Monday, Dec. 13, 1993 By KEVIN FEDARKO.
When the elite force that had been hunting Colombia’s most notorious drug trafficker for more than 16 months stormed a two-story house last Thursday afternoon in Medellin and shot Pablo Escobar Gaviria dead, the wave of jubilation that swept much of the country began with the raiders themselves. “We won!” they shouted, as they raised their guns over the drug lord’s body. Amid all the commotion, few remarked that at the moment he was killed, the man who had spent a year and a half running from the world’s largest manhunt wasn’t wearing any shoes. In dying barefoot, Pablo Escobar exited his life in a fashion antithetical to the spirit in which he lived: desperate and vulnerable.
His death represents an important victory against a man who did more than anyone else to set the tone for the drug-related violence that in the past 10 years has cost Colombia the lives of an Attorney General, a Justice Minister, three presidential candidates, more than 200 judges, 30 kidnap victims, dozens of journalists and some 1,000 police officers. Yet it has not concluded the war against the $15 billion-a-year cocaine industry. At most, Escobar’s end simply ushers in a new battle against those who have taken over the turf. “While the police hunted him down,” says a Drug Enforcement Administration official, “other criminal groups had a heyday. The bottom line is that the cocaine business is bigger than ever.”
Still, Escobar has haunted Colombia ever since he escaped in July 1992 from his farcical incarceration near his hometown of Envigado, in a custom-built prison complete with king-size bed, private bath and Jacuzzi. Over the next year, he succeeded dozens of times in eluding the 1,500-man Search Block unit that pursued him by moving clandestinely among his supporters in Medellin and the surrounding countryside. His hiding places included secret rooms carved out between walls, under stairs and underground. Often he cloaked himself in artful guises, dressing as a woman or riding in coffins as a corpse. At least four times, moments before the trap sprang shut, the wily farmer’s son with the double chin and potbelly slipped away and mysteriously vanished. “He was like a deer,” says a DEA agent involved in the chase. “He could disappear into the hills.”
On Oct. 11, eight members of the Search Block broke into a remote farmhouse two hours outside Medellin. “We were sure we had him surrounded,” a police official told the press. But the kingpin melted away at the last minute. His trackers were so close that Escobar was forced to leave behind two briefcases filled with soap, T shirts, blue jeans and dark glasses. There were also letters from his nine-year-old daughter Manuela — “Dear Papa, I miss you a lot and wish I could see you” — and his son Juan Pablo, 16. And there was a letter in Escobar’s handwriting to his mother Hermilda, 70: he was tired and willing to turn himself in, he wrote, but he didn’t see much hope of the government’s accepting his surrender.
But neither his slipperiness nor his offers to pay $27,000 for each Search ; Block officer killed could prevent the systematic liquidation of 26 of Escobar’s closest collaborators. By last Wednesday, Escobar’s 44th birthday, he had been a fugitive for 499 days and was growing weary; ulcer medicine found in the house where he was killed indicates he was also unwell.
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To add to his distress, Escobar was growing panicky about the safety of his family. In recent weeks, his brother-in-law had been killed by police and his children’s teacher had been murdered by PEPES, a vigilante group thought to comprise former colleagues whom the drug lord had betrayed, but also to include hit men from the rival Cali drug cartel. Fearing they would be next, his wife and children fled early last week to Germany, seeking asylum; they were promptly deported back to Bogota.
That led Escobar to two fatal mistakes. First, he called a Medellin radio station to complain about the “lack of solidarity by the German government.” On Thursday, he dared to phone his family at Room 2908 in the Residencias Tequendama to say, “I’m fine,” and advise them to “stay in Bogota for the time being.” His wife, Maria Victoria Henao de Escobar, wished him a happy birthday and urged him to be careful. Within 90 minutes the calls had been traced through a scanning operation set up outside Medellin with U.S.-donated equipment. The high-tech equipment pinpointed the calls to a middle-class two- story house in the western part of the city.
Rather than risk a mass operation, the Search Block sent a small 17-man contingent to surround the house. They cut off telephones in the area so no lookout could call in a warning. Two armed officers loitered outside the suspect house until a teenager, described as a nephew of Escobar’s, appeared at the door with lunch. The two swiftly slipped inside the front door with the youth, while four more police smashed through the carved-wood garage door. They entered shooting.
From their room upstairs, Escobar and his single bodyguard, Alvaro de Jesus Agudelo, returned fire. Having desperately thrust himself through a second- story window, Escobar, clad only in jeans and a T shirt, tried to climb through a narrow metal grating leading to the roof next door. From there, he might have been able to leap to the ground and dash into a nearby wooded area. But a fusillade of machine-gun fire stopped him on the grating; hit by seven bullets in the head and neck, he crumpled to the ground.
Twenty minutes later Escobar’s mother arrived on the scene. “Thank God, ( he’s finally at rest,” she said. An hour later, another phone call reached Room 2908 at the Residencias Tequendama; a television reporter told Juan Pablo his father was dead. “If it’s true,” said the boy, unable to disguise the pain in his voice, “I’ll kill all the sons of bitches.” Later in a telephone interview with TIME, Juan Pablo said, “I apologize for my harsh words when I was told about my father’s death. You must understand our grief. We’ve lost the head of our family, our beloved father. But I will not try to avenge my father’s death. We want peace like the rest of Colombia.”
Perhaps. But Colombia’s remaining drug lords want not peace, but a piece of the action once controlled by the Medellin cartel. That was underscored late in the week by the wild celebrations in the city of Cali, where rival drug lords gathered at a party hosted by cartel ruler Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela to toast the death of a hated enemy who had sworn to kill them all.
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The Cali cartel has already snatched most of Colombia’s cocaine market from Escobar’s weakened Medellin organization. But Escobar’s vendetta against Orejuela and his Cali colleagues, who partially deafened Escobar’s daughter in a bomb attack six years ago, had scared most of the barons away from taking advantage of Colombia’s softened criminal statutes to turn themselves in. Now that he is dead, the Cali leaders are offering to stop trafficking, and even say they would be willing to serve limited jail sentences in exchange for relief from further prosecution and extradition.
“Colombia has shown that there is not any criminal organization that can defeat the nation,” President Cesar Gaviria Trujillo told TIME. But few experts believe the Cali cartel, a smooth, sophisticated and low-profile organization, will simply walk away from a monopoly that brings in $9 billion a year. More likely, say several DEA officials, the Rodriguez Orejuelas and other Cali families will mend fences with the surviving members of Escobar’s Medellin network, joining together in a supercartel more formidable than anything Colombia has yet seen. “We believe that it’s going to be one big happy family down there,” says a senior DEA official, “the most powerful criminal organization in the world.”
Among the thousands of supporters who gathered last Friday afternoon hoping to glimpse Escobar’s body before it was lowered into his grave, few remembered that more than 20 years ago, he had launched his ascension to head the world’s most powerful drug organization by selling tombstones he had stolen. Pablo Escobar’s career was ending exactly where it began — in a Medellin graveyard.
With reporting by Maria Cristina Caballero and Elaine Shannon/Washington and Tom Quinn/Bogota
Monday, Dec. 13, 1993 By KEVIN FEDARKO