mexicans. The investigations revealed that the lab was capable of producing something between 200,000 and 250,000 ecstasy and methamphetamine pills per day.

After years in which the case had been all but forgotten, Martín Lanatta gave an interview on national television in August 2015, in which he confessed being part of an ephedrine trafficking network at the time of the murders of the three businessman.

He also said he had evidence that involved Aníbal Fernández— the cabinet chief for former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner— in the ephedrine trafficking network.

"Aníbal Fernández and the intelligence people took control of the ephedrine trade business. Forza became an obstacle," Lanatta said during the interview, referring to one of the dead businessmen.

His statements outlined detailed allegations of how government officials were involved with Mexican cartels to traffic illegal drugs in Argentina.

"They were divided in cells. One of them received the product, the one who coordinated the delivery was Aníbal Fernández's right hand, another delivered the product and another made the payment," he said. " I've taken millions of dollars in cash from a Mexican businessman to Fernández."

Before the escape, a lawyer close to Aníbal Fernández, met with Lanatta days before the general elections. Martín secretly videotaped the meeting that appeared to show him being asked to take back his TV statements in exchange of judicial benefits. Lanatta rejected the offer and spread the video in the media.

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Lanatta was set to gave his statement against Fernández in front of a court of law. Victor Schillacci, also involved in the murders, was set to leave prison legally on December 28, as his girlfriend was going to give birth on that day.

While his brother was on the run, Franco Schillacci, told newschannel C5N, the escape was the perfect chance to silence dangerous voices. He claimed his brother and the Lanattas did not have the "logistics" to break out of prison on their own.

"They were kidnapped," he charged.

Meanwhile, the case has refocused attention on another ongoing judicial investigation about ephedrine trafficking that has, already, implicated several officials from Cristina Fernandez's government.

Eight days before Forza, Bina and Ferrón bodies were located in a ditch in August 2008 then Aníbal Fernández, who was interior minister at the time, announced new restrictions on importing ephedrine that had been previously freely available. Then health minister Graciela Ocaña as well as the head of the anti-drug agency (Sedronar) at the time José Ramón Granero, were involved in the same announcement.

On July 2014 Judge María Romilda Servini, began a trial against José Granero after a new investigation found out that instead of overseeing ephedrine imports to Argentina and stopping its use for drug production, he was selling the shipments of the chemical to Mexican drug cartels.

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Former health minister Ocaña told VICE News how the ephedrine trade worked.

"Like other pharmaceutical businessmen they used pharmacies to commercialize fake medicines and import ephedrine that they later sold to narcos."

Ocaña also said that Forza, one of the dead businessmen, had also financed Cristina Fernández's presidential campaign in 2007.

Forza's convicted murderers are back in jail, though it is not yet clear if they are going to continue stirring the waters of the wider ephedrine case.

Follow Gaston Cavanagh on Twitter: @gastoncavanagh