Life and Death in the Andes
1 THE HUNT FOR PABLO ESCOBAR AND THE SEARCH FOR EL DORADO (COLOMBIA)
He stated that [Colombia] was a land rich in emeralds and gold . . . he told of a certain king, unclothed, who went on rafts on a pool to make oblations . . . anointing all [his body] with . . . a quantity of ground gold . . . gleaming like a ray of the sun . . . [and] the [Spanish] soldiers . . . then gave [that king] the name El Dorado [the Golden One].
—Juan de Castellanos, 1589
Sometimes I am God; if I say a man dies, he dies that same day . . . There can only be one king [and that king is me].
—Pablo Escobar, leader of the Medellín cartel, who spent seven years on Forbes magazine’s billionaire list (1987–1993)
Someday, and that day may never come, I’ll call upon you to do a service for me. But until that day, accept this [retribution] . . . as a gift on my daughter’s wedding day.
—Don Corleone, The Godfather, 1972
Knock, knock, knock!
The knock on Colonel Hugo Martínez’s door that signaled his possible death came at 11:30 a.m. on a Wednesday morning in the La Castellana neighborhood of Bogotá. The knock came during the height of the Medellín drug wars and, Martínez knew, the only way to access Martínez’s home on the fifth floor of this particular upscale apartment tower was after being screened by the watchman downstairs. It was the latter’s job to confirm whether the apartment dweller was there, to ask for the visitor’s name, and then to announce the visitor’s arrival via the intercom. Only if an occupant granted permission was a visitor allowed to enter the building, which was mostly inhabited by the families of high-ranking Colombian police officers. On this particular morning, however, the intercom had been silent. It must be a neighbor, Colonel Martínez thought—but how had anyone known that he was here? The colonel, whose job was to hunt down the leaders of the Medellín cartel, moved carefully to the door. All about him, on the floor, lay shards of glass from the bomb explosion outside that had shattered the windows and his television set a week before.
Knock knock knock!
The colonel was a lean man, six foot tall and forty-nine years old, with short-cropped brown hair and closely set, coffee-colored eyes. He’d been in the midst of packing up his family’s belongings when the knock caused him to momentarily freeze. The apartment had lain empty for a week, the clock still ticking silently on the wall, clothes strewn about, his children’s toys in their rooms, just as they had left them before his wife and two children fled. No one was supposed to know that he was here, alone in this particular apartment and in Bogotá at this particular time. So who was knocking at the door?
A week earlier, the cartel had exploded a powerful bomb in the street below, spewing jagged shrapnel and creating a cloud of smoke that had risen into the air. A number of people had been wounded, although none had been killed. Martínez had been two hundred miles away in Medellín at the time and had called his wife frantically when he’d heard. He’d then flown back to Bogotá and had arranged for her
and their children to go into hiding. The cartel, Martínez realized, could have killed his entire family. Instead, they’d chosen to send the bomb as the sort of message they knew the colonel would understand:
We, the Medellín Cartel, know your family lives here. We can kill them anytime we wish. If you continue to pursue us, your family will cease to exist. This is a warning.
For much of the last three years, Colonel Martínez had been living an almost monastic life in Medellín. There, he was quartered on a police base with the rest of the handpicked members of the special police force that he’d helped to create and currently led—el Bloque de Búsqueda (the Search Bloc). In 1989 the Colombian government had selected Martínez to command what both he and his fellow officers believed to be a suicidal mission: hunting down Colombia’s most powerful and feared drug lord, Pablo Escobar, and dismantling Escobar’s Medellín cartel.
Martínez hadn’t wanted the job. In fact, most of his colleagues felt that he’d be dead within a few months, if not weeks. But an appointment was an appointment, Martínez believed. After all, he’d spent his entire life in the police, ever since becoming a cadet.
Duty was duty. If he didn’t do it, then someone else would be ordered to instead. After years of giving and receiving orders, Martínez wasn’t about to disobey one now. At the same time, the colonel realized, perhaps that’s why he’d been given the mission in the first place. While others might resign or try to pass the assignment on, Martínez’s superiors knew that he was one of the few who never would. He was well known, in fact, as the kind of officer who got things done. His record was clean. He’d not only obtained the rank of colonel but also had graduated from law school at the top of his class. Martínez was now middle-aged, was married with three kids, and was on track to become a general. But only if he could survive his present mission.
Martínez and his family had been living in Bogotá when he’d received his new command. The assignment called for Martínez to move immediately to Medellín. There, he was to conduct operations in a city where the cartel had already paid off most of the local police. Law
enforcement in Colombia was a poorly paid profession, after all, while drugs were bringing in billions of dollars. Corruption was at an all-time high. So many Medellín judges, police, and politicians were on the cartel’s payroll, in fact, that Pablo Escobar was considered “untouchable” in his hometown.
The cartel, of course, made the payments to protect its major business—the exportation of cocaine. Bribes were thus one of the cartel’s unavoidable operating expenses. If certain individuals proved troublesome and could not be bought—or if other individuals cheated or betrayed them—then Escobar and the cartel employed a veritable army of thousands of specialized hit men, called sicarios,I
who enabled the cartel to enforce its will. By the late 1980s, some two thousand sicarios—mostly young teenagers—swarmed Medellín’s crowded streets, often riding tandem on the backs of small motorcycles. The one in front was the designated driver; the one behind, the shooter. Escobar, who, according to some, had worked as a sicario himself in his teens, had sent out word to his young killers regarding the kind of assassinations he preferred: two bullets in the forehead, placed just above the eyes. A person might survive one of those bullets, Escobar advised, but never two.
In Medellín, assassination for the cartel was such a lucrative business that an entire cottage industry had sprung up. With an ever-increasing number of targets, delivering death smoothly, rapidly, and anonymously had become a highly sought-after skill. By 1989, the year that the colonel and four hundred members of the Search Bloc arrived in Medellín to take on Escobar, Medellín was already considered the most dangerous city in the world. No other metropolis came close to the rate at which living human beings were so abundantly converted each day into the dead.
That the members of the Search Bloc would be exposed to extreme danger was a given: for that reason, neither the colonel nor his men had brought their families along. To have done so would have
immediately transformed their loved ones into targets for the cartel. Instead, the Search Bloc families lived in various homes in other cities and frequently moved for security reasons. Recently, as the Colombian government had turned up the pressure on the cartel and violence had correspondingly increased, Colonel Martínez and his wife had abruptly withdrawn their children from school. Even a police escort could no longer guarantee their safety. No, after the recent bomb explosion outside, the colonel realized, even Bogotá had become too dangerous. For that matter, so had practically every corner of Colombia. To Martínez, the cartel increasingly seemed like an enormous octopus with innumerable tentacles, some thick, some small, with more tentacles constantly sprouting. The cartel could reach whomever it wanted, even outside of Colombia. Anyone who, for any reason, tried to stop or hinder the cartel’s growth automatically became a target for assassination.
Knock, knock, knock!
The knocks were harder, louder, more insistent.
“Who’s there?” Martínez called out.
There was silence. Then a muffled voice.
“Who is it?” he called again.
This time, he heard a name. A name he recognized. But it was a name he hadn’t heard in years.
Martínez opened the door. Before him stood a man about forty-five years old, dressed in a suit and tie, with brown skin and a pained expression on his face. It was a man Martínez recognized—a former police officer whom he hadn’t seen in more than four years. The officer had once lived in a house alongside his own in another city, and Martínez had once asked him, because of certain irregularities, to resign.
The man stood there, a look of shame mingling with fear on his face. He had difficulty meeting the colonel’s eyes.
“I come to you with a message, mi colonel,” he finally said. “I come to you obligated.”
Martínez looked at him, frowning. The man then looked up.
“The message is from Pablo Escobar,” he said.
“If I didn’t come—they’d kill me. Or my family. That’s the threat I’m under.”
Martínez stared at his former colleague, still wondering how he’d appeared so easily at his doorway.
“What’s the message?” he finally asked.
“Escobar’s sent me to offer you six million dollars.”
The man looked at Martínez carefully, judging his reaction, before continuing.
“The only thing he asks is that you keep on working, that you continue your job, that you keep carrying out operations. But,” he added, staring hard at the colonel, “if you’re sending an operation to capture him—then you must first make a phone call. To let us know. If you agree, then the money will be delivered to any account you want.
“Six million dollars,” the man repeated.
Colonel Martínez stared at the former officer, who was clearly uncomfortable and sweating, despite the cool air. Two thoughts now entered the colonel’s mind. The first was the realization that Escobar was making him the standard cartel offer of plata o plomo, “silver or lead.” Literally, “money or death.” The bomb explosion a week earlier had been the first part of that offer—the threat of plomo, or death—unless Martínez changed his behavior. Now his former colleague was here with the second part: the plata or, in this case, the $6 million. It was up to Martínez which to accept.
The second thought that entered Martínez’s mind, as he watched the cartel’s messenger shift uneasily before him, was that Escobar wouldn’t be making this offer if he wasn’t feeling pressure. Already, the colonel and his men had captured or killed some of Escobar’s top lieutenants, including Escobar’s cousin Henao, his right-hand man. Escobar, the colonel now realized, must be worried. His offer was thus a sign of weakness, not strength.
“Tell them you couldn’t find me,” Martínez said quietly.
“But, mi colonel, I can’t do that,” the man pleaded.
“We never spoke,” the colonel said firmly.
And then, despite the man’s pleading, the colonel closed the door.
· · ·
When Pablo Escobar was seven years old and his eldest brother, Roberto, was ten, armed mobs, or Chusmeros, arrived in the village of
Titiribu where the Escobar family lived, with the intent of slaughtering the inhabitants. The year was 1959 and, as Escobar’s older brother Roberto later recounted,
They came to our town in the middle of the night, dragging people out of their houses and killing them. When they reached our house they started banging on the doors with their machetes and screaming that they were going to kill us.
Most of the inhabitants in Escobar’s village belonged to Colombia’s Liberal Party. The armed mob, by contrast, was made up of Conservatives. Eleven years earlier, in 1948, the internal tensions in Colombia had come to a head with the assassination of a Liberal political candidate, Jorge Gaitán, who was predicted to win the presidency. Gaitán’s death became a trigger point that set off in Colombia a kind of collective nervous breakdown, unleashing a home-brewed explosion of violence that was as brutal as that in Rwanda some forty years later. If, as the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz said, “War is simply a continuation of policy by other means,” Gaitán’s death motivated Colombians to take their political opinions out of the realm of the ballot box and into the countryside, where ideology was now enforced with machetes, knives, and guns. In a country with only eleven million inhabitants, three hundred thousand Colombians soon lost their lives in the violent mayhem that ensued. Another six hundred thousand to eight hundred thousand were injured. To make matters worse, in Colombia the transformation from political discourse to open civil war had a particularly barbarous edge: the goal became not simply to kill one’s opponents but to do so in the most horrific manner possible.
