Early Years - Pablo Escobar: Beyond Narcos - Shaun Attwood

Pablo Escobar: Beyond Narcos - Shaun Attwood (2016)

Chapter 1. Early Years

Pablo Escobar was born on a cattle ranch in 1949, the second year of The Violence, a civil war that saw millions of Colombians flee their homes and left hundreds of thousands dead. Slicing people up with machetes was popular and led to a new genre of slaughter methods with ornate names. The Flower Vase Cut began with the severing of the head, arms and legs. The liberated limbs were stuffed down the neck, turning the headless torso into a vase of body parts. A victim stabbed in the neck, who had his tongue pulled out through the gap and hung down his chest was wearing a Colombian Necktie. The turmoil affected nearly every family in Colombia. It accustomed Pablo’s generation to extreme violence and the expectancy of a short and brutal life.

Pablo’s parents were Abel de Jesús Dari Escobar, a hard-working peasant farmer who traded cows and horses, and Hermilda Gaviria, an elementary-school teacher. As her husband was mostly absent due to work, Hermilda cooked, cleaned and took care of her family. Pablo was the third of seven children.

One day, tiny Pablo wandered away from home. Hermilda found him under a tree, with a stick, playing with a snake.

“See, I’m not hurting you,” Pablo said to the snake.

Gazing affectionately, Hermilda knew that Pablo was a sweet boy who loved animals.

The nearest school was so far away that Pablo and his brother, Roberto, had to wake up early. With no means of transportation, it took them an hour to walk there in worn-out shoes.

Rather that wear shoes with holes in them, Pablo decided to go to school barefooted. His teacher sent him home. Humiliated, Pablo told his mother that he needed new shoes to stay in school. As she had no money, she deliberated her options and shoplifted a pair of shoes. At home, she noticed that each shoe was a different size. Disheartened, she confessed to a priest, who advised her to return the shoes and get them on credit.

She bought the shoes and arrived home, exhausted and anxious. With such a large family to feed, she complained about their lack of money.

“Don’t worry, mom,” Pablo said. “Wait until I grow up. I’ll give you everything.”

As The Violence between the Conservative and Liberal parties escalated, the family was warned to leave or else risk having their body parts re-assembled into art. But having no safe place to go, and loving the animals, the beautiful countryside adorned with wildflowers, and air that carried a taste of pine and resin from the forest, they chose to stay.

Pablo was seven when the guerrillas entered his village near the town of Rionegro, the Black River. Trembling, he heard machetes hacking the front door and threats of murder. He clung to his mother, who was crying and praying. His father said they would be killed, but at least they could try to save the kids. They hid the kids under mattresses and blankets.

The front door was so strong that the guerrillas eventually gave up trying to break in. Instead, they set fire to it. Wincing and coughing in a house filling with smoke, Pablo’s parents braced to die. But soldiers arrived and the guerrillas fled.

With a burning building illuminating the street, the town’s survivors were escorted to a schoolhouse. Pablo would never forget the charred bodies and the corpses hanging from the lampposts. Internalized in the terrified child, the horrors of The Violence would re-emerge years later, when he kidnapped, murdered and bombed to maintain his empire.

Growing up with six siblings, Pablo bonded the most with Roberto, who was two years his senior. Roberto was intelligent and had a passion for mathematics, electronics and cycling. Pablo enjoyed watching Roberto construct things such as radios, but rather than join in, he sat around for most of the day as if lost in thought.

Pablo and Roberto were sent from the family’s ranch to live with their grandmother in the safety of Medellín, known as the City of the Eternal Spring due to a steady climate averaging around 22.2°C or 72°F. Downtown was a cluster of glass and steel skyscrapers separated by roads lined with trees. The surrounding expanse of houses grew more dilapidated towards the shantytowns, slums and garbage dumps - places crammed with displaced people where gangs of street kids, thieves and pickpockets roamed. The tough residents of Medellín worked hard to get ahead.

Pablo’s grandmother was an astute businesswoman who bottled sauces and spices and sold them to supermarkets. Under her loving but stern hand, Pablo and Roberto had to go to church and pray every morning.

Although they loved the weather and the mountainous landscape, the second largest city in Colombia with all of its fast cars and over a million people intimidated the brothers, who were accustomed to the tempo of ranch life. They were delighted when their parents joined them, but their father disliked living in the city, so he returned to the countryside to work on other people’s farms. Eventually, the brothers fell in love with Medellín.

The atmosphere at home was heavily religious. They had a figurehead of Jesus with realistic blood. After his mother told him Christ’s story, young Pablo was so sad that when lunch was served, he put a piece of meat in his corn cake and took it to the figurehead. “Poor man, who made you bleed? Do you want a little meat?” This act convinced his mother that he was kind and religious. For the rest of his life, Pablo would always try to sleep with an image of Jesus nearby.

Hermilda enchanted Pablo with stories about his grandfather, Roberto Gaviria, who had smuggled whiskey. With long-range planning and a creative imagination, Roberto the bootlegger had outsmarted everyone, including the authorities. Pablo wanted to emulate his grandfather’s success.

