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Escobar dies, and the cocaine trade gets stronger: Simon Strong, in Medellin, describes the unity among drug lords. Patrick Cockburn, in Washington, says the trade cannot be halted

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WITH the death of Pablo Escobar, drug law enforcement authorities fear Colombia's cocaine trade is destined to thrive as never before.

Although the capacity of Escobar's own faction of the Medellin cartel to reassert itself cannot be gauged, it is dwarfed by the trafficking organisations grouped loosely under the Cali cartel, former colleagues who became his greatest enemies.

It was precisely the divisions between the Medellin and Cali cartels that the police and the US drug enforcement administration were able to take advantage of in their battle to stem the flow of cocaine to the United States, Europe and Japan. Informants leaked information on the other side.

Miguel Maza Marquez is a retired general who as former head of Colombia's internal security service led the struggle against Escobar. He said: 'Without Escobar the organisations will once again be united and hence much stronger.'

The traffickers are also benefiting from the distinction made by the Colombian government between drug traffickers and drug terrorists. The former, who survived the threat of extradition to the US only because of Escobar's ferocious terrorist campaign against it, are enjoying ever softer penalties. Meanwhile, the public prosecutor, Gustavo de Greiff, is increasingly in favour of legalisation.

US drug enforcement authorities continue to talk darkly of how corruption in Colombia enables the business to prosper. They claim the day of close relations between the cocaine mafia and politicians are by no means over. Escobar was elected to the Venezuelan Congress in 1982.

Colombia's Vice-Attorney-General was suspended from office recently after he was caught in a compromising conversation with one of the Cali cartel leaders. Last week a cousin of one of the presidential favourites was arrested red-handed in Miami while allegedly laundering money he claimed he was sending for his cousin's electoral campaign.

The first close aide of Escobar to die in the campaign to wipe out the cartel was Bances Munoz Mosquera, alias 'Tyson', who headed Escobar's specially trained squad of hired killers, or sicarios. The group was responsible for the deaths of at least 500 people. Mosquers was also blamed for organising the assassination of about 200 police in Medellin.

He was shot dead by police in Medellin in October last year, only three months after Escobar's spectacular prison escape. In the months that followed police gunned down several more of Escobar's key henchmen, including his brother-in-law, Hernan Dario Henao, Johnny Rivera Acosta, Juan Carlos Ospina and Mario Castano Molina. At the same time a number of Medellin cartel members who had escaped from Envigado prison with Escobar on 19 June 1991 agreed to give themselves up. They included Escobar's brother, Roberto, and his three personal bodyguards. This accounted for the entire list of known senior cartel figures established by the authorities, leaving Escobar isolated at the head of the organisation.

During his time in prison his quarters were equipped with every convenience, including fax machines, telephones and computers, as Escobar had begun restructuring his organisation. He weeded out suspected traitors in the ranks, including the heads of the Moncada and Galeano families who were responsible for the cartel's finances and whom Escobar accused of not handing over enough money.

As a result of the government crackdown, combined with Escobar's own purge, there now seems to be nobody left in a position to take over the reins as his natural successor.

The Medellin cartel is now likely to break down into a number of rival groups all fighting to take control of its multi-million dollar cocaine distribution network.

Escobar's son, Juan Pablo, is only 16 and does not look able to take over his father's role. 'Right now the only thing that concerns me is the future of my family, which has suffered so much,' he said on Thursday. But when he first learnt of his father's death he hit out at those who had gunned him down. 'I'll kill them all,' he vowed.

But yesterday Escobar's mother, sisters and son stressed they would not seek revenge for his death. They called on his associates and supporters to refrain from retaliation. 'What had to happen, happened,' he said.

Simon Strong is currently writing a book about Pablo Escobar.

(Photograph omitted)