During the mass hysteria that would later become known as La Violencia, methods of murder became so ghastly that a new lexicon emerged; new forms of language had to be invented for acts that had never before been seen, or at least not to such extremes or on such a scale. Colloquialisms soon sprang up, for example, such as picar para tamal, “to cut like a tamale,” which in this case meant to slowly chop a person’s body apart until he or she died. Death through bocachiquiar
derived from the manner in which Colombian fishermen cleaned bocachico, a fish so scaly that numerous slits had to be cut into its flesh in order to remove the scales. In the human version, a person was sliced repeatedly until he or she bled to death. Village-wide rampages broke out that included cutting off people’s ears, scalping inhabitants alive, bayoneting children and babies, and, for men, inflicting the signature corte de corbata, or “tie cut”—which meant cutting someone’s throat open and then pulling out his or her tongue through the open wound.
Thus, eleven years after Gaitán’s assassination, when shouts, lights, and torches arrived at the Escobars’ home in the middle of the night, the entire family knew what probably lay in store for them. According to Pablo’s brother, Roberto, as fists and machetes began to bang on their door, and as the screams of neighbors punctuated the night,
My mother was crying and praying to the Baby Jesus of Atocha. She took one of our mattresses and put it under the bed, then told us to lie there silently and covered us with blankets. I heard my father saying “They’re going to kill us, but we can save the kids.” I held on to Pablo and our sister, Gloria, telling them not to cry, that we would be all right . . . The door was very strong and the attackers failed to break through it, so they sprayed it with gasoline and set it on fire.
At the last minute, just before the Escobars were roasted alive, the Colombian army arrived and put the crazed marauders to flight. When shortly afterward soldiers banged on the Escobars’ door, telling them it was safe to come out, at first the family didn’t believe them. Eventually, forced out by the intense heat, the family stumbled into what was now a ravaged village, the soldiers leading the Escobars and other survivors to the local schoolhouse. Recalled Roberto,
Our road was illuminated by our burning house. In that strange light I saw bodies lying in the gutters and hanging from the lampposts. The Chusmeros had poured gasoline on the bodies and set them on fire, and I will remember forever the smell of burning flesh. I carried
[seven-year-old] Pablo. Pablo held on to me so tightly, as if he would never let go.
The sudden and savage outbreak of violence made it obvious to the rest of the world that Colombia, for whatever reason, had been a country coiled like a spring, a spring to which had been fastened hand grenades. The assassination of Gaitán had in fact cracked the country’s normally polite exterior and had allowed its inner tensions to explode, much as lava occasionally bursts forth through sudden cracks in the Andes. It wasn’t the first time, however, that Colombia had suffered such a fiery eruption. Fifty years earlier, between 1899 and 1902, another civil war had broken out, one equally as savage and during which eight hundred thousand people had been slaughtered, or about 20 percent of Colombia’s population.
The immeasurable violence and pain of our history are the result of age-old inequities and untold bitterness,” wrote the Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez in his 1982 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “and not a conspiracy plotted [by Communists] three thousand leagues from our home.”
Historians would agree. Most state that the roots of modern violence in Colombia stretch all of the way back to the original Spanish conquest. That is when a band of fewer than two hundred Spanish conquistadors, led by thirty-one-year-old Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada, arrived in 1537 upon a high plain dotted with Indian villages. The Spaniards were searching for an Indian chief named Bogotá who was rumored to possess great quantities of gold. They soon stumbled upon the Muisca culture, a loose confederation of Native American states whose inhabitants lived in conical huts, practiced agriculture on abundant, fertile fields, wore cotton tunics, and mined or traded for emeralds, copper, and gold. Each Muisca state had a chief, or cacique, and the confederations—some of the most complex to have ever existed in the Andes—covered a mountainous area the size of Switzerland.
The Muisca spoke Chibcha, part of a language family that extended up into lower Central America. Like many other native South
Americans, individuals did not own property. Instead, the land, water, and game animals were commonly owned. The Spaniards, by contrast, who had arrived from a Europe that had only recently invented capitalism, saw not a commons but a land ready for the taking—a country that was ripe for the institution of private property to be introduced. Here, fields, plains, and forests could be seized and demarcated; resources could then be quickly scooped up and exported for profit. Wrote one sixteenth-century chronicler,
When the Spaniards set their eyes on that land [of Colombia], it appeared to them that they had reached their desired destination. Therefore, they set out to conquer it.
Marching along on the campaign, Jiménez [de Quesada] . . . initiated the conquest of this New Kingdom . . . [they] entered the territory of the most important lord in all the land; they call him Bogotá . . . it is rumored that he is extremely rich because the natives of this land claim that he has a house of gold and a great number of very precious emeralds.
Gold, emeralds, and the idea of quickly obtained wealth excited the conquistadors to a man for, as the historian John Hemming noted,
The men who went on these ventures were not mercenaries: they received no pay from the expedition’s leader. They were adventurers who took passage to the Americas in the hope of making their fortunes. In the early days of the conquests, any reward for these desperadoes had to come from the Indians themselves. They were predators hoping for easy plunder. Their food and personal service came from the Indians they hoped to rob . . . The Spanish adventurers were like packs of hounds, roaming the interior to pick up a scent of gold. They sailed across the Atlantic full of bravado and ambition
and then filled the tiny coastal settlements, hoping to grow rich as parasites on the native population.
On the high, fertile plains where later the Colombian capital of Bogotá would be founded, Jiménez de Quesada and one hundred and sixty-six men—the only survivors from the nine hundred men who had begun the expedition two years earlier—continued searching for the Indian lord, Bogotá. Recounted one chronicler,
The next day they continued ahead two leagues where they came across a brand-new settlement, recently built by a great lord . . . Bogotá. The town was quite splendid; the few houses were very large, and made of finely worked thatch. The houses were well fenced, with walls made from cane stalks, elegantly crafted . . . two walls enclosed the entire town and between them was a great plaza . . . A message was sent . . . to tell their cacique [chief] to come forward and make friends with the Christians. If he did not, the Christians would raze the town to the ground, and wage war against those who chose not to come in peace.
Chief Bogotá, for reasons that seem obvious today but for some reason were not so obvious to the Spaniards, refused to come out as desired. The Spaniards then, true to form, immediately began killing and enslaving the local population, seizing their emerald mines, capturing the native chiefs, killing or ransoming some of them for gold, and gathering up as many portable resources, or spoils, as they could. After eventually murdering chief Bogotá, the Spaniards then hunted down one of the Muisca federation’s last remaining leaders, demanding that the latter turn over the supposed fortune in gold they suspected chief Bogotá had hidden from them. Wrote a chronicler:
[The captured chief] Sagipa responded that he would, with great pleasure, give them the gold. He asked them to extend him a reasonable deadline in order to do so, promising that he would fill a small
house with Bogotá’s gold; but he needed a few days in order to gather [it] . . . but when the deadline expired Sagipa had not complied. He handed over three or four thousand pesos of fine and low-grade gold, and nothing more. Seeing this, the Christians began to plead with Lieutenant Jiménez [de Quesada] to place Sagipa in irons and have him tortured . . . after which point the Christians proceeded to torture Sagipa in order to compel him to hand over Bogotá’s gold and confess where he had hidden it; in the end, Sagipa died.
Chief Sagipa didn’t just “die,” of course; rather, he was tortured to death. A few days later, the Spaniards founded Santa Fé de Bogotá, which ironically means “The Sacred Faith of Bogotá,” named after the very native chief whom they had just murdered. Thus, amid the despoiled Muisca highlands, smeared with blood, gold, emeralds, and death, began Colombia’s written history, a first bloody chapter that set the stage for many more to come.
One day at the Hacienda Nápoles, the luxurious country estate and hideaway that Pablo Escobar owned about a three-hour drive from Medellín, he was entertaining guests beside his kidney-shaped swimming pool when an employee was led out before him. In the distance, on the hacienda’s grounds, imported giraffes, ostriches, and gazelles gamboled about. A bit farther away, in a nearby river, feral African hippopotami snorted water and wiggled their ears. Escobar had imported four of these massive animals—some of the most dangerous in Africa—and their numbers were increasing. On this particular day, Escobar was dressed in his trademark blue jeans, white Nike tennis shoes, and a T-shirt. The employee who now stood before him with bound hands had been caught stealing from one of the estate’s many rooms, Escobar was told. He was a thief.
“You’re lucky you confessed,” Escobar told his captive calmly and in his usual quiet voice. “Because that way you protected your family.”
guests lounged in their chairs and sipped from their drinks, Escobar rose and methodically began kicking and beating the man until he fell to the ground. The world’s wealthiest and most powerful drug baron, who by this time owned more than four hundred properties in Colombia and nineteen mansions in Miami, each with its own heliport, now proceeded to savagely kick the man until the latter fell into the pool. As the man’s thrashing body sank slowly toward the bottom, Escobar returned to his guests.
“Now, where were we?” he asked them with a smile.
I meet retired general Hugo Martínez—the man who once turned down $6 million rather than sell his soul to Pablo Escobar—in an upscale apartment tower in the Chico Norte neighborhood of Bogotá, in the condominium of one of his friends.
“The general doesn’t like to have visitors at his home,” I am told by his friend Maria, a journalist who spent time covering Martínez and the Search Bloc during the height of their war against the Medellín cartel.
“He prefers to meet people he doesn’t know outside of his home.”
No doubt from his years of being pursued by the cartel, I reflect.
The general is now sixty-nine years old, yet remains tall and lean, his dark hair shot through with gray. He has thin lips, a soft handshake, close-set eyes, and looks Spanish or European in complexion. When in 1989 Hugo Martínez was assigned the job of going after Escobar and the cartel, he had been a colonel. Today the retired general is wearing slacks, a gray sweater, a pressed shirt with thin blue stripes, and is amiable and relaxed. Twenty years after his epic battle with Escobar and the cartel, the memories of that period still remain fresh in his mind. They also remain seared into the collective mind of many Colombians. Even more so, perhaps, as only recently a lengthy television series called Pablo Escobar: El Patrón del Mal (Pablo Escobar: The Boss of Evil), was broadcast throughout the country. It was the most expensive and successful television series in Colombian history, with millions tuning
in every evening. The series was only the latest offering, however, in a plethora of Colombian crime dramas dealing with narco-trafficking, many of which tend to paint the lives of various drug lords as “colorful” while at the same time portraying the police officers and politicians who pursue them as corrupt.
“Colombians are fascinated by all of this,” Maria tells me. “But they don’t know the reality; the younger generation doesn’t know how brutal it all was.”
The man selected to hunt down Escobar, meanwhile, was born in a small town called Moniquira about eighty miles northwest of Bogotá. Moniquira was the kind of town where people rode about on horseback and wore ruanas, Colombia’s traditional woolen ponchos. Both Martínez and Escobar, in fact, were born into the lower middle class and grew up in large families. Escobar had six brothers and sisters; Martínez had eight. Escobar’s father was a small farmer; Martínez’s was a small shop owner selling suitcases and leather goods.
