Drugs war shifts gear: Escobar's pursuers are concentrating on his movable assets, Phil Davison writes from Medellin

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The Independent Online
OSCAR Fredy Paredes, provincial chief of Colombia's plainclothes security police, the DAS, propped his machine-pistol beneath the giant crucifix on the wall behind his desk and sighed. It had looked like being a fine day in the hunt for the cocaine baron Pablo Escobar. It was, until the Prosecutor-General dropped his bombshell.

From his open first-floor office window, a sign of confidence from one of the narco-terrorists' biggest potential targets, Mr Fredy Paredes had been watching with some pride the arrival of his men's latest haul: more than 40 vehicles, some classics, some armour-plated, worth an estimated pounds 2.5m in all and part of Escobar's investment collection. Local people had gathered to witness the unique concours d'elegance as the vehicles clattered in. They had been discovered in a Medellin warehouse.

Then came the radio news bulletin. The Prosecutor-General, Gustavo de Greiff, had announced in Bogota that he was investigating a tip-off that the Search Force hunting Escobar - comprising the DAS, elite police units and army special forces - had found him a few days ago but accepted pounds 1m to let him go. According to Mr de Greiff, 'inefficiency, cowardice and corruption' among the security forces were the reasons Escobar had not been caught. Mr Fredy Paredes, who has lost dozens of his men - and women - to the traffickers, was seething. His counterparts in the armed forces and uniformed National Police, on Escobar's trail night and day for the past eight months, were angrier still and sent a letter to the Prosecutor-General yesterday calling on him to back up his remarks.

'It's Escobar himself, a disinformation campaign to diminish our prestige,' the DAS chief said. 'He knows he's surrounded. We've destabilised the financial and military structure of the Medellin cartel. The people here like and support the Search Force.'

By all accounts, he is right. Sickened by the cartel's terrorist tactics, Medellin residents have increasingly expressed support for the security forces, as reflected in tip-offs that have led to the capture or killing of many of Escobar's men.

Escobar long had police and army officers on his payroll, not least when he strolled out of La Catedral prison here in July. But, with a total price on his head of more than pounds 5m, the authorities are thought to have trumped the drug lord. For the tip-off that led police to the car collection on Wednesday, one local citizen could end up with 40 per cent of the haul's value.

What surprised many here was the vague, mysterious nature of Mr de Greiff's information. He said it came from 'an anonymous informant' who walked into his Bogota office last week. How anyone could visit the Prosecutor-General and remain anonymous was a mystery to most Colombians.

'Maybe out of fear he didn't present any evidence. Nor did he say where or when this offence occurred,' the Prosecutor-General told reporters. 'Let us hope it is not true. I makes me extremely sad to think the corruption has reached that level.'

Mr Fredy Paredes returned to watching Escobar's cars. They were being brought to the DAS compound to prevent the vigilantes known as People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar from destroying them, as they did another warehouse of the drug lord's cars last month.

Below the DAS director's office were arrayed a 1928 Ford, a new Chevrolet camper van converted into an office, four Mercedes coupes, some armour-plated, a sparkling bronze Porsche Carrera, 30 Honda beach buggies and six miniature cars, apparently for Escobar's children. A small, wide-eyed boy from a neighbouring house had wandered past the heavily-armed DAS guards to seat himself in a neat model Porsche.

The car collection was further evidence of how Escobar and the cartel had laundered the millions of dollars they earned from cocaine every day. 'Actions like this strike at the cartel's financial base. The value of these vehicles is a further amount that they cannot convert into cash-flow,' Mr Fredy Paredes said.

(Photograph omitted)