Pablo Escobar: “King of Cocaine”

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Pablo Escobar was once the world’s most successful drug trafficker in history. He was also responsible for numerous killings. During his 17-year reign as the leader of the Colombian cocaine empire, he ordered the murders of judges, government officials and Presidential candidates.

At the peak of his success, he was bringing in over a million dollars a day, but at the end of his power, he was forced to live as a fugitive in the Colombian jungle. He was killed in the city that he once ruled over, and his fall from grace was massive.

Early Life

Pablo Escobar was born December 1st, 1949 in a town outside Medellin, Colombia. His father was a hard-working cattle farmer, and his mother was a school teacher. Pablo, the second of seven children, was raised in a middle-class environment in a community that was fuelled by the cocaine and marijuana trade. Although not everyone directly participated in the drug business, they all had a powerful incentive in the protection of those that did. The violence that was part and parcel of enforcing the narcotics trade was all around.

Before Pablo started school, the family moved to Envigado, a small village just out of Medellin, so that Hermilda could establish an elementary school there. Abel sold the farm and took up a job as a neighborhood watchman. Through her work at the school, Hermilda soon became a popular and well-respected member of the community.

At school, Pablo proved himself to be an able and quick-witted student. Although tending toward the chubby side, thanks to his love of fast food, he was talented in all ball sports, with a special love for soccer. Many of his teachers are involved in social causes, especially the struggle for class equality and they became powerful influences on the boy. By the time he was in his early teens, Pablo was attending street rallies and participating in such activities as throwing rocks at the police.

Pablo became part of a youth culture movement known as Nadaismo which encouraged young people to thumb their noses at the established order, disobey their parents and write their own rules. Part of this counterculture movement involved experimentation with drugs, leading the thirteen-year-old future drug kingpin to develop an addiction to marijuana which would never leave him.

Entering the Thug Life

By the age of sixteen Pablo had developed into a plump, short youth, standing at just over five foot, six inches. He had a round face and wore a slight mustache. A couple of months before reaching his seventeenth birthday, he dropped out of school, bored with the straight-laced routine and keen to make his own way in the world.

After quitting school, the enterprising Pablo started up a little bicycle repair shop. He would prowl the streets and the local dump in search of discarded bicycle parts and then use them to fix bikes for cheap. With the money that he made from this enterprise, he purchased himself a Lambretta motorcycle. Now with a means of fast escape, he began planning how to make money more easily than repairing bicycles for a pittance.

According to legend, Pablo’s foray into crime began with him stealing headstones from the local cemetery, sandblasting the names from them and then reselling them.

Pablo decided that the route to quick cash lay in a commercial business robbery. He started by scoping out potential targets. He would then ride to the target business on his motorbike, slip a balaclava over his head and rush the business with a knife or gun in hand, demand the money and then get out of there. It all happened in about 30 seconds.

After a few successful robberies, Pablo recruited his cousin to join him. One would ride the bike and act as the getaway rider while the other stormed the business. Within a few months, Pablo became bored with this and moved on to bigger — and easier — things. He established contact with a Renault car dealer who would provide him with copies of the keys to the cars that he had just sold, along with the addresses of the buyers. All that Pablo had to do was turn up at the addresses and drive the cars away.

In his late teens, Pablo got caught in the act of stealing one of these cars. He ended up spending several months in La Ladera Jail, which was to him, a positive life experience. Here he learned about how to move into bigger time criminal activity, including kidnapping and drug trafficking.

Pablo’s violent streak begins

Once back on the street, Pablo and his cousin Gustavo went right back to stealing cars. They built up a collection of stolen engine parts which they would sell off bit by bit. The pair took to building race cars, with Pablo competing in local events. Pablo and Garcia weren’t the only ones stealing cars in Medellin, which led to an extension of his operation. He decided to also sell protection so that people would pay him to ensure that their car did not get taken.

Pablo was able to provide such a service because he had developed a reputation as an unpredictable and violent young man. If anyone owed him money, Pablo would hire some local thug to kidnap the person. He would them ransom him for whatever was owed to him. From time to time he would have the person killed even when the ransom was paid, simply to engender fear in those he dealt with.

