PROFILE: In Medellin, walls do not a prison make: Pablo Escobar, the world's most wanted man

Friday 07 August 1992 23:02

When Pablo Escobar discharged himself from his high-security prison near Medellin last month, the walking out was almost as easy as the walking in. With the help, it is said, first of a soldier's uniform, later a woman's wig and clothes, and pounds 1m in cash 'incentives' spread among his army guards, the drug baron and nine of his henchmen strolled into the surrounding banana plantations. Once again Pablo Escobar was the world's most wanted man.

The success of the Great Escape was hardly surprising. Escobar had had the prison, nicknamed 'the Cathedral', built to his own specifications, on his own land, using hand-picked army guards and complete with cellular phones, fax and radio transmitters to ensure his multi-billion dollar cocaine business continued to run smoothly. He had planned his own 'jail' for years, buying up 11 farms in the region to ensure any sudden departure would be past his own tenants.

The steel netting he insisted be draped over the prison, more a luxury complex of bungalows, left no doubt it was built rather to keep Escobar safe from his enemies - the rival Cali cartel and US anti- narcotics agents - than to keep him in. It was the Colombian government's decision not to extradite drug traffickers to the US that led him to surrender, safe in the knowledge that any Colombian court would be unlikely or unable to sentence him to more than a few years.

Escobar was still awaiting trial when he escaped, but the whisper among judicial sources was of a term nearer three years than 30, the maximum for drug offences in Colombia. Although suspected of ordering hundreds of murders - of judges, presidential candidates and a justice minister among others - as well as the 1989 bombing of a Colombian airliner in which 107 people died, Escobar had agreed to confess to only one crime. Its nature was never revealed.

His surrender in June last year was billed as a major coup for Colombia's President Cesar Gaviria, a sign that his softer approach to the drug lords, after years of 'total war' between the latter and the authorities, had paid off. Colombia could return to the international fold, its image restored, the drug lords behind bars, the parallel economy dealt a fatal blow, the left-wing guerrillas largely subdued. Such was the theory.

Gaviria pledged Escobar would not be able to run his cocaine business from prison, while Escobar, turning himself in through the mediation of a Catholic priest, made sociable and patriotic comments, such as 'I could not remain indifferent to the longings for peace of the vast majority of the Colombian people.'

For several of his enemies, the peace they found was eternal, as Escobar had them borrado (rubbed out) by means of his formidable communications network.

Long before his escape, it was obvious Escobar was running his empire from jail. Almost daily he received illicit visits from members of his cartel or those in his pay, from dealers to policemen to local football players. Colombia's parallel economy - the import of coca, its conversion to cocaine and export to the US and Europe - continued undisturbed. US agents of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) estimate Escobar's organisation was responsible for 80 per cent, or 600 tonnes, of the cocaine reaching the US annually in recent years. For Escobar, that represented a yearly income of pounds 8bn.

Escobar's jail in the lush hills outside Medellin is close to his home town of Rionegro, where he was born to a farmer and schoolteacher in the late Forties. His family was far from poor, and unlike most Colombian children he received a high school education, but very early on he turned his back on the country life. He used to hitchhike into Medellin at weekends and gaze at the limousines and villas in the posher part of town, in stark contrast to the slums and shacks built into rubbish dumps. Crime, and early death from poverty, were rife and that, according to local legend, gave him his first entrepreneurial brainwave. He and a group of friends relieved local cemeteries of their best-looking gravestones, removed their inscriptions, studied the local obituary columns and sold the stones for a 100 per cent profit to the newly bereaved.

Stealing expensive cars and selling them in other towns, often in Bogota, was the next logical step. But it was during a visit to relatives working in the US in the late Sixties that he realised where there was real money to be made. Marijuana was becoming passe and cocaine was on its way in. Back home, Escobar lost no time. He began by hiring burros (mules), men who would smuggle coca paste up from Peru and Ecuador on lorries.

In 1976 police in Medellin found 40lb of cocaine inside a spare tyre and he was jailed. In terms of what lay ahead, he was still small time, but he had already developed the theory of plomo o plata (lead or silver - take my money or my bullet). The records of his crime mysteriously disappeared, he was out in three months and two of the policemen who arrested him were later killed. Although that crime pales beside those of which he was later suspected, it is perhaps the only one for which there was solid evidence, and as such it later featured in a brave campaign by the Colombian daily El Espectador to blow his cover as a legitimate businessman, politician and philanthropist.

