Interview with Hugo Martinez – the man who ‘got’ Pablo Escobar

Research for Cocaine: An Unauthorised Biography
Location: cafe in Bogota, Colombia
Date: November 2000

Interviewee: General Hugo Martinez

This interview is with Hugo Martinez – the man who ‘got’ Pablo Escobar. General Martinez explains the rise – and rise – of cocaine trafficking in Colombia, and how he came to be in charge of the operation to kill the richest, most violent, criminal in history. This interview took place in a cafe in Bogota in November 2000.

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Was there any cocaine around in Colombia when you started your career in 1964?

No. At that time marijuana was the only drug here – and even then not too many people were using it.

When did you start noticing cocaine?

We started arresting users in around 1971, 1972. But back then a big bust was like half a kilo, a kilo.

Was it dangerous working in drug interdiction back then?

It was dangerous because the people who were working in the drug trade were already delinquents, they were already criminals.

Was it the marijuana traffickers who became the cocaine traffickers, or outsiders?

It was other groups – at least in my area. According to police information we had at the time, marijuana trade was largely located in the Guajira, Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Where did cocaine come from at first?

It started when they brought it in from Peru. That’s where the trafficking started. Peru. It was sold in public in small quantities, like marijuana at first.

When did you begin to notice the increase in power and money behind cocaine trafficking?

In 1971 and 72 the police formed a special anti-drug unit in the Department of Judicial Police. It was especially to tackle cocaine because the US police was already asking Colombian authorities to co-operate. One or two of us were captains who were interested in learning more about cocaine. Sometimes we would find laboratories but only small ones. We would check them out, investigate, and try to find out who was behind them. Medellin had always had a big crime problem, and a bit further south in the State of Caldas, in the coffee areas. And the northern part of Valle Department (Where Cali is). Basically it was the coffee areas. Those were the areas for contrabanding. All types of stuff was coming in from Panama… At that time it was a relatively minor thing.

The first big traffickers and dealers? Santiago Ocampo, Griselda Blanco and the others?

Griselda Blanco! The queen of cocaine! 1973, 1974. That’s when you started to see the traffickers becoming visible for the first time. Most of them are dead now. A few are still alive…

At what point did the violence start?

At the time I was in charge of F2, the sort of secret police, every time there was a big robbery or a killing or a kidnap by then it was always related to drugs. And the majority of the people we were arresting came from Medellin.

It was always a violent trade?

Always violent. We were already seeing a lot of people killed by sicarios. All of these deaths were related to the upcoming of the new heads of the cocaine trade.

Why was this based in Medellin?

Medellin and Cali were the coffee areas. They were always involved in contraband trade. We were also detecting the trade in Bogota, Barranquilla and other cities – but the majority was around the coffee growing areas.

Was there a moment of realisation – when you thought ‘this could be really, really bad’?

Yes. It started with the corruption, especially in the northern departments up by the coast. The army was sent in to fight drugs but the corruption was so bad that you had generals in jail! At that time, 74 and 75, 76, …there was the Coffee Bonanza. The coffee price just shot up. So the traffickers started moving coffee outside of Colombia. So we started trying to control the coffee trade.

Was it all the traffickers who were buying their ways into the police and the judiciary, or only a few?

Oh, all of them. There was a war, a marijuana war on the Atlantic coast. Shootouts in Barranquilla and Santa Monica – like Al Capone in the gangster days. Because when cocaine starts hitting the market – because it was so much more valuable, the violence got worse.

Did you hear about Marta Nieves [Ochoa] and the kidnapping? [Several commentators reckon that the kidnapping of one of the Ochoa sisters led to the first meetings between the heads of the Medellin trafficking clans – and thus date the birth of the ‘cartel’]

I knew about it from the press, like most Colombians. I was the head of F2 in the Bogota police. Everything that happened in Medellin was elsewhere.

When did the CNP realise that the traffickers had joined together and now represented a more significant threat?

Almost at the start. They could only function together as an organisation. You couldn’t run an operation to transport and distribute [cocaine] in the US unless you had a very good organisation. Not only the police here, but in other countries we were

Pinpointing people, working out the organisation, putting them together, like a puzzle.

