The surrender of Pablo Escobar

He was the world's most powerful drug lord - an untouchable billionaire . Then, when the Colombian government started extraditing the narcotrafficantes to the USA, Pablo Escobar launched a wave of murders and kidnappings. In this exclusive extract from his new, non-fiction book, Gabriel Garca Mrquez tells how Escobar eventually capitulates, using a politician, Alberto Villamizar, as go-between
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At nine the next morning, as planned, Villamizar landed in Medelln with less than an hour's sleep. The night had been a boisterous celebration of resurrection. At four in the morning, when they were finally alone in the apartment, Maruja[his wife, whom Escobar had kidnapped] and he were so elated by the day's events that they stayed in the living room until dawn exchanging belated news. At the La Loma hacienda, he was welcomed with the usual banquet, but this time baptised with the champagne of liberation. It was a brief respite, however, because now the one in a hurry was Pablo Escobar, hiding somewhere in the world without the protection of the hostages. His new emissary was very tall and loquacious, a pure blond with a long, golden moustache who was called the Monkey and had full authority to negotiate the surrender.

By order of President Cesar Gaviria, the legal debate with Escobar's lawyers had been carried out through Dr Carlos Eduardo Meja, who reported to the justice minister. For the physical surrender, Meja would represent Rafael Pardo [mediator between the government, the Medelln cartel and the families of the hostages], and the other side would be represented by Jorge Luis Ochoa, the Monkey, and Escobar himself from the shadows.

Villamizar continued to be an active intermediary with the government, and Father Garca Herreros, who was a moral guarantor for Escobar, would remain available in the event of a major crisis.

Escobar's haste in having Villamizar come to Medelln the day after Maruja's release gave the impression that his surrender would be immediate, but it was soon evident that for him there were still a few diversionary tactics remaining. Everyone's greatest concern, Villamizar more than anyone, was that nothing happen to Escobar before he turned himself in. They had reason to worry: Villamizar knew that Escobar, or his survivors, would take it out of his hide if they even suspected him of not keeping his word. Escobar himself broke the ice when he telephoned him at La Loma and said without any preamble: "Dr Villa, are you happy?"

Villamizar had never seen or heard him, and he was struck by the absolute serenity of the voice that had no trace of his mythical aura. "I thank you for coming," Escobar continued, without waiting for a reply, his earthly state revealed by his harsh, shanty town diction. "You're a man of your word and I knew you wouldn't fail me." And then he came to the point: "Let's start to arrange how I'll turn myself in."

In reality, Escobar already knew how he was going to turn himself in, but perhaps he wanted to review it again with a man in whom he had placed all his confidence. His lawyers and the director of Criminal Investigation had discussed every last detail of the surrender. The issues had been reduced to three: the prison, the staffing of the prison, and the role of the police and the army.

The prison - in the former Rehabilitation Centre for Drug Addicts in Envigado - was almost finished. Villamizar and the Monkey visited it at Escobar's request. Piles of rubble in the corners and the devastating effects of that year's heavy rains gave it a somewhat depressing appearance. The technical problems of security had been resolved. There was a double fence, 2.8 meters high, with 15 rows of 5,000-volt electrified barbed wire and seven watch towers, in addition to the two that guarded the entrance. These two installations would be further reinforced, as much to keep Escobar from escaping as to prevent anyone from killing him.

The only point that Villamizar found to criticise was an Italian-tiled bathroom in the room intended for Escobar, and he recommended changing it - and it was changed - to more sober decoration. The conclusion of his report was even more sober: "It seemed to me a very prison-like prison." In fact, the folkloric splendour that would eventually shock the nation and compromise the government's prestige came later, from the inside, with an inconceivable programme of bribery and intimidation.

Escobar asked Villamizar for a clean telephone number in Bogot on which they could discuss the details of his physical surrender, and Villamizar gave him the number of his upstairs neighbour, Aseneth Velsquez. He thought no phone could be safer than hers, called at all hours of the day and night by writers and artists lunatic enough to unhinge the strongest-minded. The formula was simple and innocuous. An anonymous voice would call Villamizar's house and say, "In 15 minutes, Doctor." Villamizar would go upstairs to Aseneth's apartment and Pablo Escobar himself would call a quarter of an hour later. On one occasion, he was delayed in the elevator and Aseneth answered the phone. A raw, Medellnese voice asked for Dr Villamizar.

