Profiles in Scourges: Pablo Escobar
Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria was born December 1, 1949, in the town of Rionegro, nestled in the northern Andes not far from the city of Medellin in the Colombian province of Antioquia. The son of a peasant farmer and a schoolteacher, there was nothing in Escobar’s background to suggest the meteoric and spectacularly sociopathic trajectory his life would follow. While fairly well-educated, he never had a reputation as a brilliant intellect. Rather, like Al Capone, his main “talent” was an unlimited capacity for violence.
When poverty forced Escobar to drop out of Antioquia’s provincial university in 1966, he started stealing cars and trafficking marijuana, which made him a millionaire at 22. Next he invested his fortune in the nascent cocaine business, monopolizing local coca production by paying peasant farmers twice the going rate and investing in coca cultivation in the remote mountain valleys of Peru and Bolivia, far from weak central governments.
Coca, bribes, and murder propelled Escobar to the top ranks of the Medellin crime scene. Here he met Jorge Luis Ochoa Vasquez, who’d already set up a small-scale smuggling and distribution operation in south Florida before returning to Colombia to build up his family’s cocaine processing operation in 1977. Now their partnership allowed Escobar to expand into processing and distribution as well.
Coming to America
At this point the Colombians were still locked out of the U.S. cocaine trade by Cuban smugglers who employed “mules” (usually airline passengers or flight attendants) to bring relatively small amounts of the drug into south Florida, where it was sold to mid-level dealers working with the American Mafia.
The Cuban smuggling monopoly was finally cracked by a third Colombian, Carlos Lehder Rivas, working with George Jung, an American drug trafficker. While cellmates in Federal prison in the mid-1970s, Jung and Lehder laid plans to fly cocaine into the U.S. aboard single-prop Cessnas, allowing them to do away with unreliable “mules” and ship much larger amounts of cocaine. In 1977 their first run of 250 kilograms sold for about $15 million, attracting the interest of their suppliers, who were looking to ship more cocaine to the U.S. — a lot more.
Now the last piece fell into place: with Lehder on board, Escobar had the supply, processing, and smuggling capacity to support mass marketing in the U.S. On a typical run Lehder and Jung flew from the Bahamas to Escobar’s ranch in Colombia on Friday, returned to the Bahamas Saturday with 300-500 kilograms of cocaine, then blended into the Sunday rush of planes carrying weekend vacationers back to the U.S.
The profits were astronomical at every step. In 1978 each kilo probably cost Escobar $2,000 but sold to Lehder and Jung for $22,000, clearing Escobar $20,000 per kilo. In the next stage they transported an average of 400 kilos to south Florida (incurring some additional expenses in hush money for local airport authorities) where mid-level dealers paid a wholesale price of $60,000 per kilo; thus in 1978 each 400-kilo load earned Escobar $8 million and Lehder, Ochoa, and Jung $5 million each in profits. Of course the mid-level dealers did just fine: after cutting the drug with baking soda each shipment retailed on the street for $210 million, almost ten times what they paid for it.
Soon Lehder was hiring American pilots to fly a steady stream of cocaine into the U.S., paying them $400,000 per trip. At one trip per week, in 1978 this translated into wholesale revenues of $1.3 billion and profits of $1 billion.
All that money paid for lots of stuff, including Colombian killers who wiped out Cuban gangs in Florida during the “Cocaine Wars” from 1978-1981 (the resulting public outcry produced little action, as local police were deafened by generous bribes). Escobar and Lehder also opened new routes via stopovers in the Caribbean and Central America to meet surging U.S. demand. Foremost was Norman’s Cay, a five-mile-long island in the Bahamas purchased in 1978, with amenities including a hotel, restaurant, 100 houses, and marina, which they further equipped with a 3,300-foot airstrip and refrigerated warehouses.
Caught in the throes of cocaine addiction, Lehder ruled this island paradise as his personal kingdom, throwing wild parties punctuated by bouts of paranoid rage. Like a modern-day pirate chief, he was constantly surrounded by 40 heavily armed German bodyguards whose duties including scaring off yachters who came too close (including an alarmed Walter Cronkite) and ushering Lehder’s guests off the island once he tired of them. Jung was lucky to get off the island alive after Lehder ended their partnership.
But Lehder kept the cocaine moving. When the DEA caught on to the Cessna trick in 1979, the Colombians switched tactics, with low-flying planes parachuting cocaine to speedboats in international waters. The syndicate’s smuggling operation grew to one ton per week in 1979, for annual sales of about $3.5 billion, then two tons per week in 1982, for annual sales of $5-$6 billion.
