By David Amoruso
Posted on February 26, 2010
Copyright © www.gangstersinc.nl
Colombia is a country which has seen its home grown drug Cartels become just as powerful as its government. The leaders of these Cartels have amassed a fortune during the 1970s and 1980s, which they have used to bribe important political figures, and strengthen their firepower. At one point the Cartels felt so strong they started assassinating politicians, judges, and cops like they were common criminals. The money had brought them power and, in their opinion, immunity. But they were wrong, and the Colombian government began fighting back, which caused the Cartels to use even more violence. Within several months Colombia turned into a warzone.
Colombia already had a bloody history. It has been plagued by civil wars. In the 19th century a total of eight civil wars were fought. But the twentieth century also had something in store, a war the Colombians called the "Violencia" which lasted from 1948 until 1956, leaving an estimated 300.000 Colombians dead.
During the Violencia a young boy was trying to survive. That boy would cause just as much violence as a civil war. His name was Pablo Escobar (photo right). Escobar and his family lived in poverty. His mother made little money working as a teacher, and his father had no education and was getting too old to work. Escobar decided to quit his study at the university and enter the criminal world. To Escobar it was a simple decision because he saw his family desperately needed money. He would frequently say: "I will not die a poor bastard, I swear. For me God comes first, followed closely by the money!"
Escobar got involved with smugglers. He and his cousin Gustavo Gaviria started working as bodyguards and smugglers for the powerful Alfredo Gomez. While learning all there was to know about smuggling Escobar quickly became a rich man. He started organizing his own group and began smuggling cocaine. When a few of his drug smugglers were caught by the Colombian police (DAS) Escobar decided to bribe the police director. Unfortunately for Escobar, it was a sting operation, and he was arrested on the spot.
The case got a lot of media attention, and it was hailed as a huge success against the drug dealers. Escobar's men threatened the presiding judge Mariela Espinoza, but to no avail. She said she would rather die than let free a man who deserved to go to prison. But thanks to some judicial glitch Escobar managed to move the trial to another town. Of course he had more influence there, and subsequently was released after a few months after bribing the judge. But the case kept hanging over Escobar's head because Espinoza refused to dismiss it. Within a few years judge Espinoza, the DAS director, and two DAS agents who were involved in his arrest were murdered. It would be the first sign of what was to come.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s Pablo Escobar was shipping huge amounts of cocaine to the US. Starting in 1977 he had built drug labs to produce cocaine. The cocaine paste and cocaine base were obtained via contacts in Peru and Bolivia. In those early years he used small planes to ship the cocaine into the US. Escobar's organization took care of everything: import of raw material, processing, export and distribution. Together with several other drug bosses, chief among them were the Ochoa family, Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, and Carlos Lehder, he formed the Medellin Cartel. They agreed they would share investments in large sophisticated cocaine labs and other costly ventures. In terms of fire power the Cartel could rely on former soldiers and police officers, but they also had a huge army of sicarios, boys from the slums in and around Medellin, who would kill any target when ordered to do so.
Bring the heat
On March 10, 1984 a group of fifty members of the Colombian anti-narcotics brigade and fifty Special Forces from the anti-extortion-and-kidnapping brigade are flying over the remote Caqueta region of Colombia. Looking down from their helicopters they spot several camps. The camps are precisely where their tracking devices said they'd be. Several months earlier the American DEA put two radio transmitters in a shipment of two hundred tons of ether (a key ingredient in cocaine that is not produced in Colombia) and tipped the Colombian authorities about the load. Now they found its final location in the jungle of Colombia.
At first the anti narcotics agents thought they had uncovered one drug lab, but it turned out they had found seven large labs that were producing tons of cocaine. The entire complex was ten square kilometers and included three landing strips for small aircraft, a radio communications office and a medical center. The staff and workers had their own houses which included bathrooms, showers, washing machines, television and air conditioning. Millions of dollars worth of cocaine was confiscated, and forty people were arrested. Directly after this bust the price of cocaine on the American streets rose considerably. It showed how much control the Medellin Cartel had over the American cocaine market.