Before long, Pablo decided to specialize in kidnappings for their own sake. Along with his cousin and future brother-in-law, he nabbed a rich businessman by the name of Diego Echavarria. This man was intensely disliked by many of the poor workers in Medellin, who were being laid off in droves by industrialists like him. Despite the family okaying the $50,000 ransom demand, Echavarria was beaten, strangled and then dumped in a ditch. Even though he had just committed a terrible crime, his choice of the victim made Pablo hugely popular among the common folk of Medellin. In a strange way, they saw the killing as Pablo striking a blow for social equality.

Pablo’s Drug Trade Begins

In 1971, the 22-year old Pablo began working for Medellin based contraband dealer Alvaro Prieto. Under Prieto, Pablo was doing a modest amount of drug trafficking. Before long, however, he decided that he wanted more of a slice of the pie for himself. He drove his stolen Renault 4 to Ecuador and bought five kilos of Peruvian cocaine paste. Successfully passing through a number of police and military checkpoints, he returned to Medellin, where he processed the cocaine. He next contacted fellow criminals the Ochoa brothers to set up a sale to local cocaine chief Fabio Restrepo. The sale netted Pablo close to a hundred thousand dollars, far surpassing anything he had previously done, and setting him firmly on the path to becoming a high-end drug dealer.

Within two months, Fabio Restrepo had been murdered. Suddenly there was a new man at the head of the Medellin cocaine operation — Pablo Escobar. It has never been conclusively proven that Pablo murdered Restrepo, but that was what everyone involved believed. The majority of those working for Restrepo were upper-class dandies. They were frightened by Pablo and the ruthless hoodlums he surrounded himself with.

Shortly after muscling his way to the top of the Medellin cocaine syndicate, Pablo married fifteen-year-old Maria Victoria Helena Vellejo. Now aged twenty-six, he had a wife, wealth and power. It seemed like the sky was the limit.

Pablo takes the top spot

The cocaine trade from Panama, through Colombia and into the United States boomed in the late 1970’s, with most of it being trafficked though Escobar’s organization. Under Pablo, the cocaine industry became streamlined. He purchased a fleet of airplanes, including a Lear jet to transport the drugs into the United States where there was an inexhaustible supply of willing buyers.

Two months after his wedding, Pablo and four others were arrested after returning from a drug run to Ecuador. Drug enforcement agents found 39 kilos of cocaine hidden in the spare tire of their truck. That amount of coke would see Pablo being put away for a long time.

His first tactic in getting out of the mess was to bribe the trial judge. The offer however was flatly rejected. Pablo then had his team research the judge’s background. They discovered that he had a brother who was a lawyer and that the two men did not get on. The lawyer was contacted and offered a huge amount to represent Pablo in the case. As suspected, the judge was forced to recuse himself due to conflict of interest. The new judge didn’t have as many scruples as the first. He accepted a bribe and Pablo and his cohorts walked free.

Exorbitant amounts of money were now pouring into Colombia, with deposits in the country’s four major banks doubling between 1976 and 1980. Pablo was able to use his millions to take possession of every step of his operation, traveling to Peru, Bolivia and Panama and buying up all the cultivation farms and processing plants. He was also able to buy off enforcement agencies in every country, developing a ruthless policy which came to be known as ‘plato o plomo’ — silver or lead. If officials didn’t accept his bribe they could expect to end up dead.

By 1980, Pablo was at the height of his power. With every law enforcement agency on his payroll, he was the unofficial king of Medellin. He wasn’t the only cocaine impresario in Colombia, but he was the most successful. He owned multiple mansions, racing cars, helicopters and planes and was constantly surrounded by bodyguards and hangers-on. Cocaine money transformed Medellin, with discos and high-end restaurants opening up all over the city.

One of Pablo’s passions was soccer and now he was able to indulge it. He paid to have fields leveled and sodded and lights installed so that he and his crew could play at night time. He would also employ professional game callers to announce the matches as if they were an FA cup final.

In 1979, Pablo built a lavish country estate on a seventy-four-hundred-acre ranch, eighty miles of Medellin, dubbing it Hacienda Los Napoles. He brought exotic animals from all over the world to populate the farm, built six swimming pools and a huge mansion that could sleep a hundred guests.

At the same time that he was indulging his every materialistic whim in private, Pablo began tending to his public image. Pablo constantly denied that he was involved in any illicit activity, portraying a formal, likable persona and appearing humble and polite. He consciously cultivated the image that he was a freedom fighter for the underprivileged, setting himself up as an alternative to the establishment. Escobar also poured millions of dollars into social construction programs.

