Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria (December 1, 1949 – December 2, 1993) was a notorious Colombian drug lord who at the height of his career, supplied about 80% of the cocaine smuggled into the US. Known as “The King of Cocaine”, he was the wealthiest criminal in history, with an estimated known net worth of US$30 billion by the early 1990s, and approximately US$50 billion when including money that was buried in different areas of Colombia.
Pablo Escobar was born in Rionegro, Colombia, the third of seven children to Abel de Jesús Dari Escobar, a farmer, and Hermilda Gaviria, an elementary school teacher. As a teenager on the streets of Medellín, he began his criminal career by allegedly stealing gravestones and sanding them down for resale to smugglers. His brother, Roberto Escobar, denies this, claiming that the gravestones came from cemetery owners whose clients had stopped paying for site care and that they had a relative who had a monuments business. He studied for a short time at the University Autónoma Latinoamericana of Medellín.
Escobar was involved in many criminal activities with Oscar Bernal Aguirre—running petty street scams, selling contraband cigarettes and fake lottery tickets, and stealing cars. In the early 1970s, he was a thief and bodyguard, and he made a quick $100,000 on the side kidnapping and ransoming a Medellín executive before entering the drug trade. His next step on the ladder was to become a millionaire by working for contraband smuggler Alvaro Prieto. Escobar’s childhood ambition was to become a millionaire by the time he was 22.
In The Accountant’s Story, Pablo’s brother and accountant, Roberto Escobar, discusses the means by which Pablo rose from middle-class simplicity and obscurity to become one of the world’s wealthiest men. At the height of its power, the Medellín drug cartel was smuggling fifteen tonnes of cocaine per day, worth more than half a billion dollars, into the United States. According to Roberto, he and his brother’s operation spent $1000 per week purchasing rubber bands to wrap the stacks of cash, storing most of it in their warehouses; 10% had to be written off per year because of “spoilage” by rats that crept in at night and nibbled on the hundred dollar bills.
In 1975, Escobar started developing his cocaine operation. He even flew a plane himself several times, mainly between Colombia and Panama, to smuggle a load into the United States. When he later bought fifteen new and bigger airplanes (including a Learjet) and six helicopters, he decommissioned the plane and hung it above the gate to his ranch at Hacienda Napoles. In May 1976, Escobar and several of his men were arrested and found in possession of 39 pounds (18 kg) of white paste after returning to Medellín with a heavy load from Ecuador. Initially, Pablo tried unsuccessfully to bribe the Medellín judges who were forming the case against him. Instead, after many months of legal wrangling, Pablo had the two arresting officers killed and the case was dropped. Hereafter he began his pattern of dealing with the authorities by either bribing them or killing them. Roberto Escobar maintains Pablo fell into the business simply because contraband became too dangerous to traffic. There were no drug cartels then and only a few drug barons, so there was plenty of business for everyone. In Peru, they bought the cocaine paste, which they refined in a laboratory in a two-story house in Medellín. On his first trip, Pablo bought a paltry 30 pounds worth of paste in what was to become the first step towards the building of his empire. At first, he smuggled the cocaine in old plane tires and a pilot could earn as much as $500,000 per flight depending on how much he could smuggle.
Soon, the demand for cocaine was skyrocketing in the United States and Pablo organized more smuggling shipments, routes, and distribution networks in South Florida, California and other parts of the USA. He and Carlos Lehder worked together to develop a new island trans-shipment point in the Bahamas, called Norman’s Cay. Carlos and Robert Vesco purchased most of the land on the island, which included a 3,300 foot airstrip, a harbour, hotel, houses, boats, aircraft and even built a refrigerated warehouse to store the cocaine. From 1978 to 1982, this was used as a central smuggling route for the Medellín Cartel. (According to his brother’s account, Pablo did not purchase Norman’s Cay. It was, instead, a sole venture of Carlos Lehder.) Escobar was able to purchase the 7.7 square miles (20 km2) of land, which included Hacienda Napoles, for several million dollars. He created a zoo, a lake and other diversions for his family and organization. At one point, it was estimated that seventy to eighty tons of cocaine were being shipped from Colombia to the U.S. every month. At the peak of his power in the mid-1980s, he was shipping as much as eleven tons per flight in jetliners to the United States (the biggest load shipped by Pablo was 23,000 kg mixed with fish paste and shipped via boat, as confirmed by his brother in the book Escobar). In addition to using the planes, Pablo’s brother, Roberto Escobar, said he also used two small remote-controlled submarines to transport the massive loads (these subs were, in fact, manned and this is again documented in Roberto’s book).
