Death On The Spot

Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar was an early prototype of the new international gangster. And his violent death is only a symbolic victory over global crime. He was a multibillionaire whose drug wealth bought him a mansion in Miami and a ranch stocked with giraffes, camels and a kangaroo. He was a political force, capable of intimidating small governments and defying big ones for years on end. A remorseless killer, he was nonetheless adored by the poor of his own city, who feasted on his crumbs and regarded him as a kind of Robin Hood. But when the end came for Pable Escobar last week, he died like any cheap thug. He was on the phone to his 16-year-old son, Juan Pablo, when the cops broke down the door of his hideout. Jumping out of an upstairs window in his bare feet, pistol in hand, Escobar tried to escape across a rooftop. Waiting for him was a small team of handpicked policemen, trained and equipped by the United States and backed by about 150 soldiers. He shot at them, and they quickly cut him down, pumping six bullets into his body.

Escobar, 44, was an early prototype of the new international gangster. He helped to make cocaine a global drug of choice, for glitterati as well as ghetto dwellers, transporting it by the ton from colombia to booming markets in America and Europe. He organized small-time smugglers and dealers into the criminal equivalent of a multinational corporation, based in his hometown, Medellin. He had money laundered in major financial centers, linked to his headquarters by phone, fax and computer. Using a private army of as many as 1,000 gunmen, he killed and killed and killed, investigators say ordering the murders of rival gangsters, disloyal friends, prosecutors, judges, politicians, do-gooders, journalists and, above all, policemen--some 400 of them. Colombian authorities say his henchmen even blew a Colombian airliner out of the sky, killing 107 people and helping to earn Escobar the label of "narcoterrorist."

A criminal enterprise like his can also be called a "mafia," a word that by now has infiltrated most of the world's languages. It applies generically to organized-crime groups of many nationalities, operating on a global scale; Russians speak of "the mafia" as frequently as Italians do. Escobar was a progenitor of the new crime family, but by the time he died he had become a dinosaur, sinking in his own primordial muck. His murderous habits had made him a fugitive; U.S. officials estimate he was spending $1 million a day just to stay out of jail. His dominant position in the international drug trade had been taken from him by smoother operators in nearby Cali--buttoned-up entrepreneurs with better organizational skills, a smaller appetite for murder and ties to other mafias overseas (map). "Escobar's organization had been greatly dismantled," Lee Brown, the U.S. drug-control chief, told NEWSWEEK. "The Cali cartels do the main business now." Escobar's weakness made him vulnerable, and both the Colombian government and his competitors in Cali wanted him dead.

The instrument of his demise was the Bloque de Busqueda (Search Unit), an elite police commando force with only one assignment: to catch Escobar, who escaped last year from a luxurious prison where he was serving soft time under a pleabargain deal with the government. Bloque members were carefully screened by the CIA and the Drug Enforcement Administration, which then helped to train them. Americans did not participate in the raid on Escobar's hideout. But in Bogota, a CIA-run Tactical Analysis Team fed intelligence to the Bloque. The National Security Agency diverted spy satellites into orbits over Colombia. and the search for Escobar was joined by U.S. C-130 reconnaissance planes from Southern Command bases in Panama.

The Cali cartel also was in on the hunt. Officials say its reputed top leaders, Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela and his brother Miguel, secretly funded a vigilante organization known by its Spanish acronym PEPES (People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar). The group is blamed for killing dozens of Escobar's henchmen and relatives and for blowing up his prized collection of classic cars, including a Pontiac once owned by Al Capone. Rich and influential, the Cali cartel had other strings to pull. "We believe a lot of Escobar's troubles with the Colombian government were at least invisibly supported by the Rodriguez brothers," says a senior DEA official. "I don't think the Colombian government had a set plan to kill Escobar," he adds. "But on balance, they would rather have had the operation come out the way it did."

Escobar's weakness was his family. He wanted to guarantee the safety of his son, his wife, Victoria Eugenia, and his 9-year-old daughter, Manuela. Last month he sent them to Germany, hoping for asylum. The United States and Colombia urged the Germans to deny asylum. Turned away, Escobar's family flew back to Bogota, where the authorities installed them in an apartment, like live bait for the drug lord's enemies.

Last Wednesday, according to a Bogota newspaper, El Tiempo, a police wiretapper heard Escobar call his son. "Dad, hang up, hang up," the boy said, "because they'll trace you." They did trace him when he called again the next day, finally locating Escobar at a house in Medellin. "I see a man talking on the phone," radioed an officer in a stakeout van. At that moment, the wiretapper heard Escobar tell his son: "I see something strange. See you later." He hung up and ran for the attic. Wearing Australian-style bush hats, members of the Busqueda unit burst into the house; Escobar died in the fusillade outside. An officer radioed back to headquarters.

His death is a symbolic victory for the Colombian and U.S. governments, but it will do nothing to reduce the flow of drugs, experts agree. Colombian President Cesar Gaviria promised to crack down on other cartels, but because the Cali drug lords are less violent than their rivals, and more skillful at bribery and public relations, the campaign against them may lack the fervor of the hunt for Escobar. "Now that he's gone, more cocaine than ever will be coming up," predicted Max Mermelstein, a confessed drug smuggler for Escobar who is now in the U.S. witness-protection program. Escobar's death won't even stop the violence; drug peddling is a bloody business under anyone's management. And Escobar's crime family may try to exact revenge. "I'm going to kill all those sons of bitches," his son told a reporter. The boy retracted the threat a few hours later, but no one thought Pablo Escobar's murderous business methods had yet become obsolete.

MAP: Crime Goes International ..MR.-

Organized crime groups are spreading their tentacles around the globe. Free trade and high-speed telecommunications make it easier to smuggle drugs and launder money across national borders. New governments in the ex-communist states are too weak to combat the heavily armed mafias.

Death On The Spot | News