Escobar Escape Provokes U.S. Lawmakers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

U.S. lawmakers exasperated over the jailbreak by Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar are calling for new measures in the battle against the flow of cocaine from the South American nation, perhaps even including the use of covert U.S. action within its borders.

In the four days since Escobar shot his way out of gentlemanly confinement and vanished, Rep. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, has concluded that the time is at hand for a broad reconsideration of American drug policy toward Colombia.

The congressman has scheduled a hearing by his subcommittee on Wednesday. He hopes to have Bush Administration drug czar Bob Martinez and State Department officials address possible alternatives to the current policy, in which the Colombian government grants drug traffickers immunity from extradition to the United States.

Realizing that sending U.S. agents into Colombia would provoke bitter political reaction in South America, Torricelli nevertheless wants to discuss covert action and other possibilities because the present policy looks less and less effective, an aide to the congressman said Saturday.

Escobar, chief of the notorious Medellin drug cartel, surrendered to the Colombian government a little more than a year ago, having negotiated assurances that he would not be extradited to the United States for trial.

Since then, he had been held in luxurious confinement on a ranch formerly owned by drug dealers. His escape came last Wednesday when authorities prepared to transfer him and his lieutenants to a military jail, suspecting that he was continuing to direct his drug smuggling empire while in custody.

Hostages were taken and at least two guards were killed in the melee. Escobar vanished.

On Saturday, Colombia's army commander told a news conference in Medellin that soldiers and prison guards are suspected of helping Escobar escape.

Gen. Manuel Murillo said that one sergeant and a small number of soldiers of the 4th Army Brigade--responsible for guarding the outside of Escobar's jail--would be turned over to a military judge for investigation.

In Peru, U.S. efforts to stem drug traffic by providing helicopters and other military technology have been ineffectual. But efforts by the government of President Cesar Gaviria in Colombia, including the killing of Escobar's foremost henchman, stirred some optimism in Washington.

However, there has been speculation about renewed violence after the escape by Escobar, who is believed to have been behind hundreds of drug-related murders and whose cocaine dealings are estimated to have brought him as much as $2 billion to $5 billion.

The call for stronger U.S. action--made by Torricelli, Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and other Democrats on the Western Hemisphere subcommittee--was accompanied by Bush Administration demands that the Colombian government use whatever measures necessary to recapture the Medellin overlord.

The subject of possible U.S. intervention is especially explosive in Latin America because of the 1990 abduction of Mexican doctor Humberto Alvarez Machain, who was brought to the United States for trial on charges that he was involved in the murder of an agent of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

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