Pablo Escobar, the billionaire cocaine lord who eluded an intense police manhunt for seven years, surrendered to Colombian authorities Wednesday in exchange for a promise of leniency for drug-related crimes and a guarantee against extradition to the United States.
Escobar, the last major boss of the so-called Medellin Cartel still at large, was flown by government helicopter from a jungle hide-out to a specially built mountaintop jail near the city of Medellin in the company of Father Rafael Garcia Herreros, an 82-year-old Roman Catholic priest who helped negotiate his surrender.
Wearing jeans and a white leather jacket and sporting a beard grown in hiding, the 41-year-old fugitive handed a loaded 9-millimeter pistol to the warden and became the world’s wealthiest prisoner. Witnesses said he was escorted to spacious cell in the ranch-home-style jail in his hometown, the Medellin suburb of Envigado, and was interrogated by the region’s top judicial official, Marta Luz Hurtado.
In a brief statement to a Medellin journalist aboard the helicopter, Escobar declared his surrender “an act of peace.”
“To these seven years of persecution, I wish to add all the years of imprisonment necessary to contribute to the peace of my family and the peace of Colombia,” he said.
Three leaders of the cartel’s terrorist squads surrendered with their boss. They were identified as John Jairo Velazquez, known as Popeye; Otniel Gonzalez, alias Otto, and Carlos Aguilar.
Escobar is accused of creating the largest international network for the production and delivery of cocaine and of directing a seven-year war of terror against anyone in Colombia who spoke out against his trade or in favor of extraditing its practitioners to the United States.
President Cesar Gaviria, announcing the surrender Wednesday evening, said Escobar will be tried under a nine-month-old presidential decree stating that drug traffickers who come in and confess will not be extradited for trial abroad. The plea-bargaining policy also offers to reduce by as much as half the prison sentence of any trafficker who gives up ill-gotten gains and informs on his associates.
“His treatment will not be any different from what the law requires,” Gaviria said.
Escobar announced through the priest after a secret meeting last month that he was willing to surrender under the presidential decree. But he delayed his action until hours after a Constituent Assembly rewriting Colombia’s constitution voted to outlaw extradition.
The assembly’s decision made it legally impossible for the government to send him to the United States, where he is also wanted, after the presidential decree expires with the current constitution July 5.
When it became clear that the assembly would vote Wednesday, the priest said he was told by a government official to “prepare for good news.” He met with Colombian Atty. Gen. Carlos Gustavo Arrieta in the office of the governor of Antioquia state in Medellin and took off in the helicopter from the roof.
The priest said he embraced the drug lord in a “distant, rocky” place in the Antioquian jungle and told him: “I congratulate you on behalf of Colombia.
“He thanked me for my friendship and said I should visit him frequently,” the priest added.
Colombian officials, who joined in the negotiations for Escobar’s surrender, did not say what crimes the prisoner would confess to or what properties he would hand over. He is to be tried and sentenced by a special court system in which judges remain anonymous to protect them from threats, and most of the proceedings are secret.
Besides facing eight indictments in the United States, including one for the murder of a police informant, Escobar is wanted in Colombia for the assassinations of a justice minister, an attorney general, a newspaper publisher and three presidential candidates and for bombings that killed hundreds of people.
Gaviria described Escobar’s imprisonment as a major victory in the drug war. He promised that the campaign “will continue with the same intensity” but said he expected “more and more cooperation” from cocaine-consuming countries.
Since taking office last August, Gaviria has combined the plea-bargaining strategy with aggressive police tactics, which produced a record seizure of 47 tons of cocaine in the first four months of 1991. Besides those surrendering Wednesday, 10 other major drug dealers have turned themselves in, and 10 more have announced plans to do so.
But U.S. and Colombian law enforcement authorities question the strategy’s effectiveness. They assert that, despite the seizures, Colombia’s cocaine output stands at an all-time high, that rival traffickers now outproduce the Medellin Cartel and that three of Escobar’s associates--the brothers Jorge Luis, Juan David and Fabio Ochoa--have continued to supervise drug operations from prison since their surrender several months ago.
“The narcotics business is based on organizations,” Bob Martinez, chief of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said during a visit to Colombia last month. “People who think that the removal of an individual will somehow make cocaine disappear don’t understand the structure of the business.”
Escobar and other traffickers formed the Medellin Cartel in the mid-1970s and turned it into a multinational industry. It grew to embrace thousands of Andean peasants who cultivated the coca leaf in Peru and Bolivia, smugglers who brought coca paste to Colombia for refining and shipped it out as white powder and distributors who spread it to dealers in the United States, Europe and Japan.
The drug boss dropped out of public view after the 1984 assassination of Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla and became the target of Colombia’s biggest manhunt after the 1989 slaying of front-running presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan. The two men were outspoken foes of Escobar’s business.
The escalating drug war eventually exhausted both the hunter and the hunted, weakened Escobar’s grip on the cocaine market and cost the government an estimated $2 billion a year. After the Galan slaying, President Virgilio Barco Vargas issued decrees that led to the extradition of 49 traffickers to the United States and the seizure of their properties.
