AP NEWS

Man convicted of killings escapes Panama prison a 2nd time

February 5, 2020 GMT
This Panama National Police internet wanted police shows Gilberto Ventura Ceballos who has escaped from a Panamanian prison for a second time, presumably with help from police, authorities in Panama City said Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020. Ventura Ceballos was sentenced along with an accomplice to 50 years in July 2018 for the abduction and killing of the five university students about a decade ago. He acknowledged murdering them and burying them beneath the floor of a home in the town of La Chorrera west of Panama City, authorities say. (Panama's Public Security Ministry via AP)
This Panama National Police internet wanted police shows Gilberto Ventura Ceballos who has escaped from a Panamanian prison for a second time, presumably with help from police, authorities in Panama City said Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020. Ventura Ceballos was sentenced along with an accomplice to 50 years in July 2018 for the abduction and killing of the five university students about a decade ago. He acknowledged murdering them and burying them beneath the floor of a home in the town of La Chorrera west of Panama City, authorities say. (Panama's Public Security Ministry via AP)

PANAMA CITY (AP) — A Dominican man convicted of kidnapping and murdering five young people of Chinese descent has escaped from a Panamanian prison for a second time, presumably with help from police, authorities in the Central American nation said Tuesday.

The Ministry of Public Security said there was an operation underway to search for Gilberto Ventura Ceballos, the man blamed for one of the country’s most horrifying crimes. Police announced a reward of $30,000 for information leading to his capture.

It was another black eye for a penitentiary system that recently came under criticism following a December prison inmate massacre that was the country’s deadliest.

Authorities did not say exactly when Ventura Ceballos escaped from the Mega Joya lockup on the outskirts of Panama City — part of the same prison complex where the massacre took place.

According to early information, the last time he was known to be inside was 10:30 p.m. Monday, the ministry said.

“There are signs registered by the prison’s security cameras that there was participation by police officers assigned to security in the penitentiary,” it said in a statement.

Ventura Ceballos was sentenced along with a fellow Dominican accomplice to 50 years in July 2018 for the abduction and killing of the five university students about a decade ago. He acknowledged murdering them and burying them beneath the floor of a home in the town of La Chorrera west of Panama City, authorities say.

Investigators said at least two were buried alive. The Dominicans ran a cell phone sales business and had collected nearly a quarter-million dollars in ransom payments from relatives.

Ventura Ceballos escaped the first time in December 2016. He was recaptured the following September in Costa Rica where he had died his hair and was living under a different name, working at an auto shop.

“We are so disappointed,” said Judith Chen, whose daughter was one of the victims, on Tuesday. “This man has the number of Panama’s security institutions. He comes and goes when he pleases. ... How did he get out? Who helped him? How much money does this man have and from where did he get it?”

Chen expressed concern that victims’ relatives could be in danger with Ventura Ceballos on the loose.

Fifteen people were killed in the Dec. 17 massacre at the prison complex in gunfire between jailed members of the same gang in a cellblock housing over 500 inmates.