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
Patrick Cockburn is an Irish journalist who has been a Middle East correspondent since 1979 for the Financial Times and, presently, The Independent. He was awarded Foreign Commentator of the Year at the 2013 Editorial Intelligence Comment Awards.
Friday 03 December 1993
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.
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