Wary of Renewed Drug-Cartel Violence, Colombia Ups US Role in Escobar Search

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

ATTEMPTING to deal with fallout from Pablo Escobar's jailbreak last summer, the Colombian government is allowing a far- greater US law-enforcement presence here to try to recapture the drug-cartel leader.

The Bush administration has eagerly met the Colombian request for assistance, evidently hoping that catching Mr. Escobar would be viewed as a major drug-war victory in a US election year, observers say.

Colombian officials say that at least 100 US special agents are helping in the search, and that the United States Drug Enforcement Agency has increased the number of its agents here from about 20 before Escobar's July 22 escape to 70 today.

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The Colombians also have authorized daily surveillance flights by US aircraft, including several Orion four-engine turboprop planes, originally built to locate enemy submarines. The planes carry sophisticated detection equipment that can zero in on radio signals used by Escobar to communicate with his underlings.

"The level of US cooperation is 400 percent greater than what we had before [Escobar's escape]," says a senior Colombian official involved with coordinating the foreign assistance. "The circumstances have made the US presence here peak in a way."

Those circumstances include President Cesar Gaviria Trujillo's deepening problems after July 22, when Escobar and nine other prisoners walked through a net of 400 Army troops surrounding his special jail in the town of Envigado, near Medellin. Days later it was confirmed that the cartel leader had spent his year in prison rebuilding his organization, ordering the murders of rivals, and enjoying luxuries such as Jacuzzis and a giant-screen television.

President Gaviria's policy of offering leniency to convince Escobar and other cartel leaders to surrender had helped make him one of the most popular Colombian leaders in recent history. But recent polls show that, mainly as a result of the Escobar fiasco, Gaviria's disapproval rating has soared to more than 60 percent.

The president and his closest advisers have tried to contain the political damage by saying that they were kept in the dark by subordinates who allowed Escobar to take over the jail and then escape when Army troops moved in to transfer him to a more secure facility. But those subordinates and other critics maintain that the president's staff was fully aware of conditions at the jail and bears ultimate responsibility for what happened there.

In recent testimony before Colombia's Congress, Army Gen. Gustavo Pardo, who was sacked for allowing Escobar to slip through his troops, produced copies of memos showing that he was alerting his superiors to the jail's problems as early as last year. These included sightings of prisoners outside the jail's gates and the entry into the prison of hundreds of unidentified construction workers, many of whom were suspected of working for the Medellin cartel.

"We don't need any more investigations into all of this," says Enrique Parejo, a former justice minister and one of Gaviria's staunchest critics. "It's clear that above all the president was responsible because it was he who gave the cartel concessions that led necessarily to Escobar's control of the jail and subsequent escape."

The president and his advisers boldly argue that the policy of coaxing traffickers into jail has not failed. As evidence they point to three other cartel members who turned themselves in under the leniency plan. The three Ochoa brothers, Fabio, Jorge, and Juan David, are still awaiting trial in a jail in the Medellin suburb of Itagui.

Colombian officials say they will soon transfer the brothers to a new high-security prison in back of their present jail and that judges should hand down sentences against them soon after. One official, speaking on condition of anonymity, stated that each of the brothers could spend as long as 22 years in jail.

Skeptics, however, contend that the government cannot expect to hold the brothers if they receive such hefty sentences.

"The government is sitting on another scandal in Itagui," says one law enforcement official in Bogota. "The Ochoas are as much in control there as Escobar was at Envigado."

Despite such concerns, Gaviria and his advisers are clearly less worried about the Ochoas than Escobar. The government's main goal is to capture the drug boss dead or alive before he starts another round of bombings and other terrorism like the one that killed hundreds of civilians and police in 1989 and 1990.

The Colombian government is offering $1.4 million, and the US government another $2 million, for information leading to Escobar's capture. Although the reward is being advertised in Colombian newspapers, some law enforcement officials doubt the message is reaching the people who would be able to help.

Police say Escobar is traveling from house to house in his home state of Antioquia, where he has gained the support of the population through a combination of largesse and intimidation. Only four or five of his closest confidants know where he is at any time.

The law-enforcement official says that high-tech surveillance and millions of dollars in reward money are less important than cultivating local sources.

"Millions of dollars are being spent on this search and Escobar is beating us with pigeons" he said, referring to the carrier pigeons Escobar used to send messages from his jail to subordinates. "The keys to finding him are the local inhabitants, rural workers who are aware that Escobar is spending a night nearby but don't know anything about the reward. Even if they do, it's hard to convince these people that their lives will be protected if they talk."

He and other officials say that catching Escobar is made doubly hard by the fact that the drug boss used his year in jail to improve his finances and rebuild his trafficking and terrorism networks.

Bogots El Tiempo newspaper last week quoted government officials as saying that the trafficker left the prison with $350 million in cash. The cartel leader is said to be using such money to fund a dozen terrorist gangs ready to act in any Colombian city.

"We are anticipating another round of terrorist attacks by Escobar," says the Colombian official. "He has the money and the men to carry them out."

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