Escobar sets softer terms for surrender: Colombia's most wanted man may return to jail

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HE MAY not have many options left, but the hunted cocaine baron Pablo Escobar is keeping them open.

A Roman Catholic bishop said yesterday the Medellin cartel boss had offered to give himself up 'very shortly' with the bishop present to guarantee his safety. At the same time, the country's Prosecutor-General, Gustavo de Greiff, said he had been forced to ship his entire family, including grandchildren, abroad after Escobar threatened to kill them.

Monsignor Dario Castrillon, Bishop of the city of Bucaramanga, indicated that the drug baron, who contacted him through his Medellin lawyers, had considerably softened his conditions for surrender.

Escobar would accept being detained in Itagui prison, near Medellin, where his brother and 18 of his men are held, provided: he could have his own private kitchen to prevent anyone from poisoning him; a patio to enjoy Medellin's sun, breeze and showers; a private telephone to contact his family (the authorities could listen in to ensure he did not continue his cocaine business); and Mr de Greiff guaranteed the safety of his family.

Compared to the luxury and facilities Escobar enjoyed at Envigado jail for a year before escaping last summer - champagne, lobster, women visitors and a full-scale phone and fax service - the latest demands appeared positively frugal. But President Cesar Gaviria, his image badly dented by last year's escape and revelations over the luxury 'jail', has said any surrender must be unconditional. There was no sign yesterday the President had changed his mind.

No one here considered it at all strange that Escobar should call on the Prosecutor to guarantee his family's safety while threatening to wipe out Mr de Greiff's own. Escobar's threat was by no means the first to the de Greiffs but it was said to be by far the most explicit.

Nor was it the first time Mr de Greiff's daughter Monica, now 36, had been forced to flee Escobar's threats. The diminutive, plucky woman became a world media star as Justice Minister in 1989. At the time, before the post of Prosecutor-General was created under a new constitution, she was the state's spearhead in the war against the drug lords.

But Escobar won that round. His threats became too much and she was spirited to a 'safe' location in the US by the Drug Enforcement Administration with her husband and young son. She later returned and was said to be working as an unusually low-key public relations person for a big petroleum company.

Escobar appears to be playing his cards in a high-stakes poker game he knows could be his last. The threat to Mr de Greiff's family was apparently the result of the cartel boss's anger that his own family had recently been barred from fleeing to the US by the Colombian authorities.

In what has become an incident of profound diplomatic embarrassment for the US embassy here, Escobar's wife Maria, son Juan Pablo, 17, and daughter Manuela, 8, were found to have valid US visas when they attempted to take a commercial flight from Medellin to Miami last month. The Land of the Free, it seems, had no qualms about letting in the family of the world's Public Enemy Number One.

Perfectly understandable, perhaps. Unless, as many Colombians believe, it was part of a deal between the US and Escobar's lawyers under which he would agree to surrender. Not true, the US embassy insists.

Colombians also view with irony the fact that the nation with which Escobar has been virtually at war for several years, the one that blames him for poisoning its youth, was the only one, it seems, where he considered his family would be safe.

Literally minutes before they were due to take off, the Colombian authorities stopped the Escobars, claiming they were lacking Pablo's signature - or even the famous thumbprint with which he is wont to authenticate his communications - on immigration forms. Juan Pablo was later seen waving wads of pesos in the face of a helicopter pilot to encourage him to fly the family back to a safe location near the city.

Colombian police uncovered a previous plot by Escobar to kill the Prosecutor-General in January. The drug lord had sent no fewer than 18 hitmen to shoot or blow up Mr de Greiff, the police said, but a last-minute leak of the plot saved his life. Mr de Greiff has refused to install bomb-proof glass in his office window overlooking Bogota's National Park, saying it would be too costly while his staff needed equipment more urgently from a limited budget.