January 9, 2016 / 5:25 PM / 4 years ago

In humiliating turn, Argentine police say manhunt still on for fugitives

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - In a huge embarrassment for President Mauricio Macri, Argentina’s federal police chief said a manhunt was still on for two of the South American country’s most notorious criminals hours after the government celebrated their capture.

Martin Lanatta, Christian Lanatta and Victor Schillaci (L-R), who escaped from a prison in Santa Fe province two weeks ago, are seen in this undated combination picture released by Argentina's Security Ministry. REUTERS/Security Minstry/Handout via Reuters

Earlier, the prosecutor’s office released a statement confirming the detention of three fugitives convicted of drug gang-related killings who escaped from prison on Dec. 27. Macri congratulated the security forces on his official Twitter account.

But as one of the three men, Martin Lanatta, was transferred under armed guard from a local police station in the farming province of Santa Fe, north of the capital Buenos Aires, confusion intensified over the whereabouts of his brother Cristian and a third man, Victor Schillaci.

“We’re still looking for the other fugitives,” acknowledged Roman Di Santo, head of the Argentine Federal Police force.

The 13-day search operation for the men has gripped the Argentine nation and the revelation that two remain on the run will deliver a humiliating blow to Macri.

Their daring escape came two weeks after Macri took office. It raised concerns of outside help and a blame game erupted between Macri and officials in the government of former President Cristina Fernandez.

The chaotic events on Saturday will likely raise further suspicions among Argentineans that narco gangs played a hand in the jail break and ensuing game of cat-and-mouse with hundreds of security agents hunting them down.

The trio were convicted over the 2008 killing of three businessmen in the pharmaceutical industry allegedly linked to an ephedrine trafficking gang in a high-profile case dubbed “The triple murder.” Ephedrine is used for the production of methamphetamine.

In the afternoon, Macri had applauded the security forces for recapturing the men and promised to fight the drug gangs that use Argentina as a transit point for smuggling South American drugs to Europe and the Americas.

“We have a lot more work to do,” Macri wrote on his official Twitter account.

The high-drama operation has focussed attention on the growing muscle of drug gangs in Argentina and raised questions over their political connections.

“Drug trafficking has grown in the last decade like never before in our country because of the inaction or complicity of the last government,” Macri said this week, vowing to take on the traffickers.

In August, two months before the presidential election, Martin Lanatta alleged Fernandez’s cabinet chief, Anibal Fernandez, was involved in the ephedrine trade and had ordered the triple murder.

Anibal Fernandez has rigorously denied the accusation and prosecutors have not investigated the claim. The then-ruling party said the allegation was designed to hurt its presidential candidates and derail Anibal Fernandez’s bid to become governor of Buenos Aires province.

Editing by Jeremy Gaunt and Meredith Mazzilli

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