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Drug Kingpin A Hero To Thousands

June 11, 1991

MEDELLIN, Colombia (AP) _ Eight-year-old Rolando was just a baby when the leader of the world’s largest drug ring rescued him from a life of misery at a Medellin garbage dump.

In 1983, Pablo Escobar moved Rolando’s family and several thousand other dump-dwellers to 500 houses he built especially for them in the hills of eastern Medellin.

″Pablo Escobar is the best,″ says Rolando, standing on the flowered porch of his three-bedroom home.

Medellin, the capital of Escobar’s cocaine empire, is also the center of his share-the-wealth philanthropy, which has raised him to almost mythical status among the needy.

Now Escobar says he is ready to surrender to authorities, and his supporters are wondering what will become of the man once dubbed the region’s ″Robin Hood.″

″The government should just leave him in peace and give him his freedom,″ said Ana Francisca Ospina, 51, a resident of the Escobar-built neighborhood where residents threw a street party for the drug lord.

But drug agents say the money and gifts Escobar dispersed throughout the country’s western Andes was tainted with the blood and terror of the Medellin cartel. Authorities accuse Escobar of ordering the killings of judges, journalists, a leading presidential candidate, an attorney general and a justice minister during the past seven years.

He also used his popularity to recruit thousands of slum boys as assassins, police claim.

If Escobar fulfills his pledge last week to surrender, it would be the ultimate prize for President Cesar Gaviria’s anti-drug strategy, which promises no extraditions to the United States.

The 42-year-old Escobar, who was indicted in Miami in 1988 on drug trafficking charges, would be eligible for a reduced sentence at a jail he personally selected in his hometown of Envigado.

″I just hope the government doesn’t try to cheat him,″ said Ms. Ospina.

Despite the Medellin cartel’s violent history, Escobar has managed to win widespread appeal among Colombians who believe cocaine is the United States’ problem.

And he was never afraid to share a small portion of his multi-billion- dollar profits. His charity helped him to get elected to congress in 1982 as an alternate representative.

He has built cinderblock houses for the poor, donated tractors, built soccer fields and lit up the streets of Envigado, a Medellin suburb that became the only town in Colombia to offer unemployment insurance.

The Escobar myth has penetrated the desperate barrios of Medellin, a city of 3 million where at least 25 people are murdered every day, according to police.

For years, hundreds of thousands of slum dwellers have considered Escobar a true-life fairy tale character - hoping he would enter their lives with a cash handout or free house.

Colombia’s Semana magazine dubbed Escobar the area’s ″Robin Hood″ in a 1983 profile. In the late ’80s, Forbes magazine listed Escobar as one of the world’s richest men, with a fortune estimated at between $2 billion and $5 billion.

Escobar abandoned the house-building project in Medellin after authorities accused him of being behind the 1984 murder of the country’s anti-drug crusading justice minister, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla.

Escobar has been in hiding ever since, often staying in his supporters’ houses.

Francisco Florez, another resident of the homes Escobar built, sees no ulterior motives in Escobar’s benevolence.

″One time he went up to the hillside and saw us in the garbage dump during the heavy rains. It hurt him so much to see us suffer that he bought this land and built us these houses,″ said the 72-year-old father of 13.

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