BOGOTA, COLOMBIA, OCT. 22 -- Drug barons, unemployed hit men, common criminals and Marxist guerrillas are terrorizing Colombia with an unprecedented wave of kidnappings for political and financial gains, forcing the government to create special units to deal with the phenomenon.

Authorities in Medellin, the city hit hardest by the crime wave, say cocaine cartel leader Pablo Escobar, with billions of dollars in assets but little cash inside the country, is responsible for many of the abductions of wealthy businessmen to keep his empire afloat financially.

Because Escobar has not been able to maintain his private army of hired assassins, many of the kidnappings are believed to be the work of unemployed hit men. And, because of the impunity with which kidnappers act, abductions are becoming a favorite source of income for common criminals.

According to the statistics of the Center for Criminal Investigations, in the first nine months of 1990, a record 862 kidnappings were reported -- an average of more than three per day -- and only 40 percent of the kidnappings are believed to be reported to authorities. Many of the rest are paid off quietly to save the victim.

In 1989, 781 kidnappings were reported, compared to 709 in 1988 and 259 in 1987.

Kidnappings strike everyone from wealthy ranchers to schoolchildren and family pets, authorities say. Ransom demands range from $30 to more than $1 million, depending on the criminal and the victim.

In response, many businessmen have moved their families out of hard-hit areas. Television regularly airs ads for armored cars that can only be opened from the inside. Private security business are thriving.

"The government has given express orders to coordinate the actions of the security forces to neutralize the alarming rise in kidnappings across the country, and especially in the metropolitan area of Medellin," said a recent statement released by the National Security Council after a three-hour meeting with President Cesar Gaviria. The council announced formation of an inter-agency Kidnapping Investigative Unit.

In a recent interview in Medellin, Gen. Harold Bedoya, military commander of the region, said there had been a sharp rise in all types of crime since police began breaking up the city's 120 bands of hit men, which have about 2,000 members.

"Extortion and kidnappings have increased greatly," Bedoya said. "These people were used to living off of drug trafficking. They were used to the good life, so they turn to other crimes in order to be able to maintain it."

Authorities also believe Escobar, who has millions of dollars in overseas banks, may have a cash-flow problem inside Colombia, a theory that gained credibility with the kidnapping of Julian Echavarria, a leading industrialist and rancher in Medellin. He was killed by his abductors Sept. 4 when police stumbled on his hiding place during a routine search.

In the firefight, 12 of his kidnappers were also killed and later identified as close associates of Escobar. They had demanded $20 million in ransom.

Knowledgeable sources in Medellin say Escobar is also cashing in on old debts. "What happens is this," said a source familiar with how the system works. "Escobar in the early days helped a lot of people. So he sends men to take their cars or force a large cash donation. The men always say, 'This is not your car, this is not your money. Pablito gave it to you, and now it's time to give something back.' "

Not all the kidnappings by the cartel are for money. Escobar is still believed to be holding seven journalists, including Francisco Santos, managing editor of El Tiempo, the nation's largest newspaper, and Diana Turbay, editor of Hoy por Hoy magazine and daughter of a former president.

No public demands have been made for the release of the journalists, but government sources say the cartel is trying to force the government to the negotiating table.

Marxist guerrillas also routinely kidnap for political purposes and for money. About 20 percent of the reported kidnappings are at the hands of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or the National Liberation Army (ELN).

The practice of kidnapping and extorting from landowners in rural areas to finance guerrilla armies is what initially gave rise to rightist "self-defense" groups -- which then evolved into the private armies of the drug barons.

The ELN is currently holding several mayors from rural towns, and says they will be freed after the rebels hold "popular trials" of them on charges of corruption.