Escobar’s maternal grandfather, however, was a well-known bootlegger who used to smuggle locally brewed liquor in bottles hidden inside coffins. Martínez’s family, by contrast, had a long military thread running through it. Martínez had an uncle who had been an admiral in the navy. Another relative had been an army general. Not surprisingly, as a young boy Martínez joined the Boy Scouts.
“I have some photos of myself with other scouts,” Martínez tells me, breaking into a laugh as he remembers it. “We’re standing around, and all the kids are relaxed. And there I am, stiff and straight as a board in my uniform and very serious. I was about eight years old,” he says, shaking his head.
When Martínez began secondary school, his family sent him to a nearby town as a boarding student, as his home town had only a primary school. Martínez boarded with a local family. One day during Easter vacation, when most of the students had returned to their home towns, Martínez was still living as a boarder when two older friends arrived with a friend for a visit. All three were cadets living in a different town. The newcomer was about Martínez’s size so Martínez asked him
if he could try on his uniform. The cadet agreed and changed into regular clothes. “I took off my clothes and put on his uniform,” Martínez says, straightening himself up and throwing his shoulders back. “
Then I stood before the mirror, put on my cap, and went out into the street. I spent the entire afternoon walking around, showing off. I even played billiards for a while. Finally, the cadet was searching everywhere until he found me. “Hey! What got into you?” he said. “You almost got me kicked out of cadet school!”
As a boarder, Martínez was somewhat isolated, so he spent a lot of time reading, mostly dime novels about gunfighters in the Old West and especially crime novels. “
I liked to read stories about solving crimes, about bandits,” he tells me. “But the funny thing is, when I finally joined the police—it wasn’t anything like the novels!” Nor was wearing a uniform or handling a gun like he had imagined it. By the time he, too, became a cadet, he’d had to polish and press his uniform so many times that he no longer enjoyed wearing one. Martínez soon experienced the same disenchantment with guns.
When you first become a cadet, you see that everyone else is carrying a rifle and a sword. But you are given nothing, only a stick, which you simulate a rifle with. That lasts for eight months, eight months during which you can’t carry a gun—instead you learn to clean it and polish it and assemble it. By the time the eight months are over—you no longer want a gun! Or a uniform!
A maid brings us a plate of cookies, cakes, and espressos, setting them down before us on a knee-high table. Martínez doesn’t touch the sweets but does take an espresso. He’s straightforward and a good communicator, occasionally touching one’s arm for emphasis, as many Colombians like to do. He’s relaxed and has no airs about having been a general. Martínez sips the bittersweet coffee and continues.
Despite his aversion to guns and uniforms, he says, he did like his classes in criminology. He liked studying sociology. When he finally graduated and was a young sub-lieutenant, his superiors sent him to Bogotá
for the first time, to complete a year of práctica. At the end of that year, the station where he was assigned threw a party for him, as he was about to be transferred to another locale. At the party he met a girl named Magdalena, “the most beautiful girl I had ever seen.” Martínez was twenty-three. She was seventeen. He asked her for her phone number and she complied. Their first date was a movie. A year later, when his superiors told him that he was about to be transferred to another city, he knew he had to make a decision. “She was very pretty, so I knew if I didn’t marry her, she would no longer be mine,” he tells me, draining his espresso and setting the cup back on the table. Martínez asked his father for advice: “
If you love this girl—marry her!” his father counseled. “If you don’t love her, leave her!”
So Martínez married Magdalena, started a family, and gradually began moving up through the ranks: first sublieutenant, then lieutenant, then major. For a safety net, however, Martínez decided to study at night for a law degree, which he felt would complement his day job. Five years later, he graduated at the top of his class. As an award, he received a scholarship to study criminology for a year in Spain.
By the time he was in his forties, Hugo Martínez was a colonel in the national police, had a law degree, and had studied advanced criminology abroad. Working as the commander of a police school in Bogotá, he also supervised the work of intelligence officers who analyzed crime data from every region of Colombia. By now, Martínez and his wife had three children, the eldest of which, Hugo Martínez Jr., had just become a police cadet and seemed destined to follow in his father’s footsteps.
All was running smoothly until, on August 18, 1989, the news broke that a presidential candidate named Luis Galán had just been assassinated, most likely by the Medellín cartel. Galán was a front-runner in the presidential elections and had sworn to uphold the current extradition law, which allowed Colombian criminals to be extradited to other countries such as the United States. A few days after Galán’s assassination, Martínez learned that the government had decided to assemble a task force of four hundred officers from different departments—all
from elite forces—and move them en masse to Medellín. The new group would be called the Bloque de Búsqueda, or “Search Bloc.” Their assignment was to go after the Medellín cartel—to capture or kill Pablo Escobar and the rest of the cartel’s leaders.
Galán’s assassination, it turned out, thoroughly angered Colombia’s elite: the government’s reaction was to declare war on the cartel. The very same day that Martínez learned about the new task force, he received a phone call from the director of the police. Martínez had been selected to lead the Bloque de Búsqueda, the director informed him. He was to pack a bag and leave immediately for Medellín.
In 1551 a thirty-one-year-old conquistador named Pedro Cieza de León published the first of three chronicles about his travels through South America, which included years spent in what are now Colombia and Peru. The Spaniard described plants, animals, and people that no European had ever seen. He also wrote about the widespread use of small leaves by natives in the Andes, harvested from plants they called “coca”:
In all parts of the Indies through which I traveled I noticed the Indians delighted to carry herbs or roots in their mouths . . . to which they apply a mixture which they carry in a calabash [gourd], made from a certain earth-like lime . . . When I asked some of these Indians why they carried these leaves in their mouths, which they do not eat . . . they replied that it prevents them from feeling hungry, and gives them great vigor and strength . . . They . . . use Coca in the forests of the Andes . . . The trees are small, and they cultivate them with great care, that they may yield the leaf called Coca. They put the leaves in the sun, and afterwards pack them in little narrow bags . . . This Coca is so highly valued . . . [that] there are some persons in Spain who are rich from the produce of this Coca, having traded with it, sold and resold it in the Indian markets.
For centuries after Cieza de León’s description, however, the precise reason the coca plants had such powerful grip upon Andean natives remained a mystery—only to be unraveled nearly half a millennium later.
“Do you know what Colombia’s greatest ‘sport’ is?” asks Alexander, a twenty-eight-year-old Colombian teacher from Bogotá. Alexander is giving me and two of his friends a ride out to Lake Guatavita, the sacred lake where the story of El Dorado was born.
“Soccer?” I suggest, staring through the windshield from the front seat.
“No,” he says, shaking his head.
He looks over at me, and I shake my head, too.
“Murder,” he says matter-of-factly, shrugging his shoulders. Alexander swerves to give a wide berth to a tight cluster of bicyclists on the right-hand side of the highway, their helmeted heads down, their black and yellow outfits gleaming in the early morning sun. Bicycling and bicycle racing is a popular sport in Colombia, and on Sundays it seems like half of Bogotá puts on tight shorts, shirts, and helmets and takes to the streets. The cyclists remind me of the fact that Pablo Escobar’s older brother, Roberto, was once a champion bicycle racer before he joined Pablo’s growing drug business.
“So why is there so much violence in Colombia?” I ask.
“Genes,” Alexander says, without missing a beat.
He looks at me, and I shake my head again, not understanding.
“We were conquered by murderers,” he says. “Our ancestors were thieves and barbarians. Violence is in our genes.”
In the backseat of Alexander’s car sits Herman Van Diepen, a lanky, fifty-eight-year-old American expatriate who teaches English in Bogotá and who has been living here for the last five years. Herman is of Dutch extraction, hails from Modesto, California, and has blue eyes and what seems to be permanently sunburned skin. A year after he arrived in Bogotá,
Herman married a Colombian flower vendor. (Colombia, it turns out, not only cornered the market on cocaine but is also the world’s second largest exporter of cut flowers.) Her name was Maria and, like Herman, Maria was divorced. She had two sons and had put both of them through the best universities in Colombia. Maria was a hard worker and eventually bought two small brick apartments she had paid off by running the small flower business. Today both Herman and Maria are riding with us, in the backseat of Alexander’s Toyota.
I turn to Maria, who’s wearing jeans and a sweater, and ask her the same question I had asked Alexander:
“Why has there been so much violence in Colombia over the years?”
“Desigualdad,” she says without hesitation. “Inequality.”
“A few people have everything, a lot of people have nothing. That’s the root,” she says, nodding her head, her long black hair lightly streaked with gray.
“Yet,” says Herman, “despite the violence, Colombians are some of the happiest people in the world. Some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met.”
“But we have an inferiority complex,” Alexander says, as we drive through countryside that looks a bit like Switzerland or southern Germany, with rolling hills and patches of dark green forest, intermixed with cultivated land. To the left, rows of strawberry plants stretch up and over a low hill.
Recently, Alexander says, Colombia played a soccer match against Ecuador. For almost the entire match, Colombia completely dominated the team from the smaller nation to the south. But, he says, in the last few minutes Ecuador scored not once but twice. The match ended 2–0.
“That’s why we have an expression here,” Alexander says: “?‘We played as never before—but we lost as usual.’?”
Alexander teaches English in the same college that Herman does. He lives in a small apartment and graduated from the university in linguistics. He’s married, has two small boys, and shakes his head.
“I love Colombia,” he says. “But this country is still pretty fucked up.”
We turn off the highway, the sky overcast with ragged gray clouds, and pull into Sesquilé, a small town with a colonial church set at the base of forested green mountains. In a small café with a wooden balcony, we look out onto the square below and order a breakfast of rib soup, croissants, and small cups of piping hot chocolate.
“Beautiful mountains,” I say, admiring the jagged hills that rise behind the church. The church is made of orange brick, and its two towers are layered in green shingles.
“Yes, ‘beautiful mountains,’?” Alex says sourly, wiping croissant crumbs from his neatly pressed sweater and slacks. “Beautiful mountains that are full of guerrillas.”
Just outside of town, Alex pulls to a stop and asks an old man wearing a straw hat and a ruana, or woolen poncho, if this is the right way to Lake Guatavita.
“You’re pretty much lost,” the old man says. He has dark brown eyes set in leathery skin. “But you’ll find it,” he says, gesticulating vaguely toward the hills.
A half hour later, we find the entrance to the Reserva del Cacique Guatavita and are soon following a Muisca guide through damp, bromeliad-infested hills, home to spectacled bears and small night monkeys called martejas. Moss and lichen cling to the trunks of small trees while an iridescent green hummingbird flits about, dazzling us when struck by the sun.
Our guide is from one of the five local indigenous groups in the area. His name is Oscar Chauta, he’s twenty-eight and has straight black hair, a soft voice, and pleasant, musical laughter. Oscar’s ancestors used to speak Chibcha, he says, the same language the conquistadors encountered here. But no one speaks Chibcha anymore, he explains, not even his grandparents—they only spoke a few words. Oscar’s last name, Chauta, means “man, being, to sow the seed,” he says. King Carlos III of Spain outlawed the speaking of Chibcha in 1770, Oscar says, in an attempt to rid Colombia of its indigenous heritage.
