Colombian Drug Baron Escapes Luxurious Prison After Gunfight
By JOSEPH B. TREASTER
Published: July 23, 1992
President Cesar Gaviria of Colombia said last night that Pablo Escobar, one of the world’s most powerful drug traffickers, had escaped from the resort-like prison where he has been held for the last year.
After an attempt to move the notorious drug trafficker to a more secure prison, Mr. Escobar was said to have taken two high-ranking government officials and the prison warden hostage. The hostages were freed by soldiers who stormed the prison before dawn, but as many as six people have been reported killed. In the confusion, Mr. Escobar, his brother Roberto and a half dozen other inmates apparently got away.
Speaking in a televised address from the presidential palace after a military assault on the prison during which Mr. Escobar had hidden in an underground tunnel at one point, Mr. Gaviria said that some of Mr. Escobar’s fellow inmates were in custody but that Mr. Escobar “has not been found yet.” Call for Surrender
Mr. Gaviria said soldiers were searching the area around the prison in the mountains near Medellin. He urged Mr. Escobar to surrender and promised that he would not be harmed if he did so.
Mr. Escobar, a billionaire who is accused of exporting hundreds of tons of cocaine to the United States and Europe and killing hundreds of Colombians, surrendered to authorities about a year ago in exchange for Government promises that he would be treated leniently and that he would be kept in a plush prison that he helped design on a hilltop in the cool mountains near the headquarters of his drug business in Medellin.
The Government decided to try to tighten security on Mr. Escobar after gathering evidence that he was continuing to run his international drug business from the prison and that he had also ordered a string of killings and kidnappings against rivals who were trying to take control of his drug organization, known as the Medellin cartel.
In Washington, a senior official of the Justice Department, which had sought unsuccessfully to extradite Mr. Escobar for trial in the United States, said, “It would be a disaster if Escobar were able to escape.”
The crisis seemed likely to strain Mr. Gaviria’s excellent relations with the United States. Officials in Washington had been disappointed when the Colombian congress revised the constitution to forbid extradition of Mr. Escobar and other Colombian drug traffickers to the United States. But the Bush Administration had withheld criticism of Mr. Gaviria with the tacit understanding that, even with leniency, Mr. Escobar and the others would receive substantial jail sentences.
The trouble began as the two officials, Deputy Justice Minister Eduardo Mendoza and the chief of the national prison system, Lieut. Col. Hernando Navas, entered the special prison in the town of Envigado, without armed escorts, to tell Mr. Escobar of the decision to transfer him to a military installation. After security had been improved at Envigado, the officials said, Mr. Escobar would be returned.
In a news conference at the presidential palace yesterday afternoon, Mr. Mendoza, trembling and in dirty and tattered clothing, said that after meeting with Mr. Escobar in his quarters, they had been surrounded and told “we were going to leave there dead.”
Several times, Mr. Mendoza said, an Escobar associate nicknamed Popeye pointed a submachine gun at him and threatened to fire.
It was not clear where Mr. Escobar and the others obtained the weapons they carried. Some reports in Colombia speculated that they had taken them from their guards or that the guards, hand-picked by Mr. Escobar, had simply turned over their weapons.
In a statement earlier in the day, the Government said that Colombian criminals had been seen going in and out of the prison with the complicity of guards, suggesting that they, too, may have been a source of weapons for Mr. Escobar. The Government said Mr. Escobar, who is in his early 40’s, continued his “direct and personal involvement in the commission of crimes” while in the prison.
Mr. Mendoza said he talked with Mr. Escobar and the others through the night, telling them they had no choice but to submit to the transfer and that eventually troops would come to rescue the hostages.
At about 4 A.M., Mr. Mendoza recalled, as the drug traffickers were discussing “whether to kill us or not,” two explosions were followed by shouts and bursts of automatic rifle fire.
Mr. Mendoza said he felt the cold steel of a gun barrel on his neck and whirled to face an army sergeant in the rescue force. “We’re going to get you out of here,” he quoted the sergeant as saying.
Shielding the Justice official with his body, the sergeant led the way through the corridors of the prison as bullets ricocheted off the walls, Mr. Mendoza said. Finally, he said, they dropped to the floor and crawled through mud and construction debris to the outside.
Mr. Escobar apparently then made his way to a tunnel that the authorities believe the inmates dug earlier for just such an eventuality. The police said he and his brother Roberto, who is believed to have fled into the tunnel with him, had weapons and a cellular phone.
Since a ruling by the United States Supreme Court on June 15th that Washington could kidnap people in foreign countries to stand trial in the United States, there has been widespread speculation in Colombia that attempts would be made to kidnap Mr. Escobar.
At one point during the prison incident, Mr. Escobar and other inmates sent a letter by facsimile to radio stations in Medellin demanding assurances from President Gaviria that they were “not gong to be taken out of the country.”
During a news conference following his national address, Mr. Gaviria was asked by a Colombian journalist if United States anti-drug agents had participated in the attempt to transfer Mr. Escobar as part of an American plan to kidnap the drug trafficker.
“I don’t think this happened,” Mr. Gaviria said, “but I can’t give a full guarantee.”
In Washington, Justice Department officials and Robert C. Bonner, the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, denied that the United States was involved in the incident or that it was trying to capture Mr. Escobar.
On the question of a plan to kidnap Mr. Escobar, a senior Justice Department official said: “Absolutely not, that’s not being contemplated.”
Photos: Pablo Escobar (Associated Press, 1983) (pg. A1); The resort-like prison outside Medellin from which Pablo Escobar escaped yesterday (Associated Press, 1991) (pg. A10) Map of Colombia showing location of Envigado (pg. A10)