The Life of Pablo

Eleanor McKenzie

201706pablo-escobar-mugshot-1977In the second of the series about drug cartels and their leaders, we look at Pablo Escobar, a drug lord who has probably been more talked about than anyone else in South America.

For a very long time, Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria has enjoyed quite a fan following across the world and attracted some new ones thanks to the brilliant TV series “Narcos”.  For some reason, many people who will never encounter a drug cartel member, want to identify with him and you’ll find numerous usernames on social media and email addresses that include a reference to him. Kanye West’s most recent album is called “Life of Pablo” and friends of the rapper claimed that he is referring to Escobar, although Kanye suggested that it was more a reference to Pablo Picasso. But then, that’s the kind of big statement we’ve come to expect from Kanye. Pablo Escobar would probably have applauded his chutzpah and empathised with the rappers quest for world domination, something that Escobar had at the top of his wish list.

An ambitious child

Born on December 1, 1949, into a lower-middle-class family, Pablo grew up in the Medellín suburb of Envigado. Even as a youngster, he was driven and ambitious, and would tell friends and family that he wanted to be President of Colombia some day. Pablo wasn’t always into drugs – he started out as more of a petty thief who then became and expert smuggler of electronics, cigarettes and cars in and out of Colombia.

Plata o plomo

Border crossing patrols were in his pocket due to the fear he instilled in everyone around him with his “Plata o plomo” (Money or lead) maxim that he was fond of saying to anyone who was resistant to letting him do what was needed. Escobar’s ruthlessness was legendary. His rise was opposed by many honest politicians, judges, and policemen, who did not like the growing influence of this street thug. Usually, if a politician, judge or policeman got in his way, he would first attempt to bribe them, and if that didn’t work, he would order them killed, occasionally including their family in the hit. The exact number of men and women killed by Escobar is unknown, but it definitely goes well into the hundreds and perhaps into the thousands with the worst of it occurring during his leadership of the infamous Medellín cartel that swamped North America with it prize product – cocaine.

A new source of income

In the 1970s, dissatisfied with the money he was making on his smuggling routes, he discovered that bringing in coca paste to Colombia from Bolivia or Peru was going to make him the kind of fortune that TVs and stolen cars never would. What is interesting is that Pablo himself at that point was strictly a marijuana man and he was quite surprised to find that the American market demand was shifting from top quality grass to cocaine, and the profits to be made were significantly higher. As a result, Escobar started to put all his efforts into the cocaine trade and into forging alliances with the men who ran the jungle laboratories and knew the smuggling routes into the USA. His mother even designed a jacket to conceal packets of cocaine. It was a very basic solution, but by the time the Medellín cartel’s trade was at its zenith, he would have devised many more imaginative ways to distribute the white powder to the North American market.

Pablo’s fortune

By the mid-1980s, Escobar had become one of world’s most powerful men. He even got a listing in Forbes as the world’s seventh richest man with a fortune of around $24bn. He controlled an empire from Medellín that included a personal army of ‘soldiers’ and criminals, private airstrips and planes, plus mansions and apartments across Colombia. He even had a zoo.

Escobar against the State

He was also unafraid of anyone in a position of power. Get in the way of Escobar’s business and he didn’t think twice about removing you. He ordered the assassination of a presidential candidate, and was allegedly the real figure behind the 1985 attack on Colombia’s Supreme Court. The revolutionary socialist guerilla fighters called “M-19” claimed sole responsibility, but even though there was no strong evidence to link Escobar to the siege, it is still widely believed that he was involved in some way. Perhaps Escobar’s most renowned act of aggression was the bringing down of Avianca flight 203 on 29th November, 1989, after the Medellín cartel planted a bomb on board and 110 people lost their lives. The target was thought to be a presidential candidate who, as fate would have it, was not on the flight.

The people’s saint

Whilst he was busy spreading terror across Colombia and driving the USA’s Drug Enforcement Agency into an angry frenzy because he appeared to be untouchable, Pablo was also endearing himself to the citizens of Medellín. He knew that if the people of his city admired him then he would be much safer. So, he spent millions on parks, schools, stadiums, churches and even housing for the poorest of Medellín’s inhabitants. And his strategy worked: the people loved him and thought of him as a local boy who had done well for himself. It enabled Escobar to move around Medellín with impunity. Well, almost!

Justice catches up

Naturally, the forces of the law were always looking for Pablo Escobar, but his wealth and ruthlessness made catching up with him almost impossible. If you didn’t take a bribe, you were killed. However, the USA brought increasing pressure on Colombia to do agree to extradite Escobar for drugs charges and Pablo used every bit of his power, wealth and quick thinking to prevent it.

La Catedral

In 1991, his lawyers presented an idea to the Colombian government: he would serve a five-year jail term in Colombia in exchange for no extradition to the US. Furthermore, he would build his own prison, which was named ‘La Catedral’. It was a sumptuous villa with Jacuzzis, football pitch and a well-stocked bar. He chose his own guards and there were no other prisoners. He continued to run his drug empire from La Catedral by telephone. You couldn’t really make it up, but Escobar did and managed to sell it to the Colombian government.

Of course, like many a leader Escobar eventually went too far with his prison activities. The government could turn a blind eye to his continued control of his business interests from the prison, but when he had some disloyal staff tortured and killed at La Catedral, the government decided that Escobar would have to go to a normal prison. Escobar was not having that, because it brought back the threat of extradition.  So he ran.

 A massive manhunt was organized, with help from the United States Government. By late 1992, there were two organisations searching for him: the Search Bloc, a special, US-trained Colombian task force, and “Los Pepes,” a shadowy organisation of Escobar’s enemies, made up of family members of his victims and financed by Escobar’s main business rival, the Cali Cartel.

The end of Pablo

With his wife, his mother and children held in ‘secure’ accommodation but government forces in Medellín, Pablo stayed on the run until December 1993 when combined US and Colombian forces tracked him to an apartment in a middle-class area of the same city. Technology tracked his use of a satellite phone that he kept to maintain contact with his family. The Search Bloc forces attempted to arrest him, but Escobar wasn’t the kind of man to be taken and put in cuffs. There was a shoot out and Pablo was eventually brought down on the building’s rooftop by shots to the torso, leg and head. Some think the shot in his head was suicide and others an execution-style shot by one of the Colombian police.

The end of Pablo Escobar also spelt the demise of the Medellín cartel. The people of the city mourned their benefactor and while they did, the Cali cartel, Escobar’s greatest rivals, stepped in and filled the gap in the cocaine trade. It had an international reach and would become one of the most feared cocaine cartels. Meanwhile the world continues to be fascinated by the story of Pablo Escobar, the ruler of one of the greatest crime empires. 

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