In 1982, Escobar was elected as an alternate member of the Chamber of Representatives of Colombia as part of the Colombian Liberal Party. He was the official representative of the Colombian government in the swearing in of Felipe González in Spain.
Soon, Escobar became known internationally as his drug network gained notoriety; the Medellín Cartel controlled a large portion of the drugs that entered into the United States, Mexico, Puerto Rico,Venezuela, Dominican Republic and Spain with cocaine produced with coca from Peru and Bolivia through other drug dealers such as Roberto Suárez Goméz, since Colombian coca was initially of substandard quality and demand for more and better cocaine increased. Escobar’s cocaine reached many other countries in America and Europe through Spain; it was even rumored his network reached as far as Asia.
Corruption and intimidation characterized Escobar’s dealings with the Colombian system. He had an effective, inescapable policy in dealing with law enforcement and the government, referred to as “plata o plomo“, (literally silver or lead, colloquially [accept] money or [face] bullets). This resulted in the deaths of hundreds of individuals, including civilians, policemen and state officials. At the same time, Escobar bribed countless government officials, judges and other politicians. Escobar was allegedly responsible for the 1989 murder of Colombian presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán, one of three assassinated candidates who were all competing in the same election, as well as the bombing of Avianca Flight 203 and the DAS Building bombing in Bogotá in 1989. The Medellín Cartel was also involved in a deadly drug war with its primary rival, the Cali Cartel, for most of its existence. It is sometimes alleged that Escobar backed the 1985 storming of the Colombian Supreme Court by left-wing guerrillas from the 19th of April Movement, also known as M-19, which resulted in the murder of half the judges on the court. Some of these claims were included in a late 2006 report by a Truth Commission of three judges of the current Supreme Court. One of those who discusses the attack is Jhon Jairo Velásquez, aka “Popeye”, a former Escobar hitman. At the time of the siege, the Supreme Court was studying the constitutionality of Colombia’s extradition treaty with the U.S. Roberto Escobar stated in his book, that indeed the M-19 were paid to break into the building of the supreme court, and burn all papers and files on Los Extraditables—the group of cocaine smugglers who were under threat of being extradited to the US by their Colombian government. But the plan backfired and hostages were taken for negotiation of their release, so Los Extraditables were not directly responsible for the actions of the M-19.
Height of Power
During the height of its operations, the cartel brought in more than $60 million per day. (Making roughly $22Bn a year)
Pablo Escobar said that the essence of the cocaine business was “Simple: you bribe someone here, you bribe someone there, and you pay a friendly banker to help you bring the money back.” In 1989, Forbes magazine estimated Escobar to be one of 227 billionaires in the world with a personal net worth of close to US$3 billion while his Medellín Cartel controlled 80% of the global cocaine market. It is commonly believed that Escobar was the principal financier behind Medellín’s Atlético Nacional who won South America’s most prestigious football tournament, the Copa Libertadores in1989.
While seen as an enemy of the United States and Colombian governments, Escobar was a hero to many in Medellín (especially the poor people); he was a natural at public relations and he worked to create goodwill among the poor people of Colombia. A lifelong sports fan, he was credited with building football fields and multi-sports courts, as well as sponsoring children’s football teams.
Escobar was responsible for the construction of many hospitals, schools and churches in western Colombia, which gained him popularity inside the local Roman Catholic Church. He worked hard to cultivate his Robin Hood image and frequently distributed money to the poor through housing projects and other civic activities, which gained him notable popularity among the poor. The population of Medellín often helped Escobar serving as lookouts, hiding information from the authorities, or doing whatever else they could to protect him.
At the height of his power, drug traffickers from Medellín and other areas were handing over between 20% and 35% of their Colombian cocaine-related profits to Escobar, because he was the one who shipped the cocaine successfully to the US.
The Colombian cartels’ continuing struggles to maintain supremacy resulted in Colombia quickly becoming the world’s murder capital with 25,100 violent deaths in 1991 and 27,100 in 1992. This increased murder rate was fueled by Escobar’s giving money to his hitmen as a reward for killing police officers, over 600 of whom died in this way.
