Pablo Escobar – Lord of the Medellin Cartel

by Christina R. April 13, 2007 11:09 PM EDT
Pablo Escobar, before his life ended at age 44, was perhaps the most successful criminal and drug trafficker the world has ever known.  He was born in 1949 to a peasant farmer father and a mother who taught school.  He was two years old when the family moved to Envigado, a suburb of Medellin.  Violence in Columbia at this time was prevalent.  Two political parties were vying for power; a guerrilla war against Marxist insurgents and security forces.  Pablo, as a teen, was expelled from school and began petty crime, such as stealing cars, in the streets of Medellin (Cran, 1997).
Escobar entered the drug business by driving coca paste from the Andes Mountains to labs in the city.  By age twenty-six he was no longer a courier, but a full-fledged smuggler.  Cocaine during this time period was worth $35,000 a kilo and anyone with a plane to transport it was a very rich person.  Flying drug planes was dangerous business what with the risk of crashing and dealing with U.S. Customs, but only about 1 in a hundred were being caught.  That means that Escobar was able to smuggle nearly 400 kilos of coke equaling a net return to him of $10 million (Cran, 1997).
In the late 70s, Columbian-based drug traffickers were heavily involved in the manufacturing, transportation, and distribution of tons of cocaine into U.S. ports as well as internationally.  Medellin, Columbia’s second-largest city, a city of murderers and criminals, was cocaine central (DEA, 2007).  A prominent Medellin drug dealer, Fabio Restrepo, was taken out in 1975 by Escobar, from who he’d purchased 14kg of cocaine.  Restrepo’s men were told that they now worked for Escobar.  Escobar used bribery and intimidation, even murder, to build the Medellin cartel.
Escobar wasn’t the only drug dealer in Medellin.  The Ochoas and Jose Rodrigues Gatcha (El Mexicano) were also known dealers and rivals.  By 1981 the question Escobar faced was whether to cooperate or compete with these rivals.  They all began to work cooperatively and often shipped each others’ loads (Cran, 1997).  The drug lords of the Medellin cartel used murder, intimidation, and assassination to keep journalists and public officials in their favor (DEA, 2007).  These cocaine traffickers saw nothing wrong with what they were doing.  In fact, they seemed to find their work as legitimate as those who had smuggled alcohol in the U.S. during Prohibition.  Escobar and the cartel did a lot more good for the people at times than the Columbian government did.  Their work was improving the economy of Columbia.  They began insinuating themselves into legitimate sectors of the U.S. economy, such as the banking and import industries as well.  The problem was that the U.S. suffered as a result (DEA, 2007).
Violence became the trademark of the Medellin cartel.  Escobar’s men preferred snub-nosed machine guns from the back of motorbikes, drive-by shootings, and thug tactics to straight out gunfights.  Young thugs were valued by Escobar and the cartel.  Escobar seemed to have no heart; it did not matter whether the person who was to die was a woman, a man, or a child.  He was willing to wipe out whole families to achieve his goals.  He was not only known for being ruthless but also for being strategically violent.  He was known to have a saying, “plato o plomo” which means silver or lead.  This saying was basically giving an offer of taking a deal or being shot (Cran, 1997).
The term narco-terrorism was used to describe the actions of the Medellin cartel in the 1980s (Chepesluk, 2004).  The cartel was known for violent confrontations with the Columbian government.  It used indiscriminate violence to eliminate its enemies.  It was responsible for killing government officials, police officers, media, justices of the Supreme Court, and even leading Presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan in order to impose its will on the state.
On the flip side, Escobar was known as a devoted father, once interrupting a torture taking place because he was talking to his family on the phone (Cran, 1997).  People called him “El Patron”, the boss, because he would feed and clothe the poor people of the barrios in Medellin.  This led to his image of a modern-day Robin Hood.  At the Barrio Pablo Escobar mass is given in the church Escobar built.  People tend to forget about his reputation even today (Cran, 1997).  He was seen as an enemy to the U.S. and Columbian governments but a hero to the Medellins.  This led to many in Medellin helping Escobar by working as lookouts, hiding information from authorities, and even protecting him throughout his life.
In 1982 Pablo Escobar, no stranger to power or politics, ran in the congressional elections in Columbia and won.  This gave him access to higher governmental officials.  Because of the competitive nature of the heads of the cartel (not just in shipping of cocaine) buying of the most and the heaviest-duty politicians became a new game (Cran, 1997).  This began nearly a decade of Escobar’s ability to control and afford nearly anyone he wanted, including high officials in the government.
