Alternate Title: My Definitive Pablo Escobar Post
Killing Pablo by Mark Bowden, from the jacket:
(buying through that link supports Expat Chronicles)
Here is the story of the brutal rise and fall of Colombian cocaine cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar, whose criminal empire held a nation of thirty million hostage – a reign of terror that would only end with Escobar’s death. In an intense, up-close account, award-winning journalist Mark Bowden exposes never-before-revealed details of how U.S. operatives covertly led the sixteen-month manhunt. Drawing on unprecedented access to the soldiers, field agents, and key Colombian and U.S. officials involved in the chase, as well as top-secret documents and transcripts of Escobar’s intercepted phone conversations, Bowden creates a gripping narrative that is epic in scope, a tour de force of investigative journalism, and a stark portrayal of rough justice in the real world.
This book is Colombian history required reading.
Killing Pablo begins with the 1948 assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán Ayala (whose face is on the 1000 peso bill), which sparked the infamous riot Bogotazo and La Violencia, the civil war that some could argue hasn’t yet ended. Learning about this time in Colombia illustrates the degree of violence the country’s seen. The war was genocidal, it was terrorism, it was indiscriminate killing. Colombia has one of the most violent histories in the world. That time provides context for how a man like Pablo Escobar came to be.
Then the book details Escobar’s early life in Medellin, a normal paisa upbringing during La Violencia. He took to smoking marijuana and dropped out of school, eventually turning to petty crime. Petty crime turned into stealing cars and kidnapping. As Escobar climbed the criminal ladder, his propensity for violence increased.
Sometimes the victim was killed after the ransom was paid, just to make a point. It was murder, but a kind of murder that can be rationalized … Pablo lived in a world where accumulation of wealth required the capacity to defend it. Even for legitimate businessmen in Medellin there was little effective or honest law enforcement. If someone cheated you, you either accepted your losses or took steps yourself to settle the score. If you grew successsful enough, you had to contend with corrupt police and government officials who wanted a piece of your profits. This was especially true in Pablo’s new illicit business. As the amounts of money and contraband grew, so did the need to enforce discipline, punish enemies, collect debts, and bribe officials. Kidnapping or even killing someone who had cheated him not only kept the books balanced; it sent a message.
Pablo Escobar became a mass murderer while adopting a keen sense of catering to public opinion. Escobar’s credited with the 1971 kidnapping of Conservative industrialist Diego Echavarria, who was wildly unpopular among the paisa lower classes. Echavarria was killed after his family paid the $50,000 ransom.
Escobar was an established gangster by the late 1970s when the US market developed a huge demand for cocaine. Escobar’s known as a cocaine kingpin, but he lent little to the production, smuggling, or sale of the drug. He rose to the top using violence. He became the boss because he was the most feared.
Escobar was among a cadre of narcotraffickers who quickly amassed great wealth. Their excesses were jaw-dropping (most famous was Escobar’s personal zoo, from which the hippos were killed soon after I moved to Colombia). Escobar wanted more than money, he wanted honor and adulation. He doled out huge amounts on public works for the poor. In 1982 he was elected a substitute congressman (in the National Congress!).
The first day of the new congressional session, with Escobar present, newly appointed justice minister Rodrigo Lara, a politician whose pet issue was going after drug money’s influence in government, denounced Escobar on the floor of Congress:
Morality is one thing … but it is another thing when somebody runs a campaign exclusively with these funds … [We have] a congressman who … through astute business deals in bicycles and other things, appears with a gigantic fortune, with nine planes, three hangars at the Medellin airport, and creates the movement ‘Death to Kidnappers,’ while on the other hand, mounts charitable organizations with which he tries to bribe a needy and unprotected people. And there are investigations going on in the United States, of which I cannot inform you here tonight in the House, on the criminal conduct of Mr. Ortega’s alternate.
Soon after, national newspaper El Espectador published mugshots of Pablo Escobar from a 1976 arrest. Weeks later, ABC in the US aired a documentary naming Pablo Escobar as the top cocaine trafficker in Colombia.