In March 1976 at the age of 27, Escobar married Maria Victoria who was 15 years old. Together they had two children: Juan Pablo (now Juan Sebastián Marroquín Santos) and Manuela. Escobar created and lived in a luxurious estate called Hacienda Nápoles and had planned to construct a Greek-style citadel near it. Construction of the citadel was started but never finished. The ranch, the zoo and the citadel were expropriated by the government and given to low-income families in the 1990s under a law called extinción de dominio (domain extinction). The property has been converted into a theme park surrounded by 4 luxury hotels overlooking the zoo and tropical park installation.
La Catedral prison
After the assassination of Luis Carlos Galán, a presidential candidate, the administration of César Gaviria moved against Escobar and the drug cartels. Eventually, the government negotiated with Escobar, convincing him to surrender and cease all criminal activity in exchange for a reduced sentence and preferential treatment during his captivity.
After declaring an end to a series of previous violent acts meant to pressure authorities and public opinion, Escobar surrendered to Colombian authorities in 1991. He was confined in what became his own luxurious private prison, La Catedral. Before Escobar gave himself up, the extradition of Colombian citizens had been prohibited by the newly approved Colombian Constitution of 1991. That was controversial, as it was suspected that Escobar or other drug lords had influenced members of the Constituent Assembly.
Accounts of Escobar’s continued criminal activities began to surface in the media. When the government found out that Escobar was continuing his criminal activities within La Catedral, it attempted to move Escobar to a more conventional jail on July 22, 1992. Escobar’s influence allowed him to discover the plan in advance and make a well-timed escape. He was still worried that he could be extradited to the United States.
Search Bloc and Los Pepes
In 1992, the United States Joint Special Operations Command (consisting of members of USN DEVGRU and Delta Force) and Centra Spike joined the manhunt for Escobar. They trained and advised a special Colombian police task force, known as the Search Bloc, which had been created to locate Escobar. Later, as the conflict between Escobar and the United States and Colombian governments dragged on and the numbers of his enemies grew, a vigilante group known as Los Pepes (Los Perseguidos por Pablo Escobar, “People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar”) was financed by his rivals and former associates, including the Cali Cartel and right-wing paramilitaries led by Carlos Castaño, who would later fund the Peasant Self-Defense Forces of Córdoba and Urabá. Los Pepes carried out a bloody campaign fueled by vengeance in which more than 300 of Escobar’s associates and relatives were slain and large amounts of his cartel’s property were destroyed.
Members of the Search Bloc, and also of Colombian and the United States intelligence agencies, in their efforts to find and punish Escobar, either colluded with Los Pepes or moonlighted as both Search Bloc and Los Pepes simultaneously. This coordination was allegedly conducted mainly through the sharing of intelligence in order to allow Los Pepes to bring down Escobar and his few remaining allies, but there are reports that some individual Search Bloc members directly participated in missions of the Los Pepes death squads. One of the leaders of Los Pepes was Diego Murillo Bejarano (also known as “Don Berna”), a former Medellín Cartel associate who became a drug kingpin and eventually emerged as a leader of one of the most powerful factions within the AUC.
Death and aftermath
The war against Pablo Escobar ended on December 2, 1993; amid another attempt to elude the Search Bloc. Using radio triangulation technology, a Colombian electronic surveillance team, led by Brigadier Hugo Martínez, found him hiding in a middle-class barrio in Medellín. With authorities closing in, a firefight with Escobar and his bodyguard, Alvaro de Jesús Agudelo (a.k.a. “El Limón”), ensued. The two fugitives attempted to escape by running across the roofs of adjoining houses to reach a back street, but both were shot and killed by Colombian National Police. Escobar suffered gunshots to the leg and torso, and a fatal gunshot through the ear. It has never been proven who actually fired the final shot into his head, or determined whether this shot was made during the gunfight or as part of a possible execution, and there is wide speculation about the subject. Some of the family members believe that Escobar could have committed suicide.]His two brothers, Roberto Escobar and Fernando Sánchez Arellano, believe that he shot himself through the ears: “He committed suicide, he did not get killed. During all the years they went after him, he would say to me every day that if he was really cornered without a way out, he would shoot himself through the ears.”