"He doesn't live here," said Aseneth.

"Don't worry about that," said the voice with amusement. "He's on his way up."

The person speaking was Pablo Escobar, live and direct, but Aseneth will know that only if she happens to read this, for on that day Villamizar tried to tell her out of basic loyalty, and she - who is no fool - covered her ears.

"I don't want to know anything about anything," she said. "Do whatever you want in my house but don't tell me about it."

The government insisted on combined army and national guard patrols for the exterior of the prison, on cutting down the adjoining woods to make a firing range, and on its right to have the guards selected from a list compiled by a tripartite commission representing the central government, the municipality of Envigado, and the Attorney General's Office, since the prison was both municipal and national.

Escobar opposed having guards close by because his enemies could murder him in the prison. He opposed combined patrols because - his lawyers claimed - no military forces were permitted inside a jail, according to the Law on Prisons. He opposed cutting down the nearby forest because it would permit helicopter landings, and because he assumed a firing range was an area where prisoners would be the targets, until he was convinced that, in military terms, a firing range is nothing more than a field with good visibility. And that, in fact, was the great advantage of the rehabilitation centre - for the government and for the prisoners - because from anywhere in the building, one had a clear view of the valley and the mountains, allowing more than enough time to respond to an attack.

Then, at the last minute, the national director of Criminal Investigation wanted to build a fortified wall around the prison, in addition to the barbed-wire fence. Escobar was furious.

On Thursday, 30 May, El Espectador published a report - attributed to very reliable official sources - on the terms for surrender allegedly set by Escobar at a meeting between his lawyers and government spokesmen. The most sensational of these - according to the article - was the exile of General Maza Mrquez [head of the Administrative Department for Security, and survivor of two attempts, using 2,600 kilos of dynamite, against his life by Escobar] and the dismissals of General Miguel Gmez Padilla, commander of the National Police, and General Octavio Vargas Silva, commander of the Police Office of Judicial Investigation (DIJIN).

President Gaviria met with General Maza Mrquez in his office to clarify the origin of the report, which persons connected to the government had attributed to him. The interview lasted for half an hour, and knowing both men, it is impossible to imagine which of the two was more impassive. The general, in his soft, slow baritone, gave a detailed account of his inquiries into the case. The president listened in absolute silence. Twenty minutes later, they said goodbye. The next day, the general sent the president an official six-page letter that repeated in minute detail what he had said, and documented their conversation.

The general stated that he was a fervent supporter of Pablo Escobar's surrender. He reiterated his loyalty to his principles, obligations, and duties, and concluded: "For reasons known to you, Mr President, many persons and entities are intent upon destabilising my career, perhaps with the aim of placing me in a situation of risk that will allow them to carry out their plans against me."

Three months later, however - when Escobar was already in prison - Fabio Villegas, the secretary general to the president, asked General Maza to his office on behalf of the President, invited him into the Blue Room and, walking from one end to the other, as if he were out for a Sunday stroll, communicated the president's decision to have him retire. Maza left convinced that this was evidence of an agreement with Escobar that the government had denied. In his words, "I was negotiated."

In any case, before this occurred, Escobar had let Maza know that the war between them had ended, that he had forgotten everything and was serious about his surrender: He was stopping the attacks, disbanding his men, and turning in his dynamite. As proof, he sent him a list of hiding places for 700 kilos of explosives. Later, from prison, he would continue to disclose to the brigade in Medelln a series of caches totalling two tonnes. But Maza never trusted him.

Escobar grew weary of all the twisting and turning. In the end, it was agreed the army and not the police would guard the entrance, and that exceptional measures would be taken to ease Escobar's fear that his food in prison might be poisoned.