The law remained in place for more than two centuries, until 1991, the same year Colombia’s congress outlawed extradition, thus protecting drug traffickers from being prosecuted abroad. By then, however, the Chibcha language had long since gone extinct.
Alexander, Maria, Herman, six other Colombian tourists, and I huff and puff up the trail to nearly ten thousand feet, sometimes walking through natural tunnels of vegetation. Ferns protrude out toward the stone-flagged trail. We pass groves of pine trees, the clustered needles of which hang like shrunken heads, low to the ground.
At one point we pause, looking out over rolling hills and patches of dark green forest. I ask our guide if in the past Muisca villages weren’t scattered over the hills, if this land in fact hadn’t once been a quilt-work of villages and fields.
“No,” he says, “this whole area was sacred. It was un ecosistema sagrado,” he says, a “sacred ecosystem.” “There were no villages here—only the sacred forests and lakes.”
We finally emerge onto a crest and discover that we are standing on the rim of a giant crater where, some hundreds of feet below, stretches an emerald-colored lake. This is Lake Guatavita, one of a series of lakes sacred to the Muisca. A breeze alternately ruffles and stills its surface, so that sometimes it’s corrugated and at other times is as smooth as glass.
Our guide gathers us on the crater’s rim and begins to tell the story of how, back in the days of the Muisca, certain boys were chosen to be caciques, or chiefs. As part of their training, Oscar says, the boys were kept isolated in a cave for twelve years, without being permitted to leave. The first six years, he says, they were taken care of by their mothers. For the next six, they were raised by their fathers. When they finally reached puberty and after lengthy instruction from their elders, each boy was “tested” to see how “pure” his heart was, by surreptitiously offering him a tempting array of virgin girls. If the teenager failed the test, Oscar tells us, his black hair framed by the green mountains behind, then he was killed. If the teenager passed, then on a certain resplendent day attendants covered him in resin and blew gold
dust onto his body with tubular reeds. Afterward, the teenager was fitted with golden breastplates, diadems, and sparkling nose and ear ornaments. Early in the morning, Oscar says, gesturing toward the lake below, attendants rowed the prospective chief out onto the water on a reed raft. Up on the crater’s crest, where we are standing now, a thousand or more onlookers gathered, awaiting the emergence of the sun. Finally, at the appropriate time, certain natives blew conch shells as the anointed prince—whom the Spaniards later called El Dorado, or “the golden one”—raised his arms toward the newly arrived sun. The prince then threw golden ornaments into the lake as offerings to the lake goddess and to the sun.
“Do you believe he threw gold into the lake?” Oscar concludes dramatically, looking carefully at our small group. We nod solemnly. We can hear the sound of wind in the trees, and I can see it begin to carve the lake surface far below.
“The Spaniards did,” Oscar says, now pointing at a large gash on the northern edge of the crater, a kind of wedge cut into the rim that cleaves all of the way down to the lake’s surface. “They tried to drain it over and over again,” Oscar says, “but they never could. They never found the bottom.”
Oscar is only partially right, it turns out. A long line of Spaniards and Colombians did try to drain the lake in the sixteenth century, beginning with bucket brigades and culminating in the 1580 excavation of a huge wedge in the crater’s side, which lowered the lake by sixty feet. The gash later collapsed, killing the native workers, and the effort of cutting farther into the crater’s rim was abandoned. The Spaniards found enough jade and golden ornaments along the newly exposed lakeshore, however, to encourage further efforts. In 1801 the German scientist Alexander von Humboldt visited Lake Guatavita in the midst of his South American explorations. Humboldt carefully measured the circumference and later estimated that possibly the equivalent of $100 million in gold might lie at the lake’s bottom.
A century later, an English engineer named Hartley Knowles took over a Colombian extraction company and went to work applying
modern technology in the form of steam engines to bore holes into one of the crater’s sides. Hartley spent a dozen years at the task, gradually draining the lake lower and lower, all the while hiring local workers to scour the newly exposed lake beds for gold. By 1912 Knowles had discovered enough ancient Muisca offerings that he auctioned off sixty-two lots of golden ornaments and jewels in London, which netted him $20,000. That same year, a reporter from the New York Times interviewed Knowles in New York City, where the Englishman had gone to show some of his smaller treasures to specialists. According to the reporter, Knowles poured some of the golden ornaments into the reporter’s outstretched hand.
El Dorado,” the Englishman said quietly. “El Dorado after centuries. The gifts of the golden man. The treasure of the sacred lake.”
A photo that later accompanied the reporter’s article showed the result of Knowles’s handiwork: instead of a lake now appeared a massive crater, almost completely drained, with two men standing on its bottom amid pools of water, mud, and slime.
The lake is drained as dry as I [currently] want it,” Knowles told the reporter. “If it is completely drained the mud at the bottom may solidify, and we do not want that. What we are after now is to dig down to what was the bottom of the lake 456 years ago. The present bottom is, of course, a sediment of years . . . It took four years to drain the lake. Now we are excavating.”
Unfortunately for Knowles, his workers ultimately did drain the last pools of water, the lake bottom did solidify, and excavation efforts had to be abandoned. Eventually his company went bankrupt, the rains came as they always did, and the crater filled up once again.
In 1965 the Colombian government purchased Lake Guatavita and the surrounding area and turned it into a reserve, thus putting an end to four centuries’ worth of efforts to dredge the lake for gold.
“To the Europeans, gold was money,” Oscar tells us, as the late afternoon sun illuminates his face. “To the Muisca, it was different. The gold was sacred. It had meaning. It was an element that never tarnished, an element that never became corrupted.”
Oscar looks around at us, and we nod. I turn to the great gash that still scars the lake’s edge and think of all the reed rafts and of centuries of golden men and of the worshippers who once stood on the crater’s rim, like we are standing now, waiting for the glorious emergence of the sun. And then I think of the endless parade of treasure hunters who later arrived, hoping to find a substance that could make them wealthy, hoping to find an element that could make them powerful, hoping to find a treasure that could completely transform their lives. One of the latest and most infamous of this line was the drug lord Pablo Escobar. The only difference was that Escobar chased after neither myths nor buried treasure. Instead, he focused his full attention on a plant-derived substance now literally worth its weight in gold.
Pablo Escobar Gaviria was born the third of seven children and grew up in Envigado, a suburb of Medellín. The Escobar family had moved to Envigado from the countryside after the ravages of La Violencia. Although his father was a farmer and his mother a schoolteacher, Escobar in his early teens soon fell in with the “wrong crowd,” dropped out of high school, and embarked on a life of crime. At first, he stole cars, then he robbed banks, before he eventually moved into contraband goods, kidnappings, extortion, and murder.
By 1975, when Escobar was twenty-four, he had already spent a decade honing his criminal skills. Five foot six and with wavy brown hair, he was by now a master at stealing cars and also at smuggling contraband. By a strange quirk of fate, Escobar’s mastery of the local contraband trade just so happened to coincide with changes occurring thousands of miles north. By the early 1970s, US citizens who had been regularly smoking illegal marijuana for decades were just beginning to experiment with cocaine. Small amounts of the white powder had been wending their way northward from South America since the late 1960s. By the early 1970s, the flow of cocaine had started to increase exponentially. Colombia was a natural transshipment point for illegal drugs from the Andean countries as it straddled both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean as well as the land isthmus that led north. And the economics made sense. In 1975 a kilo of unrefined cocaine paste, called pasta básica,
could be bought in Peru or Bolivia for roughly $60. Once refined into pure cocaine and smuggled into Miami or New York, a kilo could be sold for $40,000. Among the small-time criminals who lived in the provincial city of Medellín, none took a more intense interest in those profits than Pablo Escobar.
Escobar began his move into the cocaine business as a bottom-rung drug smuggler at the age of twenty-four. In 1975 the young criminal outfitted three French Renaults with a secret compartment under their chasses, bought a kilo of cocaine paste in Peru, then drove the first car with Peruvian license plates to the border. There he switched to the second car with Ecuadorian plates, then switched again to a third Renault at the Colombian border. Once across the border, Escobar drove without any problems to Medellín, where he personally refined the paste into purified cocaine in his own bathtub. He then sold the drug to local traffickers who knew how to smuggle cocaine into the United States. Dissatisfied with selling his hard-won product for local Colombian prices, however, Escobar soon began searching for a way to gain access to the distribution system that connected Colombia to the rest of the world. It was only by selling abroad, after all, that the really huge profits could be made. Eventually, Escobar learned of a local smuggler in Medellín named Fabio Restrepo, a medium-level drug dealer who had begun shipping forty to sixty kilos of cocaine several times a year to Miami. Escobar quickly did the math: forty to sixty kilos—purchased in Peru as pasta básica for roughly $2,400 to $3,600—could be converted into cocaine and sold in the United States for 1.6 to 2.4 million dollars, a markup of nearly 1,000 percent. Local US distributors, meanwhile, would add various worthless substances, such as cornstarch, to the cocaine, thus “cutting” it, or expanding the volume and weight, up to three times. The original kilo would thus become three kilos—resulting in a final markup value of nearly 3,000 percent.
Eager to gain access to the distribution system linked to those profits, Escobar soon contacted some of Restrepo’s men and arranged to sell them some cocaine. At the time, Escobar was living in a grungy, ill-kept apartment and had been storing the cocaine he had refined in
a dresser drawer. The two men who showed up were unimpressed by the small, soft-spoken young man who ultimately sold them fourteen kilos of cocaine. A few months later, however, those same men were surprised to learn that their boss, Restrepo, had been killed and that Restrepo’s organization—themselves included—was now being run by the same small-time supplier they had previously met and had obviously underestimated: Pablo Escobar.
Escobar was a criminal, through and through,” says General Hugo Martínez, the former Search Bloc leader who had been sent to capture Escobar and dismantle the Medellín cartel.
“He was very cunning, very smart, very ruthless. He wasn’t a businessman; he was a gangster.”
A year after Restrepo was killed, two agents from Colombia’s security police (DAS) arrested Escobar, having caught him smuggling more cocaine. According to Colombian law, Escobar now faced a possible sentence of multiple years in prison. The mug shot taken of him the day of his arrest, however, showed not a young man who was worried about his predicament, but instead a smiling, confident man who clearly seemed to view his arrest as an adventure or a lark. Sure enough, after paying off the proper authorities, Escobar walked free a few weeks later. According to his brother Roberto, who was soon to join his younger brother’s organization, Escobar later had the two DAS agents who had arrested him killed:
Pablo promised “I’m going to kill those motherfuckers myself” . . . I have heard from others that Pablo had them brought to a house, made them get down on their knees, then put a gun to their head and killed them . . . [In any case,] the newspapers reported finding the bodies of these two DAS agents who had been shot many times.
The murder of Restrepo and the two agents offered an early glimpse into what soon became Escobar’s standard operating procedure: kill or muscle your way into a lucrative illegal activity; eliminate competition and obstacles via hired killers; pay off police, judges, and politicians so
that your illegal activities are protected or ignored; then expand your markets and control by repeating all of the above.
Immediately after taking over Restrepo’s drug network, Escobar began working to increase the size of his operation. The man who had once processed a single kilo of pasta básica in his own bathtub was soon sending forty to sixty kilos of refined cocaine to Miami by small plane per week and earning roughly $8 million of profits per month. By reinvesting those profits, Escobar continued to expand, increasing his drug flights to two or three times per week. Within two short years, Pablo Escobar possessed a fleet of fifteen large aircraft. Each was capable of carrying 1,200 kilos of cocaine—worth more than $80 million—to the United States at a time. Those on the other end of the supply chain—at first trendy young Americans with disposable incomes and later the poorer inhabitants of the inner cities—had no inkling of the death, bribes, and sheer criminality that followed the journey of the fine white powder from the Andes all the way up into their noses. In 1977 a Newsweek reporter chronicled the explosive impact the powerful new South American drug was having in the United States:
Cocaine’s popularity has spread so vastly within the last few years that it has become the recreational drug of choice for countless Americans . . . At certain restaurants in Aspen, Colo.—which one DEA official called “the cocaine capital of the US”—devotees can ask for “Booth D” to be assured of a table where they can safely take the drug . . . Among hostesses in the smart sets of Los Angeles and New York, a little cocaine, like Dom Pérignon and beluga caviar, is now de rigueur at dinners. Some party-givers pass it around along with the canapés on silver trays; some fill ashtrays with cocaine and set them on the table . . . Some coke buffs wear neck chains with a razor blade and a tiny spoon dangling like amulets. Maxferd’s, a San Francisco jewelry store, provides diamond-encrusted razor blades for $500 and custom-designed spoons that sell for as much as $5,000. The store, which sold $40,000 worth of cocaine spoons last year, also offers a double spoon. “We have to use calipers to measure the distance
from one nostril to the other,” says Maxferd’s owner, Howard Cohn. “It can get quite funny.”
With his own nose glued to money, not powder (Escobar famously never imbibed cocaine—instead he smoked marijuana daily, getting high each morning before buckling down to business), Pablo Escobar quickly transformed himself from a car thief and extortionist operating in a provincial Colombian capital into an international cocaine baron. By 1982, at the age of thirty-two, Escobar was married, had two children, was a multibillionaire, and had helped create the Medellín cartel, a loose confederation of cocaine suppliers, refiners, and distributors. Amazingly, he had also just been elected to national office as an “alternate” congressman from Medellín. The latter position automatically gave Escobar both judicial immunity from prosecution and a diplomatic visa for travel to the United States. For the first time, Escobar could now legally travel to Miami and enjoy his mansions. Escobar did so on his Learjet, taking his family to see Disney World, the White House, and the FBI museum. Even while Escobar was vacationing in the United States, however, fleets of his planes, speed boats, and remote-controlled submarines were constantly heading north, returning to Colombia with so many bales of $100 bills that Escobar found it more efficient to weigh the money rather than count it.
Running for and winning political office, however, turned out to be a watershed moment in Pablo Escobar’s career. It soon became apparent, in fact, that Escobar possessed a fatal flaw in his suite of criminal characteristics that, until now, had lifted him from complete obscurity up into the very stratosphere of the criminal elite. A man whose very profession required anonymity and whose business by necessity had to be carried out in the shadows, gradually revealed that he lusted after not only great wealth and power but also fame and renown. In a country where even four hundred years after the Spanish conquest 97 percent of the country’s wealth was controlled by 3 percent of its elite, Escobar now wanted entrée and acceptance into that elite. Escobar’s real goal, he informed his inner circle, was eventually to become Colombia’s
president. Yet running for and gaining political office couldn’t be accomplished without simultaneously running the risk of Escobar exposing his vast, subterranean criminal enterprises. In the end, it was a miscalculation that would prove to be his undoing.
Escobar’s enjoyment of his congressional seat, in fact, along with its twin perks of diplomatic immunity and a US travel visa, lasted for less than a year. Although Escobar had paid various henchmen to destroy his criminal records and had thus tried to whitewash his past, his sudden emergence onto the public stage invited both close public scrutiny and intense press coverage. Who was this thirty-two-year-old self-described billionaire who was now a Colombian congressman—and how had he made his money? Escobar claimed publicly that he had made his fortune through real estate. Rumors soon began circulating, however, that Escobar’s story was invented, that it was in reality a mere façade.
Escobar wanted it both ways,” Hugo Martínez tells me, sitting in his friend’s apartment. “He wanted the criminal world to fear him and not dare cross him in any way, yet he wanted the public not to know anything about his criminal enterprises! He tried to pass himself off as a ‘businessman.’ Here was the biggest criminal in the world—and he was telling everyone that he had made his fortune in real estate! And many people believed him!”
In August 1983, a year after Escobar’s election, Colombia’s justice minister, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, revealed that Escobar was no real estate tycoon but rather a drug trafficker. The fact that Escobar was a congressman, Lara added, made a mockery of Colombia’s justice system. Within days of the announcement, the newspaper El Espectador began publishing stories about Escobar’s 1976 arrest for drug trafficking and the still unsolved deaths of the two DAS agents who had arrested him. The newspaper also published Escobar’s 1976 mug shot, smiling and looking completely satisfied with himself, as if he were on a holiday, not in jail.
Like a building slated to be demolished and that has just had its support pinions blown out, Escobar’s political career quickly began to
implode. The head of the Liberal Party, to which Escobar belonged, soon denounced the cocaine baron, ejecting him from the party. Not long afterward, the US embassy revoked Escobar’s diplomatic visa, Escobar’s parliamentary immunity was then lifted, and Escobar was forced to resign from Congress. By January 1984, Pablo Escobar’s short-lived political career was over. With his dream of one day becoming president of Colombia in ruins, however, one thing was predictable, at least to those who knew Escobar well: there was going to be all hell to pay for this humiliating disaster.
With his cover blown and his political career destroyed, Escobar no longer needed to pretend that he was anything other than the ruthless criminal he had always been, one who resorted to murder, violence, and terror as a normal part of his day-to-day operations. In retaliation for the loss of his political career, Escobar soon ordered a series of assassinations, first killing the Justice Minister, Rodrigo Lara, who had exposed him, then carrying out a prolonged campaign of violence against the Colombian state. Escobar’s ultimate goal was to force Colombia to rescind its extradition treaty with the United States. To do so, however, meant altering Colombia’s Constitution. And that meant forcing Colombia’s elite, who wielded the political power, to bend to Escobar’s will.
Bombings, kidnappings, assassinations, threats, and payoffs now became the norm, as Escobar launched a no-holds-barred war against the Colombian government. In August 1989, cartel sicarios assassinated the leading presidential candidate, Luis Galán, a man who had sworn to uphold the extradition treaty. Three months later, a bomb exploded in an Avianca jetliner that had just taken off from Bogotá, killing all 107 passengers. The bomb had been intended for César Gaviria Trujillo, who had become the leading presidential candidate after Galán’s death and who had also sworn to uphold extradition. Gaviria, however, had changed his flight plans at the last moment and was not aboard.
Escobar’s involvement in the killings of the justice minister and Galán, not to mention the downing of an international jetliner, had finally forced Colombia’s government to take action. One thing had
become painfully clear: for the Colombian state to survive in any form that resembled a democracy, Escobar and the cartel had to be eliminated. Either the government—or Escobar—was going to fall.
It was during this period of escalating violence, as he was sitting in his office in Bogotá, that Colonel Hugo Martínez received the phone call from his superior. It was not a long conversation, but when the colonel hung up, he knew that the call would ultimately change not only his life—but possibly the future of Colombia as well.
· · ·
The city of Medellín, Colombia, is only a twenty-five-minute flight from Bogotá’s El Dorado Airport, although culturally it’s almost like flying to another country. “Keep your eye out for the women,” my taxi driver on the way to the airport had urged me. He was a married man of fifty-nine, had put three kids through college, was retiring on a pension in a year, and assured me that the women of Medellín were the most beautiful in Colombia. “Yo, como Colombiano, puedo asegurartelo,” he said. (“I, as a Colombian, can assure you of this.”) He also assured me that, like practically everyone else in Colombia, he had watched the recent series on television about the life of Pablo Escobar: El Patrón de Mal, The Boss of Evil.
“Escobar was and still is very popular in Medellín among his paisas [compatriots],” my driver said. “But it was all very calculated. He’d give a poor person a house, if the person asked him for it. But then he’d say, ‘I may need your help one day.’ Or he’d give a man some money, and then that man would be indebted to him. It was all very calculated,” he assured me. “Basically, he was a bandido.”
If you ask a Colombian what common characteristics all Colombians have, they’ll generally shrug their shoulders. Colombians have no national character, one Colombian told me. They have only regional characters. People from Bogotá, for example, are called rolos and are supposedly very reserved, unemotional, conservative, and not very friendly. Those from the south are said to be slow and a bit thick. The people from the department of Antioquia in the west, of which Medellín is the capital, are called paisas and have always possessed the
reputation of being good entrepreneurs, of being driven to succeed, and of being politically liberal. Escobar, it was obvious, was certainly a classic Antioquian, although an especially immoral one.
Medellín sprawls along the floor of a long valley with lush green hills on both sides. Various slums climb the hills, yet from a distance (and especially at night, when their lights come on) the slums look more like Italian villages, lit with twinkling stars, the lights camouflaging the poverty around them. I take a room in a hotel in the city’s center, near Botero Plaza, then go out for a walk in the afternoon right after a rain. The eaves of the buildings still drip with water as I pass by a line of men selling plums, pears, and avocados from wooden carts. Each man has a microphone and a portable speaker system, trying to attract the notice of the pedestrians milling about: “Plums at fifteen pesos a kilo! Avocados at twenty pesos a kilo!” The noise makes it sound like I’m walking in a large stadium. I make my way across a wide street median where more vendors squat beside piles of shoes, bags, and watches, lines of cars spewing exhaust on either side, the street pungent with the smell of car fumes, urine, and the occasional strong smell of marijuana. I pass a man with short, vestigial arms wearing a blue T-shirt, past the bodies of homeless people sleeping on the wet, dirty cement using plastic bags as mattresses, past people picking their way slowly around stalled traffic, the car horns blaring, until I emerge onto the plaza that is lined with a series of colossal bronze sculptures, the bronze patinas streaked now with pigeon shit and rain. The sculptures depict corpulent men and women, a horse, a dog, a reclining nude, all with heavy haunches and fashioned by Medellín’s best-known artist, Fernando Botero, now in his eighties.