A lot of Pablo Escobar’s friends cropped up. But he was a contrabandista – cigarettes, liquor on a grand scale. **** [name], **** [name] – they were there, too – all died in shootouts between gangs. They were already heavy players with planes, drugs, and houses in Miami. …at the end of the 1970s policemen started showing up dead, murdered. They were crucified, dismembered – all those horrible things.

At what point did Escobar take control? Or was he always in control?

When he got into politics. Some politicians took it upon himself to publicise what was already known – that he was really a trafficker.

Escobar became important not because he was the richest of the most powerful but because he had the army of sicarios and he used them to intimidate everyone. The drug traffic in Medellin was managed by so many people who would end up turning to Pablo Escobar for security. They would give him a percentage of each shipment. People who had no structure, who were not part of an organisation. That percentage was like a guarantee. If the shipment was not paid for, Escobar’s organisation would make sure that it was paid. He would send over collectors to get the payment. All they had to do was say they were there in the name of Pablo Escobar for payment. At the start, no-one paid much attention to it. These people soon learned. Their security was managed by Pablo Escobar.

What was big about Escobar was his sicario army and the fact that he was willing to use so much violence. Not all the delinquents of Medellin were organised. Many groups in the barrios were small. They would be managed by Escobar. One group would be in charge of this, another one would be in charge of that. Each group in the barrio would select who it thought was best for whichever part of the business. People would go to Escobar if their car had been stolen or to try and get back kidnap victims, or to stop extortion: with just one or two calls he would know who was responsible, would order the car or the person to be returned and would call the people who had asked him for help and tell them that he was now in charge of the situation – he had recovered the car or the person but he had to pay a fee to the bandits – so the victims had to pay him instead. Then he would deliver some of the money ot the criminals responsible and keep some for himself, for his role. He had always done this, and he kept on doing it until he became a trafficker with his own routes. Kidnapping, protection and that stuff – he kept that up until the end.

Was the assassination of Rodrigo Lara Bonilla obvious in advance?

No. At that point police and political leaders had been protected: the traffickers figured that if they attacked a really big figure, the whole world would get onto their case. The criminals in Colombia were afraid of such a violent reaction, so we didn’t see it coming. Also, Lara Bonilla was well protected. Remember: one of the sicarios was killed and the other was arrested. It was thought that by being Minister of Justice at the time was risky because he was the one who would have to decide on the extradition issue. And he was the one who had denounced Escobar…

At what stage did the violence really erupt?

There was always a lot of violence. We were shocked by what was going on. For example, when they started killing police officers – that had never happened before. In Medellin and Cali they were killing lieutenants, captains, so that fear that they had of higher ranks, clearly it was lost. The ranks of the dead went higher and higher. There was just so much money. No-one could even conceive of a $1million bribe. At that time the police salary was $250 a month. They would offer [an officer] $250,000, $300,000, $500,000 and of course he would turn out to be bribeable. Especially the ones who located the laboratories so that they wouldn’t confiscate the drugs – or the police who found shipments. A lot of police started putting up their own roadblocks, knowing when the shipments would pass by. But they didn’t confiscate anything – they just took bribes.

The traffickers eventually bombed their way to an amnesty, didn’t they? What did you think about that?

When Gaviria came to power, the two administrations before him, there had been a strong persecution of traffickers – first with the Betancur persecution after the death of Lara Bonilla, they started confiscating traffickers, identifying the visible heads of trafficking and extraditions started to get approval – and at the same time Pablo Escobar created the Extraditables. It came back into operation in Barco’s administration when Galan was killed. The reaction of the traffickers was narco-terrorism – killing judges, policemen and innocents. So when Gaviria came to power he was under a lot of pressure to stop the violence. Gaviria figured, with good intentions, that the only way to do this was to form a pact with the dealers. ‘We’ll create laws for you to surrender, make sure that your sentences aren’t too long’ – and the most important thing was that the leaders of the Medellin cartel were in jail. For about a year the violence ceased. And that was the first year of Cesar Gaviria’s administration – while the heads of the Medellin cartel were in jail. Well, you know what happened afterwards. The deaths of Galliano and Moncada, the flight and revelations that they were still heading the trade while they were in prison. We, the people who were responsible for fighting these people, received this news with great pain. It hurt us. From prison, Escobar began denouncing us for having persecuted him and started to hunt us down. So he escaped and that opened up a window of opportunity to catch him

At what stage did you take charge personally?

