Colombian Druglord Trying To Turn Wealth Into Respect

March 10, 1991|By Ron Chepesiuk Special To The Sentinel
BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — Many Americans may not recognize the name Pablo Escobar Gaviria, but they should. Escobar’s lust for greed and power has been largely responsible for the drug epidemic plaguing the United States.

He may be a drug trafficker operating in a far away South American country, but his activities affect millions of Americans every day. His actions have led to the destruction of countless lives, be they from the poor neighborhoods, the university community, Wall Street or the solid working class communities.
In a little more than a decade, Pablo Escobar has built a fledgling cocaine-smuggling operation into a multibillion-dollar empire. He has appeared on the Forbes and Fortune lists of the world’s most wealthiest people. Forbes estimates his fortune to be over $3 billion.

So rich is Ecobar, in fact, that he has offered to help pay off the $13 billion foreign debt of his native Colombia in return for amnesty.

U.S. grand jury probes have linked Escobar to drug dealings with Cuban leader Fidel Castro, former Panamainian strongman Manuel Antonio Noriega, Nicaragua’s former Sandanista government and the political and business leadership of a number of other nations.

”He (Escobar) is no doubt leader of the Medellin Cartel and possibly the most powerful man in Colombia,” assessed one Western diplomat, who, like many sources interviewed during my four-week investigation in Colombia, feared for their safety and would only talk if guaranteed anonymity.

”He has proven to be a cunning, formidable foe of the Colombian and U.S governments, considering the time, effort and amount of manpower that has been put into trying to eliminate him from the drug trade.

The U.S. government would like to get its hands on Escobar and have him extradited to the United States, where he faces four indictments (three in Miami and one in Los Angeles) on cocaine trafficking charges. In 1986, for example, Escobar and four other top dons of the Medellin Cartel were indicted by a federal grand jury in Miami, which charged that the defendants had smuggled at least 58 tons of cocaine into the United States since 1978.

Escobar and his associates also have been indicted for plotting the murder of Alder ”Barry” Seal, a drug smuggler turned informant who was gunned down in February 1985 in Baton Rouge, La.

Seal, considered to be the most important witness in DEA history, was to have testified in the trial of the cocaine kingpins if they were ever captured and extradited to the United States.

Escobar has been able to establish his underground empire through a combination of business savvy, single-minded ambition and ruthlessness.

The son of a night watchman and a schoolteacher, the nondescript-looking Escobar was born Dec. 1, 1949, in Rionegro, a town 25 miles from Medellin. He grew up in the tough, blue-collar Medellin suburb of Envigado, where he often hides when Colombian authorities turn up the heat.

His first known criminal activity was stealing gravestones and then resurfacing and selling them to the recently bereaved. In his early 1970s, he was a thief and bodyguard, and he made a quick $100,000 on the side kidnapping and ransoming a Medellin executive before entering the drug trade.

 

By the late 1970s, as the cocaine business began to boom in response to American demand, Escobar was making so much money that he was investing in U.S. real estate, including an $8 million apartment complex in Florida.

In explaining Escobar’s remarkable rise to the top of the country’s criminal underworld, Colombians describe him as a paisa – a shrewd, hard-working, first-rate Colombian entrepreneur who knows how to manipulate and hustle to get what he wants.

In deference to Escobar’s brains, power and stature within the Medellin Cartel, members began to refer to him as El Padrino (the Godfather), a sign of respect that made him the boss of bosses within the criminal organization.

During the early 1980s, the booming drug business, driven by the United State’s insatiable demand for more cocaine, gave Escobar the money and means to live a lifestyle that made him famous throughout Colombia.

Escobar fancied race cars and sponsored a team in the local competitions. Over the gate at his well-protected 7,000 acre estate in Puerto Truiunfo, called Hacienda Napoles, Escobar arrogantly displayed an aircraft reputed to be the vehicle that carried his first load of cocaine. The estate had a zoo, 24 lakes and a country house that could accommodate 100 guests.

Above all, even more than the money and the material comforts, Escobar craves respectability – a fervent desire to be accepted as part of Colombia’s elite social class. Until forced to lead a life on the run, Escobar tried to portray himself as a sports promoter, industrialist, philanthropist, building contractor and defender of natural resources.

But as Clare Lopez Obregon, a Bogota-based university professor and human rights activist, explained, ”The average law-abiding Colombian is not an admirer of Escobar. He has never been accepted by the country’s high society.”

Escobar, however, has become a folk hero and even a savior to many poor people in the Medellin slums. In the early 1980s, he built 1,000 small brick houses with plumbing, electricity and gardens in a poor Medellin barrio that the residents named after him. Residents only pay for the plumbing and the electricity.

 
Sources believe a terror campaign Escobar recently began is nothing less than an effort to force the government to negotiate with him so that he can receive amnesty, return to mainstream society and become part of the political elite.

Some sources believe that Escobar is working with reactionary elements in the army to subvert Colombia’s democracy, helping to finance paramilitary death squads to wipe out progressive elements on the Colombian political scene.

What Escobar has done to his native land has led to the introduction of a new word to Colombia’s lexicon of violence: narcoterrorism. Diplomatic sources in Colombia say that the country’s war on drugs is costing $1 billion a year. This figure includes money to support army and police operations, the lost revenue from tourism and foreign investment and the cost to repair buildings bombed by Escobar and his associates.

The death toll includes thousands of Colombians.

Escobar has been personally linked to the killing of some of Colombia’s most prominent citizens, including Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, Colombian Justice Minister, in 1984; Jaime Gomez Ramirez, head of Colombia’s National Police Anti-Narcotics Unit, in 1986; and Guillermo Cano Isaza, the respected editor of El Espectador, Colombia’s second largest circulating newspaper, in 1986.

The terror generated by the Colombian drug war, sources said, is largely of Escobar’s making. They say the Ochoa brothers (Jorge Luis, Fabio and Juan David), the family representing the other major power in the Medellin Cartel, are not as vicious as the Godfather and only resort to violence when they have to protect their own turf.

”Every time there is a major assassination in Co-lombia, they (the Ochoas) send word out that they aren’t behind it,” explained Maria Jimena Duzan, investigative journalist for El Espectador.

With 2,000 Colombian police assigned to the hunt for Escobar, and with the DEA, CIA and other intelligence agencies gathering information on his movements, why hasn’t he been captured or eliminated?

There are several reasons. For one, Escobar can hide in a predominantly rural country as large as France, Spain and Portugal combined.

For another, Escobar and his associates operate an underground economy that may employ as many as 500,000 Colombians who owe their livelihood to the drug mafia. Escobar has invested much of his drug earnings in Colombia, buying and establishing hotels, shopping malls, auto dealerships, construction and other business interests.

But perhaps the biggest reason may be that Escobar’s own intelligence network dwarfs the one operated by his pursuers.

”Politically, there is always somebody high up who can warn Escobar,” explained one U.S. official. ”For an operation to be mounted from Bogota (the nation’s capital), there has to be coordination in Medellin, and Escobar owns too many people in that city for that to happen.”

 

Six years after killing Lara and being forced to give up his quest for respectability, Escobar is still on the run. But how long will he remain a fugitive from justice?

One source working for the Department of Administrative Security, Colombia’s version of the FBI, predicts that if the drug lord is taken alive, he may never be brought to trial.

”Escobar would be the biggest prize of the drug war and the biggest success of Maza’s career,” the security source explained. ”I don’t think the security forces would let him be tried and face the risk that he will be let off. Besides he knows too much.”