Pablo Escobar, one of the world’s most wanted men, died in a rooftop shootout with police and soldiers Thursday after reigning for a decade over a ruthless global cocaine empire.
His hide-out exposed by a traced phone call, Escobar was killed in Medellin, the industrial city that served as the base for his drug trafficking network.
Authorities said Escobar and a bodyguard fired at troopers who raided their two-story house. Police returned fire and killed them both as a barefoot Escobar tried to escape over a rooftop.
“They offered resistance and died on the spot,” Prosecutor General Gustavo de Greiff said.
Escobar’s death was not expected to seriously affect the daily flow of tons of cocaine from Colombia to the United States and other countries. His role in the drug trade declined drastically during 16 months he spent as a fugitive.
But many Colombians breathed a sigh of relief after the killing of Escobar, who was accused of murdering hundreds of people during a reign marked by assassinations and car bombings that blew apart neighborhoods, shopping centers and a passenger airliner.
Colombian President Cesar Gaviria said in a nationally broadcast speech that Escobar’s death is “a step toward the end of drug trafficking” and shows “it is possible to defeat evil.”
“It’s the triumph of law over crime,” Andres Pastrana, a prominent senator, said of Escobar’s death. “Now the country can begin to live more peacefully.”
Not all Colombians were happy, however, about the killing of Escobar, who had been generous to the people of his native Medellin.
More than a thousand onlookers gathered after the shooting, and some whistled derisively as the troops, heavily armed and clad in camouflage fatigues, walked by.
Authorities tracked down Escobar through a phone call he made Monday to a radio station to complain about the treatment of his family by Germany, army commander Gen. Hernan Guzman said. Germany turned Escobar’s family away after they sought asylum this week.
Escobar, 44, had apparently been hiding in the Medellin home for several weeks.
He was killed by members of a 3,000-member police and army force that had hunted him since he escaped from prison in July, 1992.
Gen. Octavio Vargas, assistant director of the national police, said the raid was a “commando-style, impeccable operation.”
A witness told RCN radio that the raiders fired their weapons into the air in jubilation after they killed Escobar and yelled, “We won!”
Escobar’s mother, Mermilda Gaviria, identified her son’s body an hour after the shootout, authorities said. The body, clad in blue jeans and a blue T-shirt, was taken away on a stretcher.
De Greiff said an $8.7-million reward offered by the United States and Colombia for Escobar’s capture will not be paid, because the information that led authorities to him came from government intelligence sources.
President Clinton sent a congratulatory telegram to Gaviria.
“Hundreds of Colombians--brave police officers and innocent people--lost their lives as a result of Escobar’s terrorism. Your work honors the memory of all of these victims,” it said.
Stephen Greene, acting administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, said in Washington that the shooting sent a message to drug traffickers.
“No matter how powerful they are, no matter how much influence they say they have, no matter how much money they have, they are not immune to being pursued by legitimate governments,” he said.
Escobar had been hunted not only by the security force but by a vigilante squad called People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar (PEPES), which had killed several of his associates and threatened his family.
It was just three days ago that the drug lord’s wife, their two children and their son’s girlfriend sought political asylum in Germany after the Colombian government threatened to stop protecting them. They were turned away, had returned to Bogota and were staying in a luxury hotel under army protection.
The vigilante squad is believed to be composed of members of the rival Cali drug cartel, disenchanted former Medellin cartel members and police avenging the deaths of officers slain by Escobar’s drug ring.
At one time, Escobar’s drug-trafficking gang was the world’s biggest exporter of cocaine. But after his escape from prison, his empire was splintered by bloody internal rivalries and attacks by vigilantes and security forces. The rival Cali cartel took over as the world’s main supplier of cocaine.
If Escobar’s death leads to the Medellin cartel’s collapse, the Cali cartel and other competitors are likely to try to pick up the Medellin business. They are not expected, however, to bring as much violence to Colombia.
De Greiff noted in a recent interview that unlike the Medellin cartel, members of the Cali cartel “are not terrorists. They have killed among themselves but have not attacked the general public as Escobar did.”
The drug lord began his criminal career as a car thief but rose to become one of the richest men in the world. He was ranked 62nd in Forbes magazine’s 1991 list of the world’s richest people, with an estimated net worth of more than $2.5 billion.
His riches were matched by his ruthlessness.
Escobar was blamed for the deaths of hundreds of people--including presidential candidates, judges, a newspaper publisher and police--in a series of assassinations and car bombings.
Escobar surrendered to Colombian police in 1991 after receiving assurances that he would be treated leniently and would not be extradited to the United States for trial on drug charges.
He was placed in a luxury jail outside Medellin, where he continued to control his drug empire. But he escaped when the government decided to move him and several of his lieutenants to a regular jail.