When Galan and Franklin were killed, that was the day that the Search Group was created, with the sole purpose of getting Escobar. It wasn’t a definitive group regarding who would integrate it within the state. It started off as a reaction – this group had to be made up of a different group to that operating in Medellin. There was a special group called the Elite Force that had been created during Barco’s administration to fight the paramilitaries and this group was based in Bogota. When Galan was killed, the Elite Corps was sent to Medellin under specially appointed police officials who were also called in from outside Medellin. Also, an intelligence group from the Judicial Police was also sent over. So all together we had some 150 men. This eventually went up to about 600.

Were you threatened? This was a dangerous business…

No threats had to be made. Just being sent over there as the people who were going to go after Escobar and his cartel – you were going to be victims. You knew that: victims, like so many before you. Everybody knew that. Judges, officials had been killed, Colonel Ramirez. Franklin *** had been hit with two attempts. Escobar had been bombing people for writing about the cartel. So everyone who went against Escobar – we knew that. We were prepared. At the beginning, we were very scared. None of us knew what to expect. We went everywhere in a group of 10-15 vehicles. But as time went on – a month after that, we carried out a very big operation in the Magdalena Valley. Gacha and the Ochoas were there, too. One of Escobar’s brothers-in-law was killed. 60 of his guards were arrested, 40 firearms, rifles and a lot of information, documents, cassettes, radios [were seized]. That’s when we really started to work and when Escobar began to feel the heat. And that was when the threats came. About two months after that I got the first threat by radio, because he knew we listened to him. He just said that he was going to finish me and my family off – he was going to annihilate the Elite Corps in a week. That one w3eek he killed 17 policemen with a truck bomb. The next week another bomb killed another 14. They wanted the Elite Corps out of Medellin.

So the government spoke to the police heads in Bogota to see if they perhaps should just get out, if they should try something else. But to take out the Elite Corps, which was so visible – none of my officers or I wanted to be returned [to Bogota]. We wanted to go on. We were hurt but we wanted the chance to continue our job until it was done. In spite of the sacrifices we had to make, since we weren’t able to get Escobar – even though we had caught most of the leading cartel members – that’s when the rumours began to spread that we were corrupt, that we were deliberately not catching Escobar. There were police generals who said that we were all getting rich. The Prosecutor-General said it.

How many of your men were killed?

Not as many as those of the regular police in Medellin. Of the 280 police killed in Medellin at that time, 40 were from the Search Bloc. Some figures say that 3000 police were killed. I don’t think that’s true.

There was a lot of foreign assistance, wasn’t there?

That’s true. The French gave us the equivalent of triangulation kit. And that was how we found Escobar. England gave us training – SAS jungle training. And Germany came up with communications tracking equipment. Italy also helped with training. Of course, most of the help came from the US

How did Escobar manage to evade you for so long?

The times we located him with all this technical stuff – we located him twenty-seven times from radio transmissions. We would get a specific site at a specific time – but that meant he had to stay there until we could get there… From the time they located Escobar’s radio to the time we could actually get there could take up to a day. At the start, it took three days! Then it took two. Then one. Ultimately, the last seven times we got information within the hour – until we started to do it ourselves. The information was coming via Washington or Panama – a fax would come in with the intelligence – until I asked for help. Because we would arrive at a site and the evidence was that Escobar had been there but that he had just gone. The information was not that precise. At the start the intelligence process was not that accurate but it soon got better. And operating in Medellin is very different from operating in the Sierra or somewhere that’s flat. It’s very hilly and communications interfere with each other. Sometimes our operations would lead us to spurious echoes from Escobar’s radios or other transmission towers.
hat happened the day you finally did catch up with him?

