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Drug Cartel Figure Slain by Police : Colombia: Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha was on the list of a dozen Colombian drug traffickers most wanted by the U.S. Justice Department. His son and five bodyguards also were killed in the shoot-out.

December 17, 1989|From Times Wire Services

BOGOTA, Colombia — Medellin cocaine cartel leader Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, one of the United States' most-wanted drug traffickers, was killed in a gun battle with police Friday, officials said.

Rodriguez Gacha; his 17-year-old son, Freddy; and five bodyguards were wiped out in a gun battle 360 miles north of Bogota on a ranch owned by Pablo Escobar, godfather of Colombia's multibillion-dollar drug empire, national police chief Miguel Gomez Padilla said at a news conference.

Rodriguez Gacha was the No. 2 man in the Medellin cartel and on the list of a dozen Colombian drug traffickers most wanted by the U.S. Justice Department.

His superior, former pickpocket Escobar, leads the Medellin operation and remains at large.

The shoot-out occurred only 70 miles south of Cartagena, the port where President Bush is to meet with the presidents of Latin America's three major drug-producing countries in February. Joining him will be Barco, Alan Garcia of Peru and Jaime Paz Zamora of Bolivia.

Escobar and Rodriguez Gacha, nicknamed "El Mexicano" because of his fondness for anything Mexican, have been the objects of manhunts by U.S. and Colombian authorities since President Virgilio Barco ordered a crackdown on drug traffickers after a opposition presidential candidate was slain Aug. 18.

Five bodyguards were among those reported killed, police said. There was no immediate word on police casualties.

"The operation to locate Rodriguez Gacha was an intelligence operation of great care," Gen Carlos Casadiego said in an interview with the Caracol radio network.

In Washington, William Bennett, national drug control policy director, said Barco told him the news by telephone call.

Bennett said the fugitives "resisted police efforts to arrest them, opening fire on Colombian authorities. Colombian police returned fire. . . ."

Authorities say Rodriguez Gacha and Escobar planned the Dec. 8 bombing of the federal investigative police headquarters in downtown Bogota. The blast, which left a huge crater, killed 63 people and injured an estimated 1,000.

The bombing was the most brazen by the traffickers, who have mounted dozens of attacks to retaliate for the extradition of 10 drug suspects to the United States.

A total of 209 people have been killed in bombings and assassinations. Among those killed in the bombings have been 50 judges, two newspaper publishers and the chief of the narcotics police.

The two men also were accused in the Nov. 27 bombing of a Colombian domestic jetliner just outside Bogota that killed all 107 people aboard.

In October, the government offered $581,000 for the capture of either man.

Rodriguez Gacha, who died a billionaire, was a pig farmer before he got into the cocaine business.

Among his victims, according to Colombian authorities, was the president of the leftist Patriotic Union party, Jaime Pardo Leal, assassinated Oct. 12, 1988.

Rodriguez Gacha also was accused of several massacres of peasants believed to sympathize with leftist guerrillas. He was said to be financing right-wing death squads that have killed hundreds of other leftists.

In addition to wars with the government and peasants, Rodriguez Gacha also fought the rival cocaine cartel in Cali, a southern city, and was involved in a struggle with other gangsters for control of Colombia's emerald mines.

Escobar started out in Medellin, Colombia's second most populous city about 200 miles from Bogota, as a pickpocket and car thief. Now, Forbes magazine ranks him as being worth $2 billion to $3 billion.

The Medellin cartel and the smaller group from Cali process about 80% of the cocaine sold on U.S. streets, according to American officials.

Rodriguez Gacha was indicted in July, 1988, with six other reputed drug traffickers by a federal grand jury in Miami. He was charged with importing 1,350 pounds of cocaine into the United States.

He also was indicted in Miami in 1986 on charges involving the Medellin cartel and the importation of 58 tons of cocaine, and faced charges in New York.

Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh recently announced that $61.8 million worth of Rodriguez Gacha's assets had been frozen in several nations around the world as a result of a U.S. investigation. Another $20 million was spirited to banks in Panama before U.S. agents could get court orders blocking the accounts.

In Washington, Justice Department spokeswoman Harri Kramer said Colombian national police called the Drug Enforcement Administration and said of Rodriguez Gacha: "He's gone. It was a firefight." Kramer said.

Casadiego said the operation Friday was proof that Colombian police have "the capacity to fight drug traffickers" and "there is sufficient political will" in the country to carry the battle forward.

Until the shoot-out Friday, authorities had captured and extradited 10 middle-level drug trafficking suspects but had not caught any of the 12 suspected traffickers most wanted by the United States.

The police said they had come close in the last two months to catching several members of the Medellin cartel, including Escobar and Jorge Luis Ochoa, another of the top three leaders.

Police had pursued Rodriguez Gacha for 70 hours in the coastal zone before catching up with him, Gen. Miguel Maza Marquez, chief of the federal investigative police, said in a radio interview.

A judge released Freddy Rodriguez three weeks ago from a Bogota jail, where he had been held for three months. The judge said he released him because it was illegal under Colombian law to lock up people under 18.

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