By the early Eighties, Escobar had joined in an unholy trinity with Medellin's Ochoa family and another freelance smuggler called Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, dividing up the tasks of coca importation and processing, and cocaine exportation and distribution in the US. Gone were the tiny processing 'kitchens' of the early days. By 1983, the cartel had set up camps in Colombia's southern province of Caqueta that would have done justice to Ian Fleming's Dr No. One employed thousands of men to turn coca into cocaine. Planeloads of ether were flown in from the US or Germany, planeloads of the finished product flew out of the area's private airstrip.

A coincidental event led to a further alliance between the cartel and Colombia's M-19 and FARC guerrillas. After the daughter of one of the Ochoa family was kidnapped by guerrillas, the cartel set up a hit squad, MAS (Death to Kidnappers), and launched a throat-slitting campaign against anyone suspected of guerrilla links. The girl was released, the guerrillas got the message and a new deal was struck. Welcoming the Cartel's money for drug purchases, FARC guerrillas helped to guard cocaine-processing labs. And when M-19 guerrillas took over Bogota's Palace of Justice in November 1985, an attack in which a dozen Supreme Court justices and 100 others died, the hand of the Cartel was obvious. The justices had been meeting to discuss the drug lords' greatest fear, whether or not to extradite Cartel members to the US.

By the time he was in his mid-thirties, Escobar, chunkily built, now favouring a thick moustache and notable for a pronounced forelock that he likes to twiddle when in pensive mood, was a billionaire. Forbes Magazine estimated his fortune at up to dollars 5bn ( pounds 2.6bn). He was said to own 200 apartments in Miami, several hotels in Venezuela, a fleet of aircraft and a global network of bank accounts. One ranch boasted two Indian elephants, four giraffes, hippopotami, rare birds and what visitors described as a football-playing kangaroo. Above its gate perched a light propellor aircraft, said to have been the first plane he used to shift cocaine to the US. Next to the pool, manned by his bodyguards, was a mortar position, ready to discourage anyone who got within miles of the place. Nearby was his pride and joy, a bullet-riddled American sedan. According to Escobar, it was the car in which Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were gunned to death by the FBI.

All this time Escobar was living openly, ploughing much of his income back into Medellin, helping to convert it into a city of swish shopping malls, gourmet restaurants and good roads. Compared to Bogota, it was something of a paradise. Ensuring his grass-roots support, Escobar built homes for the poor, gave them football pitches, street lights and something neither the local nor the distant Bogota government had given them before - a feeling somebody cared. Known as 'Don Pablo' or 'Papa' to those he had housed for nothing, he was, and still is, treated as a saint. 'For us, he is a man of God,' said one Medellin resident. 'The campaign against him is unjust. If a dog gets run over, they blame Don Pablo.'

It was not surprising he went into politics. In 1982, he was elected as an alternative member of parliament for Medellin. Perhaps because of the country's violent history, Colombians vote for back-up candidates in case the first choice becomes indisposed. But the high-profile move may have been the beginning of the end. He may have been popular on his hometown streets but national outrage over the cocaine industry was growing, as was anti-narcotics sentiment in the US.

In 1983, a new justice minister, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, disturbed by Escobar's public image, declared war on the drug lords, and on Escobar in particular. On 30 April 1984, Lara was on his way home in his Mercedes when a motorcycle pulled up alongside. The man riding pillion opened fire with a sub-machine-gun., The DEA was in no doubt the young sicarios (hit men) had been paid by Escobar. The ignominy of that attack forced Escobar underground.

Now, Escobar is offering to go back to 'jail,' provided he returns to the 'Cathedral'. President Gaviria, so far, says 'no deal': unconditional surrender or nothing. One way or another, Escobar will probably serve some time. But even if he were to leave his prison phone off the hook, the drugs economy he helped to bring about will still prosper. His symbolic importance to the Colombian and US governments was illustrated last month when, after his escape, President Gaviria cancelled his trip to the Ibero-American summit in Madrid. But to believe Escobar's recapture will end, or significantly dent, the drugs trade is to believe a myth of his creating: that he is not only a symbol of the trade, but the embodiment of it.

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