BOGOTA, Colombia — His private army shattered and his family threatened, fugitive cocaine king Pablo Escobar is coming under unprecedented pressure to surrender to authorities and put an end to the deadly war he is waging against the Colombian government.
A month after a car bomb blamed on Escobar killed 20 people in downtown Bogota, nearly all of the drug lord's most trusted henchmen have been slain or captured or have surrendered. And a new, shadowy gang of vigilantes has vowed to kill Escobar and anyone connected to him.
So far, the vigilantes have slain dozens of Escobar associates and dynamited ranches and apartment buildings belonging to his relatives. Officials say that Escobar is increasingly aware that the only way he can save his life is to turn himself in--if he can survive doing that.
Government forces, searching relentlessly through the Medellin-area forests and jungles where Latin America's most wanted fugitive is believed to be hiding, say they are closer than ever to capturing--or killing--the man who seven months ago walked out of a posh "prison" to the embarrassment of President Cesar Gaviria.
Gaviria had negotiated Escobar's surrender the year before, but the drug baron continued to supervise cocaine trafficking and order the execution of his enemies from inside the Jacuzzi-equipped prison.
Gaviria hopes to stop Escobar in an effort to salvage his government's reputation and slow a wave of violence that is threatening to careen out of control. More than 100 police officers have been killed since Escobar fled prison, most of the deaths blamed on the drug boss.
"We are getting closer and closer," a senior official in Gaviria's government said. "(Escobar's) organization is weaker and weaker every day. But you can never predict what he is going to do. He's like a wounded tiger--he can react very badly."
Even as officials spoke of Escobar's demise, a car bomb--the sixth in as many weeks--rocked downtown Bogota on Friday evening, injuring 27 people and leveling six small buildings. At least 43 people have been killed and hundreds injured by car bombs in the last two months.
Escobar is believed to be trying to negotiate safe passage for his wife and children before trying to surrender. The two children, holding passports with valid U.S. tourist visas, tried to board a plane bound for Miami two weeks ago but were stopped by Colombian officials. (The U.S. Embassy then hastily revoked the visas and sought to explain why Escobar's family had been given visas in the first place.)
Despite his enormous wealth and power, Escobar finds himself vulnerable and increasingly isolated, experts and officials say, because he is being assailed on all fronts: military, legal, financial.
The government has offered huge rewards to anyone supplying information about Escobar and the Medellin drug cartel that he heads. Armed with 29 state-of-emergency decrees, Gaviria is promising leniency to Colombians with legal problems who snitch on Escobar or his associates.
Escobar alone has an $11-million price on his head. His picture is flashed on nightly television spots offering the reward. "This could be the chance of a lifetime," the announcer says. "Don't miss it."
Mounting a legal offensive, prosecutors have issued 16 indictments against Escobar. He is formally accused of assassinating three presidential candidates, a well-respected justice minister and a crusading newspaper editor; he is also wanted for the 1989 bombing of a Colombian jetliner that killed all 107 people aboard.
The cases are being handled by Colombia's new and highly regarded attorney general, Gustavo de Greiff; previously, prosecutions were handled directly by judges, often susceptible to intimidation or bribes. The few cases brought against the drug king languished for years.
Probably the most significant threat to Escobar has come from actions of the vigilantes, a clandestine paramilitary band believed to be made up of former Escobar allies and bounty hunters.
Calling themselves the People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar, or the "Pepes" for short, they use many of the same terrorist tactics that Escobar perfected. Also, they clearly have inside information on the fugitive's movements and possible whereabouts, according to officials familiar with the hunt for Medellin chieftain.
These officials say the vigilantes appear to be led by members of the Moncada and Galeano clans that were once part of the Medellin cartel but fought with Escobar over millions of dollars in illicit drug earnings while he was in prison last year.
As a result, Escobar at that time reportedly ordered a purge in which dozens of traffickers and their accountants were murdered. The surviving Moncada and Galeano families vowed revenge.
By some estimates, they have killed up to 50 Escobar associates--including the head of Escobar's security, in-law Hernan Dario Henao--and sent others rushing in panic to surrender.