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 Tuesday, 31 December, 2002, 01:32 GMT
Dramatic prison escape in Puerto Rico
Las Cucharas maximum security prison in Ponce, Puerto Rico
The pilot said he was forced to fly to Las Cucharas
Five prisoners have broken out of a maximum security prison in Puerto Rico, after a helicopter swooped down onto the roof and picked them up, local authorities say.

The helicopter's pilot told police he had been hired to fly two men from the US territory's capital San Juan to the southern city of Ponce.

We will work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, until we find the fugitives and arrest those responsible

Miguel Periera, Corrections Secretary
But as the helicopter approached Ponce, the men pointed guns at him and forced him to land on the roof of Las Cucharas prison, police said.

The pilot was then forced to fly to a remote area in Puerto Rico's central mountain region, where the group escaped.

The authorities have launched an extensive search for the five fugitives, whom they say are "extremely dangerous".

'Worrisome'

The dramatic escape occurred during the prisoners' morning recreation period.

The fugitives fled the recreation area and scrambled onto the roof, where the helicopter was waiting to collect them.

After dropping off the prisoners, the pilot immediately alerted authorities to the hijacking.

"This is an extremely worrisome event," said Puerto Rico's Corrections Secretary Miguel Periera. "We will work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, until we find the fugitives and arrest those responsible."

Mr Periera also promised an exhaustive investigation of the prison's internal security.

The fugitives may well have had help from guards within the prison - and one line of enquiry will centre on why no one shot at the helicopter to try to prevent it leaving the jail, Mr Pereira said.

Police say the escaped convicts include Jose A Perez Rodriguez, who was given a 319-year sentence for murder, and Orlando Valdes Cartagena, who was serving a 254-year sentence for murder, attempted murder and weapons violations.

The other three escapees - Victor Gonzalez Diaz, Hector Marrero Diaz, and Jose M Rojas Tapia - were also serving sentences of longer than 100 years each.

Fugitives' precedent

Monday's incident is far from the first major lapse in security involving Puerto Rico's justice system.

Earlier this year, a man charged with rape and murder escaped from an armoured prison van in front of the San Juan courthouse, while being transported there for a hearing.

In an equally daring escape, a helicopter landed in the courtyard of the Rio Piedras State Penitentiary in 1991, flying away with three prisoners serving time for drug trafficking.

See also:

10 Jan 02 | Crossing Continents
26 Jul 98 | Americas
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