Growing up in a suburb of Medellín called Envigado, the kids built carts from wood and raced down hills. They made soccer balls from old clothes wrapped inside of plastic bags, erected makeshift goalposts and played with the other kids in the neighbourhood. It was Pablo’s favourite sport. A popular prank was to stick chewing gum on a doorbell, so that it rang continuously.

On the streets of Medellín, some of Pablo’s leadership and criminal traits started to emerge. Although the youngest in his group, he’d take the lead. When the police confiscated their soccer ball, he encouraged the group to throw rocks at the patrol car. The police rounded up several of the group and threatened to keep them in jail all day. Only Pablo spoke up to the commander. He told them they hadn’t done anything bad. They were tired of the ball being taken and they’d pay to retrieve the ball. Some of the kids in the group ended up in business with Pablo later on.

In his early teens, Pablo was elected president of his school’s Council for Student Wellness, which demanded transportation and food for indigent students. He learned about the US meddling in South America for its own advantage, which often increased the suffering of the most poverty-stricken people. He hated that the poor were the biggest victims of violence and injustice.

During this time, he absorbed anti-imperialist phrases which became mantras for the rest of his life. He heard rumours that the CIA had facilitated the assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a leftist presidential candidate who had defended workers’ rights and promised an equitable land reform. Gaitán’s death had ignited The Violence that had threatened Pablo’s family.

Pablo started to despise the way that society was structured: a tiny percent of the population owned the majority of the land and wealth, while more than half of Colombians lived in poverty. Determined to prevent that from happening to him, he claimed he would kill himself if he had not made a million pesos by the age of thirty.

According to his brother, Roberto, in his book, Escobar, Pablo developed an interest in history, world politics and poetry. At the public library, he read law books. He practised public speaking on student audiences at lunchtime or on the soccer field. Roberto remembers him speaking passionately about becoming the president of Colombia and taking ten percent of the earnings of the richest people to help the poor to build schools and roads. To create jobs, he wanted to encourage Asian manufacturers to build plants in Colombia.

In school, Pablo grew restless. Distrustful of authority figures, he felt more at ease with the street gangs. For money, he experimented with small scams. Believing that school was a waste of time, he dropped out for two years. On the dangerous streets, he refined his techniques and learned to avoid the pitfalls.

Hermilda convinced him to resume his education, so he could get the three grades necessary to graduate. As he adored his mother, he went back to school. But he ended up in constant arguments with his teachers whom he viewed as absurd and foolish. Eventually, he was expelled.

After his mother scolded him, he responded, “Mother, I keep on telling you: I want to be big and I will be. I’m poor, but I’ll never die poor. I promise.”

By sixteen, Pablo was displaying an extraordinary amount of confidence on the streets. With a comb in his pocket, he often gazed at windows to inspect his reflection. In later years, he imitated the mannerisms of Al Capone and The Godfather played by Marlon Brando. His deep thinking was intensified by smoking marijuana. He grew quieter. When asked a question, he generally paused silently before replying. Some wondered whether he was imitating The Godfather, but it was a natural trait exacerbated when he was stoned.

Rationalising his banditry as a form of resistance to an oppressive society, he channelled his energy into criminal activity, which ranged from selling fake lottery tickets to assaulting people. With a rifle, he walked into banks and calmly told the staff to empty their safes. With a smile, he chatted to the tellers, while awaiting the cash. Unable to perceive that Pablo had shed his sense of fear, some mistakenly ascribed his bravado to drugs. The results he achieved from his cleverness and farsightedness - including eluding the police - boosted his faith in himself.

A formidable combination of intelligence and street smarts enabled him to rise above his contemporaries, some of whom sought his advice and joined his gang. Those who were nervous or frustrated felt safe in his company. He earned their respect by remaining calm and cheerful in dangerous situations.

One said, “He was like a God, a man with a very powerful aura. When I met him for the first time, it was the most important day of my life.”

In Killing Pablo, author Mark Bowden described Pablo as an accomplished car thief by age twenty. Drivers were forced out of their cars by his gang and the cars dismantled at chop shops. He dictated orders from home, managing the logistics and collecting the cash.

His gang started stealing new cars, which were impossible to resell if they had been reported as stolen. To get around this, he offered the police bribes. After a year, his relationship with them was so strong that the police chiefs followed his orders. Complaints about him reselling stolen cars were ignored.

Money from selling car parts was used to bribe officials to issue car certificates, so that the stolen cars could be resold without having to be chopped. The officials receiving the complaints about what he was doing were the same ones issuing him the titles for the new cars.

He started a protection racket whereby people paid him to prevent their cars from being stolen.

Always generous with his friends, he gave them stolen cars with clean papers. Those receiving new cars were told to pick them up from the factory. If the factory workers detected the forged paperwork, Pablo’s friends told them, “These titles were made by Pablo,” which prompted the workers to hand over the keys.

Pablo and his cousin, Gustavo - who Narcos portrayed as usually wearing a flat cap - built race cars from stolen parts and entered rallies. Suspected of stealing a red Renault, Pablo was arrested in 1974, but he bribed his way out of a conviction.