The National Board of Prisons, on the other hand, adopted the same regulations regarding visits that applied to the [drug lord] Ochoa brothers in the maximum security block of Itagu prison. The time for waking up was 7am; the time for being confined and placed under lock and key in one's cell was 8pm. Escobar and his prison mates could have women visitors every Sunday, from 8am until 2pm; men could visit on Saturdays, and minors on the first and third Sunday of every month.

In the middle of the night on 9 June, troops from the battalion of military police in Medelln relieved the cavalry unit guarding the sector, began to assemble an impressive security array, cleared the surrounding mountains of people who did not live in the area, and assumed total control of earth and heaven. There were no more excuses.

Villamizar let Escobar know - with utmost sincerity - that he was grateful to him for Maruja's release, but was not prepared to take any more risks just so he could keep putting off his surrender. And he sent him a serious message: "From now on, I'm not responsible." Escobar made his decision in two days, with one final condition: that the attorney general also be present at the surrender.

An unexpected problem could have caused a new delay: Escobar did not have an official identification document that would prove he was, in fact, the man giving himself up. One of his lawyers raised the issue with the government and requested official citizenship papers for him, not taking into account that Escobar, hunted by every armed force in the country, would have to go in person to the appropriate office of the Civil Registry. The emergency solution was that he would identify himself with his fingerprints and an old identification card he had once used and had notarised, declaring at the same time that he could not produce the card because it had been lost.

The Monkey woke Villamizar when he phoned at midnight on 18 June to tell him to go upstairs to take an urgent call. It was very late, but Aseneth's apartment resembled a happy inferno, with the accordion of Egidio Cuadrado and his vallenatos combo. Villamizar had to elbow his way through a frenetic jungle of elite cultural gossip. Aseneth, in typical fashion, blocked his path.

"I know now who's calling you," she said. "Be careful, one false step and they'll have your balls."

She let him into her bedroom just as the phone rang. In the uproar that filled the house, Villamizar could barely make out what was most essential: "Ready: Come to Medelln first thing tomorrow."

Rafael Pardo arranged for a Civil Aeronautics plane to be available at seven o'clock for the official committee that would witness the surrender. Villamizar, fearful of leaks, was at Father Garca Herreros's house by five. He found him in the oratory, the inevitable poncho over his cassock, just as he finished saying mass.

"Well, Father, let's go," he said. "We're flying to Medelln because Escobar's ready to surrender."

Travelling in the plane with them were Fernando Garcia Herreros, one of the father's nephews who acted as his occasional assistant; Jaime Vzquez, from the Council on Public Information; Dr Carlos Gustave Arrieta, the attorney general for the republic; and Dr Jaime Crdoba Trivino, the special prosecutor for human rights. At Olaya Herrera airport, in the centre of Medelln, Mara La [wife of Jorge Luis Ochoa] and [reporter] Martha Nieves Ochoa were waiting for them.

The official committee was taken to the state headquarters of the department of Antioquia. Villamizar and the father went to Mara La's apartment to have breakfast, while last-minute arrangements were made for the surrender. There, he learned that Escobar was already on his way, travelling by car and on foot to avoid the frequent police checkpoints. He was an expert in those evasive strategies.

The father's nerves were on edge. One of his contact lenses fell out, he stepped on it, and was so exasperated that Martha Nieves had to take him to San Ignacio Opticians, where they solved his problem with a pair of normal glasses. The city teemed with rigorous checkpoints, and they were stopped at almost all of them, not to be searched but so the men could thank the good father for everything he was doing for Medelln. In that city, where everything was possible, the best-kept secret in the world was already public knowledge.

The Monkey came to Mara La's apartment at 2.30pm, dressed for a day in the country with a light jacket and soft- soled shoes.

"Ready," he said to Villamizar. "Let's go to the capitol building. You take your car and I'll take mine."

He drove off alone. Mara La drove Villamizar, Father Garca Herreros, and Martha Nieves in her car. The two men got out at the capitol building. The women waited outside. The Monkey, no longer a cold, efficient technician, was trying to hide inside his own skin. He put on dark glasses and a golfer's hat, and kept in the background, behind Villamizar. Someone who saw him walking in with the priest rushed to telephone Rafael Pardo to say that Escobar - very blond, very tall and elegant - had just surrendered at the capitol building.

