Ask most people what comes to mind when thinking about Colombia and most will say either Pablo Escobar or cocaine. The former is a key figure why people associate the latter with Colombia. We went on a tour in Medellin to learn about this notorious criminal and to discover how this city has moved on from his death.
Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria was born into a rather violent Medellin on Dec 1st, 1949. By 1989 Forbes magazine would list him as the 7th richest man on the planet due to his role trafficking drugs, most notably cocaine. His criminal life started when he teamed up with his cousin Gustavo Gaviria, allegedly stealing headstones, sandblasting them, and reselling them. He became an accomplished car thief by his early 20s, and he set up a small industry in stripping and selling the parts. From this he graduated to kidnapping and extortion. In one notable case he kidnapped an industrialist, Diego Echavarria, who had been laying off staff at his textile mill at the time. Although his family paid the ransom of $50,000 Escobar strangled him anyway. His death was celebrated by the workers who nicknamed Escobar ‘El Doctor’, a nickname that would endure.
This started a connection between Escobar and the working classes in his native Medellin that would allow him to evade numerous Colombian and US law enforcement organisations that would later try to capture and then kill him.
In the late 70s cocaine became the drug of choice. The pathways used to smuggle marijuana to the States became expressways to transport cocaine. Escobar simply murdered or threatened the people who controlled this trade and took it over. He developed a way of dealing with the authorities and his rivals called ‘plata o plomo’. Either you accepted his plata (silver) or his plomo (lead). By the end of the decade the cartel which Escobar ran in Medellin would be responsible for more than half of the cocaine that found its way to the States, netting a return flow not in millions, but billions of dollars. At it’s height the cartel would make $60 million per day!
This huge income backrolled the candidacies of mayors, councilmen, congressmen and presidents. Escobar owned 19 different residences in Medellin alone, each with a heliport, and fleets of boats and planes. Medellin experienced a construction boom, and unemployment plummeted. Bank deposits in Colombia’s biggest four cities between 1976 – 1980 more than doubled.
Rumours abound about Pablo Escobar, particularly when it comes to money. He apparently offered to pay off Colombia’s national debt with $10 billion in return for a pardon. The Medellin cartel were at one point apparently spending $2,500 per month just on rubber bands to bind the huge amounts of cash together.
However, it goes without saying that he was a rather unpleasant chap. He was a paedophile who frequently used prostitutes, the younger the better. In fact he had to obtain special dispensation from the local bishop to marry his wife who was 15 at the time. Although he very seldom used his own product, although he was a habitual cannabis smoker.
In 1979 he built a private villa, Hacienda Napoles, complete with private airstrip, on a 7,400 acre plot 80 miles from Medellin and proceeded to fly in hundreds of exotic animals such as elephants, rhinoceroses, lions, buffalos, gazelles, zebras, hippos, camels and ostriches. He even mounted the first light aircraft that he used to smuggle drugs to the States on the entrance gate. Napoles would be the scene of extravagant and legendary parties.
In one case Escobar’s wife was enraged when she discovered he was hosting a party so she instructed one of his pilots to fly her to the mansion. He caught wind of her impending arrival and encouraged his guests to board one of his jets and to continue the party in the air as his pilot circled the mansion. When his wife left the plane landed and the party continued.
When his empire began to fall apart Napoles was seized by the Colombian government and all the animals were transferred to zoos, although they couldn’t lure the hippos out of the numerous lakes Escobar had created and so they were left, presumed to die out. However, amusingly, Colombia is now home to the only wild hippos outside Africa as the animals have not only survived but are thriving in an environment clearly well suited to their needs.
Escobar fancied himself as a man of the people and he invested heavily in football pitches, electrical lines, roller skating rinks and housing developments for Medellin’s poor, including one he modestly called ‘Barrio Pablo Escobar’. He would even hand out cash at public appearances when he would open these facilities.
His public popularity would grow to the extent that he was elected as a ‘substitute’ to the Medellin representative to the Colombian congress. This not only gave him judicial immunity but also a diplomatic passport that enabled him to visit Europe and the States, including a trip to the White House where he had a photo taken with his son.
However, Escobar’s reign would not last. His desire to be a political figure, loved by ‘his’ people, was to be his downfall. As his criminal profile rose, so did the number of Colombian and US agencies that put a price on his head; dead or alive. The US government invested billions of dollars in hunting Escobar, employing the CIA, DEA, FBI, ATF, NSA, the army, navy and air force alongside the Colombian law enforcement agencies. They even worked with the Cali cartel, the Medellin’s cartel’s fierce rivals, and militia groups. There were so many American spy planes in the air over Medellin, at one point 17, trying to track Escobar that the air force had to deploy another aircraft, an AWAC (Airborne Warning and Control Centre), to coordinate proceedings.
Despite this huge effort to find Escobar he not only successfully evaded capture but did so by staying in and around his native Medellin where he had a network of safe houses, trusted associates and his private taxi. However, time was running out. The US agencies fed information to ‘Los Pepes‘, a group of armed vigilantes, who started to destroy his network by brutally torturing and killing anyone that he was associated with, from his lawyers to friends and family members. The gloves were off.
On the 2nd December Escobar was speaking with his son on the radio to answer a list of questions posed by a journalist. He stayed on the radio for too long, allowing a nearby search team to locate him and his trusted friend, Limón. Both were shot whilst trying to escape.
Killing Pablo Escobar had become a political priority in the US although the time and effort invested in this pursuit far outweighed the benefit. At the time of his death his network had been demolished and he no longer yielded any power. Furthermore it was evident that the Cali cartel’s influence grew as a result of the single minded approach to killing Escobar. They apparently controlled every member of the Colombian government, the sole exception being the country’s Attorney General. The cost of cocaine on the streets of America was lower in the aftermath of his death than it had been when his manhunt started, and the US was complicit in brutal torture and murder.
One gram of cocaine costs approximately £7 in Colombia although nearly ten times that in Europe or the US, so it is evident that the majority of the money injected into the drug trade comes from closer to home. Also today it is Peru that is the capital of cocaine production so Colombians are keen to point out that the stigma of the drug being associated with their country is unfair. We found Medellin to be an amazingly cosmopolitan city, with lots of fantastic bars, restaurants, and cafes that would put many in London to shame. Contrary to popular belief Colombia is not rife with cocaine and drug dealers, although whisper it quietly as it might just be this misconception that keeps the hordes of tourists away and makes it a special place to visit.
‘Killing Pablo‘ by Mark Bowden has been used to write this article. It is an interesting read for those wanting to know more about Pablo Escobar and his demise.