Obituary: Pablo Escobar
Saturday 04 December 1993
PABLO ESCOBAR, the world's most notorious drug baron, was shot dead by Colombian police on Thursday, in Medellin, the centre of his criminal operations since the 1970s.
Escobar was born in 1949 in Rionegro, Antioquia, towards the humbler end of that department's social scale: his father was a small farmer and his mother a schoolteacher. At that time drugs were of little interest to Colombians. Marijuana was a vice of small-time criminals, but it was not exported. Coca was chewed by some Indians in the Sierra Nevada and in the south of the country as it had been for centuries. The violence that prevailed in Escobar's childhood was still the old sectarian sort of Liberals against Conservatives and that was on the decline. Medellin was still the Manchester of Colombia, rather a staid religious and clannish place whose inhabitants had a reputation for hard work and hard dealing.
Escobar's career in crime began with car-theft and smuggling. He is said to have been prominent in a conflict known as the 'Marlboro Wars', fought to control the supply of Colombia's most smuggled cigarette. This local background gave him the training in violent entrepreneurship that was to bring him such spectacular success in the 1970s, when a combination of circumstances gave Colombia dominance in the world trade in cocaine, and Medellin dominance within Colombia.
Colombia achieved that position thanks to its location as the unavoidable country of transit between the main areas of cultivation in Peru and Bolivia and the market of the United States. The Colombians who rose with the traffic frequently had backgrounds in earlier smuggling, particularly in emeralds and marijuana. The local boom in marijuana exports in the early 1970s was the overture for what came later with cocaine. The Colombians could also draw on an adequate local infrastructure - plenty of practical chemists - and a deserved reputation for ruthlessness. The local forces of law and order in that vast country were not strong.
Escobar's fame began to spread outside criminal circles in the early 1980s with the zoological collection he established in his hacienda Napoles, in the municipality of Puerto Triunfo on the Magdalena River. On top of the hacienda gateway was mounted a light aircraft, the one in which he had first 'crowned' or successfully introduced a cargo into the United States. The zoo could be visited by the curious and the plane was thought rather a good joke. At this time Escobar also sought to enter politics. He was for a while a suplente, or alternate member of the republic's Chamber of Representatives, and some of his resoruces were spent in programmes to make him popular among the Medellin poor. It was not until April 1984 that the menace he represented became fully apparent. His political ambitions brought him into collision with a section of the Liberal Party, and he ordered the assassination of the Minister of Justice, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla. The government of President Belisario Betancur retaliated by signing an extradition treaty with the United States. President Virgilio Barco, who succeeded Betancur in 1986, believed from the start of his government that Escobar and the Medellin cartel were the greatest threat to Colombia - there is a lot of guerrilla competition - and an all-out offensive was ordered against them after Escobar had ordered the assassination of the Liberal presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan in August 1989. Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, 'the Mexican', was tracked down and killed, but Escobar maintained a defence in depth, and a campaign of both discriminate and indiscriminate terror which included bombing an Avianca airliner in mid-air with 107 passengers aboard. His communications to the government, carefully authenticated with a thumb-print, show that he thought he was fighting a war, and his generalship was indifferent to casualties.
In June 1991 he made a tactical surrender to the government of President Cesar Gaviria. The Constituent Assembly abolished extradition to any other country. Critics of these complicated accords doubted whether the government would be able to hold Escobar or to convict him - there was little direct evidence against him, and he had among other more notorious means of defence some of the best lawyers in a country that is legalistic as well as lawless. The inability to hold him was confirmed when he left his private jail in July 1992 after little more than a year - a most severe blow to the Gaviria government's credibility. His control of the drug business in Medellin was however already threatened, and the pressure of government searches and the retaliation of rivals have since diminished it further.
Escobar's death will not make much difference to the drug business. He was the last survivor of the type of narcotraficante who wanted not only riches but public power and fame, and who were consequently prepared to face open confrontation with the government. The business is now dispersed, and more faceless. More than any other single group, political or criminal, the Medellin cartel bears the responsibility for the increase in violence in Colombia in the last decade. Outside business, Escobar appears to have had few interests. He leaves a wife and two children. Among the countries where they have recently sought refuge are the United States.
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