The Medellin cartel had enormous influence in the international drug trade by the 1980s.  They dominated the drug trade in the western hemisphere.  This meant that many U.S. cities were experiencing street crimes as a result where rival gangs vied for territory.  The Medellin cartel was at the height of its power.  They controlled cocaine trafficking from its conversion process to packaging and transportation to the United States (DEA, 2007).  Despite this fact, the U.S. government still did not know about the cartel.  It took an undercover operation to open the eyes of politicians and authorities in the U.S. to the enormity of the problem.
A Columbian working for Escobar and the cartel wanted to buy a large amount of
ether; the ether to be used in the manufacturing of the cocaine.  Mel Schabilion and his partner,
Harry Fullet, were DEA agents prepared to sell ether near Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.  76 barrels
were readied to go to Columbia, but two held concealed transponders.  The DEA tipped the anti-
narcotics unit of the Columbian national police to raid the location the barrels would land at.
The barrels took off on March 19, 1984, and videotape provided by the only DEA agent onboard
showed an extensive network of labs and landing strips once they reached Columbia.  The place
was called Tranquilandia.  It was the greatest drug bust in world history (Cran, 1997).
Colonel Jaime Ramirez, Columbia’s head of narcotics, came to visit the many sites and
airstrips that continued to be discovered.  People in Medellin put out the word that if he ceased operations in the Tranquilandia area there would be a multi-million dollar payoff to him.  Ramirez had Tranquilandia burned in response.  The police recovered a death note with Ramirez’s name on it as well as that of the minister of justice, his boss.  It turned out that Pablo Escobar was responsible for the death threat while in public he acted the politician and called Lara Bonilla, the minister of justice, a puppet of the U.S.  Bonilla could not find enough protection and was soon found assassinated.  Escobar and the cartel heads sought refuge in Central America (Cran, 1997).
The Columbian government went after Escobar but he was building his ties with the Sandanistas of Nicaragua.  The Sandanistas supported the Medellin cartel because of the large amounts of cash that Escobar funneled to their efforts.  Escobar coordinated new drug routes through Panama and Cuba using an American pilot named Barry Seal.  Seal was working as an informant for the U.S. government right under Escobar’s nose.  Because of Seal’s work, and a lucky photograph taken on his rigged plane, Escobar became an internationally wanted man for the first time.  Barry Seal met his end when four members of the Ochoas caught up to him in Baton Rouge, LA.  His death brought the DEA’s investigation to a halt (Cran, 1997).
Escobar sent a message to Jaime Ramirez claiming to have cancelled the contract against him because of Tranquilandia.  Ramirez thought that Escobar was a man of his word.  In 1986 gunmen opened fire on his family’s car during a trip to Bogota.  Ramirez was murdered in cold blood (Cran, 1997).
Fernando Arenas was a personal pilot for cartel leader Carlos Lehder.  He witnessed the inner workings of the cartel, including their power structure and relationships with Noriega in Panama to the Sandanistas in Nicaragua.  In his 2006 interview to Frontline he was candid.  He stated that the danger of drug trafficking was implied.  Arenas became a pilot for the Medellin cartel shortly after Lara Bonilla was assassinated.  Carlos Lehder was angry because Escobar had not warned all of the cartel members, including Lehder himself, about the hit.  The police and army went to Carlos’ farm to attempt to capture him, but only some of his employees were arrested.  Lehder and Arenas hooked up with an M-19 (Columbian guerilla) leader and negotiated a plan to hide in Nicaragua (the M-19 supported the Sandanistas).  They paid $1 million to stay in Nicaragua.  During their flight the opted to stop in Panama first but the Panamanian air-traffic controller did not use the correct verbiage for their planes as was usual custom.  Escobar, also on the flight, stated that he didn’t trust Noriega, and they flew on the Nicaragua.  It wasn’t long after this event that the United States had taken interest in arresting Manuel Noriega and captured him (Frontline, 2006).  Regarding Barry Seal, Arenas stated, “Of course it was known already that Barry Seal’s plane had cameras.”  When the Nicaraguans found out about Noriega they told Escobar to take his cocaine and leave.
