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Drug kingpin's killer seeks Colombia office

Ex-colonel is running for governor

BARBOSA, Colombia -- Fireworks threw off red sparks into the night sky and flashed in the polished brass trombones and trumpets of the raucous town band.

An armor-plated Toyota Land Cruiser swept into this northeast market town. Inside was a former police colonel, Hugo Aguilar, en route to his latest campaign rally in downtown Barbosa. Bodyguards carrying automatic pistols or pump-action shotguns hung off the back of pickup trucks.

While film star Arnold Schwarzenegger is running for governor in the California recall election, Aguilar, a real-life "Terminator," is seeking to become the next governor of Santander Province.

A decade and 300 miles now separate Aguilar from a rooftop in Medellin where he ended the reign of the world's undisputed king of cocaine, Pablo Escobar, with a single shot to the head from his 9mm pistol. But each day the images of that final shootout, worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster, roll through his mind.

"There was no other alternative. It was him or us," Aguilar said, during a brief break recently in his hectic campaign schedule. "When the shootout began, we had to use all the firepower we had.

"When he fell on the roof he was dead," he said. "That ended the story of Pablo Escobar."

A close friend and ally of President Alvaro Uribe, Aguilar is running on an independent ticket in the Oct. 26 local elections to choose governors in the country's 32 provinces and mayors in more than 1,000 towns.

With a pledge to terminate the rule of corrupt political barons, fight communist rebels and rival right-wing paramilitary gangs, and alleviate grinding poverty, Aguilar is drawing on strong cross-party support from Liberals and Conservatives.

He appears to be mounting a strong challenge to his closest rival, Luis Francisco Bohorquez, candidate for the Liberal Party, which has long regarded Santander as its stronghold, though there are no accurate regional opinion polls to show how close the election will be.

Unlike California's candidate, Aguilar has no action-star swagger. The son of peasant farmers cuts a slight, lithe figure.

The finest moment in Aguilar's 24-year police career came as head of intelligence operations in the so-called Medellin Search Bloc. The unit -- a joint team of Colombia's police and army, backed by agents from the US Drug Enforcement Administration and the CIA -- was entrusted with tracking down Escobar.

Escobar paid his gang of hit men for every Search Bloc member they killed. More than 600 police agents died during the hunt. The drug kingpin was reputedly offering around $1 million for Aguilar's life.

The biggest manhunt in Colombian history lasted 499 days, from the time Escobar escaped from prison in the hills above his native Medellin until Dec. 3, 1993, when his luck ran out.

Time seemed to freeze, Aguilar said, as he and Escobar blasted away at each other on that Medellin rooftop.

"Before this operation, we knew we could be successful or we could fail," Aguilar said. "We knew the price of failure could mean our death."

Aguilar's bullet hit the mark. "I shouted, `Long live Colombia,' " he said.

Even by this war-scarred country's horrific standards of political violence, the Medellin mob waged a war of unparalleled ferocity. From the late 1980s to 1993, it detonated car bombs in Colombia's major cities and executed hundreds of police officers and rivals.

But many Colombians seems to have forgotten one of the country's heroes. Hundreds of peasant farmers turned out to hear Aguilar at a recent rally in the village of Confines.

One old man smiled politely when asked whether he remembers Aguilar's claim to fame.

"I think the name rings a bell," he said, declining to give his own name. But he said he and his neighbors wanted to hear which candidate can promise improvements to the roads to enable them to transport their sugar to market and perhaps offer health care for their families.

On the campaign trail, Aguilar mentions his police service briefly and never utters Escobar's name. He knows that being the man who killed the king of cocaine isn't an automatic vote winner.

Escobar remains a cult figure to some Colombians, especially in the Medellin slums, where he used some of his drug bounty to pay for soccer fields and low-cost housing for the poorest families.

In addition, plaguing the hunt for Escobar were allegations of police corruption and accusations that the Search Bloc and US agents were colluding with a group of Escobar's underworld archenemies known as the "People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar." Many of the key figures in that group went on to make up the backbone of Colombia's paramilitary death squads.

Aguilar's political opponents in Santander use those old allegations to insinuate that he is in league with outlaw right-wing paramilitary factions. The former colonel vehemently rejects those charges, saying he is "not the candidate of any bandit."

There's a more immediate worry: staying alive until election day. Aguilar says he fears an attempt on his life. "We have information that the Medellin mafia, the remnants of Pablo Escobar's organization, have sent a hit squad after me," he said.

But Aguilar has long lived with the threat of death hanging over him. Besides, he has a lucky talisman, Pablo Escobar's pistol, which he plucked from the drug lord's corpse.

The magazine is still loaded with a special bullet he says is tipped with a cyanidelike poison. "I always carried that bullet," he said. "I figured if the shot didn't kill Escobar, then the poison would."

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