Morabito and three other inmates “escaped through a hole in the roof” of a police detention centre in downtown Montevideo late Sunday, before breaking into a neighbouring apartment and exiting onto the street, Uruguay's interior ministry said.
In a statement, it said the 52-year-old Morabito — a top 'Ndrangheta figure arrested in Uruguay in 2017 after decades on the run — was awaiting extradition for “international drug trafficking”.
Italy's Interior Minister Matteo Salvini reacted angrily to the “disconcerting and serious” news.
“I make two commitments, first to shed full light on how he escaped, asking for an immediate explanation from the Montevideo government. Then we will continue the hunt for Morabito, wherever he is,” he said.
Rocco Morabito at the time of his arrest. Photo: Uruguay Interior Ministry/AFP
Long-time fugitive Morabito — dubbed “the king of cocaine” — was one of Italy's most-wanted men when he was arrested in a downtown Montevideo hotel. His lawyer told reporters at the time he was staying there while looking for a new apartment after splitting from his wife.
Registering for new accommodation would have helped expose Morabito, who had been on the run for 23 years. He had been living since 2004 in Punta del Este, a playground for South America's rich about 90 minutes drive northeast of Montevideo. He eventually settled in a country estate with a Tuscan-style farmhouse some 40 kilometres from Punta del Este.
Officials said at the time that he had acquired Uruguayan residence after entering the country with a false Brazilian passport in the name of Francisco Capeletto.
At the time of his arrest, Morabito was in possession of 13 cellphones, ID photos, a large quantity of cash and a 9mm automatic pistol.
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Morabito, a capo with the Calabrian 'Ndrangheta, Italy's most feared organized crime gang, was originally arrested on charges of falsifying identity papers, but has been awaiting extradition on the more serious charges since September 2017.
The three other men who escaped with Morabito were awaiting extradition to Brazil and Argentina, including one on charges of homicide.
Morabito arrived in Milan from his hometown of Africo in Italy's poor southern region of Calabria at the age of 23, and quickly carved out a reputation as the city's “king of cocaine”.
Nicknamed 'U Tamunga' in reference to a German military vehicle, the Dkw Munga, the young Morabito became a charismatic figure in Milan who frequented bars and parties, according to Italian press reports.
He quickly came to the attention of Italian anti-mafia investigators and they regularly tracked him delivering suitcases filled with millions of lira to Colombian drug traffickers in a Milan piazza.
Police finally moved in on his birthday as he made what would be his last delivery, in October 1994, but the capo managed to escape.
The following year he was sentenced in absentia to 28 years in prison for mafia association and drug trafficking. The sentence was later extended to 30 years.