Rocco Morabito’s story has all the makings of a great film script. The Italian mob, tons of cocaine, exotic destinations, a daring prison escape. But as his legal wranglings finally draw to an end, the Uruguayan officials meant to watch over him face a reckoning.
On March 15, Uruguay’s interior minister, Luis Alberto Heber, met with prosecutors to discuss how Morabito, a leader of the Italian ‘Ndrangheta mafia, was able to escape from a Uruguayan prison in 2019 and why it took almost two years to find him again. Allegations that Morabito and other high-profile drug traffickers may have had inside help are also a major concern.
“This is very worrying. We want to know who [and] with which authorities drug traffickers had connections,” Heber told the press, adding the previous government had favored tracking down Morabito over investigating the circumstances of his escape.
Now, it appears Morabito’s case is finally drawing to a close. On March 9, Brazil’s Supreme Court approved Morabito's extradition to Italy. It comes ten months after his arrest in northern Brazil in May 2021, following a joint manhunt by Brazilian, Uruguayan and Italian authorities.
Morabito had previously been arrested in Uruguay in 2017, where he is believed to have lived under a false identity for around 15 years after fleeing authorities in Italy. In June 2019, however, he and three other prisoners escaped from a Montevideo prison through a hatch leading to the roof of the jail. From there, the four men entered an apartment on the fifth floor of a nearby building, robbed the woman who lived there and fled by taxi.
Morabito’s case has drawn particular attention as he was one of the most-wanted criminals in Italy, responsible for millions of dollars of cocaine being transported from Brazil. He also helped establish a partnership between the ‘Ndrangheta and Brazilian gang First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC), which thrives to this day.
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Uruguay rarely comes under this kind of scrutiny. Yet its reputation as the ‘good pupil’ of Latin America is threatened by increasingly conspicuous criminal activity. In trying to contain arguably the most high-profile prisoner in the country, authorities fell short.
From the start, the breakout drew suspicion. It was not recorded on any camera, since security cameras in the prison had been switched off two days before the escape. In addition, prison authorities allegedly failed to respond to reports that Morabito had offered them $80,000 to help him escape. Several guards were placed on administrative leave and the prison director resigned.
The three men who escaped with Morabito were all recaptured. Two associates who provided transport for the getaway were also arrested. An investigation was opened into Morabito’s relationship in jail with Gerardo González Valencia, an alleged drug trafficker and member of Mexico’s influential “Cuinis” group who has since been extradited to the United States.
Yet the prison break has never been fully investigated and ongoing lines of inquiry proceeded too slowly, according to interior minister Heber. Speaking to the press on March 15, he said he wanted to know if Morabito's escape was the result of “internal corruption within the previous administration [of former president Tabaré Vázquez from 2015-2020].”
Morabito lived for well over a decade in Uruguay without being traced. After his escape, he went off the radar for another two years. And though he may now have left the country behind forever, his legacy will remain.