Plush Hilltop Prison Awaits Leader of Medellin Cartel : Colombia: Built to Escobar's conditions for surrender, it resembles a ranch house more than a jail.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

High on a cool hilltop, welders are installing the last iron grates on a new prison built specially for one of the world's most wanted criminals, Pablo Escobar.

The bars are painted light green to blend with the lush, piney surroundings and the prison's country-estate look. To anyone inside, they distract little from the breathtaking view of the Medellin Valley that became known, thanks to Escobar, as the cocaine capital of the world.

Escobar, 41, who is accused of smuggling tons of cocaine to the United States and killing hundreds of Colombians in a seven-year terror campaign against legal authority, announced from hiding last month his intent to surrender and accept a government offer of leniency aimed at ending the drug war. His main condition: he and the associates who come in with him be confined here in his beloved hometown.

Critics of the government's policy have described the jail, without seeing it close up, as the best that Escobar could buy. This week El Espectador, a leading Colombian newspaper, dubbed it "a five-star prison" financed and made to order by the notorious boss of the Medellin cartel.

The government, eager to get him behind bars, has granted the fugitive's every known wish. It put the prison at the end of a long, steep, dirt road to avoid the bombs of rival drug lords. And it staffed the place with 40 prison guards, keeping 150 soldiers outside the compound and his archenemies, the police, miles away.

Perhaps annoyed by the suggestion of privileged treatment, or perhaps anxious to know more about the jail himself, Escobar delayed his surrender, which was widely expected early this week, with a new demand--that reporters first be allowed to inspect it.

"The enemies of this process have spread false rumors . . . some going as far as to claim that this jail is a mansion," he wrote in an open letter Wednesday to Justice Minister Jaime Giraldo. "For this reason, I respectfully ask you to allow journalists inside the jail to verify the reality."

Giraldo complied, and the army trucked reporters, photographers and TV crews Thursday to the 8,000-foot hilltop and inside the 10-acre compound, which is surrounded by three rows of 5,000-volt electric fence.

The prison is a rambling brick building covered with sparkling whitewashed plaster and a dark red earthen-tile roof. It looks less like a jail than one of the comfortable ranch houses Escobar uses as hide-outs throughout the valley while eluding the police.

A combination dining area and game room in the central barred-in section of the building and a 50-yard soccer field outside give the place a summer-camp ambience. The 40 armed, blue-uniformed prison guards, who took up their duties Tuesday, watch TV in the game room while waiting for their charges to show up. A Ping-Pong table and chess boards are promised.

On one side of the game room is a large collective cell with bunk beds and several baths, for up to 80 prisoners. On the other side are six individual cells with private baths. The largest private cell, evidently meant for Escobar, is really a suite, with its bedroom, antechamber, bath and closet spread over 116 square yards of space, larger than the prison warden's quarters and nearly 10 times bigger than Colombia's standard jail cell. It has three large windows and several electrical outlets.

Nothing about the place greatly contradicted the details reported earlier by El Espectador, which called it "the most luxurious and comfortable prison in the country."

"I wouldn't call it luxurious, but it's certainly comfortable," Jorge Pataquiva, the warden, told reporters during a one-hour tour. "One can live here with a minimum of human dignity. All our prisons in Colombia should be this comfortable."

Government officials in Bogota said they tried to make the jail accommodating enough to induce Escobar to surrender but confining enough to convince people that justice is being served. To that end, they were willing to confine him where he wanted.

Envigado, a clean, bustling industrial city of 90,000 people just south of Medellin, is where Escobar feels safest. After moving here with his parents as a boy, he launched careers in drugs and politics, using his illicit earnings to build sports facilities and other projects that helped get him elected as an alternate member of Congress in 1982 (an office he was forced to quit two years later when his drug business was exposed).

Jorge Ivan Bonilla, a university student from Escobar's old neighborhood, recalls chasing the drug lord's wine-colored Porsche in the late 1970s along with other boys, clamoring for cash handouts. These days Escobar's giveaways are bigger but more discreet; townspeople say he bankrolled the ultramodern $2-million City Hall built a few years ago.

Thanks in part to such largess, Envigado is the wealthiest municipality in Colombia--the only one with unemployment and health insurance. It offers free high school education, 2,500 free school lunches for the needy and 1,000 college scholarships to the poor and deserving. It has no slums or unpaved streets.

Also thanks to Escobar, Envigado escaped most of the violence of the drug war--the car bombs, kidnapings and motorcycle assassins that still plague nearby Medellin. Most people interviewed in Envigado view drugs as somebody else's problem and have few bad things to say about their most infamous fellow citizen.

"Pablo is very generous," said 76-year-old Gilberto Alvarez, standing in Envigado's main square and pointing to several buildings erected by the drug lord. "People like him here. He deserves to serve his time up on that hill, in coolness and comfort."

Escobar's special relationship with the city leads many here to think that he had the prison built himself, on land he reportedly owned and to his specifications.

Mayor Jose Mario Rodriguez denies this. He said the city bought the land from "an honorable citizen" and first planned the hilltop site as a drug rehabilitation center--though admitting that Envigado has no serious addiction problem. The mayor offered to turn the place into a jail for drug traffickers, he said, after President Cesar Gaviria last year offered them reduced sentences in exchange for confessions. The jail cost $200,000, he said.

"If the city received one cent from Pablo Escobar, it is because he has properties here and, like any other citizen, pays taxes on them," the mayor said in an interview Wednesday. He attributed the city's rich coffers to sound fiscal management, progressive social policies and high property taxes but admitted that Escobar's business had helped.

"Drug trafficking is a business, and it brings results that you can see everywhere," he said. "When you export arms from the United States, the money comes back into better housing, better education."

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