The loss of these factories made the drug bosses furious. Pablo Escobar especially was so enraged he was willing to go to war. In the previous years he had tried to establish a career in politics, which failed. He held one man responsible for both his failed political career and the bust in Caqueta: Minister of Justice Rodrigo Lara. Escobar ordered two of his men to form a hit team and kill Lara. Several young men from the Medellin slums were recruited and on April 30, 1984 the two hit men are driving besides Lara's car during a traffic jam. One of the men pulls out an automatic fire arm and fires several shots through the back window. Lara died on the way to the hospital.
In a reaction to the murder of Rodrigo Lara, Colombian President Belisario Betancur said that his government would resume the extradition of Colombian criminals to the United States. He also ordered an increase in anti drugs operations. The heat was on, and the leaders of the Medellin Cartel decided to lay low in Panama where they were friendly with General Manuel Noriega, who would soon become the nation's leader.
Safe from harm's way Escobar almost immediately began plotting his return. He and Jorge Ochoa met with former Colombian President Alfonso López and former Minister of Justice Alberto Santofimio in the Marriott Hotel in Panama City and made them an offer they could hardly refuse. Claiming they spoke for the top one hundred drug bosses, the two men said they would "dismantle everything" and return the billions deposited in Swiss bank accounts to Bogota banks if the government would let them keep their fortunes and promise not to extradite them. Furthermore they wanted all their past crimes to be forgiven. When President Betancur heard of the offer he sent his attorney general to Panama, but the deal never went through. Too many people thought Escobar had gone too far, so they opposed the deal.
Unable to go home, Escobar lived in exile in Panama where things took a turn for the worse when Noriega's men raided several drug labs. And when several Ochoa men were falsely implicated in a murder plot against Noriega, it was clear the drug bosses needed a new safe heaven, so they fled to Nicaragua.
There they were almost caught in a DEA sting operation. With the help of American pilot and drug trafficker-turned-informant Barry Seal the DEA had planted a camera in the nose of an airplane. When Seal landed in Nicaragua and his plane was being loaded with 750 kilos of cocaine, the camera captured pictures of Escobar and Rodriguez Gacha supervising the loading. Two of the most wanted drug bosses were now directly tied to the dope. Back in Washington politicians were more interested in another aspect of the photos. The photos proved a link between the Sandinista regime and top Colombian cocaine traffickers. With this new evidence the Reagan administration could convince congress to continue funding for the Contras, the pro democracy forces who were fighting the Marxist Sandinista government. The DEA wanted the photos to remain secret, but Washington wanted them used in a public relations offensive.
The photos eventually resulted in a Miami indictment of Pablo Escobar and Jorge Ochoa, which charged them with organizing the 750 kilo load. Escobar reacted in typical fashion when a car bomb exploded in front of the Bogota residence of the American ambassador. Five months later the ambassador fled Colombia for good. Barry Seal was less lucky. He made a critical error when he refused to join the witness protection program. A sicario of Pablo Escobar tracked him down in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and killed him for betraying the Cartel.
It was clear to Escobar that, no matter where he went, authorities would try and hunt him down. Rather than fight against foreign governments in countries he was not familiar with, Escobar decided to go home, and fight the Colombian government on his own turf. One of his main demands was that the Colombian government would stop extraditing its citizens to other countries, mainly the US. He founded a pressure group called “Los Extraditables,” and in November 1986 he wrote an open letter to the Colombian people in which he said that if the extraditions stopped, the violence would too. One sentence in the letter made perfectly clear how serious these men were: “We prefer a grave in Colombia over a prison cell in the United States”.
The drug lords used bribery and propaganda to influence the legislation regarding the extradition issue, but when more and more judges and journalists began turning against the Cartel their method took a violent turn. Judges and politicians were intimidated. As a warning the Cartel assassinated a supreme court judge who refused to give in to their demands. The editor-in-chief of El Espectador was also murdered. The day before his murder, his newspaper had spoken out against Escobar and his cronies, and made it clear that they supported the extradition laws.
