Drug Lord Evades Capture as He Terrorizes Colombia


Wily and nervous as a hunted fox, and maybe more than a little crazed, Pablo Escobar manages to stay a step ahead of Colombian anti-narcotics forces as they dog his trail from hide-out to hide-out.

Escobar, 40, is Colombia’s leading drug lord and most-wanted man. Sources say he has eluded his hunters thanks to the huge resources of his cocaine-trafficking organization, help from ordinary citizens as well as corrupt officials, and failure by authorities to adequately coordinate intelligence information and search operations.

Meanwhile, Escobar lashes back at the government and society with a ferocious campaign of terrorism. Police accuse his henchmen of shooting down police officers by the dozens and terrifying the country with political killings and lethal bomb blasts.

The assassinations of three presidential candidates, who were running for elections scheduled today, have been blamed on Escobar. During the campaign, suspected “narco-terrorist” bombs killed more than 200 people, including 107 aboard a domestic jetliner.


All in all, an astounding spectacle: the beleaguered king of cocaine on the run but fighting back with frightening force.

Escobar is believed to be smoking marijuana or basuco, a crude form of cocaine, sources say. They say he lives in fear of betrayal and has killed many of his aides and associates in a paranoid purge of his organization.

He sleeps in borrowed homes, moving often, plotting escape plans in case his pursuers close in on him. When they did once last month, he broadcast a message of mock panic on shortwave radio to draw police off his trail, then slipped away as authorities tried to zero in on the broadcast’s source.

“Son of a b----, crap, they’re coming. This time they got me, son of a b----,” Escobar barked to someone over the radio April 18.

Police aboard a helicopter recognized the voice, which they picked up on their radio scanner as they flew over an area near the city of Medellin, Escobar’s home base. The pilot immediately circled back for a detailed search.

But the police chopper had not been as close to Escobar as his seemingly desperate call indicated. And then, the fox was gone.

“That accidental episode is a clear sample of the capacity for survival of a man who, despite living under siege by authorities, continues to sow terror in Colombia,” observed the newspaper El Tiempo last Sunday in a front-page article based on interviews with high police commanders.

El Tiempo recalled that Escobar once held an alternate seat in the national Congress and founded a civic movement in Medellin that built houses for the poor and gave financial aid to needy families.

He was known respectfully by many people as Don Pablo, and that respect survives. Some of the same people now shelter Escobar from the police; their houses are his hiding places, El Tiempo said.

On April 3, it said, a police search turned up a house in La Miel, on the outskirts of Medellin, where Escobar had spent the previous day, escaping hours before the authorities arrived.

A U.S. Embassy specialist in narcotics matters said El Tiempo’s story was generally accurate. He said the police are doing the best they can to capture Escobar but face numerous obstacles, including corruption.

“It’s not easy to catch Escobar,” the official said. “He has people infiltrated in different agencies. He owns politicians.”

The American said the Colombian police also lack some up-to-date equipment needed to fight a criminal organization with the resources of Escobar’s.

“They just don’t have all of the tools and toys that you need to do a professional job,” he said.

Gen. Miguel Maza, chief of Colombia’s security police, said in a recent magazine interview that Escobar, under increasing pressure, has taken to using drugs.

“He is a crazy psychopath who consumes marijuana,” Maza said.

A European diplomat with close police contacts said that Escobar reportedly smokes basuco. The diplomat said police worry about the drug use because they fear that it makes Escobar’s actions more irrational and unpredictable.

A high police official observed that Escobar never before was known to use any kind of drug.

“He has let himself fall into drugs as an escape,” the official said. He also confirmed widespread reports that Escobar has had many of his aides and associates killed.

“He has tried to get rid of as many people as possible to prevent infiltrations among them,” the official said.

Intelligence information indicates that those purged included one of Escobar’s top security aides, he said, adding, “We don’t know who, specifically.”

The U.S. Embassy specialist suggested that some of those purged have been victims of Escobar’s paranoia.

“We know he’s paranoid,” the American said. “He doesn’t know who to trust. . . .