Between 1980–1982, Pablo did more to help out the poor in Medellin than the Colombian government had ever done. One of his most popular initiatives was a housing project called Barrio Pablo Escobar, where houses were built and given to families who had previously been sheltering in shacks at the city dump. This and a host of other projects easily made him the most popular citizen in Medellin.

In private, Pablo conducted himself in an understated manner. He spoke softly and was generally relaxed and casual with those around him. He was hugely self-indulgent — with food, drink, and women — and considered himself a law unto himself. On one occasion when an employee was found to have stolen from him, Pablo had him brought before him bound hand and foot and then kicked him into the swimming pool, making everyone watch as the man drowned.

Pablo’s political aspirations

With his popularity among the masses firmly established and his dominance over his empire assured, the next logical step for Pablo was politics. His path to the legitimate office began in 1978 when he was elected as a substitute city councilor in Medellin. In 1980 he gave his personal and financial support to the formation of a new national political movement, the New Liberal Party. Then, in 1982 he ran for and was elected to Congress, albeit as a substitute who attended when the primary delegate from Medellin was unavailable.

A major perk of being elected to Congress was that Pablo now had judicial immunity, meaning that he could not be convicted for a crime under Colombian law. The position also afforded him a diplomatic visa, which he made use of to regularly take his family on trips to the United States. On one trip he purchased an $8 million mansion in Miami Beach, Florida.

Pablo now had political legitimacy to go with his massive wealth. The next acquisition was a personal army. Escobar launched a private militia to find those responsible for kidnapping a family friend. Pablo’s army was known as ‘Death to Kidnappers.’

Pablo’s wider exposure as a result of his political office was the beginning of his downfall. In Medellin, he was viewed as a Robin Hood figure, but when he tried to gain the favor of polite Colombian society he was not welcomed. They viewed him as what he really was — a ruthless cocaine king with absolutely no scruples.

When he turned up to take his seat in Congress as an alternate for the first time on August 16th, 1983 with a bevy of bodyguards in tow he was first denied entry for not wearing a tie. He quickly got hold of one and swept into the packed chamber. He slumped down in his allocated seat and began nervously to bite his fingernails.

Immediately the Chamber president stood and demanded that all bodyguards be removed from the chamber. Pablo nodded and his thugs left the room. Within minutes Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara was on his feet. Defending a claim of corruption that had been brought against him, Lara pointed the finger at Pablo, stating . . .

We have a congressman who was born in a very poor area himself, very, very poor, and afterwards, 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 in the United Sates, of which I cannot inform you here tonight in the House, on the criminal conduct of [Pablo Escobar].

Pablo said nothing in the House. When he left he was besieged by reporters. Breaking free, he stormed off. Through his lawyer he informed Lara that if he did not present evidence of his claims within 24 hours he would face legal action. Lara willingly obliged and in the coming days the newspapers were filled with all sorts of revelations about Pablo’s criminal activity.

Pablo’s Downfall

Pablo was now persona non-grata in political circles. He was kicked out of the New Liberal Party and the US Embassy revoked his diplomatic visa. The Catholic church also renounced their support of him. The government even seized 85 of the exotic animals on Pablo’s ranch claiming that they had entered the country illegally. Pablo’s political career was now in ruins.

Even worse for Pablo, the Colombia government, at Lara’s urgings, were fast-tracking an extradition treaty with the US that would see him tried in America for selling cocaine in that country.

In May 1984, Justice Minister Lara was shot seven times while riding in his chauffeur-driven limousine. But Pablo had more powerful enemies. US President Ronald Reagan had announced a major crackdown on the cocaine trade. With the death of Lara, the Colombian government was willing to cooperate with American authorities to go after Narco kingpins. Pablo was the biggest of them all.

The killing of Lara also turned much of the Colombian population against Pablo. By the act, he had declared war on the state. For Pablo, the heat was too much to bear and he skipped the country, taking a helicopter to Panama City. Yet, despite being offered asylum in Panama by President Manuel Noriega the year before, Pablo and his cronies were not welcomed by the authorities.

After just a few weeks in exile, Pablo was desperate to get back home. He made overtures to the Colombian government, drafting a proposal whereby he would go straight and use his massive influence to rid Colombia of drug trafficking provided that he could retain his possessions in Medellin and that he would be exempt from arrest or extradition to the US.

