Police fatally shot the chief of the Medellin cocaine cartel's terrorist squads Wednesday, crushing one of the last, most formidable shields protecting Pablo Escobar, the drug ring's fugitive leader.
Brance Munoz Mosquera--who was 33 and was nicknamed Tyson because of his resemblance to American boxer Mike Tyson--was Escobar's closest associate still at large. He led the cartel's "armed front," according to a Defense Ministry statement that also said Munoz had arranged, among other terrorist attacks, the 1989 bombing of an Avianca Airlines 727. That attack killed all 107 people aboard, including two Americans.
U.S. authorities have indicted Escobar and Munoz's brother, Dandenys, for allegedly ordering the bombing of the airliner as it took off from Bogota's airport.
Dandenys Munoz is already serving a six-year sentence in a New York prison for lying to federal agents and possessing false identification. Government officials said Munoz's death should send a clear message to Escobar, who escaped from a luxury prison last July when police tried to transfer him to a more secure facility. Officials say privately that, if Escobar is captured, it will more likely be dead than alive.
"The blow in Medellin against crime shows that people who submit themselves (to the justice system) receive less severe treatment," Interior Minister Humberto de la Calle told reporters after Munoz's death.
Early Wednesday, an elite police squad, acting on a tip, surrounded a northern Medellin home where Munoz spent the night with his girlfriend.
As has happened with several other cartel suspects, the police were forced to open fire on Munoz when he "offered resistance to the authorities' action," the Defense Ministry said.
Speaking to reporters after the incident, Medellin's police chief, Gen. Jairo Rodriguez, said that Munoz had fired on police with a submachine gun equipped with a silencer.
Escobar and his men have repeatedly claimed that security forces have been given orders to shoot them on sight, a charge denied by authorities.
Police have killed several leading cartel members in shootouts, including Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha in 1989 and Escobar's cousin, Gustavo Gaviria, in 1990. Apparently fearing the same fate, seven of nine suspects who fled jail with Escobar in July have surrendered in recent weeks. All of them, including Escobar's brother Roberto, are awaiting trial in a Medellin jail.
Escobar's lawyers told reporters in Medellin that Munoz's death may present an obstacle to the cartel leader's plans to follow his men into jail. Apparently fearing that Escobar might instead retaliate for the killing with new terrorist attacks, the Colombian government put security forces on maximum alert Wednesday.
Escobar already stands accused by police of ordering the assassinations of 23 plainclothes detectives in Medellin in recent weeks.