January 11, 2016 / 8:55 PM / 2 years ago

Argentina snares remaining fugitives, says rogue forces complicit

One of two Argentinians convicted (C) of drug-related killings, who escaped from a jail on December 27, 2015, is transported into a police helicopter shortly after being arrested in the Argentine town of Helvecia, January 11, 2016.Luis Cetraro

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Argentine police commandos recaptured two of the country's most notorious convicts in a rice mill plant on Monday, ending a 15-day manhunt through backwater towns and flooded farm land in an episode underscoring the power of Argentina's narco gangs.

Victor Schillaci and brothers Martin and Cristian Lanatta, who are convicted of drugs-related killings, escaped from jail on Dec. 27 in a prison break that raised concerns about how drug bosses had infiltrated political circles and the security forces.

Crack police nabbed Martin Lanatta on Saturday, but his brother and Schillaci slipped through the dragnet, heaping embarrassment on President Mauricio Macri who had publicly celebrated the capture of all three.

They were finally cornered near the farming town of Cayasta in Santa Fe, 570 km (354 miles) north of the capital Buenos Aires, and appeared to have surrendered without a struggle.

In Santa Fe, Security Minister Patricia Bullrich said their capture marked the start of the new government's investigation into the ties of organized crime.

"This is just the beginning of a task which will take us many years," Bullrich told a news conference. "Our responsibility is to look into these networks of complicity within politics, the judiciary, and security forces."

The 15-day hunt had gripped the Argentine nation and news that it is over will ease pressure on Macri, who was left red faced after false information led officials to announce the search was over while two of the men remained on the loose.

TV channels broadcast a photograph of the two men, seated on the ground in scruffy clothing, with their hands behind their backs.

'TRIPLE MURDER'

The three men were serving life sentences for the 2008 killing of three businessmen in the pharmaceutical industry, allegedly linked to an ephedrine trafficking gang. The high-profile case was dubbed "The triple murder."

Ephedrine is used for the production of methamphetamine.

The search has focused attention on the growing muscle of drug gangs in Argentina, which drug-enforcement officials say has become an increasingly important transit point for the smuggling of South American drugs to Europe and the Americas.

Prosecutors said they had launched an investigation into whether narco gangs helped the three men in their prison break.

Macri, who took office on Dec. 10, last week accused the leftist government of former President Cristina Fernandez of "inaction or even complicity" with drug traffickers.

TV footage over the weekend showed security agents wading waist deep through flooded fields and raiding properties as hundreds of police intensified their search, backed by forces in boats and helicopters.

Earlier, Martin Lanatta declined to make a statement to a state prosecutor.

Additional reporting by Sarah Marsh; Editing by Bernadette Baum

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