As they were preparing to leave, the Monkey received a call on his two- way radio informing him that a plane was heading for the airspace over the city. It was a military ambulance carrying several soldiers wounded in a clash with guerrillas in Urab. It was getting late and the authorities were troubled because the helicopters could not fly as dusk was falling, and delaying the surrender until the next day would be calamitous. Villamizar called Rafael Pardo, who re-routed the flight and repeated his categorical order that the sky be kept clear. As he waited for this to be settled, he wrote in his personal diary: "Not even birds will fly over Medelln today."

The first helicopter - a six-passenger Bell 206 - took off from the roof of the capitol building a little after three, with the attorney general and Jaime Vzqez, Fernando Garca Herreros, and Luis Alirio Calle, a radio journalist whose enormous popularity was one more guarantee for Pablo Escobar's peace of mind. A security official would show the pilot the direct route to the prison.

The second helicopter - a 12-passenger Bell 412 - took off 10 minutes later, when the Monkey received the order on his two-way radio. Villamizar flew with him and the father. As soon as they had taken off, they heard a report on the radio that the government had suffered a defeat in the Constituent Assembly, where non-extradition of nationals had just been approved by a vote of 51 to 13, with five abstentions, in a preliminary ballot that would be ratified later. Though there were no indications it had been planned, it was almost childish not to think Escobar had known ahead of time and had waited for that precise moment to surrender.

The pilots followed the Monkey's directions to the site where they would pick up Pablo Escobar and take him to prison. It was a very short flight, and at so low an altitude the directions seemed the kind you would give in a car: Take Eighth, keep going, turn right, more, a little more, to the park, that's it. Behind a grove of trees, there suddenly appeared a splendid mansion surrounded by the bright colours of tropical flowers, with a soccer field as smooth as an enormous billiard table in the middle of El Poblado's traffic.

"Put it down over there," the Monkey said, pointing. "Don't turn off the engine."

Villamizar did not realise until they were right over the house that at least 30 armed men were waiting all around the field. When the helicopter landed on the grass, some 15 bodyguards moved away from the group and walked uneasily to the helicopter in a circle around a man who was in no way inconspicuous. He had hair down to his shoulders, a very thick, rough-looking, black beard that reached to his chest, and skin browned and weathered by a desert sun. He was thick-set, wore tennis shoes and a light blue cotton jacket, had an easy walk and a chilling calm. Villamizar knew who he was at first sight only because he was different from all the other men he had ever seen in his life.

After saying goodbye to the nearest bodyguards with a series of powerful, rapid embraces, Escobar indicated to two of them that they should climb in the other side of the helicopter. They were Mugre and Otto, two of the men closest to him. Then he climbed in, paying no attention to the blades turning at half-speed. The first man he greeted before he sat down was Villamizar. He extended his warm, well-manicured hand and asked with no change in his voice: "How are you, Dr Villamizar?'

"How's it going, Pablo?" he replied.

Then Escobar turned to Father Garca Herreros with an amiable smile and thanked him for everything. He sat next to his two bodyguards, and only then did he seem to realise that the Monkey was there. Perhaps he had expected him only to give directions to Villamizar without getting into the helicopter.

"And you," Escobar said, "in the middle of this, right to the end."

Nobody could tell if he was praising or berating him, but his tone was cordial. The Monkey, as confused as everyone else, shook his head and smiled.

"Ah, Chief!"

Then, in a kind of revelation, it occurred to Villamizar that Escobar was a much more dangerous man than anyone supposed, because there was something supernatural in his serenity and self-possession. The Monkey tried to close the door on his side but did not know how and the co-pilot had to do it. In the emotion of the moment, no one had thought to give any orders. The pilot, tense at the controls, asked a question: "Do we take off now?"

Then Escobar let slip the only sign of his repressed anxiety. He gave a quick order: "What do you think? Move it! Move it!"

