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Hope Dims That Drug Lord Escobar Will Turn Himself In : Colombia: Despite a government surrender deal, and the threat of death if he is found, the Medellin cartel leader remains on the run.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

His top associates in the Medellin cocaine cartel have surrendered to the law. But Pablo Escobar, cartel kingpin and the world’s most notorious drug lord, is still out there somewhere watching and waiting.

A couple of months ago, authorities entertained high hopes that Escobar would take up the government’s offer of a reduced sentence and a guarantee against extradition for cocaine traffickers who turn themselves in.

The offer stands, but the hopes are fading.

An aide to President Cesar Gaviria admitted: “There isn’t much optimism here that Escobar will give himself up.”

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As a relentless police manhunt has driven him from hide-out to hide-out, Escobar is said to have lost effective control over his trafficking network and hired gangs of shooters and bombers. Police have slain many of his trusted henchmen. The leaders of his most infamous band of killers, brothers Ricardo and Alberto Prisco, were gunned down in January.

“Right at that time, we had a considerable amount of information that Escobar was about to turn himself in,” an American anti-narcotics official said. “He was pretty close to the Priscos, and I think that scared the hell out of him.”

The official said he had heard that Escobar, 41, was ill with some kind of tropical fever. Many of the fugitive’s hide-outs in the mountains around Medellin are rustic and uncomfortable. “He’s not living in luxury,” the American said. “I’ve visited a lot of the places where he has stayed up there--shacks.”

Nevertheless, Escobar reportedly has given no indication lately that he intends to surrender. Gen. Miguel Maza Marquez, chief of Colombia’s security police, said in a recent radio interview, “I don’t think he will give up.”

President Gaviria has signed a series of decrees aimed at enticing traffickers to surrender. By confessing to one crime and giving evidence against other accused felons, they can avoid extradition to the United States and receive substantial prison sentence reductions.

A newspaper calculated that with such reductions, and an early release earned by prison work and good behavior, Escobar could end up serving as little as eight or 10 years for crimes punishable by 30 years, the maximum allowed in Colombia.

Three of Escobar’s top former associates, the Ochoa brothers, accepted the government offer and now await trial in a high-security prison on the outskirts of Medellin. Fabio Ochoa, the youngest brother, surrendered in December. Jorge Luis Ochoa, regarded as the cartel’s No. 2 leader after Escobar, gave himself up in January, followed by Juan David Ochoa, the oldest brother, in February.

No one seems to know for sure why Escobar is holding out, but several unconfirmed versions have circulated:

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He is waiting to see how the Ochoa brothers fare in court. Their trial may be a long way off because the government is allowing a year for evidence to be delivered against them by the United States.

He hopes for more concessionary treatment from the government, including negotiations and perhaps even a pardon in exchange for dismantling his empire.

He is delaying any move until a constitutional assembly, now in session, decides whether to make extradition unconstitutional.

He has too much to answer for. Unlike the Ochoas, who faced no Colombian charges when they surrendered, Escobar is wanted for at least three homicides in this country. Officials have accused him of ordering the killings of hundreds of police officers and the assassinations of several public figures.

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He is afraid police will kill him in revenge after he surrenders, or that the rival Cali cartel will bomb his jail or have him slain in captivity. According to one version, Escobar has indicated that he will surrender if the leaders of the Cali cartel do.

He also fears that he will be charged with the Jan. 25 death of journalist Diana Turbay, a former president’s daughter who was killed when police raided a rural house where she was being held by cartel kidnapers.

Cartel gunmen executed hostage Marina Montoya, the sister of Colombia’s ambassador to Canada, in January, after police killed Escobar’s hit-squad leaders, the two Priscos.

Escobar’s organization is holding two journalists hostage to keep pressure on the government. A high official said privately that authorities have not extradited any traffickers to the United States since last fall out of concern for the safety of the two hostages. They are Francisco Santos, managing editor of the influential newspaper El Tiempo, and Maruja Pachon, director of the government-run Colombian Film Institute.

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