WASHINGTON — The Bush Administration said Thursday that it is appalled by drug lord Pablo Escobar's escape from a posh prison and declared in unusually blunt terms that the government of Colombian President Cesar Gaviria must get him back immediately.
"This is a dangerous step backwards for the country of Colombia and the rest of the world," said Bob Martinez, director of the White House Office of Drug Control Policy.
Escobar, a leader of the Medellin drug cartel, and nine associates escaped on Wednesday by overpowering officials who sought to transfer them to a military facility. Authorities had mounting evidence that Escobar was continuing to run his drug enterprise and ordering executions from the custom-built prison.
At least two guards were killed during the incident, according to wire service reports.
On Thursday, 26 guards were arrested on suspicion of being in Escobar's pay and aiding his escape, Associated Press reported.
As hundreds of Colombian army troops searched rugged mountains around the prison on Thursday, a man identifying himself as Escobar telephoned a Medellin radio station saying he was willing to surrender if he could return to the same prison and if the government would guarantee that he would not be harmed. The station said it verified the caller's identity by comparing a recording of the call to previous tapes of Escobar.
Soldiers and some anti-narcotics police who joined the search raided a rural home where Escobar and some of his lieutenants were said to have gathered. No one was found, but hot meals and coffee were still on the table, the Associated Press reported.
Martinez's statement noted that U.S. officials had repeatedly raised concerns about the security at Envigado prison, a converted ranch where Escobar was held for 13 months after accepting Gaviria's offer of leniency and a promise that he would not be extradited to the United States to face drug charges.
"We had been repeatedly assured by Colombian authorities that the prison was secure and that Escobar would face justice for his crimes," Martinez said. "Despite the good intentions of the Colombian government, apparently this was not the case."
Martinez was joined in the tough talk by Robert C. Bonner, administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, who said he is extremely concerned about Escobar's escape. "We hope that he will be apprehended and returned to custody as soon as possible and that he will be held fully accountable for his crimes."
The White House later softened the reaction, calling the escape unfortunate but vowing to continue its support for and cooperation with the Gaviria government. "This underlines the difficulties legitimate governments have in halting drug trafficking," Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said.
The decision by the Gaviria government to move Escobar came after the recent slaying of two former top aides to the drug lord. Escobar had summoned the two, Geraldo Moncada and Fernando Galeano, to the prison for a confrontation over policy disagreements. They were kidnaped as they left the prison and their torture-scarred bodies were found near Medellin on July 10.
A U.S. law enforcement official said that allegations that Escobar was involved in the killings are credible.
"In the past several weeks, he began moving to reaffirm himself as the don of the cartel," added the official, who declined to be identified by name or agency.
"If ever there were doubts that serious charges could be levied against Mr. Escobar," the official said, they should be erased because prison guards were killed during the escape.
Times staff writer Douglas Jehl contributed to this report.