When the helicopter lifted off from the grass, he asked Villamizar: "Everything's fine, isn't it, Doctor?" Villamizar, not turning around to look at him, answered with all his heart: "Everything's perfect." And that was all, because the flight was over. The helicopter flew the remaining distance almost grazing the trees, and came down on the prison soccer field - rock- strewn, its goalposts broken - next to the first helicopter, which had arrived a quarter of an hour earlier. The trip from the residence had taken less than 15 minutes.

The next two minutes, however, were the most dramatic of all. Escobar tried to get out first, as soon as the door was opened, and found himself surrounded by the prison guards: some 50 tense, fairly bewildered men in blue uniforms who were aiming their weapons at him. Escobar gave a start, lost his control for a moment, and, in a voice heavy with fearsome authority, he roared: "Lower your weapons, damn it!"

By the time the head of the guards gave the same order, Escobar's command had already been obeyed. Escobar and his companions walked the 200 meters to the house where the prison officials, the members of the official delegation, and the first group of Escobar's men, who had come overland to surrender with him, were all waiting. Also present were Escobar's wife and his mother, who was very pale and on the verge of tears. As he passed, he gave her an affectionate little pat on the shoulder and said: "Take it easy, Ma." The director of the prison came out to meet him, his hand extended. "Senor Escobar," he introduced himself. "I'm Luis Jorge Pataquiva."

Escobar shook his hand. Then he raised his left pant leg and took out the pistol he was carrying in an ankle holster. It was a magnificent weapon: a Sig Sauer 9mm with a gold monogram inlayed on the mother-of-pearl handle. Escobar did not remove the clip but took out the bullets one by one and tossed them to the ground.

It was a somewhat theatrical gesture that seemed rehearsed, and it had its intended effect as a show of confidence in the warden whose appointment had caused so much concern. The following day, it was reported that, when he turned in his pistol, Escobar had said to Pataquiva: "For peace in Colombia." No witness remembers this, least of all Villamizar, who was still dazzled by the beauty of the weapon.

Escobar greeted everyone. The special prosecutor held on to his hand as he said: "I am here, Senor Escobar, to make certain your rights are respected." Escobar thanked him with special deference. Then he took Villamizar's arm.

"Let's go, Doctor," he said."You and I have a lot to talk about."

He led him to the end of the outside gallery, and they chatted there for about 10 minutes, leaning against the railing, their backs to everyone. Escobar began by thanking him in formal terms. Then, with his awesome calm, he expressed regret for the suffering he had caused Villamizar and his family, but asked him to understand that the war had been very hard on both sides.

As for Maruja's abduction, his explanation was simplistic. "I was kidnapping people to get something and I didn't get it, nobody was talking to me, nobody was paying attention, so I went after dona Maruja to see if that would work." He had no other reasons, but did drift into a long commentary about how he had gotten to know Villamizar over the course of the negotiations until he became convinced he was a serious, brave man whose word was as good as gold, and for that he pledged his eternal gratitude. "I know you and I can't be friends," he said. But Villamizar could be sure that nothing would happen to him or anybody in his family again.

"Who knows how long I'll be here," he said, "but I still have a lot of friends, so if any of you feel unsafe, if anybody tries to give you a hard time, you let me know and that'll be the end of it. You met your obligations to me, and I thank you and will do the same for you. You have my word of honour."

Before they said goodbye, Escobar asked Villamizar, as a final favour, to try to calm his mother and wife, who were both on the verge of hysteria. Villamizar did, without much hope of success, since both were convinced that the entire ceremony was nothing but a sinister trick on the part of the government to murder Escobar in prison. Finally, Villamizar went into the director's office and dialled 284 33 00, the number of the presidential palace, which he knew by heart, and asked them to find Rafael Pardo no matter where he might be.

He was in the office of Mauricio Vargas, the press adviser, who answered the phone and passed Pardo the receiver without saying a word. Pardo recognised the grave, quiet voice, but this time it had a glowing aura. "Dr Pardo," said Villamizar, "I'm here with Escobar in prison."

Pardo - perhaps for the first time in his life - heard the news without passing it through the filter of doubt. "How wonderful!" he said.