It was here, to Medellín, that Colonel Hugo Martínez arrived to take command of the Search Bloc in September of 1989, amid the local paisas who speak with thick regional accents, amid the crowded streets where sicarios roamed on motorcycles, and amid a city of two million where resided the central nervous system of the Medellín cartel.
Within days of the group’s arrival, Escobar and the cartel went grimly to work, quickly placing bounties of a thousand US dollars each
for Search Bloc policemen, two thousand dollars for their lieutenants, five thousand dollars for their police majors, and so on. Within the first month, one hundred of Martínez’s men had been gunned down, a number so alarming that the director of police in Bogotá was considering disbanding the group and ending operations. “
I was constantly attending funerals,” Martínez told me, shaking his head. “It was a war.”
Martínez nevertheless went about his work, taking residence with the rest of his men on the grounds of a police academy in the northern part of the city. They soon ringed the school with cordons of security outside so that only those with passes were allowed inside. Martínez normally dressed as a civilian and, for security reasons, rarely left headquarters. Knowing full well that many of the local police had been paid off, Martínez early on had insisted on a simple rule: no one from Medellín or who had relatives in Medellín could join the Search Bloc. Everyone had to be from elsewhere in Colombia, lest friendships and family connections compromise their allegiance. Not surprisingly, Martínez’s men were the crème de la crème of the various Colombian police forces, handpicked, well trained, and completely dedicated.
On one wall of his office Martínez soon constructed an organigram, or visual diagram of the cartel’s organization, such as police intelligence then knew it. Gradually, he added to the sketch as his men captured criminals, tapped suspects’ phone lines, and conducted surveillance operations.
After the assassination of the presidential candidate Galán, the Colombian government had quickly seized Escobar’s sprawling Hacienda Nápoles ranch and many of his other properties. In addition, top secret US surveillance planes now flew over the city, invited by the Colombian government. The planes were tasked with recording Escobar’s radio phone conversations and trying to fix his location by means of triangulation. A month and a half after arriving, Martínez and his men mounted their first raid, after receiving a tip that Escobar was visiting a particular ranch in the Colombian jungle. According to Escobar’s brother Roberto, who was there at the time,
One of the radios Pablo had given to all our neighbors made a noise about 6:00 a.m. It was from one of the people who lived on a nearby farm . . . “Leave [the voice said]. The police are here. We’ve seen trucks and heard helicopters. Go now!”
Within a few seconds we heard the [Search Bloc] helicopters coming at us. . . . As they approached, they started shooting from the air. We ran, firing back as much as possible . . . Pablo was in his sleeping clothes without even a shirt or shoes . . . Bullets hit the ground and the trees and whizzed by my ear . . . It was later I found out that those damn mosquitoes [helicopters] had killed . . . Henao [Pablo’s brother-in-law] . . . as he tried to get to the river. Pablo saw him get shot . . . that was the only time I ever saw Pablo cry.
Back in Medellín, after hearing radio reports of the operation and about those who had been killed or captured, Martínez walked over to his office wall and drew a line through Henao’s picture. Henao had been not only Escobar’s brother-in-law, he had also been his right-hand man; the two of them had pioneered new drug routes and had been arrested together in 1976. There was now one less leader of the Medellín cartel—and the Search Bloc’s activities were just beginning.
Pablo Escobar fought back, continuing his campaign of bombings and assassinations across the country, selectively exterminating judges, police, prosecutors, and politicians, and assuming that by ratcheting up his campaign of terror, the government would eventually crack. Meanwhile, deep within the cartel’s home territory, as lights twinkled on Medellín’s hillsides and sicarios polished their guns, Martínez would sit each night in his office wearing a pair of headphones, listening to the intercepted conversations of Escobar speaking with his underlings. When Escobar finally realized that his conversations were being monitored, he eerily said into his radio phone one evening:
Colonel, I’m going to kill you. I’m going to kill all of your family up to the third generation, and then I will dig up your grandparents and shoot them and bury them again. Do you hear me?”
Martínez’s tactics nevertheless remained the same—he stayed on the offensive. For Escobar and the cartel, the colonel had now become Enemy #1. It was thus imperative that they somehow infiltrate the police compound and eliminate him before Martínez eliminated them.
One evening, as the colonel listened to phone calls the surveillance planes had recorded, a puzzling thing happened. In one conversation, Martínez heard a woman’s voice speaking to a cartel member who was insistently demanding something from her.
“I’m here, but I don’t see it,” the woman kept saying.
“Then look for it!” the man insisted.
The woman’s voice, the colonel realized, was familiar. But who was it and what was the man after? And where had he heard her voice before?
“I don’t see it,” she said over and over again.
Finally, the colonel realized who it was.
“There was a woman,” Martínez told me, “who used to clean my office. Often I would stay there as she cleaned.” The voice was that of the maid who cleaned up headquarters. The man, a cartel member, wanted her to remove his photo from the organizational diagram the colonel had made of the cartel on his office wall.
Shortly afterward, Martínez had the woman transferred so that she no longer had access to any of their offices. Members of the Search Bloc, meanwhile, soon discovered where she lived and also learned that the cartel had threatened her and her family. If she did not cooperate, the cartel had told her, she would be killed.
“They killed her anyway,” Martínez told me. “She didn’t give them what they wanted. So they shot her after we transferred her. She was a mother, and they shot her in her home.”
Even after the discovery of the maid, Martínez gradually realized that the cartel must have another informer within his organization. Someone, somehow, had to be tipping off Escobar. As a routine precaution to throw off possible informers, Search Bloc operations would commonly leave headquarters in four convoys, each one roaring off through Medellín in a different direction. Only one of the convoys would be
carrying out an actual operation, however—the rest were decoys to confuse the cartel. Yet despite their precautions, Escobar always seemed to know when they were coming. Martínez’s men would raid a house they had received a tip on—one of many “hideouts” Escobar had in the city—yet inevitably they would discover that Escobar had recently departed, often just before they arrived. There was no question about it, Martínez realized: a rat had somehow infiltrated his organization. But who? And how?
On the floor where Martínez and a number of the Search Bloc officials worked, a young cadet was stationed. The cadet was often given guard duties and sometimes shined the shoes of the Search Bloc officers. At other times, the cadet spent his time carving small wooden figurines—of policemen or of helicopters—while standing near their offices.
Unbeknownst to Martínez, the cartel controlled the cadet—either through threats or money or both. Most likely, they had made him their typical offer: plata o plomo, silver or lead.
The question,” Pablo Escobar had once said, “is not whether someone will take a bribe or not—but how much they want.”
Recently, the cartel had ordered the cadet to murder Martínez by putting poison in the soup that the Search Bloc’s officers ate at lunch. Not only would the colonel die, but so too would the officers who ingested it. On the appointed day, however, instead of keeping the Search Bloc officer’s food separate from the rest as he normally did, the cook used a larger kettle to cook with—twice as large in fact—for the nonofficers to use, too. As he had been instructed, the cadet gained access to the kitchen, emptied his vial of poison into the soup, then left. Although some of the men who ate it later developed diarrhea and cramps, they assumed that it had been because of contaminated food, not poison.
Exasperated, the cartel this time decided to take no chances, ordering the cadet to kill the colonel outright as he sat at his desk each night, listening to captured recordings. The cartel furnished the cadet with a pistol and silencer that the cadet successfully smuggled past
security. On the appointed night, the young assassin crept up outside the colonel’s office, watched him through the window listening with his headphones on, took out his pistol, held it out—then realized that the silencer had no aiming mechanism.
If I fail,” the cadet said to himself, “they will kill me.”
Frustrated and undoubtedly promised a fat reward, the cadet decided that the wisest course of action would be first to practice with the pistol, then to kill the colonel the following night. The next day, however, tipped off that the Search Bloc definitely had an informer within, the colonel flew to Bogotá, realizing that his life was in danger. A week later, after an investigation discovered the source, the cadet was arrested, confessed, and eventually went to prison. The cartel had come up short again.
· · ·
“Are you here for the Pablo Escobar tour?” a man asks me gruffly. The man is about fifty, wears blue jeans and a white T-shirt, has hairy arms, close-cropped black hair and eyebrows that meet above his nose. He looks at me suspiciously and frowns.
“Yes, I am,” I say.
I’d arranged to meet the man, Jaime, who runs a private tour called the Pablo Escobar Tour, over the phone from my hotel. We meet at a Medellín café, near the Parque Bolivar. The café’s open to the street and has round silver tables. Waitresses wearing white dresses like nurses serve hot buñuelo pastries and blended drinks of maracujá, chirimoya, and other tropical fruits. Colombia is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, and its cornucopia of indigenous fruits is nothing short of astounding.
A short while later, I climb into the man’s white van. As we pull out into traffic, he begins peppering me with questions.
“Are you a reporter?” he asks.
I shake my head.
“Work for TV?”
I shake my head again.
“Good, because Roberto Escobar doesn’t give interviews,” he says, referring to Pablo’s
brother, who spent ten years in prison before being released. He’s now the highlight of the tour.
“He’s almost blind, you know.”
While he was imprisoned, Jaime says, and only weeks before his brother Pablo was killed, Roberto received a package. It turned out to be a pipe bomb.
I ask who had sent it.
“It was a ‘gift,’?” Jaime says, “from the Cali cartel.”
The Cali cartel—named for a rival city and center of the cocaine trade in Colombia—was apparently trying to wipe out both Escobar brothers and the rest of the Medellín cartel, thus eliminating its main competitor.
“My cousin—I mean, my friend”—Jaime continues, making a verbal slip then looking at me sideways with a frown, “used to work for Pablo Escobar. We used to go out to the Hacienda Nápoles together,” he says, steering the car with a hairy left hand and tapping my arm with the other for emphasis. Colombians like to occasionally tap another’s arms while speaking, especially when making a point.
“When Roberto got out of prison,” Jaime continues, “I asked him if he wanted to become part of the tour. There are other tours, you know,” he says, tapping me again, this time on the chest, “but this is the only tour that includes Roberto Escobar.”
The end game for Pablo Escobar and the Medellín cartel began in late 1993, in an upscale suburb of Medellín called Los Olivos. After two years of bombing and assassinations, Escobar finally made a deal with the Colombian government. Not surprisingly, the deal was almost completely on Escobar’s terms. In exchange for ending his war against the state and halting his bombing and assassination campaign, Escobar agreed to plead guilty to a minor charge of drug trafficking and to turn himself in for a short stint in prison. After his release, he would be absolved of any previous crimes. Amazingly, the government also allowed Escobar to select the site and to build the prison himself. In addition, only Escobar and his men would be housed there, the prison guards would be hired by and would work for him, and the Colombian police would not be allowed within twelve miles of the prison.
Colonel Martínez, not surprisingly, was disgusted. After having lost hundreds of men, he felt betrayed.
“We felt we had lost the war,” Martínez told me. “Just when he was at his weakest, he makes this deal with the government. But what could we do? Our job was to obey orders.”