“He has been killing a lot of people. He has limited his contacts to just a few. Anyone he has suspected, he has gotten rid of or stopped contact with him.”

Escobar is said to have put his cousin, Gustavo de Jesus Gaviria, in charge of cocaine production and marketing. Two shadowy associates known as Popeye and Tyson are accused by police of coordinating terrorist attacks by hired gunmen and bombers.

Once guarded by hundreds of gunmen, Escobar is now believed to entrust his security to about 40 men who alternate in escort groups of six as he moves from house to house. The groups are coordinated by security chief John Jairo Arias Tascon, nicknamed Pinina, police say.

They say Escobar moves at night in modest cars and taxis, often riding in the trunk. Lookouts with walkie-talkies watch for authorities.

Partly because of notorious police corruption in Medellin, those spearheading the hunt for Escobar are members of the government’s Bogota-based Elite Force who shuttle back and forth between the two cities. Still, police admit, Escobar receives intelligence on the Elite Force’s movements.

The force depends largely on intelligence from other police and military agencies for its operations.

“There are problems of operational coordination, but also on the intelligence level,” said an analysis in the Semana news magazine entitled “Why They Don’t Catch Escobar.” Some foreign diplomats agree that the intelligence often is scant and poorly coordinated--but sometimes it works.

Colombian authorities have captured 15 suspected drug traffickers, several associated with Escobar, who have been extradited to the United States for trial since late August.

“Obviously they are not in the same league as Escobar,” the U.S. Embassy narcotics specialist acknowledged. But last December, police did corner and kill Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, an equal to Escobar in the so-called Medellin cartel.

The New York newspaper Newsday reported that U.S. troops participated in that operation, but the U.S. Embassy narcotics specialist categorically denied the report.

The official observed that Rodriguez Gacha’s death ended the career of an important and tremen dously violent trafficker, seriously crippling his organization, and sent a message to Escobar and other drug lords: “You are susceptible.”

“Up to that point, the consensus was that these people really believed nothing could happen to them,” the official said. “I think the psychological impact was tremendous.”

Security forces also have dealt major blows to the traffickers’ billion-dollar business. In early May, the Colombian army raided a network of widely spaced drug-transshipment depots in the jungle near Colombia’s southern border, netting 18 tons of cocaine.

That is the biggest bust ever in Colombia, which supplies most of the cocaine used in the United States.

The U.S. narcotics specialist said Escobar shows signs of increasing desperation. In early May, officials in Florida announced the arrests of two Colombians--said to be associated with Escobar and the Medellin cartel--who allegedly tried to purchase 120 Stinger anti-aircraft missiles.

“It’s of great concern to us that these guys are looking for that kind of weapon,” the U.S. specialist said. “It’s an indication of how desperate these guys are.”

However, he also said there are no signs that Escobar and other traffickers have succeeded in acquiring missiles. The Florida arrests provide a chilling hint of things to come if the hunt for Escobar goes on without success. But what if he is caught?

“I think it will have some impact on the violence,” the American said. However, he said, it probably will not significantly reduce cocaine trafficking in the long run “if they don’t go beyond Escobar and go after other traffickers and try to dismantle the organization.”

The official also predicted that if Escobar is captured, he will not go to jail for long unless he is extradited for trial on charges against him in the United States. Big bribes and brutal assassinations have made the Colombian judicial system largely impotent to convict important traffickers.

“Under the present system, he’s not going to go anywhere here--he will walk,” the American said. “I have asked them to give him to me and I will buy him a one-way ticket to Miami.”

BACKGROUND The current wave of terrorist bombings and shootings in Colombia began in August, 1989. In that month, then-leading presidential hopeful Luis Carlos Galan, of the Liberal Party, was slain by suspected drug lords. The government began a crackdown on the cocaine trade, including the notorious Medellin cartel, and has extradited drug suspects to the United States and seized the property of traffickers. In reaction, the drug lords have retaliated with a terrorist war on the government in which scores have been slain.