|SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — The Dominican Republic's most wanted man is an American who for 10 years has fed his mystique by pulling off narrow escapes and taunting police.
Now the search for alleged drug trafficker Jose Figueroa Agosto is intensifying after a bust that led police to a laptop filled with aliases, a fleet of luxury cars and a ranch with a private zoo.
U.S. Marshals and Dominican police are chasing any and all leads, with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder personally pledging full cooperation to capture a fugitive who has embarrassed both countries since escaping a decade ago from a prison in his native Puerto Rico.
"He's been classified as the Pablo Escobar of the Caribbean," said U.S. Marshals spokesman Rafael Escobar, who is not related to the notorious Colombian drug kingpin of the 1980s.
Like Pablo Escobar, Dominican authorities say, Figueroa has a vast accumulation of jewelry, property and exotic cars.
The U.S. Marshals Service has a warrant for him on charges related to Figueroa's flight from Puerto Rico, as well as a false passport application. He is also the subject of a U.S. task force targeting major suppliers of illegal drugs to the U.S., said a Justice Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is continuing.
The 45-year-old reputedly funnels Colombian drugs to the U.S. mainland through Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory that is attractive to traffickers as America's southernmost border. It is also Figueroa's former base, where he developed extensive contacts as an up-and-coming trafficker.
His case was the center of a scandal in Puerto Rico last week with revelations that several politicians lobbied the governor to pardon Figueroa when he was imprisoned on a murder conviction in the 1990s. The island's House president has requested an investigation into connections between the fugitive and one of the officials, Antonio Silva, a lawmaker who has denied any wrongdoing.
Figueroa walked out of that Puerto Rican prison in November 1999 after presenting guards with 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.
Within a month, he moved to the Dominican Republic, where he was detained as part of a drug investigation in 2001. He was released after two weeks; he used an alias and authorities didn't know his true identity.
Now, wanted posters are plastered across Santo Domingo 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.
Though no one can say exactly how much cocaine he moves, the scale of Figueroa's empire emerged following a botched raid last fall on one of his luxury apartments in Santo Domingo.
A Dominican vice squad, acting on a tip from the U.S. Marshals, swarmed the high-rise building on Sept. 3. Figueroa barely escaped, fleeing on foot after police shot out a tire on his jeep. He left behind keys to 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, the search has intensified. Six of his properties have been confiscated — among them a million-dollar apartment in the resort area of Puerto Plata and a ranch outside Santo Domingo with a small zoo — along with at least nine vehicles, including two Ferraris.
But Figueroa himself remains elusive.
For years, he hid in the open, building ties with upper-crust Dominicans who appear regularly in society magazines. Since the September raid, at least five people have been jailed on charges that they laundered money or otherwise aided Figueroa.
Investigators are concerned that his conspirators have included police and other officials.
On Dec. 30, a man who identified himself as Figueroa called the most popular Dominican radio show and said that police allowed him to escape the September raid in exchange for $1 million. He said the payment was coordinated by a police colonel, Jose Amado Gonzalez, who had been killed a week before the phone call.
Police say Figueroa had Gonzalez killed in a dispute over a woman, but many suspect he was killed by fellow officers in a dispute over the fugitive's money.
U.S. and Dominican officials say their analyses indicate the man on the phone was likely Figueroa. He pledged in a second call last month to pay $800,000 to anyone who kills one of two top Dominican police officers.
Drug trafficking fuels endemic corruption of Dominican law enforcement officers, according to the U.S. State Department, which said in a report this month that entire police units are under investigation for suspected involvement in trafficking.
Ricardo Ivanovich Smester, the alleged accountant for Figueroa's gang, was arrested on Jan. 8 with a ledger detailing more than $1 million in spending over two days in October. Among the payments were $175,000 in apparent bribes for an unnamed prosecutor and judge.
At a meeting last month in Brazil with U.S. Attorney General Holder, Dominican Justice Minister Radhames Jimenez stressed the Figueroa case as a priority. Holder pledged to have federal agencies help as needed, according to Jimenez's office. The U.S. Justice Department declined to comment on their discussion.
As recently as last month there were reported sightings of Figueroa in Puerto Rico, where his family lives in the San Juan suburb of Bayamon, but none have been confirmed.
"Everything that comes up that has to do with this guy, we're checking it out and we're checking it out twice," Rafael Escobar said.
Mike Melia reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
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