Hugo Martinez

In the fall of 1989 a Colombian police colonel named Hugo Martinez was given the thankless task of tracking down the notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar. Thirty of the 200 cops placed under Martinez's command were killed during the first two weeks of the manhunt, the colonel's family received numerous death threats and Escobar managed to elude capture for more than three years. But Martinez's task force managed to isolate Escobar over time by dismantling his Medellin drug cartel, and round-the-clock electronic surveillance of the kingpin's radio communications eventually led the Colombian police to the safe house where the world's most-wanted man was killed in a shoot-out on Dec. 2, 1993. Now a retired general, Martinez, 60, shared his thoughts about the search for Saddam Hussein last week with NEWSWEEK's Joseph Contreras. Excerpts:

CONTRERAS: Where do you think Saddam Hussein is hiding right now?

MARTINEZ: In a big city. It could well be Baghdad. I doubt he's in a small town because he would be more easily detected.

Why's that?

When Jose Rodriguez Gacha, the other head of the Medellin cartel, was hunted down and killed [in 1989], Pablo Escobar said it was because Gacha had left his native region and gone to an area of [Colombia's Pacific] coast where it would be very difficult to go unnoticed. If Saddam goes to a region outside his native area, he is going to stand out. I imagine that Saddam will want to be where he can blend in, where there are people who look like him, talk like him.

But won't the Americans figure that out and look for Saddam in precisely those kinds of surroundings?

The authorities will never find a person by searching for him door to door. It doesn't work that way. And the more he resembles the local people in appearance and accent, the more easily he will go unnoticed.

Should the U.S. government try to capture him alive or just kill him?

In any search operation it's always better to capture the person alive. You can then bring the person to justice and make an example of him.

But after a certain point, wasn't the Colombian government actively trying to kill Escobar rather than capture him?

Government officials and the public in general were almost unanimous in believing it was better for Escobar to be dead than alive. But we [as policemen] have our professional training, and at no time were we told to execute him if we ever managed to find him. He had a lot of information about politicians, military people and policemen who had taken bribes from him, and it would have been much better to learn about that.

Will the search for Saddam take a long time?

That depends on him. If he tries to get in touch with his friends or organize people to resist the U.S. presence in Iraq, he will surely be located more quickly. If he lies low, it will take a long time to find him. A person who really wants to hide isn't going to be found.

Should the operation remain in the hands of the U.S. military?

A manhunt is police work. You can work with the Army, as we did in Colombia, but the job of studying and analyzing the intelligence that will help you find the individual properly belongs to the police.

How important a role does technology play in this kind of a search?

The technology available today to pinpoint the whereabouts of a person has a zero margin of error. But it all depends on whether the person is trying to put himself in contact with others. If the person isn't using communications equipment, then the technology will be of no use to you, and that is presumably the case right now [with Saddam].

The search for Escobar was a joint operation involving Colombian authorities as well as the U.S. government. Will it be harder to find Saddam because there is no local police force worthy of the name to help the Americans?

Yes, that's one more difficulty facing them. The Americans who worked with us on the Pablo Escobar issue couldn't accompany us on operations because you could pick them out in a group of a hundred men. Americans stand out even more in a country like that, and that's why I emphasize the importance of getting Iraqis involved in the search.

It sounds like the search for Saddam will be a medium- or even long-term proposition for the United States.

With any manhunt you want to accomplish the mission as soon as possible. But in our case, it took us more than three years to find Pablo Escobar because he had a lot of support among the local population. And in the case of Saddam I assume he also has a lot of support. If he stays hidden and out of the public eye, it certainly won't be possible to find him in the short term.