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Medellin Cartel bosses vanish after spectacular prison riot

By
FEDERICO FULLEDA

BOGOTA, Colombia -- Alleged Medellin Cartel boss Pablo Escobar vanished along with 10 fellow prison inmates Wednesday after they staged a riot and held four high-level government officials hostage for some 20 hours.

President Cesar Gaviria in a nationally-broadcast speech late Wednesday said troops had searched the Envigado Prison after overpowering some gunmen and could not find Escobar or his top lieutenants inside.

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Gaviria said the government suspects the alleged drug kingpin could be hidden inside the prison or in the rural area near the mountain-top jail, located ouside Medellin -- 155 miles northeast of Bogota.

Military troops managed to free Deputy Justice Minister Eduardo Mendoza, prison chief Col. Hernando Navas and two other government officials at about 11 a.m. Wednesday morning after they were held by Escobar and 15 of his henchmen in a faceoff with government troops.

Gaviria said two prison guards were killed in the takeover. Three other people were reportedly injured.

Escobar and his associates apparently took over the prison to protest a government order they be split up and transferred to separate, secret locations after police 'proved' the drug lord continued to operate the illegal narcotics network from behind bars.

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Some 600 soldiers fought their way into the prison Wednesday, but once inside, they found the alleged Medellin godfather and most ofhis lieutenants missing. Troops combed the rural area but did not appear to have turned up either Escobar or any of the other, as yet unnamed prisoners.

Sen. Claudia Blum said Gaviria, who canceled his attendance at the meeting of Ibero-American presidents because of the riot, was directing search efforts from the Navarino Palace in Bogota.

Sen. Jose Blackburn, president of the congress, said he feared Escobar may be dead. Another lawmaker, Rodolfo Segovia, said the government was starting to accept that the alleged cocaine king may have escaped.

Reports from the scene said prisoners fought several hours with government troops after the hostages were freed, possibly in an attempt to cover the escape of Escobar and most of the other inmates.

The alleged drug lords, who voluntarily surrendered to the government last year in return for lighter sentencing, are still awaiting trail on dozens of murder and drug trafficking charges, including the assassinations of some 200 judges and two dozen journalists.

A young man identifying himself as Pablo Escobar's nephew told the RCN radio network early Wednesday that some of the prisoners had been injured.

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The caller asked the government to send for the Rev. Rafael Garcia, a Catholic priest who served as mediator last year when Escobar and his associates surrendered.

'We want you (Garcia) to intervene for us so they suspend the operations,' said the caller, adding Escobar and his associates were hidden in a secret tunnel built inside the prison and would stay there until the military troops withdrew.

Another radio network said Escobar called his family on a cellular telephone, announcing he was 'willing to die' rather than be transferred to another prison.

Garcia in a public message to Escobar said 'Pablo, do not cry,' adding 'you should submit yourelf to the law, which is above any other consideration.'

According to a statement from the president's office, Escobar was ordered transferred after police said they confirmed he had sent henchmen to kidnap and assassinate 22 people earlier this month.

The bodies of 12 people since have been found in different parts of Medellin in what was reportedly a house-cleaning operation by Escobar to rid the Medellin cartel of members opposed to his continued leadership.

Police said the order proved the jailed boss was still directing cartel operations from jail.

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