That year Escobar, Ochoa and Lehder jointly funded a 2,000-man paramilitary to guard their shared interests, marking the formal beginning of the Medellin Cartel. Ostensibly a meeting of equals, the Cartel had just one real master — El Patron, “The Boss,” or El Padrino, “The Godfather” — reflecting Escobar’s dominant role in the supply chain as well as his utter ruthlessness. It was a fluid organization composed of at least 17 sub-organizations (including two sub-cartels controlling Cali and Colombia’s north coast), which operated independently, so only the bosses knew what was really going on. A hybrid of a mafia family and a Fortune 500 corporation, its opaque, amorphous structure thwarted investigation, protecting the bosses from prosecution and intimidating outsiders who could only speculate about its true size.
By 1982 Escobar’s personal fortune topped $3 billion, making him the richest man in Colombia, but limitless ambition drove him to ever-bolder schemes. He acquired a fleet of vintage DC-3s, DC-4s and DC-6s to ship larger loads, and the delivery schedule became even more frenetic, prompting Vice President George Bush to complain to the Bahamian Prime Minister that the traffic at Norman’s Cay was “like O’Hare.” He also bought election to Colombia’s Congress and used his diplomatic passport to take a family vacation in the U.S. (including a brazen visit to the White House and a bizarre visit to Graceland to pay homage to his idol Elvis Presley).
In March 1982, the seizure of two tons of cocaine at Miami International Airport shocked U.S. officials, who realized they faced a much larger operation than anything seen before. But they still didn’t know of the Cartel’s existence, and Escobar always stayed a few steps ahead. By the time U.S. scrutiny forced Lehder to leave Norman’s Cay in September 1983, Escobar had already forged a new partnership with Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, and the operation didn’t miss a beat. In fact from 1982-1984 shipments jumped from 80 tons to 145 tons, flooding the U.S. market and causing wholesale prices to drop from $60,000 per kilo to $16,000. But cash flow remained absurd, with revenues of $3 billion in 1983 and $2.3 billion in 1984, netting Escobar alone at least $1.3 billion in profit.
Around this time he bought a Learjet to fly cash out of the U.S., and the Cartel’s expenses included $2,500 per month for rubber bands for bricks of cash.
Escobar employed a team of 10 full-time accountants to keep track of it all, but could also be surprisingly relaxed: he shrugged when $5 million was loaded on the wrong boat — “you win some, you lose some” — and accepted the regular loss of 10% of his income to “spoilage,” as up to $500 million per year was eaten by rats or rotted due to improper storage.
Escobar’s personal fortune was estimated at $7-$10 billion in 1985, of which perhaps $3 billion was in Colombia, with the rest spread out in countless foreign bank accounts and investments, including apartments in Miami, hotels in Venezuela, and up to one million hectares of land in Colombia (about 3,900 square miles, or 1% of the country’s land area).
He Bought a Zoo
He also spent several hundred million dollars on his grand Antioquia residence, Hacienda Napoles. It centered on a Spanish colonial mansion with accommodations for up to 100 guests set on 5,500 acres (8.6 square miles) encompassing six swimming pools, gardens, an orchard containing 100,000 fruit trees, stables for his prize racehorses, fourteen artificial lakes, and a zoological park housing over 2,000 species from around the world including elephants, giraffes, ostriches, kangaroos, camels, lions, tigers, zebras, rhinos, hippos, and a butterfly sanctuary.
For entertainment Escobar built a motor-cart racetrack, a soccer arena, and a 1,000-seat bull ring. Hacienda Napoles had a staff of 700 and was protected by security fences, guard towers, and a mortar emplacement.
By 1985 the Medellin Cartel was at the peak of its power. In just a decade it had conquered America, as the number of people who’d tried cocaine at least once quadrupling to 25 million, while the number of regular users soared from one million to six million. Americans consumed about 150 tons of cocaine in 1985, generating $30 billion of revenues for mid-level dealers and $6 billion for the Cartel. The DEA found full-time dealers in twelve out of fifteen office buildings on Wall Street, and corruption reached everywhere: 10% of Miami’s police were on Escobar’s payroll, as were high-ranking figures in the FBI, DEA, Customs, IRS, INS and CIA.
“Stronger Than the State”
But this paled in comparison to Medellin’s influence in South America, where it employed as many as 750,000 people and controlled 40%-50% of total exports from Colombia, Bolivia and Peru. The largest processing facilities were towns with their own schools and clinics: in March 1984 Colombian police helicopters descended on Tranquilandia, a network of 19 labs spread across 1,200 square miles of jungle southeast of Bogota; accessible only via air, it had eight airstrips, dormitories for hundreds of workers, and its own hydroelectric power supply, road system, and vehicle fleet. In 1985 they destroyed 667 labs and 90 airstrips, but barely dented total production.
