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Byline: Mark Bowden
Eight years ago, at the request of the Colombian government, U.S. military and spy forces helped fund and guide a massive manhunt that ended with the killing of Pablo Escobar, the richest cocaine trafficker in the world.
While portraying the pursuit of Escobar as essentially a Colombian operation, the United States secretly spent millions of dollars and committed elite soldiers, law enforcement agents and the military's most sophisticated electronic eavesdropping unit to the chase.
The full extent of the U.S. role has never before been made public. Details of the 15-month operation, which began during the administration of President George Bush and continued under President Clinton, are revealed in a serial beginning in The Philadelphia Inquirer and other newspapers on Sunday.
A two-year Inquirer investigation has found that:
The Army's top secret counter-terrorism unit, Delta Force, along with Navy SEALs and a clandestine Army electronic surveillance team, tracked the movements of Escobar and his associates and helped plan raids by a special Colombian police unit called the Search Bloc. The former American ambassador to Colombia directed the U.S. effort with assistance from agents of the CIA, FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration and National Security Agency.
Midway through the operation, the Search Bloc began collaborating with vigilantes, who assassinated Escobar's associates and relatives. U.S. soldiers and agents said they witnessed the cooperation. The United States continued to supply intelligence, training and planning to the Search Bloc even as the assassinations continued.
In November 1993, Pentagon officials sought to end U.S. involvement in the manhunt. They were concerned that American forces in Colombia were going beyond their instructions and possibly violating a presidential directive prohibiting American involvement in assassinations of foreign citizens. The campaign to withdraw the U.S. personnel was stalled by a lobbying effort led by the American ambassador in Bogota. Five weeks later, Escobar was killed by Colombian police.
Official accounts at the time said Escobar was killed Dec. 2, 1993, in a gun battle on a rooftop in the city of Medellin. Autopsy reports and photos reveal that he was shot point-blank in the ear. A senior Colombian National Police commander said Escobar was executed by a member of the Search Bloc after being wounded. The Colombian government had said its aim was to arrest Escobar, an indicted criminal.
The mission to track down Escobar rid Colombia of a violent menace who threatened to topple the state. Escobar had terrorized his country beginning in 1984 _ assassinating judges, police officers, journalists and politicians. Much of the violence was meant to coerce the Colombian government to ban extradition of drug traffickers to the United States. Escobar was believed to have ordered the killings of three of the five …