[Escobar’s] fall from grace was hard and fast … Pablo was publicly denounced by Galán and kicked out of the New Liberal Party … [T]he revelations of past arrests and new arrest warrants were too much to overcome.
Escobar’s Terror Campaign Begins
The Colombian public soon became familiar with what the Medellin underworld had long known about Escobar’s brutality.
Lara was murdered three months later. Riding in his chauffeur-driven Mercedes in northern Bogota, he was hit by seven bullets from a machine pistol wielded by an ex-convict on a motorcycle … The bullet-proof vest given him by U.S. ambassador Lewis Tambs was found on the seat beside him. It probably would not have helped.
El Espectador editor Guillermo Cano Isaza wrote:
For some time now these sinister men have managed to create an empire of immorality, tricking and making fools of the complacent, doling out crumbs and bribes upon them while a cowardly and often entranced populace stood idly by, content with their illusions and entertained by stories of their jet-set lives.
Soon after publishing that, Cano was assassinated outside his office.
By the end of 1987 there were killings in the news almost every day in Bogotá. The new U.S. ambassador, Charles Gillespie, began warning Washington that the escalating violence in Colombia was threatening to topple the state, and the National Security Council began preparing a “comprehensive national strategy” to shore up the government.
In May 1989, Pablo’s men set off a car bomb in Bogotá alongside a vehicle carrying General Miguel Maza, the head of the DAS. Six people were killed and fifty more injured. The wheels of Maza’s car melted on the asphalt in the heat of the blast, but the sturdy general, who was leading the hunt for Pablo, stepped out unhurt.
On August 18 , a sicario with a Uzi submachine gun shot down [presidential candidate] Galán as he made a campaign speech before supporters in Soacha, a town southwest of Bogota. Three months later, in an effort to kill Galán’s successor candidate, César Gaviria, his men planted a bomb on an Avianca airliner, blowing it out of the sky. One hundred and ten people were killed, including two Americans.
That same day, Escobar hit men killed Antioquia police colonel Waldemar Franklin. Also killed in 1989 were the Unión Patriótica presidential candidate José Antequera, El Espectador lawyer Hector Giraldo, Bucaramanga radio newsman Luis Vera, judge Martha Gonzales’s father, Medellin reporter Jorge Vallejo, Antioquia governor Antonio Roldan, superior tribunal magistrate Carlos Valencia, and more.
That same year, Forbes listed Escobar as the seventh-richest man in the world with $25 billion.
Changing Attitudes in Washington
Around the same time, American public opinion turned strongly against cocaine with the crack epidemic and Reagan’s “Say NO to Drugs.” Plus, the power the traffickers wielded was destabilizing the region. The Cold War was still on, and US officials worried socialist regimes would get in bed with the cartels. A photo of Escobar’s cocaine being shipped from Nicaragua emerged (1980s Sandinistas‘ Nicaragua).
After ten years of Plan Colombia, using US military to combat drugs doesn’t seem outside the box. But in the 1980s it was unprecedented. The new political implications led the US government to consider Escobar a “clear and present danger.” The potential for teaming with socialists set the stage. The Americans killed in the Avianca bombing sealed the deal. The Bush administration successfully made the legal argument that Escobar could be targeted for military assassination.
Over the next five years, the United States would basically underwrite a secret war in Colombia … The U.S. might have been considering acting unilaterally, if necessary, but Bush clearly preferred cooperation from Colombia.
Bloque de Busqueda
Colombia formed the Bloque de Busqueda, the Search Bloc, a special police force with the sole aim of apprehending high profile Medellin Cartel figures, namely Pablo Escobar. The force was headed by Colonel Hugo Martinez.
Finding Pablo would be especially daunting. The seventh-richest man in the world, Escobar “practially owned Medellin … including much of its police force …” For this reason no paisas were allowed in the Search Bloc (not that many wanted in). This probably kept corruption at bay, but it didn’t make for effective policing in Medellin. Imagine a similar police force in Texas comprised only of non-Texans.
In the first two weeks of its inception, Escobar killed 30 of the Search Bloc’s 200 men.
