Medellin says a tearful farewell to Don Pablo: Simon Strong attended the wake held for the world's most notorious drug trafficker

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The Independent Online
THE BEARD was full and dark, the moustache a little, Hitlerian affair, and the cheeks fat, puffy and waxen. In death, Pablo Escobar's expression was as serene and distant as ever. Above his face, on the glass cover inside his coffin, somebody had placed an image of the Virgin Mary.

It was midnight in Medellin, the Colombian city that for more than 15 years had ruled the cocaine trade. Escobar, king of the traffickers, hero of the poor and scourge of the state, lay in a grey coffin in a grey, concrete building beside the southern highway. A few hours earlier, the man on whose orders hundreds of police, judges and politicians were killed had been gunned down.

Once thought to be among the world's richest men - his fortune was estimated to have peaked at pounds 3.4bn - the former congressman died like a common criminal. Hunted by a task force of elite police and army troops formed after his escape from his self-built prison in July last year, he was apparently trapped by a telephone trace.

Escobar was cornered in a house in a middle-class district of Medellin and shot in the neck and shoulder on a rooftop after jumping barefoot from a window. It was the day after his 44th birthday. His bodyguard, Alvaro de Jesus Agudelo, alias the Lemon, was also killed. Escobar was hauled off the roof on a metal stretcher. Under his T-shirt a gold crucifix was found to have been sewn to his chest, in an apparent attempt to secure divine protection.

Medellin, traditionally the industrial and financial powerhouse of Colombia, where Escobar still enjoyed tremendous popular support because of the houses he built for the poor, the work he offered them and their admiration for his capacity 'to get on in life', is bracing itself for violence. As Escobar's mother, Hermilda, and his sisters wept over his coffin, they claimed that their loved one had been trying to turn himself in. 'He wanted to see that his family was safe first,' said his sister Marina.

Last week, the government had announced it was withdrawing its protection of Escobar's wife, Maria Victoria, and children, Juan Pablo and Manuela. In a desperate attempt to escape Colombia they flew to Germany, but were immediately deported. On the day of Escobar's death, the family was cooped up in a hotel in Bogota, trying to find a country to receive them.

Escobar's family claims that the government and the task force have participated in the killings carried out by a group called the Pepes. The group consists mainly of relatives of former colleagues of Escobar, murdered while he was in jail on his orders for keeping money he regarded as his. The Pepes, who are backed financially by the Cali cartel, have killed scores of Escobar's people this year, including several lawyers, and have destroyed a string of properties.

'The Pepes are insatiable assassins,' said Marina, in the dim light cast by three candles around the coffin. A crucifix stood at its head, a man prayed at its feet. The air reeked of coffee, sweat, clothes sodden by a rainstorm and dozens of bouquets. An old man appeared, bursting into tears on Marina's shoulder. He had adored Don Pablo. 'He was a good man, a good, good man,' he repeated. 'He should never have gone into politics. The politicians got jealous.'

Hermilda Escobar, a short, well-kept woman, took on the cameras. 'Why talk about terrorism? In this country we are all victims of terror. My son was noble.'

Cocaine trade boosted, page 11

Obituary, page 15

(Photograph omitted)