For ten days we had been tracing emissions that led us to one sector of Medellin. This all started, of course, when the family was returned from Germany. Escobar called the president and that call led us to him. Communications gave us a location next to the place where he actually was. We got the same location through our tracking equipment and the US [surveillance] plane. But there was a difference between the two locations of about 500 metres. But that information led to the order to proceed with the operation – to encircle him. The thing was, that that 500 metres in Medellin was virtually an entire barrio! We had already had three unsuccessful operations following one source. It’s very hard to carry out an operation with a perimeter of 500-1000 metres. So I decided to wait for another call. We intercepted the private phones of the family here in Bogota. If we weren’t able to listen in on the phone, we would certainly be able to tell that the calls were being made. Escobar would always talk when he was in motion because he knew about the technology that we were using. So we always got differences between locations.

Two days before there had been two calls, one after the other with a difference of only about 100-120 metres. That reduced the search area. We guessed that he was talking from a stationary location. But we still didn’t have the capacity to encircle 200 square metres of barrio with the certainty that he couldn’t get away. Meanwhile, my superiors ordered me to go. But I decided to wait for another call. But the mobile monitoring equipment – one set was actually being operated by my son – was already in the area 24 hours a day – waiting for that last call.

The operators of the mobile units had gone without sleep for over 24 hours, just waiting for that one call. Semana Magazine was interviewing him through Juan Pablo, his son, who had his father on the phone answering questions. SO that day the mobile units were resting because they hadn’t slept. But I was awake, and a call was made at about 10am. It was very short. After answering just two questions he hung up to change location again. I called Hugo, my son, who was sleeping and I told him: ‘Trace the calls now – he’s about to make another one at any moment.’ He was on the street immediately, waiting for the next call.

So the first calls were made in movement – the [tracker] readings were jerky. But the last questions he answered, the readings were very steady. Presumably he decided to sit down and was confident because five calls had been made and he still had not been found. He lowered his guard. I think he knew that pagers and cell phones were forbidden in Medellin, so he thought we couldn’t possibly pinpoint him.

The same time Hugo was going in, I called all the other units. There was always a Special unit on call – ten or twelve men. And this was the group that arrived when his next call came in. When Hugo told me ‘I can actually see him. I can see Escobar in the window.’

Before that he had circled around a few times to make sure it was the right place. And when he called me, he said ‘I can see him at the window’. So we were all sure. So he told us ‘Send in the Special Penetration Group’. He had called them on his phone but they hadn’t answered. I had to tell him: ‘You must now be in charge, to make sure that this guy doesn’t get away’. I knew that Escobar had been reduced to a handful of bodyguards – just one or two. But Hugo was just with a companion and a driver. One of them positioned himself in front of the house, the other one went around the back and directed the penetration group when they finally arrived. From Hugo’s call to me to the arrival of the group was perhaps ten minutes…

They went in and didn’t find anything until someone looked out of a window and saw him on a roof, trying to get away, armed with two pistols. He shot at the window. The guy he had shot at fell to the ground and the guy in charge of the group thought he had been hit and came on the radio ‘Colonel! One of my men has been hit! Send support! They’re shooting at us!’ But in fact this guy had just fallen to the ground to avoid the shots and was not hit at all. The police on the street behind the house shot and killed Limon, the bodyguard, who fell to the ground. Escobar was hit with a bullet entering one side and exiting through his ribcage. Then again in the left leg. Rifle shots, they were. Then one shot in the ear. They said recently that this last shot was from point blank [an assassination] but that’s not true. He was just taking a lot of fire. People want to confuse things but this is the way it was. Just that first shot in the side was probably a fatal shot.

Feeling as the word spread that Escobar was finally dead?

I was at my office and the chief of the Penetration Group came on the radio shouting ‘Viva Colombia!’. The whole Search Bloc – perhaps four of us – were in the office. But there were other radios, perhaps five of them, tuned into what was happening.

