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Cocaine is still king in Colombia: Pablo Escobar's escape has revealed the hollowness of the government's claims of success. Colin Harding reports

PRESIDENT Cesar Gaviria Trujillo of Colombia must be feeling that the political triumphs of his first two years in office are rapidly turning to dust as a consequence of the Escobar jail-break debacle. His administration's carefully- cultivated image of competence is falling to bits, and image is all-important in Colombia, a country that feels it does not always get due credit and respect from the rest of the world.

The contrast between image and reality is something that strikes all observers of this fascinating country. Colombia would like to be regarded as a modern country with a well-developed and diversified economic base and one of the oldest democratic traditions in the Americas. But the rest of the world tends to think only of drugs and violence. The outcry following Pablo Escobar's effortless escape from his luxurious prison was provoked as much by a feeling that it made Colombia a laughing stock in the eyes of the world as anything else, and the President knows that he must ultimately take the blame.

The pacification of the Medellin cocaine cartel, after two years of open warfare that shook Colombia's democratic institutions and brought the country to the verge of a collective nervous breakdown, was Mr Gaviria's main claim to fame. The man who only became president because the Liberal Party's most popular candidate, Luis Carlos Galan, was murdered on Escobar's orders in August 1989 set himself the task of bringing the 'drug war' to a close by diplomatic rather than military means.

Whereas his predecessor, Virgilio Barco, had tried to smash the drug barons at the cost of hundreds of lives and a succession of bomb outrages and assassinations in the main cities, Mr Gaviria offered a negotiated surrender: traffickers who turned themselves in and confessed to at least some crimes would receive reduced sentences and immunity from extradition.

The likes of Escobar and the Ochoa brothers of Medellin, who took on but ultimately failed to defeat the military might of the state, accepted this offer with alacrity. It offered a reprieve from the attrition of endless combat, and banished the threat of standing trial in the United States, which was the market for most of the cartel's products. By the middle of last year the top leaders of the Medellin cartel were safely behind bars, the car-bombs and gun-battles ceased and the country breathed a sigh of relief.

But just how far the image was from the reality is now becoming apparent. Escobar treated the well-appointed prison near his home town of Envigado, south of Medellin, as a convenient base for pursuing his business activities. He used the guards as messengers to bring in underworld rivals for interrogation and disposal, and (according to one account) finally slipped them in excess of a million dollars to allow him to walk out while army commandos stormed the jail. Escobar never confessed to anything more than a minor smuggling offence, contrary to the terms of his surrender, and after more than a year in detention he had still not been brought to trial.

So much for Colombia's supposedly reformed judicial system. The government's great fear now is that the drug war will resume. Escobar still has plenty of scores to settle, not only with the authorities and his rivals in Medellin, but with the powerful Cali cartel, which has moved into the vastly more lucrative heroin business in the past year or so.

There have been calls for President Gaviria's resignation, notably from Enrique Parejo, a former justice minister who took on the cartels and nearly paid for it with his life. He was sent off to supposed safety as ambassador to Hungary in 1985, but a few months later cartel gunmen pumped five bullets into him on a Budapest street. He survived, and is now challenging for the Liberal nomination in the 1994 presidential elections. Mr Gaviria will not go now, but his credibility is badly damaged, perhaps beyond repair.

To make matters worse, the new constitution, promulgated last year, which was to have been Mr Gaviria's other great gift to posterity, is also showing signs of wear. It has not brought peace to this turbulent country and has singularly failed to protect the human rights of Colombia's 30 million citizens. In addition, it outlaws extradition of Colombian citizens for ever more. The two remaining guerrilla organisations, the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), remain obstinately outside the political system despite the government's best efforts to bring them in from the hills.

Finally, an ELN sabotage campaign against oil pipelines is helping to draw attention to another area of official incompetence: a country with a super-abundance of energy resources has been suffering from acute power shortages that have plunged Bogota and other cities into darkness for hours at a time. A return now to the drug-fuelled warfare of the recent past could be the last straw.

(Photograph omitted)