MEDELLIN, COLOMBIA -- Cocaine cartel leader Pablo Escobar this month organized from prison the kidnapping or killing of almost two dozen associates to consolidate control of his vast drug empire more than a year after he surrendered to authorities, according to government and law enforcement officials.

The killings came as drug traffickers here are repatriating billions of dollars, much of it to try to influence Colombia's government and undermine political will to press the drug war, the officials said.

"The overall picture in Colombia is worse than it ever has been in terms of what {the traffickers} control," said an international narcotics expert. He said the traffickers have "significant influence at every level" in government. "Their economic power is a lot more significant than anyone around here wants to admit."

The rash of killings has embarrassed the government, which has insisted Escobar is as isolated in prison as any inmate. It also has raised tensions in Medellin following relative calm here during the year that Escobar has been in prison.

Newspapers and television here widely reported the disappearances of 22 of Escobar's associates, seven of whose bodies have since been found. Citing police and sources close to the cocaine cartel, they reported that Escobar had organized the kidnappings and killings.

In the past year, Escobar has routinely denied criminal accusations against him in the press by faxing statements -- marked with his thumbprint -- to newspapers from his prison. But he has kept silent on the reports that he is behind this month's killings.

Law enforcement sources here and in Bogota said Escobar summoned two of his top aides -- Geraldo Moncada and Fernando Galeano -- to his private prison outside Medellin for a face-to-face confrontation. The two were kidnapped as they left the prison and their bodies, bearing marks of torture, were found on the outskirts of this city on July 10.

Within two days of the first kidnapping, 20 more cartel operatives responsible for cocaine distribution and financial affairs were abducted around the city. The bodies of five have been found; police said they believe the others are dead too.

The exact cause for what seems to be a purge within the cartel is unclear. Law enforcement officials said their sources told them that a three-ton shipment of cocaine was stolen by Escobar's underlings. They said they also heard that Moncada and Galeano defied Escobar by refusing to increase the percentage of drug profits they were passing along to him.

A particular sign of Escobar's apparent reach was that the recent victims lived in fortress-like homes, protected by dozens of heavily armed bodyguards. They included those seen as the most likely to try to supplant Escobar if he remains in prison for years.

News reports of Escobar's confrontation in prison with his subordinates renewed charges that he is being excused from a normal prison regimen. Col. Hernando Navas Rubio, director of prisons, said in an interview in the newspaper El Tiempo that he could guarantee that Escobar was receiving no unauthorized visitors. Reports that Escobar continues to run his business from prison, he said, "are subjective views that are beyond me, and I do not have the facts to judge one way or the other."

The week of the killings, Escobar and as many as 800 other traffickers and hitmen launched a legal attack to win freedom or have their sentences reduced. Last week, President Cesar Gaviria was forced to declare the country in a state of emergency and use special powers to keep the traffickers in prison because the country's new, U.S.-style legal code began forcing courts to free suspects after 180 days if they have not been charged.

Escobar and other leading traffickers have asked Attorney General Gustavo de Greiff to renegotiate the terms of their surrender, under which they received reduced sentences for crimes to which they confessed. Now they are asking to plea-bargain other charges pending against them.

More worrisome to officials, however, is the large amount of cocaine-generated cash coming into the country and into legitimate businesses that in turn fund political campaigns. "What you are seeing now is the birth of first narco-democracy in the world," the international narcotics expert said. "Money-laundering laws are nonexistent in Colombia."

In a study completed this month, an official from a U.S. agency estimated that the cartel had repatriated between $3.6 billion and $7.2 billion in the past 12 months, a figure at least three times higher than scholars and Colombia's central bank had estimated in previous years. Drugstore chains, auto dealerships and construction firms are among the businesses bought by drug traffickers to launder money and to funnel contributions to political candidates.