Escobar prepares his last stand as the noose tightens: Phil Davison in Medellin follows the trail of the world's most wanted man

COLONEL BERMUDEZ of the Colombian army pulled from his tunic a laminated strip of passport-size photographs and pointed to the face of the man he and his Special Forces had killed a few minutes earlier. It was a handsome, laughing face, well-known around the country from a dollars 125,000 (pounds 84,000) Wanted poster regularly broadcast on television.

Until 12.50pm on Friday, when an eight-man military task force burst into a Medellin apartment and perforated him with 48 bullets, Mario Castano Molina, alias El Chopo, was the hunted cocaine baron Pablo Escobar's right-hand man. 'Only two to go: Escobar and El Angelito (Little Angel),' the Colonel told me, pointing to the two remaining photographs on the strip whose foreheads he had not yet marked with a cross. 'Escobar is finished. He has almost no one left. Soon he will fall.'

While Escobar attempts to negotiate terms for his surrender, using a Catholic bishop as mediator, an increasingly confident President Cesar Gaviria and the Search Force of army red berets and elite police commandos have a different scenario in mind. Mr Gaviria has not recovered from the embarrassment caused when Escobar and nine of his 'lieutenants' walked out of La Catedral prison outside Medellin last July as though they owned the place. They almost did. It emerged that Escobar had been expanding his cocaine empire from jail, where he had computers, fax, cellular phones, weapons and regular female visitors since his surrender in June 1991.

This time, President Gaviria and the Search Force want to capture the 43-year-old head of the once-mighty Medellin cartel, annulling any conditions of surrender. Few would weep if Escobar were to catch a stray bullet during his capture or 'while trying to escape'. Escobar is only too aware of that, hence his appeal to Bishop Dario Castrillon to mediate.

It is doubtful if anyone but his family wept for El Chopo. The body of the man described by police as Escobar's 'bloodiest and most dangerous lieutenant', and held responsible for dozens of murders, lay unclaimed last night in one of the world's most overworked mortuaries.

The way he met his end sent a clear message to his hunted boss. As a local reporter and I headed for the Medellin office of El Espectador newspaper on Friday, El Chopo, who was using a twentieth-floor apartment above El Espectador's fourth-floor office, was ordering food by telephone from a nearby restaurant. By the time we reached the building overlooking the central Bolivar Square, the cartel's Number Two was dead. The Search Force, tipped off by a former cartel hitman swayed by a probable reduced jail term and the reward, had bugged his telephone.

There was a tap on his door, a call of 'Your lunch, sir,' and a five-second hail of bullets. According to Colonel Bermudez, El Chopo fired all 30 rounds of his Browning 9mm automatic pistol but hit none of the eight Special Forces who burst in firing with silenced weapons. So fast and so quiet was the raid that most people in the building, including the El Espectador reporters, heard nothing.

Even more than the army and police task force, Escobar fears the vigilante group Los Pepes, which announced in January it would fight him with his own tactics. Los Pepes, an acronym for People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar, has blown up property belonging to the druglord and his family in and around Medellin and has pledged to 'erase Pablo Escobar from the face of the earth'. A trail of destruction shows Los Pepes is not bluffing.

Witness the rubble of the dollars 8m concrete ranch complex, La Manuela, named after Escobar's eight-year-old daughter, on a picturesque hillside at Rio Negro outside Medellin, the village where he was born. Los Pepes dynamited it last month. As we approached the ruins of the ranch, a unit of the Search Force stopped us and, politely, frisked us in the spread-legged position against our car.

In the working-class Guayabal district of the city lies further dramatic evidence of Los Pepes' vengeance. Inside a red-brick warehouse, visible through a barred window, lie the charred remains of a dozen classic cars and motorcycles that were Escobar's pride and joy until the vigilantes set fire to the place last month. In the foreground is a burnt-out red 1950s Porsche roadster. Then the outline of a 1950s Mercedes-Benz 300SL coupe, and a row of older cars. Behind is the blackened hulk of a Pontiac, said by Escobar to have belonged to his hero Al Capone. A penny-farthing bicycle, propped against a wall, seemed the only thing to have survived the blaze.

Apart from the vengeance of Los Pepes, known to include former Escobar associates and widely believed to include army and police officers, the drug baron must be looking nervously at the handful of men still loyal to him or his bankroll. Nightly television spots offer dollars 6.2m for information leading to his capture. That is the Colombian reward: the US government has added dollars 2.5m. The television spots resemble appeals for the national lottery. 'A new life abroad. This is your chance. Call now. Complete discretion,' they promise.

Western anti-narcotics agents in Bogota believe Escobar's business has shrunk to around 10 to 20 per cent of what it was a year ago. 'Economically, he's hurting. But it's mostly a cash-flow problem,' said one agent. 'Even if Pablo comes in, I don't think he's going to live that long. Sooner or later, it may be a month, maybe years, someone's going to get to him. He knows for a fact that prisons can be penetrated.

'He's not that hard up yet. He used to prefer to spend other people's money. Now he's being forced to spend his own. I think he can still strike. It's not inconceivable that there will be more bombs or kidnappings to put pressure on the government to accept his conditions for surrender,' said the agent.

'Don't forget, he's still a billionaire. And he'd probably like nothing more right now than to stop running, sit comfortably in prison, relax, reorganise and plan how to get back at his enemies. That's the government's big nightmare. That's why they would like to arrest him, so they could stick him anywhere they want, some place surrounded by 500,000 snakes.'

In his luxury cell at La Catedral, Escobar had on his wall two photographs of himself, one dressed as the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, the other as a Capone-era gangster toting a tommy gun. In one of his rare interviews, he was asked: 'How would you like to die?'

'On my feet, in the year 3047.'

(Photographs omitted)

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