Pablo ordered the murders of people who tried to prevent his accumulation of power, including those who denounced him, refused to abide by his rule or declined his bribes. He discovered that murder provided cheap and effective PR. Focussing people on their mortality or that of their families brought their behaviour into line. He killed without remorse, just to increase his reputation and earnings.

Some of the people who owed Pablo money were kidnapped. If the debt wasn’t paid by family members or friends, the victim was killed. This enhanced his reputation and helped his business grow in a world of opportunists and cutthroats. He also kidnapped people and held them for ransom.

Diego Echavarría Misas was a powerful industrialist who lived in a remake of a medieval castle. Widely respected in the higher social circles, he yearned to be revered as a philanthropist. But no matter how many schools and hospitals he opened, the poor were not fooled by his attempts to mask his malevolence.

The workers in his textile mills toiled endlessly in cruel conditions for a pittance. He fired hundreds of them in an abusive manner and without a severance pay. Like many wealthy landowners, he expanded his territory by forcefully evicting peasant communities. Attempting to defend their homes, some peasants were imprisoned or murdered. The rest were forced to settle in the slums.

Pablo had heard enough about Echavarría. One day, his kidnapping became news. His family rapidly paid the ransom, but his fate remained a mystery. After six weeks, his body was found in a hole near Pablo’s birthplace. He had been tortured, beaten and strangled. The poor celebrated his death.

Although many people believed that Pablo had brought them justice, with no evidence linking him to the crime, he was not charged. On the streets, people stopped to shake his hand or bowed to him in reverence. They began calling him “Doctor Escobar” and “The Doctor.”

Roberto has claimed that the early stories of his brother’s brutality are untrue accusations made by Pablo’s enemies.

Pablo started to apply his organisational skills to contraband, a thriving business in Colombia, a country steeped in corruption. Medellín was known as a hub for smugglers. Those who got caught typically bribed their way free. If they were unable to pay a bribe, the police would usually confiscate their contraband rather than incarcerate them. It was the cost of doing business and customary throughout Colombia.

With numerous police on the payroll of crime bosses, it was hard to differentiate between the police and the criminals. The police not only gave their criminal associates freedom from jail, but they also committed crimes for the gangs, including kidnappings and contract killings. Shootouts sometimes occurred between different police on the payrolls of rival gangs.

The court system was the same. Judges who earned $200 a month could charge up to $30,000 to dismiss a case. Judges who refused were threatened or beaten. Court staff could be bribed to lose files, which was cheaper than paying a judge. If that didn’t work, the judge was killed. The court system was considered the softest target in law enforcement, and Pablo would master the art of manipulating it.

Early on, Narcos presented Pablo as a boss in the contraband smuggling business, but that was false. He was the underling of a powerful contraband kingpin who specialised in transporting cigarettes, electronics, jewellery and clothing in shipping containers from America, England and Japan. The goods were shipped to Colombia via Panama.

Having met Pablo at a soccer match, the kingpin asked him to be a bodyguard, in the hope of reducing worker theft. He told Pablo that the way to make money was to protect the merchandise for the guy with the money, and that was him.

Pablo bought the poorly-paid workers seafood and wine. He offered them half of his salary forever to work with him. If they stopped stealing, he’d come back and take care of them in two weeks. The workers agreed and returned the stolen goods they still had.

Specialising in cigarettes, Pablo drove across Colombia in a jeep ahead of half a dozen trucks transporting contraband. Along the way, he paid the necessary bribes to the police. Delighted with Pablo’s performance, the kingpin offered him ten percent of the business. Pablo demanded fifty. The kingpin called Pablo crazy. Pablo said it was fair because the kingpin had sometimes lost more than half of the goods. Even after Pablo’s fifty percent, the kingpin would still make more money because there would be no theft. The kingpin agreed to forty percent.

Through the contraband business, Pablo became adept at smuggling goods across the country, without paying government taxes and fees. Supervising two convoys a month earned him up to $200,000. He stashed his profits in hiding places in the walls of his home. He installed special electronic doors that only he could open. He recruited Roberto as an accountant, in charge of handling the payroll, making investments and depositing money into bank accounts with fake names. Over the years, money was invested in real estate, construction businesses and farms. As his brother was handling so much money, Pablo gave him a gun.

Giving half of his salary to the workers earned their respect and the name El Patrón or the Boss. He bought his mother a house, a taxicab for Gustavo and an Italian bicycle for his brother. He donated truckloads of food to the scavengers at the garbage dumps. He took about twenty members of his family to Disney World in Florida, where he went on all of the rides with his son.

When a policeman on Pablo’s payroll was moved to another district, he snitched out the operation. The police waited to ambush a convoy of trucks. They would all get rich confiscating so many goods. Pablo had stopped for lunch and told the convoy to continue without him. Thirty-seven trucks were seized. A driver called Pablo who said to tell the other drivers not to speak to the police. With the police after him, he took a bus back to Medellín. Lawyers got the drivers released but were unable to retrieve the merchandise.

Even though his contraband partnership with the kingpin was over, Pablo soon found a more lucrative business opportunity.