PUERTO BOYACA, Colombia — Drugdom's most wanted man, Pablo Escobar, is said to be finally planning to surrender after hiding for seven years, masterminding a deadly terrorist campaign and kidnaping some of Colombia's leading citizens.
Anyone searching for an explanation for the sudden change of heart by the leader of Colombia's notorious Medellin cocaine cartel may find it among the extreme rightist groups that were formerly his allies here in the sun-scorched central Magdalena Valley.
The rightists who rule Puerto Boyaca like a fiefdom have cooperated with cocaine traffickers in the past to rid the region of leftist guerrillas and their suspected sympathizers. But now their paramilitary squads have taken their so-called "dirty war" to their one-time allies.
"We are going on the offensive against Escobar," one squad commander said the other day. "We are going to hunt him down, and if given the chance, we are going to kill him. We have the military capability."
Escobar may be heeding those menacing words. Last week he ordered the release of the last two of 10 hostages kidnaped by the cartel in 1990. And a Catholic priest, Father Rafael Garcia Herreros, who met with Escobar while negotiating the hostages' freedom, said that the drug boss is preparing to turn himself in to authorities under a government promise of lenient treatment for traffickers who surrender.
Three leading Medellin traffickers, the Ochoa brothers, who helped Escobar found the cartel, have already surrendered under the leniency plan, which guarantees reduced prison sentences in Colombia rather than extradition to the United States. Many here thought Escobar, fearing an attempt on his life in jail, would never follow the brothers' lead.
Proof that Escobar is worried about the rightist paramilitary squads came during one of the trafficker's meetings with Father Garcia. Discussing the terms of his possible surrender, Escobar demanded that he be jailed in a facility with no prisoners belonging to the death squads.
The request would not surprise the families of hundreds of Colombian leftists killed by the rightist groups in recent years.
Leaders of the groups say they are civil defense organizations formed to defend the land from subversion. Human rights activists and government officials say the central Magdalena's armed units are really right-wing death squads accused of perpetrating some of the worst political violence in Colombia's recent history.
The country's intelligence police, known as the DAS, linked the commander in chief of the right-wing groups, Henry Perez, to the 1988 massacre of 20 peasants in the Uruba region of northern Colombia. Also accused of participation in the killings are Perez's father, Gonzalo, and Luis Rubio, then mayor of Puerto Boyaca.
A judge issued arrest warrants for the men, as well as for several military officials and two Medellin cartel leaders implicated in the massacre. One of those cartel bosses, Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, was killed in a 1989 shootout with police. The other one, Escobar, has now turned against his former allies, who are also still at large.
Perez said recently in an interview with Bogota's Semana magazine that Escobar decided to attack the "civil defense groups" because they refused to support his plans to try to destabilize the country through a campaign of assassinations and bombings. Terrorism blamed on the cocaine boss killed about 500 people in 1989 and 1990.
The straw that broke the camel's back, Perez said, was Escobar's decision to finance his terrorism partly by extorting money from former supporters in the central Magdalena. "He began to kidnap our friends, cattle ranchers in the region," Perez told Semana. "That's when we decided we had to confront the war."
The drug chief demonstrated almost immediately that he, too, was ready to do battle. A recent statement by the Extraditables, a collective nom de guerre chosen by Escobar and other cartel bosses, accepted responsibility for the March assassinations of two paramilitary squad leaders in the region around Puerto Boyaca.
Authorities also suspect that Escobar was behind the April 20 killing of Alejandro Echandia Sanchez, who served as the town's mayor in 1987 when the paramilitary groups were at the height of their power.
A cartel terrorist who recently defected to the paramilitary squads says she helped carry out one of three recent dynamite attacks near Puerto Boyaca, about 100 miles northeast of Bogota. The March bombing of the Fantasia disco in the nearby town of La Dorada left one person dead and several wounded.
"Pablo Escobar said we must attack the people in the central Magdalena because they were bad," said the young woman, identifying herself only as Carla. She added that she and several other terrorists earned about $17,000 for the job in La Dorada.