With the agreement signed, Roberto Escobar soon joined his brother in prison, as did other members of the Medellín cartel. The Search Bloc, meanwhile, was disbanded. Not surprisingly, Escobar soon gained complete control over the situation: he quickly outfitted the prison with luxury waterbeds, deluxe stereos, televisions, and radio communication equipment; in addition, he received any visitors he wanted and sometimes even attended soccer matches in Medellín. Escobar also continued to run his worldwide cocaine operation, the prison now a kind of legal sanctuary where he could no longer be bothered. A year later, however, when an embarrassed and exasperated government finally decided to transfer Escobar to a real prison, Escobar received a tip and escaped into the nearby hills, just as he was about to be transferred. The hunt for Pablo Escobar, once again, was on.
“It was a relief when he escaped,” Martínez told me. “I was happy—because now that he was out, I knew we had a good chance of catching him.”
Within a week of Escobar’s escape, Martínez received a phone call ordering him to rapidly reassemble the Search Bloc team. A few weeks later, the Medellín cartel exploded a bomb in front of the apartment tower where Martínez’s wife and two children were living. Martínez immediately flew to Bogotá and began packing up the apartment, placing his family in hiding. It was then that he received the knock on the door and a bribe from his former colleague of $6 million.
“I knew at that moment that Escobar must be weak,” Martínez told me. “He was on the run. That’s why he made the offer.”
Due to the danger of refusing the bribe, the colonel decided to move his wife and children to the police academy in Medellín where the rest of the Search Bloc was housed. Anywhere else in Colombia, Martínez realized, was simply too dangerous. From now on, his two youngest children would be isolated from their peers and homeschooled.
The colonel’s eldest son, however, twenty-three-year-old Hugo Martínez Jr., had already graduated from the police academy, had been on the police force in Bogotá for two years, and wanted to come to Medellín and help out. He urged his father to transfer him.
It’s just too dangerous,” Martínez told him firmly.
“But I want to help you,” his son repeated. Hugo Jr. had recently received training in electronics and was the best student in his class. His specialty was operating mobile radio tracking equipment from vehicles on the ground—a job that was conducted undercover with no police escort. To zero in on a radio signal, just two men—the driver and the radio tracker—drove about in an unmarked van, searching for the source of a transmission. The reason the tracking units had been created was simple: it had become clear that the American reconnaissance planes were unable to pinpoint a radio transmission precisely enough for the Search Bloc to mount a raid. The planes could locate the neighborhood the transmission was coming from, but not a specific location. With training in the latest radio tracking equipment, however, Hugo assured his father that Escobar’s location could finally be pinpointed—but that ultimately it would come from the ground. “Let me help you catch him,” his son urged. Finally, after weeks of going back and forth, Martínez relented. Father and son were now united together for the hunt.
According to the latest aerial surveillance, Escobar had remained in Medellín. Yet he was continually moving from safe house to safe house, knowing that if he remained anywhere for too long, he’d be located. Police searching for criminals, however, know that a criminal’s family connections are often a liability. If the police are searching for a fugitive and Christmas is approaching, or the birthday of a criminal’s mother, then the best chance of capturing the fugitive is to stake out the family and to tap their phone. Escobar—although a remorseless killer whose behavior often appeared to be that of a sociopath—nevertheless had a family that he was extremely attached to: his wife and their two children, Manuela, nine, and Juan Pablo, sixteen. By necessity, the three of them now lived in a high-rise tower in Medellín. Escobar was often desperately worried about his family’s safety, especially since he knew
that the Cali cartel wanted to kill them. In November 1993, the same month that his brother was blinded by a pipe bomb, Escobar finally succeeded in arranging for his family to fly to Germany, only to have the German government refuse to allow their entry. Instead, the government returned his wife and children to Colombia. The Colombian police opted to place the family in a police-owned hotel in Bogotá, under their protection. In a sense, Escobar’s family was now a hostage of the Colombian government, and Escobar could do nothing about it.
Only ten years earlier, Escobar had been a Colombian congressman with diplomatic immunity. He’d possessed hundreds of properties and had bank accounts around the world. Although he was still a multibillionaire, Escobar was now reduced to living in safe houses that only one or two people knew about, accompanied at most by one or two bodyguards, while police and narcotics forces from the United States and Colombia—and a horde of sicarios from the Cali cartel—searched for him. Escobar was also well aware that when he used one of his radio phones for more than three minutes, he ran the risk of being located. For this reason he owned a fleet of twelve taxis. Often, Escobar would sit in the backseat of one of these tinted-window cars, bearded and wearing sunglasses while making phone calls. While the taxi wove through Medellín’s traffic, it was practically impossible to get a precise fix on his signal. As Roberto Escobar later recalled:
Pablo made phone calls . . . [threatening] people what would happen if his family was harmed, but besides that there wasn’t much he could do . . . now the Search Bloc, [the US] Centra Spike, [the US] Delta Force, the police . . . and [the] Cali [cartel] were getting closer to him. They had set up the family, and they knew that Pablo would do anything, even give his own life, for them. So the planes continued to fly overhead listening for his conversations, the experts with phone-tapping equipment drove through the city, soldiers roamed through the streets, all of them searching day and night.
Toward the end of November 1993, a few days before Escobar’s forty-fourth birthday and a week after his family had been barred from
entering Germany, Escobar placed a call from somewhere in Medellín that was picked up by a US aircraft circling the city. The plane’s crew narrowed the location of the call to a neighborhood called Los Olivos, but before Colonel Martínez could scramble one of his three mobile tracking units, Escobar had hung up.
When Martínez informed his superior about the situation, the general told him to encircle the entire zone and begin a door-to-door search. The colonel, having attempted this in the past, stood his ground. “We’ve done this before,” the colonel said, “and Escobar has always escaped. Let him make another call—and we’ll have him.” Finally, the general relented. Martínez knew that if Escobar didn’t make another call, however, his relationship with the general might come to a head. Bombs, meanwhile, set by the Medellín cartel, continued to pound the country, as they had ever since Escobar’s escape, accompanied by a constant flurry of assassinations. The pressure to capture or kill Pablo Escobar had reached a breaking point. The public wanted the war to end.
Martínez had quickly stationed mobile units in the Los Olivos neighborhood and waited. Twenty-four hours passed. And nothing. The general called the colonel repeatedly, asking for news. There was none. Another twenty-four hours went by, with the radio trackers sleeping in their vans, ready to spring into action. Still nothing. Not a word from Escobar. The pressure on the colonel continued to mount.
Finally, on December 2, a day after his birthday, Escobar made a call to his family in the police-guarded hotel in Bogotá. The colonel listened in as Escobar’s wife wished her husband a happy birthday. Then Escobar asked his sixteen-year-old son to copy down answers Escobar had composed to questions previously submitted by a German magazine. The clock, meanwhile, was ticking.
Martínez’s son, Hugo Jr., coincidentally happened to be in the tracking van closest to the radio transmission when Escobar made his call. He and his driver immediately scrambled to locate it. Hugo wore headphones and had a foot-long, gray metal box on his lap. On the side closest to him was a palm-sized screen displaying a single, wavering green line—Escobar’s radio signal.
Alongside a small canal, on a quiet, upscale street, stood a line of two-story row homes. As Hugo and his driver drove toward the end of the block, the radio signal gradually became louder and the green line grew in intensity. Escobar’s call seemed to be coming directly from a house at the end. To be certain, and amid growing excitement, the two drove around the block and approached the house from the other side. The luminescent green line indicated that the signal was coming from the same home. They had located him.
In his office at the Search Bloc, after three years of a desperate high-stakes game of cat and mouse, Colonel Martínez received a call from his son.
“I’ve got him located
!” his son said. “He’s in a house.”
“Are you sure?” asked the colonel, who was at that very moment still listening to Escobar speaking on the phone.
“I can see him!” his son said.
Hugo and the driver, meanwhile, had returned to the front of the house, driving slowly, and had parked across the street. Hugo had then peered up at the second story, where there was a small window. Visible through its pane was a short, pudgy man with a dark beard talking distractedly on a phone, unaware of the unmarked police van and the excited young officer below. By this time, Escobar was accompanied by only a single bodyguard, a man nicknamed Limón, “Lemon.”
“Cover the house,” the colonel told his son. “You take one side, have the driver take the other. If he tries to get away, take him out.”
I asked the colonel how he felt at this moment, with his son suddenly on the front line, an unknown number of criminals in the house and only two Search Bloc members—his son and the driver—outside. The nearest Search Bloc support group was about ten minutes away.
“Hugo was a great shot,” the colonel answered. “Much better than me. He was several times a champion in combat tactical shooting.”
In the end, Hugo covered the front of the house, where he had briefly seen Escobar, while the driver covered the rear. Meanwhile, his father ordered the nearest support team—a group of twelve men—to rush to the area. The colonel’s order was to capture Escobar and
whoever else was in the house and to shoot them if they put the team in danger—standard Search Bloc operating procedure.
As soon as the team arrived, they immediately took up positions around the house. Then, on a prearranged signal, two of them began breaking down the front door.
“Momento, momento. Está pasando algo” (“Hold on, hold on, something’s happening”) were Escobar’s final words to his son, as he abruptly hung up the phone.
Inside the home, a window at the rear of the second floor gave access to a tiled roof and possible safety. It was the only way out. Escobar’s bodyguard, Limón, was the first to try to escape, jumping onto the roof and firing at the police in civilian dress, who returned fire from below. Limón soon crumpled and fell from the roof onto a small patch of grass below, dead. Next came Escobar, holding a nine-millimeter pistol in his right hand, another pistol wedged inside his belt. The Search Bloc had obviously caught Escobar by surprise: the drug lord was barefoot and wore only a dark blue sport shirt and jeans. Escobar by now was also overweight from lack of exercise and from constant confinement, but he was not about to surrender. As Escobar fired, three bullets quickly took him down: one struck the back of his leg, another hit him in the back, just beneath the shoulder, and a third entered his right ear and exited the other side. Either of these last two shots would have been fatal. Less than ten minutes after arriving, a Search Bloc officer crouched over a motionless Pablo Escobar, checked to see if he had a pulse, and then called Colonel Martínez on the radio:
“Viva Colombia!” he shouted.
Pablo Escobar, the most wanted man in Colombia and one of the most sought-after criminals in the world, was dead.
· · ·
On top of a green hillside, about five miles from where he was killed and overlooking the city of Medellín, Pablo Escobar now lies quietly in a grave at the Cementerio Montesacro, or Sacred Mountain Cemetery. On the day he was to be interred, crowds of people gathered, prying open Escobar’s coffin and trying desperately to touch the lifeless body of a man who had once possessed powers so much more enormous than
their own: the power to bestow great riches, the power to challenge armies of police, the power to challenge an entire nation, and the power to bestow, ultimately, life or death. Alongside Escobar is buried Limón, at the request of the latter’s family.