The first feeling was one of relief – that he hadn’t escaped again. This Passion I had been through was finished. We had suffered so much because we had failed so much. It was like having a piano lifted off you. I’m not very expressive. I didn’t shout for joy or laugh out loud. I just got a video camera, called the police director, gave him the news. He accepted it just like that, without asking any questions. The Minister asked us to take Escobar’s fingerprints before giving out the news. As I was leaving the house there was DEA agent there, Jack *****, who asked if he could come with me. He had arrived in Medellin just the day before to give us some DEA funding and he was heading home that day. So we went, the driver, *** and I in the car. We turned the radio on and started hearing the news: the only thing that anyone was talking about was the fact that Pablo Escobar was dead. Coincidentally, the national police director was in Medellin at a meeting. So I called him to tell him the news but someone told me that the meeting had started and that he could not be interrupted. I told the guy on the phone ‘This is a matter of life and death! Give him the phone!’ So that meeting was over wound up and they came over to the house, too. … From my office to the house was perhaps fifteen minutes. We listened to the news the entire way. ****, the driver and *** were screaming ‘viva Colombia!’ And their joy was a bit infectious. I began to feel what I hadn’t originally. Emotion. I wanted to get there fast to embrace my son and to congratulate the team.

Everyone was there. The army surrounded the area and someone said ‘the people arriving just now are the ones who will want medals!’ There were helicopters. I told the director of the police when he arrived ‘Let’s go back to the office’. It was quite a dangerous spot.

Then Escobar’s mother arrived and his daughter. She saw Limon, she was crying and then she saw Limon she started to laugh, thinking we had made a mistake. Limon was on the street – but Escobar was on the roof, so she couldn’t see him. Her reaction spread the rumour that it might not be Escobar that we had shot, because she was yelling ‘You’re wrong! That’s not my son!’

We went back to the base and started going over everything that we had found there, documents and stuff – and the rest of the day was like that. Everyone was talking about it. The police chief called a press conference that evening to confirm the news. The Penetration Group arrived at the base shooting their guns in the air. The director of the police and I didn’t really approve. We weren’t really celebrating. We just sat around, watching the news, talking. Till about 3am.

How much of the information that led to the death of Escobar came from Los Pepes?

Los Pepes was a reality that existed in Medellin. We were also intercepting their calls and through their aliases we were able to identify who they were. I made a report about this personally. I documented their communiqués and their deaths. But before that, Escobar had already made statements about Pepes, saying that the Pepes was us.

It was supposed that parts of the group were former cartel members who had fallen foul of Escobar. Certain paramilitaries later admitted that they had founded the group. Many of the people later went to Gustavo Gaviria and were given safe conduct permissions for co-operating with the police. It complicated our work a lot. Because even after Escobar was dead, the accusations continued and a criminal suit was brought in the state prosecutor’s office. I made a statement. I don’t know what happened but I do know that there were arrest warrants for many of Los Pepes, including ***** [a famous right-wing paramilitary].

Did anyone receive immunity from prosecution or a pardon for their part in the death of Escobar?

No. When the Moncada and Galliano bosses were killed, their families were afraid. They went to the Cali cartel. But these were the same people who were the informants. They guided us in our operation. They were witnesses against the Medellin cartel – for the prosecution. When we put up roadblocks, there were always people from the Moncado and Galliano families there and they would point out the members of the cartel. The Pepes appeared about a year after we started our operations. And through voice recognition on the intercepts, we knew that many of the people that were helping us were in Los Pepes. But they were delinquents, criminals, members of the cartels. They weren’t our friends. They were informants. And they had become informants for revenge. When Pepes was created, we didn’t know who they were. But it was afterwards, when our intelligence operations – they didn’t want intelligence from us. They had better intelligence than we did!

So no deals were struck?

No deals. I myself denounced them because they did terrible things. What help were they giving us in killing the cartel lawyers? And putting bombs at Escobar’s properties?

The death of Escobar seems not to have affected Colombian trafficking too much. What will?

I’ve always asked myself ‘Was that effort worthwhile?’ And the answer is ‘no’. I’ve always said that the orders we got to finish off the Medellin Cartel were not going to stop drug trafficking in Medellin or anywhere. We knew that! Everyone knew that! The president knew it, the ministers knew it. We weren’t going after drug trafficking. We were going after a guy who went crazy, killing people. We never thought that by ending the Medellin Cartel – or the Cali cartel, for that matter – drug trafficking would stop. On the contrary: it’s gone up. What should we do to stop it? Stop consuming the drug. Or – if you can’t stop consuming, legalise. It’s the only way.