He made a rapid remark that Mauricio Vargas did not even try to interpret, hung up the phone, and walked into the president's office without knocking. Vargas, who is a born reporter 24 hours a day, suspected that Pardo's hurry, and the amount of time he spent in the office, meant something important had happened. His nervous excitement could not tolerate a wait of more than five minutes. He went into the president's office without being announced, and found him laughing out loud at something Pardo had just said. Then he heard the news.

Mauricio thought with pleasure about the army of journalists who would burst into his office any minute now, and he looked at his watch. It was 4:30pm. Two months later, Rafael Pardo would be the first civilian named defence minister after 50 years of military ministers.

Pablo Escobar had turned 41 in December. According to the medical examination required when he entered prison, his state of health was that of "a young man in normal physical and mental condition". The only unusual observation was congestion in the nasal mucous membranes and something that looked like a plastic surgery scar on his nose, but he said he had been injured as a boy during a soccer game.

The document of voluntary surrender was signed by the national and regional directors of Criminal Investigation, and the special prosecutor for human rights. Escobar endorsed his signature with his thumbprint and the number of his lost identification: 8.345.766, Envigado. The secretary, Carlos Alberto Bravo, added at the bottom of the document: "Having affixed his signature to this document, Senor Pablo Emilio Escobar requested that Dr Alberto Villamizar Crdenas also affix his signature to same, said signature appearing below." Villamizar signed, though he was never told in what capacity.

When this process had been completed, Pablo Escobar took his leave of everyone and walked into the cell where he would live as involved as ever in his business affairs, and also have the power of the state protecting his domestic tranquillity and security. Starting the next day, however, the very prison-like prison described by Villamizar began to be transformed into a five-star hacienda with all kinds of luxuries, sports installations, and facilities for parties and pleasures, built with first-class materials brought in gradually in the false bottom of a supply van.

When the government learned about the scandal 299 days later, it decided to transfer Escobar to another prison with no prior announcement. Just as incredible as the government's needing a year to find out what was going on was the fact that Escobar bribed a sergeant and two terrified soldiers with a plate of food and escaped on foot with his bodyguards through the nearby woods, under the noses of the functionaries and troops responsible for the transfer.

It was his death sentence. According to his subsequent statement, the government's action had been so strange and precipitous that he did not think they were really going to transfer him but kill him or turn him over to the United States. When he realised the enormity of his error, he undertook two parallel campaigns to have the government repeat the favour of imprisoning him: the greatest terrorist bombing offensive in the history of the country, and his offer to surrender without conditions of any kind. The government never acknowledged his proposals, the country did not succumb to the terror of the car bombs, and the police offensive reached unsustainable proportions.

The world had changed for Escobar. Those who could have helped him save his life again had no desire or reason to. Father Garca Herreros died of kidney failure on 24 November, 1992. Alberto Villamizar, named ambassador to Holland, received several messages from Escobar, but it was too late now. His immense fortune, estimated at $3 billion, was for the most part drained by the cost of the war or spent disbanding the cartel. His family found no place in the world where they could sleep without nightmares. Having become the biggest prey in Colmbian history, Escobar could not stay more than six hours in one spot, and in his crazed flight he left behind him a trail of dead innocents and his own bodyguards murdered, captured, or gone over to the forces of his enemies. His security services, and even his own, almost animal instinct for survival, lost the sharp edge of former days.

On 2 December, 1993 - one day after his 44th birthday - he could not resist the temptation of talking on the phone with his son, Juan Pablo, who, with his mother and younger sister, had just returned to Bogot following Germany's refusal to admit them.

Juan Pablo, who was now more alert than his father, warned him after two minutes not to talk any more because the police would trace the call. Escobar - whose devotion to his family was proverbial - ignored him. By this time, the trace had established the exact phone in the Los Olivos district in Medelln that he was using. At 3:15pm, an inconspicuous group of 23 special plainclothes police cordoned off the area, took over the house, and began to force the door to the second floor. Escobar heard them. "I'm hanging up," he said to his son on the telephone, "because something funny's going on here." Those were his last words

`News of a Kidnapping', by Gabriel Garca Mrquez, is published by Jonathan Cape on 3 July, pounds 16.99