Once Escobar was finally six feet beneath the ground, however, his power to influence events ceased. Within months of his death, the Medellín cartel was no more, all thirty-six of its leaders either dead or incarcerated. The Colombian government, with US help, soon dismantled the neighboring Cali cartel as well. The net effect of the two cartels’ disappearance, however, left cocaine production unaffected: more cocaine was produced the year after Escobar’s death, and in subsequent years, than in any year during Escobar’s heyday.
The efforts thus far to stamp out cocaine production in the Andean republics, meanwhile, is known as la cucaracha, or “the cockroach,” effect: just as you can kill a cockroach in one part of a room only to have another pop up somewhere else, the efforts of local and/or foreign governments to stamp out cocaine production in one Andean country have resulted only in cocaine production rising an equivalent amount in another. In the end, with the destruction of the Colombian cartels, the near monopoly over cocaine trafficking simply moved northward, where Mexican cartels quickly filled the void. Mexican cities along the US border soon became killing zones, as Mexican cartels began to fight with one another over the control of drug routes once controlled by Colombians.
Between 2006 and 2015, more than one hundred thousand Mexicans died in the transplanted drug wars, with the US government continually pressing the Mexican government for more aggressive efforts to interdict cocaine. Nevertheless, roughly 150 tons of illegal cocaine are still smuggled into the United States each year.
Meanwhile, as we drive along a winding road up a tree-covered hill in the upscale Medellín district of Poblado, Jaime pokes my arm some more, emphasizing his latest point: “I tell you honestly, with all confidence,” he says, lowering my confidence in him even further, “make sure you don’t ask Don Roberto too many questions. He doesn’t like questions.”
The area we are driving through reminds me of the Hollywood Hills
where my father grew up: small estates appear behind iron gates as we glide beneath large eucalyptus trees drooping overhead. The sky is overcast, and the paved road is washed out in parts. We finally arrive at a locked gate, and Jaime pulls to a stop. A gray-haired man arrives and opens the gate slowly, staring at us with no expression as we drive past. Shortly afterward, we arrive at a squat, one-story brick house painted white and with a tiled roof. Wrought-iron grates cover the windows to keep out burglars. Within an attached, open carport is parked a blue Wartburg sedan, an old East German model that Pablo used to like to drive around Medellín. One apocryphal tale describes how Pablo Escobar, the onetime car thief, was the only person in Medellín who never locked his own car. Instead, he left a small note in his glove box:
“This car belongs to Pablo Escobar.”
No one ever touched it.
Before us stands the home of Roberto Escobar, now sixty-five years old (Pablo would have been sixty-two), who lives quietly in the forested hills overlooking Medellín. Jaime tells me that Pablo used this as a safe house prior to the one in which he was killed.
I follow Jaime inside the home, which is set up both as a living residence and as a kind of shrine to Pablo Escobar. The private tour of the house, apparently, is the prelude. Afterward is the main course: a meeting with Roberto, the onetime accountant for the Medellín cartel.
Framed photos hang on a wall, as well as yellowing newspaper articles of the many bicycle races Roberto won in his youth. On another wall hang thirteen carefully arranged photos of Pablo at various ages, from his first communion to his time as a Colombian congressman, wearing a flamboyant yellow suit. In a hallway on a small table stands a three-foot statue of the Virgin of Candelaria, an Escobar family saint. The home is as neat and immaculate as a funeral parlor.
Jaime leads me to a wall with a bookcase set into it, the bookcase edged with molding. He pushes on one side of the case, staring hard at me. The entire bookcase moves. I realize this is actually a revolving
door, revealing a hidden compartment behind. Inside is a small space where one or two people could crouch. Pablo Escobar, after all, routinely kidnapped people throughout his life; it was in just such tiny cavities, hidden from the rest of the world, that his victims spent their time before they were either ransomed or murdered. In a desperate moment, Pablo could also hide there himself.
We walk outside, through sliding glass doors, onto a covered patio behind the house that has a red-tiled floor and views over a garden. From here I can see across the valley and in the distance the brick skyscrapers of El Poblado. Escobar once had his drug operation housed in a tower there, which was later attacked with a car bomb by the Cali cartel. In the middle of the patio squats a long green wooden table. Spread out on it is the raison d’etre of the tour: books, CDs, and photos are for sale.
“Bueñas tardes,” says a soft voice behind me.
I turn and see a slight, bald man with thick glasses and a mouth whose edges seem permanently turned down, like a horseshoe. I recognize Roberto Escobar, onetime bicycle racing champion, cartel accountant, and a former inmate for ten years in Colombia’s Itagüí prison. Roberto is about five foot six, the same height as Pablo, and has Pablo’s long and sloping aquiline nose.
We shake hands. Roberto has gray-blue eyes, although his right eye appears cloudy behind his glasses. Comparing him to the photos on the wall back in the 1960s in his biking outfit, full of youth and energy, he appears more to me like a gnome—expressionless, opaque, as if his eyes and soul have seen too much.
“Did you like Washington, DC?” I ask him, referring to photos inside the house, which showed him in front of the White House.
“Yes,” he says, in paisa-inflected Spanish, “very much. A beautiful city.” While he and Pablo were in the US capital, he says, they took time to visit the FBI museum, out of curiosity. There on one of its walls they spotted a large WANTED poster with photos of his brother and himself that offered a $10 million reward. The poster, he said, had made him nervous, but not Pablo, who was always level-headed, even in the most
desperate situations. After they went outside, Pablo tried to calm his brother. Pablo looked around for a few minutes, then turned to Roberto and said, “Watch.” Roberto did, as Pablo went up to a policeman and asked for a light, using his heavily Spanish-inflected English. The policeman complied, unknowingly lighting the cigarette of the most powerful drug trafficker in the world. Pablo then calmly returned to Roberto and his son, took a drag from the cigarette, and exhaled. “You see,” he said, “they don’t know us over here.”
I chat with Roberto, who seems to warm to the conversation. He becomes friendly and relaxed. Occasionally he pulls a small green bottle out of his pocket, withdraws an eye dropper, tilts his head back, and puts three drops into each eye. Although his eyes were damaged in the bomb explosion, Roberto’s face is smooth and has no visible scars.
“Did you know about Colonel Martínez and that the Search Bloc were after you?” I ask.
“Yes, of course, we had our sources,” he says.
“Do you think that if the Bloque had not been created that your brother would not have been killed?”
“No. It was Pablo going into politics. I was against it,” he says, peering at me through his glasses. He explains that he was opposed to Pablo’s ill-fated attempt to become a national politician. “Everyone began going after him then—along with the Cali cartel.”
While he puts more drops into his eyes, I ask about the letter bomb in prison.
When the bomb blew up in his face, Roberto says, at first he saw angels. Then he saw the Lord. The explosion drew him closer to God, he says. It made him believe in an afterlife.
“Would you like to buy anything?” Jaime asks, impatient to leave and glaring at me for having asked so many questions. I realize that it’s not Roberto who doesn’t like questions—it’s Jaime. This is all business to him. He wants to get paid and leave. I look around and agree to buy some photos.
Roberto sits down at one end of the table, then prepares a pen and a large inkpad. I begin handing him photos: one of Pablo dressed in a pinstriped suit, posing as the 1920–30s American gangster Al Capone,
and holding a double-barreled shotgun; another of Pablo dressed as Pancho Villa, a personal hero of his, wearing a wide sombrero and a cartridge belt across his chest. Roberto signs each of them, presses his thumb into the ink pad, then carefully affixes his thumbprint beneath his signature, something that Pablo used to do when writing public letters. I hand him another photo, this one a copy of the wanted poster for $10 million, with photos of Pablo and Roberto at the top and the rest of the Medellín cartel leaders displayed in smaller photos below. Afterward, the former accountant carefully rolls up each poster and fits them into a small cardboard tube, which is also for sale. I would have thought that with so many billions of dollars, Pablo and Roberto would have had secret stores of cash and bank accounts all over the world. But if that were the case, then why would Roberto agree to receive tours and be selling photos of his brother and other knickknacks for a handful of dollars? Where did the billions go?
In the end, we shake hands. Roberto touches my arm as Colombians are wont to do. “Mucho gusto,” he says, and nods his head. I exit the door and head down the driveway. Roberto Escobar stares after me, a forlorn, gnomelike man who now seems utterly and completely alone.
· · ·
Later that afternoon, I visit the Museum of Antioquia, the art museum on the Plaza Botero. Before leaving Medellín, I want to see two paintings by Botero. In a long, immaculate room with a shiny floor and a guard standing at one end, I find the first painting, a large canvas appropriately called The Death of Escobar. The somber-colored canvas depicts Medellín on a gloomy, overcast day. There, in the middle, Pablo Escobar stands on a tiled rooftop, his white button-down shirt open. Escobar is barefoot, wears dark pants, and clutches a pistol in his right hand, pointing it up in the air. A flurry of oversized bullets flow through him, left to right across the canvas, as if caught in a stop-animation sequence; some of the bullets have already punctured his stomach, neck, and chest, leaving small red wounds in Escobar’s pale white flesh. Escobar’s eyes are closed—he is still standing but dead, caught in the moment of impact, just as he is slain.
In another room, and as if from another scene clipped from the
same film, I find the second painting. Escobar now lies on his side on the same rooftop, a gun still in his hand. His open shirt reveals a body riddled by bullets. Below in the street a police officer in a green uniform and cap points up at the fallen gangster. Alongside him a short woman in a red dress looks up, pressing her hands together, and prays.
As I exit the museum, I can’t help but reflect that, two decades after his death, Pablo Escobar has long since been buried and now belongs to the realm of painters and writers and filmmakers and other mythmakers—and that his exploits are still being reshaped in the present. In a way, Escobar was Colombia’s latest version of El Dorado, the Golden Man, a onetime king who daily anointed himself with gold dust so plentiful that he could easily wash it off and replenish it the next. Like the woman praying in Botero’s painting, a sizeable sector of Colombians emulated, worked for, and/or admired Escobar, as if following the sun, blinded by the reflected gold of Escobar’s enormous wealth and power, blinded by his fable-like, rags-to-riches story, blinded by the very myths that had risen up around him. As I head across the plaza it suddenly strikes me that the real golden man of Colombia, one who remained untarnished and incorruptible, was the former police colonel, Hugo Martínez. He is now retired and lives quietly with his wife in Bogotá. Tragically, his son Hugo Jr. died in a car accident in 2003. Nevertheless, when Martínez’s own life and his family’s lives were on the line—indeed, when the very life of the Colombian nation was at stake—here was a man who could be neither bought nor sold, who was motivated by neither plata nor plomo, but by principle. It was Martínez, not Escobar, who proved to be Colombia’s El Dorado—the mythical, incorruptible, nearly unimaginable king. I
. The word sicario comes from the Latin sicarius, or “dagger men,” originally referring to a small group of Jewish guerrillas, in the first century BC, who attempted to expel Roman occupiers by using concealed daggers for assassination.