Centra Spike was designed to offer an array of support intelligence, but its primary specialty was finding people. Eavesdropping on radio and telephone conversations from the air, its members were capable of pinpointing the origin of a radio or cell-phone call with amazing accuracy within seconds.
Planes flew around Medellin listening for Pablo and other Medellin Cartel leaders’ voices on radio or satellite phones. Their conversations were listened to by native Spanish-speaking US soldiers and recorded for Colonel Hugo Martinez’s Search Bloc.
The men of Centra Spike are really interesting. Bona fide spies. A bit on them:
Centra Spike’s team lived in hotel rooms, moving frequently … They avoided restaurants and bars and did their professional best to blend in colorlessly. Secrecy was not just Centra Spike’s protection; it was an essential part of its strategy. So long as their target remained unaware of Centra Spike, the unit would hear and see a lot more. In time, the unit’s goal was to electronically infiltrate the cartel and crawl inside the heads of the men who ran it. Only a handful of people at the U.S. embassy, the ambassador and the CIA station chief, and maybe one or two trusted aides, knew …
A colorful paragraph on the lifestyle of a Centra Spike agent:
When it was impossible to penetrate an organization with a spy, Centra Spike could get inside from a distance, placing “ears on a target.” It still meant that guys like Jacoby would have to move in and stay, often in very dangerous places. In San Salvador, members of the team would leave their hotels in the morning and drive to their airport base as fast as they could go, speeding ninety miles an hour through railroad underpasses where guerrillas liked to lob grenades. For techies like them, few jobs offered the same mix of intellectual stimulation and heart-pounding danger and excitement. If a detachment of Marxist guerrillas was hiding in the hills of Nicaragua, there wasn’t time to do laboratory experiments and write papers and wait for peer reviews. Centra Spike had to come up with a way to find them and track them, for as long as necessary. The unit had ample funding to move fast, adapt, and improvise, and its members enjoyed the urgency and importance men feel when others’ lives depend on their work. Add to that the sense of doing good, of making the world a better place, of serving the United States of America. The work was so compelling that it had undone more than one marriage in the unit, and made some of the men strangers to their children.
Centra Spike provided intelligence which Colombian forces acted on. Much of it was time sensitive, as in, “He’s at this location – GET HIM!” Centra Spike’s first target was cartel lieutenant Jose Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, who they pinpointed at a finca near Bogota. They passed the info to Colombian president Barco, who ordered the air force to “destroy the finca and everyone in it.” The leading pilot spotted a nearby pueblo, making the mission too dangerous to civilians, so the attack was called off last minute.
But this illustrates how Centra Spike’s intelligence fed Colombian law enforcement, although usually in the form of on-the-ground raids which ended in the target being “killed in shootouts with police.”
Escobar’s New Terror Campaign and Manipulation of Public Opinion
Escobar saw himself as a man of the people, an average paisa from Antioquia made good, battling the power elite in Bogota. The national government and press industry is centered in Bogota, and closely linked. Power’s passed between a small club, as in the rest of Latin America. Current president Juan Manuel Santos is from such a family. His great uncle was a former president and owner of El Tiempo.
Escobar’s next move was to pressure the powerful families in Bogota, “We will begin to go for the oligarchs and burn the houses of the rich.” Soon after the inauguration of president Cesar Gaviria, who ran on a hawkish platform against cartels, Escobar kidnapped journalist Diana Turbay, daughter of former president Julio Turbay, plus four members of her news team. He then kidnapped El Tiempo editor Francisco Santos and the son of the paper’s owner. Not done, he kidnapped Marina Montoya, the sister of president Barco’s top aide; Maruja Pachon, sister-in-law of assassinated presidential candidate Galán and wife of a prominent congressman; and the sister of the congressman.
Escobar and other traffickers billed themselves “The Extraditables” and began to play on anti-gringo sentiment and nationalism to repeal Colombia’s extradition treaty. Extradition to the US was their biggest fear; they believed they could always manipulate justice in Colombia, but not America. He started a letter-writing campaign to the public making the case for outlawing extradition in a rewriting of the Colombian Constitution. He claimed his “detentions” of media and government figures were in response to atrocities in the slums of Medellin committed by the Search Bloc.
A new group sprung up, “The Notables.” The Notables were powerful Bogota figures in favor of striking a deal with Escobar. The group comprised of relatives of the kidnapped civilians being held hostage. The Notables, who were among president Gaviria’s same social circle, pressured him. They argued the drug traffickers should be treated as revolutionaries like M-19 as opposed to criminals.
At the same time, Escobar’s bombing campaign in Bogota plus the continuing violence in Medellin (he had an open 5 million peso bounty for any police officer killed) began to weigh on the Colombian public. They wanted an end to the violence. The pressure on the president to strike a deal was immense. In Gabriel Garcia Marquez‘s words, “Gaviria stood, pale as death.”
Surrender, Imprisonment, and Escape
The Colombian Search Bloc, US special ops, and the embassy were pissed when Escobar’s strategy worked. They were on the verge of catching him in Medellin; they’d narrowly missed him twice. But on the day Colombia outlawed extradition, Pablo Escobar turned himself in. Some of his hostages were killed, but most were released.
Pablo’s “confession,” part of his deal with the state, would ignore the kidnappings, the murders of Turbay and Montoya, the thousands of car-bomb victims, political victims, murdered judges and police officers … Pablo acknowledged only one crime: acting as a middleman in a French drug deal arranged by his dead cousin Gustavo. In purely legal terms, he did not even admit he was guilty of that. He had been tried and convicted in absentia by French authorities, and, according to Pablo’s carefully crafted statement, “That country’s penal code … gives one the right to apply for a revision of their case, when they appear before their national judge, in this case a Colombian judge. This is precisely the objective of my voluntary presentation to this office, in other words, to have a Colombian judge examine my case.”
Escobar thought he’d eventually get the conviction tossed. In the mean time, he and other Medellin Cartel figures would serve time in La Catedral, a prison he built for himself which the government had agreed to. The prison was outfitted with big screen TVs, stereo equipment, waterbeds, and more. They regularly had women brought in (normal in Latin American prisons). Search Bloc officers weren’t allowed within 100 meters.
The prison guards were no more than Pablo’s employees, and the army checkpoints just waved Pablo’s trucks through. The inmates facetiously referred to the regular truck route as the “tunnel.” To have plenty of cash on hand, Pablo shipped in tightly rolled American hundred-dollar bills in milk cans, which would be buried in the fog of dawn at places around the prison. Two of the cans, each containing at least $1 million, were buried under the soccer field. A bar was installed, with a lounge and a disco. For the gymnasium there was a sauna. Inmates’ “cells” were actually more like hotel suites, with living rooms, small kitchens, bedrooms, and bath. Workmen began constructing small, camouflaged cabanas uphill from the main prison. This is where Pablo and the other inmates intended to hide out if La Catedral was ever bombed or invaded. In the meantime, the cabanas made excellent retreats, where the men entertained women privately. Brightly colored, surrealistic murals were painted on the walls and ceilings of the cabanas, as in the classic sixties-era dopers’ lairs, complete with black lamps and Surround Sound. Food was prepared for them by chefs Pablo hired away from fine restaurants, and once the bar and disco were up and running, he hosted many parties and even wedding receptions.
He had a powerful telescope placed on the balcony overlooking Medellin, which opened up beneath his feet like a personal fief, so that he could see his wife and children at any of their various homes below. They visited him often at the prison. A small play area was built for Manuela, with a big playhouse stuffed with toys and dolls … Family and friends dined on stuffed turkey, caviar, fresh salmon, smoked trout, and potato salad …
It was not a normal prison in other ways. Pablo, for instance did not feel obliged to actually stay. He rarely missed an important pro soccer game in Medellin – police would block off traffic to allow Pablo’s motorcade easy access to and from the stadium he had built years before – and he was sighted shopping in a fashionable Bogota mall over the Christmas holidays.
Today, La Catedral is a tourist attraction.
Being on the run was bad for Escobar’s business. His own organization had problems and the Cali Cartel were making gains. Being locked up in his own prison actually created a safe haven for Escobar to shore things up. He began house cleaning, ordering killings from the prison. Two cartel chiefs visiting him at the prison, who’d fallen out of his favor, were killed there.
When he heard of the killings, around the same time embarrassing photos of the prison luxuries surfaced, President Gaviria ordered Escobar moved to another prison. Justice Ministry lawyer Eduardo Mendoza was charged with the task. When he arrived at La Catedral to meet the squad which would take the prison, the general refused to assault the prison. After some calls back to Bogota and local discussion, it was decided that Mendoza would go in alone. Inside, Escobar took Mendoza hostage for breaking their agreement.
When word reached the president, the media had already begun covering the happenings. The local general refused to storm the prison, so the president ordered a special force to Medellin to take the palace. By the time they arrived and led the assault, Pablo and most of his crew had walked down the hill, cut holes in the wire fence, and escaped. A joke at the US embassy after this incident:
How many Colombian prison guards and soldiers does it take to let Pablo Escobar escape?
400. 1 to open the gate and 399 to watch.
With Pablo on the loose, the hunt was back on. He continued bombing Bogota. Colonel Hugo Martinez was called back to lead Search Bloc. Centra Spike resumed flying over the country listening to phone conversations. President Gaviria was publicly humiliated, and now wanted all the gringo help he could get. Washington green-lighted whatever it took. Delta Force, some of the baddest men on the planet, were sent in.
However, Delta wouldn’t be used to kill Escobar themselves. They were there to teach the Search Bloc best practices leading assaults and other military tactics. The US decision makers still didn’t want American soldiers pulling triggers.
After a horrifying bookstore bombing in Bogota from Escobar, in which twenty-one mostly children were left dead, a hacienda owned by Escobar’s mother was burned down. Buildings housing Escobar family were bombed. Escobar’s non-criminal associates – bankers, lawyers, etc. – started getting assassinated all over town.
Los Pepes were a vigilante group that sprung up in 1990. “Pepe” stands for Perseguidos por Pablo Escobar – Persecuted by Pablo Escobar. They were most likely headed by relatives of the Medellin cartel figures killed at La Catedral, financed by the Cali Cartel, and it’s generally accepted that Colombian police and the Search Bloc made up much of the rank and file.
A name, the existence of an organized cell of Colombian citizens bent on destroying Pablo Escobar, would strike fear into those associated with or related to the fugitive, if not to Pablo himself. To amplify the menace they needed to advertise, use the media. Their initial appearance was electrifying and started a national guessing game about their identity. Ambassador Busby thought the group had the look of a classic military “psy-op,” or psychological operation, but he didn’t know whose it was.
Los Pepes added new life to an effort that seemed to be going nowhere. A formidable array of enemies were now closing in around Pablo. The effort up until now had been devoted to finding Pablo himself and, in effect, to plucking him off the top of his mountain of financial, legal, and organizational supports. Now the tactics had shifted. Officially and unofficially, Pablo’s enemies had begun to take down the mountain.
By all accounts, Los Pepes were effective in tearing down Escobar’s protective infrastructure. This had been a dirty war for years. It was only a matter of time before Escobar’s terror tactics came back on him. It’s easy for a bleeding-heart liberal to cry foul, but we don’t know what would’ve happened without Los Pepes. If I were a Colombian police officer in the Search Bloc at that time, I’d have been a Pepe.
Los Pepes acted on the same info Centra Spike had passed on to the Search Bloc, and their assault tactics resembled those that Delta taught to the Colombian police. There was major concern among US officials that Delta would be linked to Los Pepes. US forces training extrajudicial death squads – that kind of stuff makes great fodder for American imperialism rants. But this was a dirty war.
Leveraging Escobar’s Family
The CIA prepared a psychological profile of Escobar based on the recordings of his conversations.
Escobar does seem to have genuine paternal feelings for his children, and the young daughter Manuela is described as his favorite. His parents were once kidnapped by a rival group, and Escobar apparently spared no effort or expense rescuing them. Whether his concern for his parents or his children would overcome his stringent security consciousness is not clear.
If the CIA knew that, his former Medellin Cartel partners certainly knew too. In 1993 Los Pepes were killing people associated with Escobar daily in Medellin. They began making public threats against his family.
Escobar tried to fly his family to Miami. The US embassy revoked their visas on the grounds that children couldn’t travel to the US without both parents. The family was met at the Medellin airport and stripped of their visas.
Escobar continued bombing Bogota, but not as fast as Los Pepes continued killing his relatives and associates. The US embassy worked to deny Escobar relatives safe havens. Peru publicly stated no Escobar relative could enter even as a tourist. Costa Rica deported back to Colombia a few relatives who had successfully entered the country, as did Chile. Escobar’s immediate family succeeded in boarding a flight to Germany, but they were stopped and detained for hours in the airport terminal. It was decided they couldn’t enter Germany and flown back to Colombia.
Escobar grew more desperate to protect his family. His teenage son became his main contact. They spoke daily. They were careful in their communications, but Centra Spike continued listening and trying to pinpoint the father.
Escobar was eventually pinpointed and a police team stormed the house. He fled through a window onto a neighboring roof, where he was gunned down. He took a shot in the leg and torso, but the kill shot entered his right ear and out his left. No ballistics were done, but it’s assumed the shot was delivered point blank. There are conspiracy theories that a Delta sniper may have fired that shot, but most believe whichever officer first arrived to the fallen Escobar executed him. If you were a cop, could you blame him?
This photo, which graces the cover of the book, was published in Semana magazine. It caused a controversy in Colombia because the fella on the right is a gringo. The Colombian public was not aware of gringo involvement in the hunt for Pablo.
However, the actual killing of Pablo did not involve any gringos. Centra Spike did not provide the intel that led to Escobar’s location. Colombian intelligence and Colombian police finally caught him. The closing of the deal was a 100% Colombian operation, although gringos were in tow.
An Ode to Colombian Hero Hugo Martinez
The hunt for Pablo Escobar is a great story, required reading for gringos living in Colombia. It’s chock full of heroes, people who gave their lives for Colombia: Lara, Cano, Galán, thousands of Colombian police officers and civilians.
But, for me, the most amazing story was that of Search Bloc leader Colonel Hugo Martinez. I can’t imagine the balls it took to publicly head the search for the biggest killer on the continent in recorded history. He literally entered a death match with the odds stacked against him.
The job of heading up the Search Bloc was supposed to be a rotating position each month because of how dangerous it was. But the bosses quickly retracted that and Martinez ended up the only one. His family was repeatedly targeted by Escobar.
Adding more to Martinez’s story is his son, Hugo Jr., who followed his father’s footsteps into the military. He specialized in surveillance, and he ultimately led the Colombian eavesdropping efforts. Hugo Jr. was personally the one who finally zeroed in on Pablo and called in the raid. It’s a story right out of Hollywood, but it’s true.
Martinez has been subject of criticism for orchestrating Los Pepes and other brutality. Who gives a shit? I take my hat off to father and son.
Author Mark Bowden is also from St. Louis.
Killing Pablo is being developed into a movie, hopefully as bad ass as Blackhawk Down.
This era comprised The Mick‘s first years in Colombia. His first years outside prison were during Pablo’s bombing campaign in Bogota.
Pablo Escobar, as do many paisas, enjoyed sex with adolescent girls.
Escobar didn’t drink or snort much, but he smoked weed every day all day.
Escobar, according to Bowden, “was very articulate, and even though he could slip into the familiar paisa patois, he usually used very clean Spanish, free of vulgarity and with a vocabulary of some sophistication, which he was fond of sprinkling with English words and expressions.”
“Clear and present danger” is the title of the Escobar-inspired book and film by Tom Clancy. At 15 I thought the movie was cool. Now it’s inarguably the cheesiest manifestation of Colombian stereotypes, although it made a point about the state of affairs at the time. Scenes from the film are featured in the hilarious YouTube satire, COLOMBIA: Would you take the risk?
There’s a Pablo Escobar Tour today in Medellin.
The History Channel did a documentary on Killing Pablo. The whole program is published on YouTube. Watch the first of ten parts.
Buy Killing Pablo on Amazon (using that link supports Expat Chronicles).
Fernando Botero’s depiction of the Escobar’s killing:
Read my narcoterrorism article.