The Medellin Cartel answered by forming a military branch known as “the Extraditables” and exploding a bomb that killed 107 people on a Colombian jetliner in flight. Police managed to kill Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha and several other top Escobar associates but were always a step behind their main quarry.
When Gaviria was elected to succeed Barco last year, the Extraditables declared a truce. But after the new president took office and unveiled his plea-bargaining offer, they resumed the war by kidnaping 11 Colombian journalists and killing two of them.
The campaign, aimed at softening the government’s surrender terms, seemed to work. Gaviria added special human-rights and due-process guarantees for traffickers who surrender. Then he issued a new decree saying that a trafficker need confess to only one crime, not all of them, to avoid extradition. The Ochoas and several other traffickers surrendered.
Escobar signaled his willingness to come in by freeing the last two kidnaped journalists May 20. Many Colombians, exhausted by years of fear, breathed easier at the prospect of peace, but a chorus of protest rose from drug-war hard-liners who said the price was too high.
“The society is letting itself believe that (the traffickers) are ready to collaborate in the establishment of peace and tranquillity, after all the cruel and bloody violence they have unleashed on the country,” former Justice Minister Enrique Parejo wrote in the newspaper El Espectador.
Supporters of the government’s approach said the drug war was unwinnable.
“The Gaviria policy recognizes implicitly the state’s incapacity to capture the big drug traffickers,” the weekly news magazine Semana commented. “This recognition, which at first was interpreted by many as a retreat, stems from nothing other than a pragmatic and realistic view of the problem.”
In the days before Escobar’s surrender, the controversy focused on government efforts to make the drug lord feel secure and comfortable in his new home.
The jail, originally designed as a drug rehabilitation center, sits on a pine-forested hill above Envigado on 10 acres of land surrounded by an electric fence. With whitewashed brick walls and a tiled roof, it resembles the comfortable ranch houses that Escobar often used as hide-outs.
His 1,000-square-feet “cell,” 10 times the standard size in Colombian prisons, is more like a penthouse suite, with an antechamber, bedroom, walk-in closet, bath and a breathtaking view of the Medellin valley below.
At Escobar’s insistence, authorities in Envigado, where he remains popular, controlled the selection of 40 guards posted inside the jail, and it was agreed to keep the army and police outside the fence.
Critics said the government’s concessions, in effect, gave Escobar a comfortable house arrest, featuring a locale and a security force of his own choosing. “The only benefit is that we have him physically in jail, but he will continue to be the brains behind his organization,” said a Colombian law enforcement official.
Father Garcia, who leads the Minute of God ministry, which finances low-income housing, said Escobar wants to give up the drug trade and study law. The priest said he plans to set up a “University of Peace” inside the prison for the drug lord and his associates.
Under Colombian law, Escobar could be sentenced to a total of no more than 30 years for his crimes, and that time could be cut to 15 years if he complies with the government’s conditions. But the Constituent Assembly is debating a sentence reduction for all prisoners that could free him five years earlier.
The decision on extradition by the 73-member assembly, chosen last December by popular vote, stated simply that “the extradition of native-born Colombians is prohibited.” Colombians who have committed crimes abroad that are punishable in this country, it added, “will be prosecuted and judged in Colombia.”
The 51-13 vote ended a long national debate on the issue that was shadowed by a terror campaign against its advocates. The balloting was secret. Five delegates abstained and four were absent.
U.S. Ambassador Thomas E. McNamara told a Colombian radio interviewer last month that it was “an error to prohibit extradition.” Intimidation and bribes by drug traffickers, he said, had prevented “free and democratic debate” on the issue.
But extradition was widely opposed in opinion polls of Colombians, who said it caused an explosion of narco-terrorism, breached their country’s sovereignty and violated the civil rights of Colombian drug lords serving life sentences in America. (The maximum sentence here is 30 years.)
Early this year, the president won a declaration of intent from the United States to send evidence for use in Colombian trials of accused traffickers. Using state-of-siege powers, he has installed 82 special “faceless” judges in five cities to try drug traffickers and terrorists behind a protective veil of secrecy.
The judges, whose identities are secret, go to work in armor-plated cars and preside over courtrooms equipped with video cameras, one-way glass and voice-distorting microphones. Hearings are closed to the press and public.
Justice Minister Jaime Giraldo said last month that the new system was working. Anonymous judges convicted 38 of the 50 defendants sentenced in their first two months of work, he said, and received not a single threat.
But the system came under attack on civil rights grounds in the assembly, which left its survival in doubt. The assembly declared Saturday that the administration of justice under the new charter “shall be public” except in instances established by law.
Alvaro Gomez Hurtado, one of three co-presidents of the assembly, said the decision means that the secret court system “is dead.” He and other critics said the next Congress, to be elected in October and seated next February, should move to protect judges while opening up trials.
But Manuel Jose Cepeda, Gaviria’s adviser on assembly matters, said the anonymous judges would continue to operate several more months under “transitory legislation” to be written by an assembly commission after the current constitution and the state of siege expire.