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Colombia Drug Lord Surrenders : Cocaine: Pablo Escobar, object of a seven-year manhunt, turns himself in after a promise of leniency and a guarantee against extradition to the United States.

June 20, 1991|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BOGOTA, Colombia — Pablo Escobar, the billionaire cocaine lord who eluded an intense police manhunt for seven years, surrendered to Colombian authorities Wednesday in exchange for a promise of leniency for drug-related crimes and a guarantee against extradition to the United States.

Escobar, the last major boss of the so-called Medellin Cartel still at large, was flown by government helicopter from a jungle hide-out to a specially built mountaintop jail near the city of Medellin in the company of Father Rafael Garcia Herreros, an 82-year-old Roman Catholic priest who helped negotiate his surrender.

Wearing jeans and a white leather jacket and sporting a beard grown in hiding, the 41-year-old fugitive handed a loaded 9-millimeter pistol to the warden and became the world's wealthiest prisoner. Witnesses said he was escorted to spacious cell in the ranch-home-style jail in his hometown, the Medellin suburb of Envigado, and was interrogated by the region's top judicial official, Marta Luz Hurtado.

In a brief statement to a Medellin journalist aboard the helicopter, Escobar declared his surrender "an act of peace."

"To these seven years of persecution, I wish to add all the years of imprisonment necessary to contribute to the peace of my family and the peace of Colombia," he said.

Three leaders of the cartel's terrorist squads surrendered with their boss. They were identified as John Jairo Velazquez, known as Popeye; Otniel Gonzalez, alias Otto, and Carlos Aguilar.

Escobar is accused of creating the largest international network for the production and delivery of cocaine and of directing a seven-year war of terror against anyone in Colombia who spoke out against his trade or in favor of extraditing its practitioners to the United States.

President Cesar Gaviria, announcing the surrender Wednesday evening, said Escobar will be tried under a nine-month-old presidential decree stating that drug traffickers who come in and confess will not be extradited for trial abroad. The plea-bargaining policy also offers to reduce by as much as half the prison sentence of any trafficker who gives up ill-gotten gains and informs on his associates.

"His treatment will not be any different from what the law requires," Gaviria said.

Escobar announced through the priest after a secret meeting last month that he was willing to surrender under the presidential decree. But he delayed his action until hours after a Constituent Assembly rewriting Colombia's constitution voted to outlaw extradition.

The assembly's decision made it legally impossible for the government to send him to the United States, where he is also wanted, after the presidential decree expires with the current constitution July 5.

When it became clear that the assembly would vote Wednesday, the priest said he was told by a government official to "prepare for good news." He met with Colombian Atty. Gen. Carlos Gustavo Arrieta in the office of the governor of Antioquia state in Medellin and took off in the helicopter from the roof.

The priest said he embraced the drug lord in a "distant, rocky" place in the Antioquian jungle and told him: "I congratulate you on behalf of Colombia.

"He thanked me for my friendship and said I should visit him frequently," the priest added.

Colombian officials, who joined in the negotiations for Escobar's surrender, did not say what crimes the prisoner would confess to or what properties he would hand over. He is to be tried and sentenced by a special court system in which judges remain anonymous to protect them from threats, and most of the proceedings are secret.

Besides facing eight indictments in the United States, including one for the murder of a police informant, Escobar is wanted in Colombia for the assassinations of a justice minister, an attorney general, a newspaper publisher and three presidential candidates and for bombings that killed hundreds of people.

Gaviria described Escobar's imprisonment as a major victory in the drug war. He promised that the campaign "will continue with the same intensity" but said he expected "more and more cooperation" from cocaine-consuming countries.

Since taking office last August, Gaviria has combined the plea-bargaining strategy with aggressive police tactics, which produced a record seizure of 47 tons of cocaine in the first four months of 1991. Besides those surrendering Wednesday, 10 other major drug dealers have turned themselves in, and 10 more have announced plans to do so.

But U.S. and Colombian law enforcement authorities question the strategy's effectiveness. They assert that, despite the seizures, Colombia's cocaine output stands at an all-time high, that rival traffickers now outproduce the Medellin Cartel and that three of Escobar's associates--the brothers Jorge Luis, Juan David and Fabio Ochoa--have continued to supervise drug operations from prison since their surrender several months ago.

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