Escobar escape 'challenges state'

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The Independent Online
PRESIDENT Cesar Gaviria's admission that Colombia's Public Enemy Number One, Pablo Escobar, had escaped from prison near Medellin along with 14 of his henchmen plunged the government into crisis yesterday. A huge manhunt was launched, and five of the escaped convicts were rounded up, along with 31 prison guards. A local radio station later reported that Escobar himself had telephoned, offering to surrender if his security was guaranteed.

Criticism of the Colombian government poured in from all quarters. The head of the US Drug Enforcement Administration, Bob Martinez, said that Colombia 'must take whatever additional steps are necessary to immediately bring Pablo Escobar to justice'.

He pointed out that the DEA had informed the government of 'serious irregularities' at Envigado prison. These reports had, however, been rejected by President Gaviria.

The Colombian Attorney General, Gustavo de Greiff, also said he had given the government 'full proof' of Escobar's criminal activities inside the prison, but nothing had been done until the sudden decision to transfer him to a more secure installation on Tuesday.

One leading politician from the ruling Liberal party, Enrique Parejo, called on the President to resign. This is most unlikely, but Mr Gaviria, 44, is aware that his claim to have 'dismantled' the Medellin cocaine cartel stands exposed and the credibility of his administration has been badly damaged.

Hurriedly abandoning plans to attend a Latin American summit in Madrid yesterday, the President described Escobar's escape as a 'challenge to the state and the whole of society'.

Escobar, 42, gave himself up last year under a controversial agreement with the government, which gave him immunity both from murder charges and from extradition to the United States. He is believed to have been responsible for the assassination of at least one government minister, three presidential candidates and Colombia's leading newspaper editor, among hundreds of others.

His decision to escape seems to have been prompted by fear that the government was planning to hand him over to the US courts under cover of the prison transfer. Another theory is that Escobar was alarmed by a recent US Supreme Court ruling that American drug agents were entitled to kidnap foreign nationals and take them to the US for trial.

Mood in Medellin, page 12