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Patient's honest answer costs drug baron his life

A leading Colombian drug baron linked to the country's main smuggling cartels was asleep in a Madrid hospital when a man entered his room, took out a silenced pistol and fired four bullets into him, killing him instantly.

The gunman, wearing an overcoat and a scarf, reached his victim's bedside unhindered to commit what police suspect was a settling of accounts between rival drug-trafficking gangs.

Leonidas Vargas, 59, alias El Viejo (The Old Man), was linked to two of Colombia's most powerful drug cartels, based in Medellin and Cali. He was admitted to hospital last week with heart and lung problems, and shared a private room with one other patient.

When the sicario, or hitman, entered the room on the fifth floor of Madrid's 12 October hospital, he asked the patient who was awake if he was Vargas. On being told, "No", he turned to the neighbouring bed and opened fire. He then warned the dead man's terrified roommate at gunpoint to say nothing, and fled the building. The traumatised surviving patient had to have psychological treatment.

A nurse working nearby who heard a noise entered the room after the killer had left. She found Vargas's bloodstained body riddled with bullets, and his fellow patient in a state of shock. She broke down and also had to have medical attention.

In 2002, Vargas was freed early from a 19-year jail sentence in Colombia for making money illegally from drug-related activity. He had also been sentenced to 25 years for murder and illegally carrying arms. In 2001 and 2004, Colombian authorities confiscated Vargas's properties valued at $40m, which included cattle ranches, 135 houses, four vehicles, two bank accounts and three companies, all acquired with the proceeds of drug trafficking.

Spanish police arrested him in Madrid in July 2006 and convicted him of possessing half a ton of cocaine. At the time of his arrest, he held a forged Venezuelan passport, and was planning to travel to Germany for the final of the football World Cup. He was freed on bail on health grounds, while Spanish police completed investigations before fixing a date for his trial. For this reason, Vargas had no security or police bodyguard.

But police considered him "an important boss of drug-trafficking in Colombia", and Colombian authorities had him on their "most-wanted" list with a $5m bounty. The Colombian embassy in Madrid reckons he worked with drug barons including the late Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, boss of the Cali cartel, and Pablo Escobar, leader of the Medellin cartel who was killed in a shootout with Colombian police in 1993.

Vargas started off a poor man, barely educated, a humble meat-vendor in the rural region of Caqueta in the south of the country. But he became one of Colombia's richest drug lords thanks to his collaboration in the 1980s with Escobar and Rodriguez Gacha. His home region was a jungle stronghold of the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), with whom he is said to have established links in connection with drug trafficking. He is accused of having organised hit squads of hired killers.

Thursday night's attack prompted a wave of polemic over the alleged negligence of hospital staff, and the lack of control over visitors wandering in and out of the premises. The Patients' Defence Association yesterday wrote to Spain's Health Minister, Bernat Soria, demanding stiffer security in Spanish hospitals. "What happened is a very serious matter and must set all the alarms ringing about the lack of security in Spanish hospitals, where measures of control don't exist and anyone can come in and move around the hospital killing whoever gets in their way."

But Madrid's health authorities denied further security measures were necessary. "Such changes would limit people's freedom, and imply a loss of humanity and accessibility for visitors," a spokesman said.

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