ALMOST $50 million in Colombian drug money is still being held in Hong Kong three years after it was frozen under a court order and nearly five years after the death of the cocaine baron who deposited it. And because of an ongoing legal battle stemming from claims by ''relatives'' in the United States, it is likely to remain in limbo until a Florida court can sort out a web of international money laundering. The frozen cash, equivalent to more than US$6 million (about HK$46 million), is only a fraction of a worldwide hoard of at least US$130 million which belonged to drug tsar Jose Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, Pablo Escobar's right hand man. Both men died bloodily in the Colombian drive to break the Medellin cartel, which US authorities believed was the biggest drug empire in the world, with an income greater than that of many small nations. Gacha, who called himself the ''Adolf Hitler of Colombia'' and was perhaps the most violent of the cartel leaders, was killed by government troops in a fierce shootout in December 1989 along with his 17-year-old son and five bodyguards. The group was surprised by elite members of Colombia's anti-drug police at a luxury ranch on the Caribbean coast where the drug baron had been hiding. Escobar, who is also believed to have stashed hundreds of millions of dollars around the world, was also killed in a shootout with Colombian authorities last December after escaping from prison more than a year before. Their killings, along with the arrests and deaths of scores of other Medellin operatives over the last five years, have seen the group reduced from a global empire to that of one simply trying to survive. The last surviving Medellin leader, Carlos Lehder, accused the US in June of reneging on a deal to release him from prison and send him to Germany in exchange for his testimony against former Panamanian dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega. Lehder, 44, was the first top cartel leader to be captured when he was seized in 1987. He was extradited to the US where he was sentenced to life imprisonment plus 135 years for drug trafficking. This has since been reduced to 65 years. But the monumental profits the cartel made during the 1980s still exist in bank accounts in North and South America, Europe and Southeast Asia, and have become subject to both criminal and civil court proceedings in the US. Hong Kong is one of nine locations where authorities from the US, which was the cartel's principal market for the hundreds of tonnes of cocaine produced every year, tracked Gacha's assets. After his death in 1989 Colombian investigators uncovered a trail of secret files leading to multiple overseas bank accounts. The discovery of details of his financial transactions was seen as one of the biggest breaks in tracing the cartel's profits. Before his death Gacha, who is reputed to have carved his initials in bullets and owned a football team and seven ranches, reportedly reaped US$1.3 billion from cocaine deals. He hid US$4.6 million in two Bank of Credit and Commerce Hong Kong (BCCHK) accounts and about US$1.5 million in the Dresdner Bank. The US Justice Department first brought a criminal case against Gacha - who was by then dead - through the Middle District court in Florida in 1992, as part of the attempt to recover his assets. The case is still pending. Then in March last year US authorities filed civil proceedings against Gacha, which effectively renewed a ''restraint order'' placed on three accounts in the territory by the High Court in Hong Kong on July 12, 1991. Last November claims on the money by the drug lord's relatives were dismissed. But in February, Gacha's family filed a last-minute appeal to reverse the US decision to freeze his assets in the two Hong Kong branches of the BCCHK. The appeal is still pending. The BCCHK accounts were under the names of Transcontinental Traders and a Panamanian company, Slavia Association. The account in the Dresdner Bank was also in the name of Slavia Association. All money in the frozen accounts was placed in the hands of receivers Ferrier Hodgson and Marfan on March 10, 1992, and has been held in the Harcourt Road branch of the Hongkong Bank since then. But Gacha's relations - and possibly former cartel members - are still trying to have the restraining orders on the US$130 million removed. IN AN affidavit presented to the district court in Jacksonville, Florida, last year, a Hong Kong Government lawyer said the accounts were frozen to ''restrain the persons who may have an interest in the bank accounts from dealing with those accounts which are believed to be derived from the proceeds of drug trafficking''. Gacha's case was raised recently in the US at a Senate sub-committee hearing on international organised crime, when it was used as an example of how vast amounts of money can be secreted in foreign bank accounts. Senator John Kerry, who chaired the meeting, said it was crucial to have ''transparent co-operation'' between law enforcement agencies around the world if they were to stop money laundering on this scale. ''When they got into his [Gacha's] house, they uncovered the records and documents of his financial empire,'' Senator Kerry said. ''And the records and documents of his financial empire showed that in Panama there was US$22 million; Colombia, US$42 million; in America, US$2 million; Luxembourg, US$39.4 million; England, Germany, about US$4.2 million; in Switzerland there was US$10 million; in Austria US$5 million; and in Hong Kong US$6 million.'' Senator Kerry said Gacha's international investments were the ''strongest statement possible of the need for this transparency in international co-operation''. He said if it existed, it would be impossible for criminals to move money around the globe. And evidence surfacing since his death, from sworn testimonies and from Gacha's own documentation, has shown the ease with which Gacha - and other cartel members - operated internationally. According to a statement of long-time drug smuggler Jose Cabrera, Gacha bribed Noriega to allow the cartel to use Panama as a trans-shipment hub. According to Cabrera's evidence, which was used in the US prosecution of Noriega who is serving a 40-year sentence for drug and racketeering offences, Gacha used Panama because he had the protection of the military. ''Gacha advised that millions [of dollars worth of cocaine] were being flown into Panama and that he was paying three per cent for protection and two per cent to the banks,'' Cabrera testified. Gacha told Cabrera that this money was paid to Noriega. He further testified that Omar Henao, a cousin of Pablo Escobar, told him that cartel members were flying cocaine into Panama with the ultimate destination being the United States.