BOGOTA, Colombia — Pablo Escobar, head of the notorious Medellin cocaine cartel and one of the world's most wanted fugitives, was killed Thursday in a shootout with Colombian security forces.
Hundreds of soldiers and police surrounded Escobar's Medellin hide-out, which they had identified through a traced phone call, and killed the drug lord and a bodyguard in a 20-minute shootout when the two tried to escape via the roof.
Escobar, who turned 44 on Wednesday, was apparently surprised by the troops, a witness told the British news service Reuters. "I was working when I heard some shouting in the street, and I realized that a fat man without a shirt was walking on the roof of the house opposite," said the witness, who did not give his name.
"At that moment, the man jumped toward another roof of the house and you could hear an amazing shootout," he said.
Others said they saw Escobar's bullet-riddled body lying face down on the roof of the house, but their reports could not be confirmed.
The Colombian government, which had dedicated several thousand members of the police, army and security forces to the task of capturing or killing the drug baron, called Escobar's death a triumph.
"This is a success for the country and the government," said Maj. Gen. Octavio Vargas Silva, one of two chiefs of the elite Search Force that pursued Escobar. "The (Medellin) cartel has been dismantled with the death of Pablo Escobar."
Few here believe that the supply of drugs from Colombia will change with Escobar's death, however, because some top members of the Medellin cartel have defected to the rival Cali cartel and there is a new boom in marijuana, cocaine and heroin.
And Prosecutor General Gustavo de Greiff, possibly alluding to potential attacks by remaining members of the Medellin drug group, warned, "We have to be careful and alert for any possible backlash."
After the shootout, Escobar's teen-age son Juan Pablo told television news reporters, "I'm going to murder one by one those sons of bitches who killed my dad."
He later apologized for that remark on another television news program, saying he hoped that his father's death will "contribute to peace in Colombia."
Escobar was wanted for the killing of a justice minister, a presidential candidate and a crusading anti-drug newspaper editor; for masterminding the midair bombing of a Colombian jetliner in 1989 that killed 110 people, including two American citizens, and for shipping tons of cocaine to the United States and Europe.
He had been on the run for 16 months. On July 22, 1992, he and nine of the top lieutenants in his billion-dollar narcotics empire fled authorities who were trying to transfer them to a regular jail from a luxury prison outside the industrial city of Medellin--a prison that Escobar himself had designed and for which he had handpicked the guards.
Escobar had turned himself in to Colombian authorities on June 19, 1991, under a special plea-bargaining program designed by the government of President Cesar Gaviria to bring an end to a ferocious war between the state and the country's drug traffickers. Over the previous five years, tens of thousands of people had been killed in that conflict, including judges, journalists, leftist leaders and four presidential candidates.
The compound that housed Escobar after his surrender contained a soccer field, a gymnasium, a color television, a cellular phone and a computer that he used to continue running his drug business.
The Colombian press feasted on the details of Escobar's life in prison, and after his escape the popularity of Gaviria went into a free fall, dropping from a 79% approval rating in January, 1992, to 22% in January, 1993. But polls conducted less than two weeks ago gave him an approval rating of 46%.
Many critics argue that during his time on the run, Escobar faced more pressure from a group of drug traffickers who had defected from his organization and from the Cali cartel than he faced from the government. His enemies formed an organization called "People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar" (PEPES) and launched a wave of ruthless attacks on Escobar's associates and family, killing several of his lawyers and drug traffickers.
The pressure was so great that Escobar offered to turn himself in again on March 3 if the U.S. Embassy would guarantee protection to his family. The U.S. Embassy in Bogota refused the request.
Escobar's wife and children sought refuge in Germany last week but were sent back to Colombia. They are reported to be staying under government guard at the Tequendama luxury hotel in Bogota.
During the 16 months when the drug lord was a fugitive, security forces found his various houses, complete with secret rooms and passageways, but Escobar always vanished before security forces could find him. Sometimes his bed was still warm.
By the end of March, the bulk of the Medellin cartel had been destroyed in nearly 10,000 raids and by the killing of 80 cartel members by security forces. Escobar's days seemed numbered. But the failure of the police and army to capture him led to speculation here about corruption in the ranks.
Observers here regard Escobar largely as a symbol of Colombia's inability to stem the spiral of drug-related violence. Journalist Antonio Caballero wrote in a column in the magazine Semana before Escobar died that even if the police managed to put an end to his activities, nothing would change. "The assassinations, the bribes, the violence and the corruption will continue, because the business (drug trafficking) will continue," he said.
"The only novelty," he added, "is that with Pablo Escobar dead there will be no one to blame for everything that happens."
Escobar's funeral is scheduled to be held today in Medellin.