Escobar escape raises fears of new drug war

MEDELLIN - Nobody knows where Pablo Escobar is. He evaporated before the very eyes of 500 soldiers inside the prison where he had been held for more than a year. The 42-year-old Escobar has once again become one of the most wanted men in the world. The army was still searching for him yesterday, combing the hills around Envigado prison.

The escape of Escobar and nine accomplices must have happened early on Wednesday morning, while the army was trying to put down a mutiny provoked by the government's attempt to transfer Escobar and 14 of his lieutenants to a more secure prison. While the soliders were busy freeing the hostages held by Escobar - the deputy justice minister and the head of the national prisons system - Escobar and his men calmly escaped. Nobody knows how he did it or where he went. Some accounts talk of secret tunnels and others say he made off into the woods.

'If the fugitive gives himself up his life wil be spared,' said President Cesar Gaviria on Wednesday night, when he addressed the country about the events at Envigado. 'My decision to move him was taken to avoid the possibility of a return to the drug war, which seemed to be imminent.' He looked tired and worried. The government knows that its policy of bringing the drug traffickers to justice has collapsed.

Lots of questions are now being asked: for instance, why did the President decide to carry out such a delicate operation on the very day he was supposed to be travelling to Spain? One thing seems clear: the government handed the hostages over on a plate. It was nave, to say the least, to send two judicial officials, neither of them familiar with the case, to tell Escobar that he was to be transferred. 'Colombia again looks absurd in the eyes of the world,' as the Medellin newspaper, El Colombiano, put it.

The president of the Senate, Jose Blackburn, announced yesterday that Congress would be launching an inquiry into the officials involved, but at the end of the day the President was responsible for the operation.

Fabio Ochoa, the father of three convicted drug traffickers, all of them currently held in Itagui prison, told a radio station that, although he admired the government, it had made a mistake on this occasion. But he said he was sure that 'Pablo will turn up again and things will be sorted out by means of dialogue.' The wife and daughter of the Medellin cartel chief also went on the radio, and asked the government to work for peace, 'so that it becomes reality, not just a dream'.

Here in Medellin, however, nobody believes Escobar will give himself up. 'The government didn't keep its word. Escobar was right to do what he did,' said a woman from Envigado. 'Pablo Escobar is a god. It's like he has a pact with the Devil, which gives him the power to disappear,' said a man. 'They were going to kill him or send him to the United States.'

Whatever the truth, alarm is spreading again through Medellin and the surrounding district. You can feel people's fear when they go outside at night. The governor of Antioquia department and the mayor of Medellin both complained that 'the government didn't even have the decency to consult us about the Envigado operation'. The governor, Juan Gomez Martinez, said: 'If they'd talked to us about it we wouldn't be in this mess now.'

Will the drug war resume? Will Escobar once again seek the support of the young hired assassins of Medellin? 'What's happening is very serious. Pablo Escobar is a symbol of the power of crime, the very image of violence. The young admire him for his daring. This image is going to come to the fore once again, and will be even stronger,' one well-informed observer commented.