Corruption was ubiquitous: in 1985, 400 Colombian judges were on the take, and by 1989 the attorney general was investigating 6,000 cases of corruption in the police and military. As former Colombian President Belisario Betancur put it, “We are up against an organization stronger than the state.” Escobar also courted public opinion by building schools, churches, soccer arenas, and free housing for tens of thousands of poor Colombians.
In 1986 he offered to pay Colombia’s $13 billion foreign debt in exchange for amnesty (the offer was declined).
Bribery was certainly better than the alternative: Escobar gave the undecided a choice between plata o plomo, “silver or lead,” making it clear he was going to get his way one way or another. Violence was just a cost of doing business, and no one was off limits. A month after the raid on Tranquilandia, Colombia’s Minister of Justice was gunned down; in 1985 a bloody assault on the Palace of Justice killed 11 out of 24 Supreme Court justices along with 84 other people; 1986 brought the murders of another Supreme Court Justice, the head of the country’s anti-narcotics division, and the editor of El Espectador, the leading national newspaper, followed in 1987 by Jaime Pardo Leal, a leftist candidate for president. But all this was just a preamble.
By 1985 the U.S. government could no longer tolerate the Medellin Cartel, which it blamed for introducing cheap, smokeable crack cocaine in 1984 to boost profits. Crack was especially effective at trapping low-income users in addictions they couldn’t afford, forcing them to turn to crime. Escobar also crossed the U.S. by leasing smuggling facilities from Communist regimes in Cuba and Nicaragua (but didn’t win any points for also paying Nicaragua’s pro-U.S. Contras). The last straw was the kidnapping and murder of a DEA agent, Enrique Camerena, in Mexico.
At first the U.S. government’s attempts to undercut Escobar’s cocaine income failed spectacularly. In fact Escobar ramped up, buying thirteen 727 jetliners from a bankrupt Eastern Airlines, each capable of carrying 11 tons of cocaine per trip, and also acquired two remote-controlled miniature submarines from the Russian Navy, each capable of carrying one ton. His chemists also invented new ways to conceal the drug, including liquid cocaine (which could be mixed with other fluids) and a cocaine-based plastic that was molded into plumbing fixtures, toys, and religious statuary.
Total shipments jumped to 360 tons by 1989, when Forbes named Escobar the seventh wealthiest man in the world, with a fortune estimated at $24 billion.
U.S. efforts to get Escobar extradited triggered all-out war between the Cartel and the Colombian government. In 1988-1991 the Cartel murdered Colombia’s attorney general, the provincial governor and police chief of Antioquia, a second candidate for president, Luis Carlos Galan, and a second Minister of Justice. Escobar also ordered the bombings of El Espectador and another leading newspaper, Vanguardia Liberal, killing four; Avianca Flight 203, killing 110 (but not the intended target, Galan’s replacement Cesar Gaviria Trujillo); and secret police headquarters, killing 50 and leveling several city blocks.
To end the reign of terror, the government agreed not to extradite Escobar if he served five years in a minimum-security prison — although “no-security” might be more accurate, as he was allowed to build his own penitentiary, a luxurious compound nicknamed “Club Medellin” where he continued managing his empire as before. (And just to be safe, he also bribed enough politicians to nullify the extradition treaty with the U.S.)
This Is the End
But in July 1992 he finally went too far, executing four high-ranking traffickers with ties to the increasingly independent Cali Cartel. Public outcry forced the government to act, but Escobar escaped before the army could move him to a real prison. Now Escobar was clearly on the defensive, pursued relentlessly by the Colombian national police and armed forces with assistance from the CIA, the U.S. Army’s “Delta” force, and U.S. Navy Seals. The enraged Cali Cartel also turned on Escobar, cooperating with a vigilante group formed by the relatives of Escobar’s victims called the PEPES (Perseguidos por Pablo Escobar, “Persecuted by Pablo Escobar”) whose sole aim was revenge. In short, the whole world wanted Escobar dead, and it was only a matter of time.
Unhindered by legal niceties, the Cali Cartel and the PEPES attacked Escobar’s family, friends, and finances, killing 300 relatives and business associates. Then on December 2, 1993, Colombian police intercepted a phone conversation between Escobar and his son that pinpointed his location in a Medellin apartment block. Outgunned, Escobar attempted to flee via the rooftops, where he was brought down by a hail of bullets. 44 years old when he died, he was responsible for the murders of at least 40 judges, 200 court officials, 1,000 policemen, and 3,500 civilians; some estimates put the total as high as 60,000.
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