With surrender of cartel leader near, Colombians wonder if jail is appealing


BOGOTA, Colombia -- As the government here prepares for the surrender of the world's top cocaine trafficker, some Colombians are complaining that their leaders have lined his incarceration with many of the trappings he has as a criminal.

These include comfort, the selection of his own security guards, and the possibility that he may continue to run his drug empire from prison.

"The government is endorsing a policy of appeasement," complained a leading politician from the ruling Liberal Party. "It won't bring us peace, but it will guide others to continue being violent because they will expect to be given the same treatment."

If Pablo Escobar surrenders as promised -- he is the last Medellin cartel leader who remains free -- it will be seen as a victory for President Cesar Gaviria's controversial drug policy.

But feelings that the government has bent too far are beginning to spread.

Mr. Escobar has been implicated in the assassination of three presidential candidates and two justice ministers, in blowing up a jetliner and in bombing the headquarters of Colombia's federal police. Two years ago, he led a bloody bombing campaign that killed more than 1,000 people. He also has been charged in three U.S. indictments with drug trafficking and is accused of using his vast wealth to corrupt officials throughout the hemisphere.

Mr. Escobar's lawyers have said that he won't serve more than five years in prison, and law enforcement officials say that he will continue to run his multimillion-dollar drug business from jail.

The jail being constructed for him and his lieutenants is one-story farmhouse that will be protected by guards chosen by Mr. Escobar. The government has already promised that there will be no police near the house.

"It is a house just like the ones where he is hiding now," said lawyer in contact with the drug cartel.

There have been reports that Mr. Escobar has presented a new set of conditions for his surrender.

These include the legalization of his personal funds, thinstallation of a radar system at his prison complex, and removal of the chiefs of three police units that fought the drug war.

zTC The government and Mr. Escobar have denied that he hasought special treatment.

"Society allows itself to be naively impressed by those who sathey are ready to cement peace and public tranquillity . . . after all the cruel and bloody violence they have unleashed in the country," former Justice Minister Enrique Parejo wrote recently in the daily El Espectador.

Mr. Parejo, now ambassador to Switzerland, survived an attacfinanced by drug gangs in Budapest, Hungary, three years ago and moved to Switzerland after police discovered another assassination attempt in Czechoslovakia.

His remarks were endorsed by former Interior Minister Carlos Lemos Simmonds and by several members of a special assembly rewriting the country's constitution.

The government rejects the criticisms.

"The problem is there are people in this country who talk about peace, but when they see men of real blood and flesh taking advantage of the peace proposal, they get angry," said a presidential aide. "The reality is there are a lot of people who would only like to see the traffickers dead."

Last September, President Gaviria abandoned a military policy that had provoked a violent confrontation with the powerful drug gangs. He offered traffickers who surrendered and confessed to at least one crime a promise that they would not be extradited to the United States, where many face more serious charges.

The government defends its policy as a "carrot and stick" measure that has jailed top traffickers who have eluded hundreds of police raids. They also argue that they have not stopped the interdiction of drugs, and cite a record 47 tons of cocaine seized by police the first four months of this year.

U.S. officials are taking a wait-and-see position.

"We have accepted the Colombian government efforts to entice the narcos and have agreed to supply them with evidence to help in the trials, but we can't prejudge what will happen," a U.S. official said.

Three top associates of Mr. Escobar's -- Fabio, Jorge Luis and Juan David Ochoa -- have surrendered in response to the government offer.

Supporters of the government policy argue that the state simply could not win the war against the traffickers.

"Gaviria's new policy recognized the state's inability to capturthem," said the weekly Semana, adding that Mr. Gaviria's pragmatism would bring peace to Colombia.

Critics retort that the government's "stick" is about to disappear, as the special assembly rewriting the constitution moves to ban extradition.

Mr. Escobar has already scored a public relations success in Colombia.

"People thank him for releasing alive the two kidnapped journalists," said the Liberal politician, referring to the recent release of Francisco Santos and Maruja Pachon. "They forget he kidnapped them in the first place."

Mr. Escobar also gained a defender when he asked the Rev. Rafael Garcia-Herreros, an 82-year-old priest who hosts a nightly television program called "The Minute of God," to mediate in the release of the journalists and to help negotiate his own surrender.

Mr. Escobar's team of 25 lawyers also has been able to distance him from terrorism and assassinations.

"Many of the cases Escobar is blamed for were actually ordered by [Gonzalo Rodriguez] Gacha," said one lawyer. Mr. Gacha, another top Medellin cartel leader, was killed by police in 1989.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad