BOGOTA, COLOMBIA, JULY 14 -- Top military officials say that even if drug kingpin Pablo Escobar escapes the latest and largest military dragnet, his operational base in Medellin has been badly damaged and key aides have been arrested, crippling his cocaine cartel.

"Even though the emperor has not fallen, the empire is crumbling," said Gen. Miguel Maza Marquez, director of the Department of Administrative Security, the Colombian FBI, in a press conference Friday night. "The {Medellin} cartel is diminished politically, militarily, logistically and socially."

Escobar, 40, is the leader of the violent Medellin cocaine cartel. The multi-billionaire began his criminal career as a teenager, stealing headstones from Medellin graveyards, moving on to become a hit man and then a pioneer in mass shipments of cocaine to the United States.

The latest attempt to nab Escobar, the most wanted drug kingpin in the world, began July 5 and has driven him into hiding in a swampy jungle area in the Magdalena Medio, about 100 miles east of Medellin, the nation's second largest city. Police have upped the reward for turning in Escobar from $400,000 to $600,000 in hopes of outbidding Escobar for the services of inhabitants of the area.

The operation, dubbed "Apocalypse" by the military, involves about 500 men of the Elite Corps of the National Police, 1,500 army troops and a dozen helicopters. The greatest successes, according to police, have been the capture of 25 people who were with Escobar and key to the cartel's operation, and driving Escobar from his Medellin stronghold, where he had bought the loyalty of many officials and much of the population.

Among those arrested were Escobar's brother-in-law and top aide, Hernan Dario Henao, and Otoniel Gonzalez Franco, long identified as one of the seven leaders of Escobar's military operation.

"We have finally dislodged him from Medellin, and his space there is greatly reduced," Gen. Miguel Gomez Padilla, director of the National Police, said in an interview. "We have truly made him a fugitive in the jungle, running without being able to rest."

Gomez Padilla said Escobar decided to run after the police killed Jhon Jairo Arias, the head of Escobar's military wing, on June 13 and the subsequent capture of numerous other top hit men, who Escobar feared would talk to the authorities.

Police say Escobar and 10 to 15 bodyguards are traveling by foot or mule through the difficult terrain where Escobar owns vast tracts. He has built numerous hideaways in the area, and detection from helicopters is difficult. Gomez Padilla said the police were still intercepting communications from Escobar in the area the troops have sought to seal off, but would not say when they expected that Escobar might be captured.

Escobar is an old hand at evading the police -- often, senior officials say, with the help of corrupt officers in his pay. Police say he had mapped out escape routes from each of his jungle hideaways and had provisions and arms stockpiled in each.

One senior intelligence officer said the police thought that if Escobar slipped through the military's siege, he would likely continue east to the untracked jungles of Brazil or Venezuela, where it would be virtually impossible to find him.

Police officials said Escobar had narrowly escaped capture twice since being forced out of his Medellin stronghold, managing to stay minutes ahead of the troops and helicopters sweeping the area. In one case, the troops arrived at a hideaway and found warm coffee along with a suitcase containing clothes and a typewritten draft of a memoir Escobar is writing.

Gomez Padilla said the troops also found numerous uniforms of policemen killed by Escobar's hit men, kept either as trophies of war or to be used to impersonate policemen.

The senior intelligence officer said it was frustrating to be so close to Escobar without getting him, and said "it would be logical to assume" that Escobar was still receiving tip-offs from police or military informants.

The operation against Escobar is being coordinated from Hacienda Napoles, Escobar's prize ranch and private zoo, confiscated last year by police. Atop the main gate to the ranch a single-engine airplane is displayed. The plane reportedly carried Escobar's first load of cocaine to the United States.

Officials said that while Escobar is on the run, his business is being run by his cousin Gustavo Gaviria and members of the Ochoa clan, whom the police have been unable to locate. "We expect them to try to strike back," said the intelligence officer. "Escobar is like a wounded animal now."