Farmer's son who bribed and murdered his way into drugs: Neither government forces nor other drug traffickers were interested in taking Pablo Escobar alive. Patrick Cockburn reports

PABLO ESCOBAR once said that the essence of the cocaine business was 'simple - you bribe someone here, you bribe someone there, and you pay a friendly banker to help you bring the money back.'

In the 18 months since he escaped from La Catedral prison his life was never so simple. But he continued to be able to elude his pursuers. As recently as last weekend the United States Drug Enforcement Agency was trying to verify rumours that Escobar, leader of the Medellin cartel, had taken refuge in Haiti. In fact, when he was shot down by a special force of Colombian police and army, he was in the heart of his home city of Medellin, the day after he turned 44.

He was probably the most infamous criminal since Al Capone and, like the Chicago gangster, discovered that the publicity made him vulnerable. It meant the Colombian government was under continual pressure to run him to earth. The way he eluded 3,000 soldiers and policemen for 18 months was seen as demonstration he could continue to corrupt government officials.

But there were also signs the police and his rivals from the Cali cartel, more anonymous drug traffickers who have largely taken over Medellin, were on his track. Safe houses were discovered. His lieutenants were arrested or killed.

He offered to surrender at least five times. Finally his family tried to escape to Germany but were deported back to Colombia. He was losing ground both to the gunmen of other drug traffickers and the forces of the government. It was clear that neither intended to take him alive and see him escape as he had before. A dollars 6m (pounds 4m) reward was offered for his capture.

Pablo Escobar was born on a small farm outside Medellin and early became a petty criminal, stealing and reselling gravestones and dealing in stolen cars. In his early twenties he became a gunman working for some of the first cocaine traffickers and moved into the business himself.

But it was in the 1980s - as the cocaine business boomed and exports to the US soared - that Escobar became the symbol of the Colombian drug business. Despite all efforts of the US to intercept cocaine supplies, the wholesale price of the drug fell during the early 1980s and in the last five years has been steady at about dollars 11,000 (pounds 7,500) a kilogram.

Escobar himself did not take his cocaine: this was in keeping with a saying that Colombian drug dealers 'don't sleep on their own poison'. He also had political ambitions. In 1982 he even got himself elected as Liberal MP in Congress though he expressed a lasting admiration for Margaret Thatcher. He cultivated his image as the Robin Hood of Colombia and even has a barrio, or district, named after him in Medellin where he built some houses.

This reputation for social beneficence was based on little enough. Some of the houses he built were never completed but Escobar's generosity was in stark contrast with the reputation of the Colombian government. In any case he did not depend on popularity for survival. He was violent even by the standards of a country where there were 28,284 murders in 1991.

It all got too much. In 1989 Luis Carlos Galan stood in the presidential election on a reform platform. He proposed that cocaine traffickers wanted in the US like Escobar be extradited. In response to this threat Galan was shot dead as he was giving a speech. Escobar may not have been directly implicated but the Medellin cartel was blamed. He went to ground and started an episodic guerrilla war against the police. He arranged for half a ton of dynamite to detonate outside the headquarters of the secret police in Bogota.

In 1991, after negotiations, he surrendered to the authorities. He was jailed in a luxurious prison, La Catedral, where his influence was strong enough for him effectively to appoint his prison guards. He continued to run the Medellin cartel from jail but always feared that the Colombian government might make his imprisonment more effective. He also feared that, in league with his rivals from Cali, they would simply kill him. He escaped with his senior lieutenants but his power was ebbing and sooner or later his enemies from the underworld or the police or a combination of both were likely to kill him.

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Office Administrator

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion, an experienced and hig...

SThree: Graduate Recruitment Resourcer

£20000 per annum + commission: SThree: Sthree have an exciting opportunity for...

Recruitment Genius: Plumbing & Heating / Bathroom Trade Counter Sales

£22000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This well established London ba...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin (based in London)

£20000 - £25000 per annum + commission: SThree: Real Staffing's Pharmaceutical...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat