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Cocaine Trafficker Pablo Escobar Killed in Colombia

By Peter Eisner
Newsday

MIAMI

Colombian security forces Thursday shot and killed Pablo Escobar, the billionaire godfather of international cocaine trafficking, as he attempted to flee his hideout in the drug dealing center of Medellin, Colombia.

Escobar, leader of the Medellin drug cartel, was killed as he and his bodyguards tried to elude police by climbing onto a rooftop of the safehouse where they were hiding, Colombian authorities said.

Authorities said Escobar opened fire and was met by volleys of return fire from some of the dozens of police and troops who had stalked the drug kingpin to a house on the west side of the city of 1.6 million people.

Authorities in Medellin told reporters that they had traced Escobar when he telephoned a radio station over the weekend to protest official treatment of his wife and children whose attempt to leave the country was rebuffed.

"This life was taken simply because he resisted being captured," Colombian prosecutor general Gustavo de Greiff said in a television interview from Bogota, monitored in Miami. "Let this be a lesson to all criminals that sooner or later we will catch them."

U.S. Drug Enforcement officials praised Colombian authorities for tracking Escobar down. A leading DEA official said Escobar's death was a milestone, but it would do little to stop the flow of tons of cocaine to the United States.

"This is the end of an era -- if you look at the violence produced by this man," said Tom Cash, special agent in charge of the DEA in Miami. "It will be a long time before anyone takes his place." But Cash said the leaders of the rival Cali Cartel, which has a firm grip on drug shipments to the New York metropolitan area, are likely celebrating a victory with Escobar's death.

"They will have a corner on the market, because no one person will replace Pablo Escobar," he said.

The death of the 44-year-old Colombian drug titan culminated a 16-month search that began when Escobar fled a luxurious prison built especially for him by Colombian authorities on a hillside near his hometown in a Medellin suburb. That began a search by a specially organized 3,000-member security team.

Escobar, reputed to shift frequently from one safehouse to another, was said to elude capture by paying weekly bribes to corrupt officials. The United States and Colombia had offered $8.7 million for his capture.

"It's the triumph of law over crime," said Andres Pastrana, a prominent Colombian legislator. "Escobar ended up being a symbol of violence and narco-terrorism. Now the country can begin to live more peacefully."

Max Mermelstein, a one-time lieutenant in the Escobar's organization, said Thursday in a telephone interview that he thought drug trafficking to the United States could increase in the aftermath of Escobar's death.

"Pablo had a very tight rein on trafficking operations," said Mermelstein, a New York native who became a key informant for the DEA after striking a plea bargain with the U.S. government. Mermelstein smuggled tons of cocaine into southern Florida in the 1980s for Escobar and the Medellin Cartel.

"I think there will be an increase not a decrease," he said. "Now they don't have to worry about paying Pablo off. Everybody is going to establish their own routes."