In 1987 Carlos Lehder was arrested and extradited to the United States to be imprisoned in Florida.  He had pulled a fast one on big time drug dealer George Jung, and George asked Escobar’s permission to turn Lehder in, and received it.  Later Lehder would be used by the U.S. government to testify against Manuel Noriega.
In 1989 an international effort of cooperation was successful in bringing down Jose Rodriguez Gacha, the right-hand man to Escobar.  The Columbian government did the investigating and provided enforcement that showed Gacha’s drug assets.  The U.S. DEA and other law enforcement agencies internationally froze $80 million in assets, while much of Gacha’s money was forfeited.  The Government of Columbia received over $1.5 million (DEA, 2007).
By the early 1990s the cartel was waging terror and bribery campaigns across Columbia in order to pressure the government to prohibit extradition of native-born Columbians.  Escobar feared the United States’ justice system.  He knew he would not be able to sway judges or guards with bribes or intimidation in the United States.  The cartel had a lifelong fear of extradition (Cran, 1997).  The cartel was responsible for many killings at this time in Columbia’s history.  In July 1991 the Columbian congress, under pressure, passed a new constitution that prohibited extradition to the excitement of the Medellin cartel (DEA, 2007).
Law enforcement efforts in Columbia were, however, resulting in surrenders and arrests that led to the decline of the Medellin cartel.  In December 1990, Fabio Ochoa surrendered to authorities outside of Medellin.  In January 1991, his brother, Jorge Luis, turned himself in.  The CNP killed David Ricardo Prisco Lopero, Escobar’s top assassin, in that same month, along with Ricardo’s brother Armando Alberto Prisco.  In February of that same year Juan David Ochoa turned himself in to authorities (DEA, 2007).
Law enforcement continued to push for the kingpin himself, Pablo Escobar.  In June of 1991, he finally surrendered due to continual efforts on his life and was taken to Envigado Prison.  Envigado was like a palace.  Secret negotiations were conducted and Escobar was brought in under tight security.  A government helicopter was dispatched to pick him up and deliver him to La Catedral, “the cathedral” (Cran, 1997).  Some locals called it “Club Medellin”.
Envigado protected Escobar rather than incarcerated him.  He had hand-picked guards and members of the army to watch over him.  The prison contained a suite for Escobar, a living room, a kitchen, a master bedroom, and an office.  It also held a discotheque and a bar.  Parties at the prison were a weekly event.  Escobar kept watch on the building nearby where his family were housed using a telescope.  His family was frequent visitors (Cran, 1997).  Prison authorities did nothing while Escobar continued his drug business from inside the walls of the prison where he was free from punishment and free from assassination attempts.  This continued until four of Escobar’s henchmen came to the prison and tortured and murdered several guards over a money dispute (Cran, 1997).
In 1992 Escobar was to be moved to a Bogota prison, but he refused.  He was being held responsible for the deaths of 22 of his own drug associates.  Envigado prison was surrounded but because so many officers were bribed, he simply walked away.  Colonel Hugo Martinez commanded a 600-man unit to find Escobar dead or alive.  Martinez said, “Escobar handled intelligence very well. He managed to infiltrate everyone he could, especially those who were looking for him” (Cran, 1997).  The manhunt lasted for 17 months and was Columbia’s largest.
For safety reasons, Escobar had moved his family to Bogota.  On December 2, 1993, he called his son, Juan Pablo, from a fixed location.  He knew he should not be on the line for longer than three minutes but for some reason he permitted himself to go over the time limit.  This allowed the police to pinpoint his row house locale.  They knew Escobar was on the second floor and was probably being protected.  The police entered the building and a shoot-out ensued.  Escobar reached the third level and jumped out of a window.  He and his bodyguard ran across rooftops until the bodyguard jumped down to the ground.  Police engaged him immediately in a gun fight and killed him.  Escobar, caught in the crossfire of bullets from the street and the rooftops, was shot dead.  His death was the demise of the Medellin cartel.
As the key players of the cartel were killed or incarcerated Medellin saw a shift in the drug trafficking trade.  Large cartels run by families fell apart to be run instead by many small groups, some with ties to guerilla and militia groups like F.A.R.C.  They also were left behind by the business-structured Cali cartel.  Columbian cocaine became secondary in the U.S. market to other types of drugs and went for a lower price because the cocaine traffickers had flooded the market.  The United States became more actively involved with foreign governments in helping to wage war on drug trafficking altogether.