The offer was roundly rejected. When the Panamanian army raided one of the labs he had situated on the Colombian border he fled Panama for Nicaragua. Meanwhile, he was hearing that his absence from Colombia was undermining his control of the Medellin cartel. The kidnapping of his 73-year-old father was a step too far. Pablo ordered a killing frenzy throughout Medellin. Dozens of suspected kidnappers were gunned down. Finally, the old man was released with no ransom being paid.

Pablo Declares War

In the midst of the carnage over his father’s kidnapping, Pablo returned to Colombia. He was now determined to take on the state with everything that he had. Around Medellin he was untouchable, having bought off every official. This allowed him, although being the most wanted man in the country, to move around the town freely.

Pablo’s vengeful focus during the mid-80’s was squarely centered on the judiciary, especially judges who supported the extradition treaty with the US. During this time more than thirty judges were shot dead. Then, in November, 1985, the guerrilla group M-19, having been paid a million dollars by Pablo, stormed the Palace of Justice and held the entire Supreme Court hostage. They demanded that the government renounce the extradition treaty. In the resulting siege, 11 of the 24 justices, along with 40 of the rebels, were killed.

By the beginning of 1988, killings were being reported almost on a daily basis. Martial law was declared in ordered to prevent the state from toppling. On August 18th, 1989 Pablo’s kill squads gunned down both the front-running presidential candidate Luis Galan and a state police chief. In the following four months, the Colombian government apprehended and sent more than twenty suspected drug traffickers to the United States to stand trial. A national police unit was stationed to Medellin specifically to hunt down Pablo. Within the first month, 30 of the two hundred men stationed there had been killed.

Pablo was evading his government and inflicting enormous casualties, but he was a man constantly on the run. He always stayed a step ahead of his pursuers, but he was growing tired of the constant relocations needed to do so. Eventually, he agreed to negotiate.

Pablo agreed to put an end to the violence, stop all criminal activity and hand himself in. In exchange, he demanded preferential treatment in a prison of his choosing and a reduced settlement. The government had already revoked the extradition treaty to the US with its 1991 Constitution so he didn’t have to worry about being sent to America.

Pablo was duly arrested and tried. He began his sentence at La Catedral prison in June 1991. But this was like no other prison on earth. It featured a football pitch, jacuzzi, and bar. The prison guards were all employees of Pablo. The prison cells were more like hotel suites and the food that Pablo and his fellow inmates ate was prepared by chefs who were brought in from fine restaurants.

After a few months, accounts began to reach official channels that Pablo was continuing to pursue his criminal activities from La Catedral. This was a violation of the surrender agreement and moves were put in place to seize him and move him to a regular prison. Pablo’s connections enabled him to get wind of the plan and he escaped before the authorities could get to him.

Pablo On the Run

The hunt for Pablo was back on. But now the US and Colombian authorities were joined by a vigilante group known as Los Pepes, which stood for ‘People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar.’ Los Pepes carried out a ruthless campaign, killing as many as three hundred people who were connected to Pablo and his organization.

Following his escape from La Catedral, Pablo was constantly on the run. Most of his closest associates were dead and his organization was falling apart. He was spending nights sleeping in the jungle, afraid to speak on the radio or to answer the phone.

Fate finally caught up with Pablo Escobar on December 2nd, 1993. Members of a Colombian Search Bloc team had tracked him down to the house in the barrio of Los Olivos in Medellin via radio intercepts. The Search Bloc team smashed through the heavy steel door with a sledgehammer, whereupon six of them rushed into the house. It was then that the shooting started. In the house with Pablo was his most loyal bodyguard, Limon. They both bolted from the front room and made their way up onto the roof. The six Search Bloc members, along with others outside poured a massive barrage of gunfire at their targets. Limon was hit several times in the back and toppled to the ground below. Then Pablo went down. He was struck several times in the leg and torso but the fatal shot penetrated his skull.

Pablo Escobar
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On confirming his target, the leader of the operation spoke excitedly into his radio . . . ‘Viva la Colombia — we have just killed Pablo Escobar!’

But had they?

Pablo had always told his family that, if cornered he would commit suicide by placing a bullet in his skull. Many people believe that he did so, once more escaping the clutches of the Colombian authorities.