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Vigilantes Target Drug Chief

Effective paramilitary squad raises ethical dilemma for Colombian government

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COLOMBIA'S government has waged an intense hunt over the past seven months for Pablo Escobar Gaviria, the world's most notorious drug trafficker. But it is the work of an illegal and ruthless paramilitary group in recent weeks may force his surrender.

Mr. Escobar, head of the Medellin drug cartel, said in a letter faxed this week to a New York Times reporter that he would give himself up if the United States granted protection to his family. The US Embassy here rejected the offer on March 3.

The offer comes after a series of car bombings directed against Escobar's family and the assassinations of an estimated 50 people suspected of working with the Medellin cartel by the paramilitary group, which calls itself Pepes, an acronym for People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar.

Authorities believe that Pepes consists of former Medellin cartel members sworn to avenge Escobar's killing last July of members of two important drug trafficking families, the Moncadas and the Galeanos. The Medellin cartel became Colombia's most infamous drug traffickers, but other cartels, particularly the rival Cali group, have emerged to vie for the drug business.

A wealthy paramilitary leader of the 1980s named Fidel Castano, who is believed to have had a falling out with Escobar over terms of his May 1991 surrender and conflicts within the cartel is thought to be the mastermind behind Pepes, according to sources cited in Semana, a Colombian weekly news magazine.

Lightning responses to terrorism have generated considerable public sympathy for the paramilitary group among a population weary of a long, drawn-out war in Medellin between hired assassins and police and of a wave of bomb explosions in Bogota which have left many dead and hundreds wounded.

But while potent, Pepes confronts authorities with a moral quandary stemming from a 50-year history of paramilitary groups and death squads in Colombia. In the decades-long confrontation between the government and guerrilla movements here, such groups - frequently charged by human rights groups of having ties to the military - have been accused of "disappearances" and killings of scores of Colombians.

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