After Escobar’s death and the fragmentation of the Medellín Cartel, the cocaine market soon became dominated by the rival Cali Cartel, until the mid-1990s when its leaders, too, were either killed or captured by the Colombian government.
The Robin Hood image that he had cultivated continued to have lasting influence in Medellín. Many there, especially many of the city’s poor that had been aided by him while he was alive, mourned his death. About 25,000 were present for his burial.
Virginia Vallejo’s testimony
On July 4, 2006, Virginia Vallejo, a television anchorwoman who was romantically involved with Escobar from 1983 to 1987, offered her testimony in the trial against former Senator Alberto Santofimio, accused of conspiracy in the 1989 assassination of Presidential Candidate Luis Carlos Galán, to the Colombian Attorney General Mario Germán Iguarán Arana. Iguarán acknowledged that, although Vallejo contacted his office on July 4, the judge had decided to close the trial on July 9, several weeks before the prospective closing date and, in (Iguarán’s) opinion, “too soon”.
On July 16, 2006, Vallejo was taken to the United States in a special flight of the Drug Enforcement Administration. According to the American Embassy in Bogotá, this was done for “safety and security reasons” because Vallejo’s cooperation was needed in high-profile criminal cases. On July 24, 2006, a video in which Vallejo accused former Senator Alberto Santofimio of instigating Escobar to eliminate presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán in her presence was aired on Colombian television. In 2007, Vallejo published her book Amando a Pablo, odiando a Escobar (Loving Pablo, Hating Escobar), where she describes her relationship with the drug lord during the early years of the cocaine boom, and his charity projects for the poor when he was a deputy congressman. She gives her account of Escobar’s relationship with Caribbean governments and dictators and his role in the birth of the M.A.S. (Death to Kidnappers) and Los Extraditables (The Extraditables). Vallejo also gives her account of numerous incidents throughout Escobar’s political and criminal career, such as the assassination of Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla in 1984, her lover’s feud with the Cali Cartel and the era of narcoterrorism that began after the couple’s farewell in September 1987.
Among Escobar’s biographers, only Vallejo has given a detailed explanation of his role in the 1985 Palace of Justice siege and the atrocities that took place before, during and after the tragedy. (“Amando a Pablo, odiando a Escobar”, “Aquel Palacio en llamas”, pages 227–264). The journalist stated that Escobar financed the operation, committed by the rebel M-19 group, but blamed the army for the killings of the Supreme Court Justices and the detained after the coup. In 2008, she was asked to testify in the reopened Palace case, and in 2009 most of the events that she had described in her book and testimonial were confirmed by the Commission of Truth. In 2010 and 2011, a high-ranking former colonel and a former general were sentenced to thirty and thirty-five years in prison for forced disappearance of the detained after the siege.
In August 2009, Vallejo testified in the case of Luis Carlos Galán’s assassination, which had also been reopened. She also accused several politicians, including Colombian presidents Alfonso López Michelsen, Ernesto Samper and Álvaro Uribe of links to the drug cartels. Uribe denied Vallejo’s allegations. On June 3, 2010, Vallejo was granted political asylum in the United States of America.
Escobar’s widow, María Victoria Henao (now María Isabel Santos Caballero), son, Juan Pablo (now Juan Sebastián Marroquín Santos), and daughter, Manuela, fled Colombia in 1995 after failing to find a country that would grant asylum. Argentinian filmmaker Nicolas Entel’s documentary Sins of My Father chronicles Marroquín’s efforts to seek forgiveness from the sons of Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, Colombia’s justice minister in the early 1980s, who was assassinated in 1984, as well as the sons of Luis Carlos Galán, the presidential candidate, who was assassinated in 1989. The film was shown at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and premiered in the US on HBO in October 2010.
The body of Pablo Escobar was exhumed on October 28, 2006 at the request of some of their relatives in order to take a DNA sample to confirm the alleged paternity of an illegitimate child and remove all doubt about the identity of the body that had been buried next to his parents for 12 years. A video of the moment was broadcast by RCN, a fact that angered his son, Juan Sebastian Marroquin, who accused his uncle, Roberto Escobar Gaviria, and nephew, Nicolas Escobar, of being “merchants of death”.