The murders continued without pause. In a certain neighborhood of Medellin the Cartel dumped so many bodies that residents would put up signs which said “forbidden to dump bodies here.” It was madness, and just what Escobar had wanted. The politicians eventually caved under pressure, and changed the legislation. But the violence would not end. A line had been crossed and the murders had become a way of doing business, things were spiraling out of control.
The assassination of presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan (photo right) in August of 1989 in front of a large crowd was a turning point. Throughout his campaign Galan hammered on corrupt politicians, and promised widespread reforms. His death sent a shock wave through Colombia, and caused the Colombian government to harden its stance. There would be no more attempts to reach a compromise, after the murder of Galan and several other prominent Colombians, Escobar sent out a declaration of war. Colombia’s president Virgilio Barco spoke to the Colombian public during a speech that was aired live on Colombia’s national networks. He said: “Colombia is at war. We are at war against the drug traffickers and terrorists. We shall not rest until this war has been won.” The extradition treaty was re-installed immediately, and the Colombian president also passed several other laws to combat the Cartels.
The Medellin Cartel took their violence to new extremes. From August to December 1989, 88 car bombs exploded in major Colombian cities, killing thousands of Colombians. The bombs were placed at banks, offices, hotels, malls, the Cartel even put a bomb aboard a plane, killing 107 passengers. This new wave of attacks became known as narco-terrorism, and had a big influence on the public. The random bombings caused them to feel very unsafe. Their government obviously was not equipped to handle the drug Cartels, they thought. All the violence against the Colombian public actually gave Escobar a good position to start new negotiations. But the Colombian government was not the only side in this war which had suffered losses, the Cartel had lost many useful men, and both sides were desperately in need of a time-out.
After a lengthy period of negotiations Escobar managed to make a very sweet deal. He would plead guilty to one criminal act and serve his sentence at a prison of his choice. In return the government would outlaw the extradition treaty. In June of 1991 the powerful drug lord surrendered to authorities and began facing the music, or at least some of it.
A lot of inmates talk about doing hard time. But a man as feared, powerful, and rich as Pablo Escobar did no such thing as hard time. He had chosen and built the prison, named The Cathedral, himself and had even managed to get his own personnel assigned as guards. Inside, the prison looked more like a luxury mansion than jail that housed some of the most vicious criminals Colombia had ever produced (photo on the left). Every ‘cell’ had a television, VCR, stereo, and refrigerator. The central part of the prison had been changed into a game room, containing a billiard, roulette tables, and fitness equipment. Visitors were always welcome as Escobar and others greeted family and friends, as well as famous athletes and high class hookers.
This outrageous life of the rich and criminal within prison became too much for the Colombian government when they discovered Escobar was continuing ordering murders from inside prison walls. They decided he had to be moved to another prison. This upset Escobar a lot, and in July 1992 he simply checked out of his prison/hotel. According to him, the Colombian government broke its promise to him.
With no more options available, Colombian authorities accepted the help offered by American agencies. They would work together in hunting down Escobar. But it was not easy. The fallen drug tsar moved from one hide-out to the next, never staying in one place longer than a day. After spending months in the country side, he eventually moved back to the city of Medellin. But the pressure increased every day, as authorities raided hundreds of houses and apartments looking for their arch enemy.
On December 2, 1993, one day after his 44th birthday, a group of plain clothes commandos knock on the door of Escobar’s hide out. Escobar tries to escape via the roof, while firing shots at the commandos. But as he tries to make his way to another house, three bullets hit him, one of those bullets going through his right ear and killing him. Pablo Escobar, a man feared by an entire country had finally been stopped. The violence, however, did not. Drug Cartels and paramilitary groups like FARC are still causing a lot of deaths in Colombia. The violence did not start with Escobar, and unfortunately it did not end with his death either.