Colombia’s Drug Kingpin
Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria was a Colombian drug lord and leader of one of the most powerful criminal organizations ever assembled. During the height of his power in the 1980’s, he controlled a vast empire of drugs and murder that covered the globe. He made billions of dollars, ordered the murder of hundreds if not thousands of people, and ruled over a personal empire of mansions, airplanes, a private zoo and even his own army of soldiers and hardened criminals.
Born on December 1, 1949 into a lower-middle class family, young Pablo grew up in the Medellín suburb of Envigado. As a young man, he was driven and ambitious, telling friends and family that he wanted to be President of Colombia some day. He got his start as a street criminal: according to legend, he would steal tombstones, sandblast the names off of them, and resell them to crooked Panamanians. Later, he moved up to stealing cars. It was in the 1970’s that he found his path to wealth and power: drugs. He would buy coca paste in Bolivia and Peru, refine it, and transport it for sale in the US.
Rise to Power
In 1975, a local Medellín drug lord named Fabio Restrepo was murdered, reportedly on the orders of Escobar himself. Stepping into the power vacuum, Escobar took over Restrepo’s organization and expanded his operations. Before long, he controlled all crime in Medellín and was responsible for as much as 80% of the cocaine transported into the United States. In 1982, he was elected to Colombia’s Congress. With economic, criminal and political power, Escobar’s rise was complete.
“Plata o Plomo”
Escobar’s ruthlessness was legendary. His rise was opposed by many honest politicians, judges and policemen, who did not like the growing influence of this street thug. Escobar had a way of dealing with his enemies: he called it “plata o plomo,” literally, silver or lead. Usually, if a politician, judge or policeman got in his way, he would first attempt to bribe them, and if that didn’t work, he would order them killed, occasionally including their family in the hit. The exact number of honest men and women killed by Escobar is unknown, but it definitely goes well into the hundreds and perhaps into the thousands.
Even being important or high-profile did not protect you from Escobar if he wanted you out of the way. He ordered the assassination of presidential candidates and was even rumored to be behind the 1985 attack on the Supreme Court, carried out by the 19th of April insurrectionist movement in which several Supreme Court Justices were killed. On November 27, 1989, Escobar’s Medellín cartel planted a bomb on Avianca flight 203, killing 110 people. The target, a presidential candidate, was not actually on board. In addition to these high-profile assassinations, Escobar and his organization were responsible for the deaths of countless magistrates, journalists, policemen and even criminals inside his own organization.
The Height of Power
By the mid- 1980’s, Pablo Escobar was one of the most powerful men in the world. Forbes magazine listed him as the seventh-richest man in the world. His empire included an army of soldiers and criminals, a private zoo, mansions and apartments all over Colombia, private airstrips and planes for drug transport and personal wealth reported to be in the neighborhood of $24 billion. He could order the murder of anyone, anywhere, any time.
Escobar was a brilliant criminal, and he knew that he would be safer if the common people of Medellín loved him. Therefore, he spent millions on parks, schools, stadiums, churches and even housing for the poorest of Medellín’s inhabitants. His strategy worked: Escobar was beloved by the common people, who saw him as a local boy who had done well and was giving back to his community.
In 1976, he married 15 year old Maria Victoria Henao Vellejo, and they would later have two children, Juan Pablo and Manuela. Escobar was famous for his extramarital affairs, and he tended to prefer underage girls. One of his girlfriends, Virginia Vallejo, went on to become a famous Colombian Television personality. In spite of his affairs, he remained married to María Victoria until his death.
Escobar’s first serious run-in with the law was in 1976, when he and some associates were caught returning from a drug run to Ecuador. Escobar ordered the killing of the arresting officers, and the case was soon dropped. Later, at the height of his power, Escobar’s wealth and ruthlessness made it almost impossible for Colombian authorities to bring him to justice. Every time any attempt was made to limit his power, those responsible were bribed, killed, or otherwise neutralized. Pressure was mounting, however, from the United States government, which wanted Escobar extradited to face drug charges. Escobar had to use all of his power and terror to prevent extradition.
La Catedral Prison
In 1991, due to increasing pressure to extradite Escobar, the Colombian government and Escobar’s lawyers came up with an interesting arrangement: Escobar would turn himself in and serve a five-year jail term. In return, he would build his own prison and would not be extradited to the United States or anywhere else. The prison, La Catedral, was an elegant fortress which featured a Jacuzzi, a waterfall, a full bar and a soccer field. In addition, Escobar had negotiated the right to select his own “guards.” He ran his empire from inside La Catedral, giving orders by telephone. There were no other prisoners in La Catedral. Today, La Catedral is in ruins, hacked to pieces by treasure hunters looking for hidden Escobar loot.
On The Run
Everyone knew that Escobar was still running his operation from La Catedral, but in July of 1992, it came out that Escobar had ordered some disloyal underlings brought to his “prison,” where they were tortured and killed. This was too much for even the Colombian government, and plans were made to transfer Escobar to a normal prison. Fearing he could be extradited, Escobar escaped and went into hiding. A massive manhunt was organized, with help from the United States Government. By late 1992, there were two organizations searching for him: the Search Bloc, a special, US-trained Colombian task force, and “Los Pepes,” a shadowy organization of Escobar’s enemies, made up of family members of his victims and financed by Escobar’s main business rival, the Cali Cartel.
End of the Line
On December 2, 1993, Colombian security forces using US technology located Escobar hiding in a home in a middle-class section of Medellín. The Search Bloc moved in, triangulating his position, and attempted to bring him into custody. Escobar fought back, however, and there was a shootout. Escobar was eventually gunned down as he attempted to escape on the rooftop. He had been shot in the torso and leg, but the fatal wound had come through his ear, leading many to believe that he committed suicide, and many others to believe that one of the Colombian policemen had executed him.
With Escobar gone, the Medellín Cartel quickly lost power to its ruthless rival, the Cali Cartel, which remained dominant until the Colombian government shut it down in the mid 1990’s. Escobar is still remembered by the poor of Medellín as a benefactor. He has been the subject of numerous books, movies and websites, and fascination continues with this master criminal, who once ruled one of the greatest crime empires in history.