Pablo Escobar: Beyond Narcos - Shaun Attwood (2016)
Chapter 14. Father Garcia
In predominantly Catholic Colombia, many people, including Pablo’s workers, sought divine inspiration from a program called God’s Minute. It was hosted by a white-haired priest with worldly brown eyes and a narrow face called Father Garcia, an octogenarian who’d become a living institution since his TV debut in 1955. Prior to the evening news, Father Garcia, the son of an army general, would appear in a black habit with a clerical collar and deliver a sixty-second homily with an important social message. Generations of Colombians grew up watching him.
In accordance with his teachings, he lived in a tiny room with numerous unrepaired leaks in a vicarage. He slept little, on wooden planks with a sheet provided by nuns consisting of miniature house-shaped bits of cloth sewn together. He didn’t use pillows. He hardly replaced his clothing. In a restaurant, he once approached a woman with a diamond ring and told her that it was worth enough to build 120 houses for the poor. The next day, she mailed him the ring.
He’d won forty-six awards for arranging charitable events. He raised money to build God’s Minute housing projects in the slums. During national disasters, he led fundraising campaigns. Since 1961, he had regularly hosted the Banquet for a Million, a fundraiser at which celebrities paid a million pesos for a cup of soup and a roll of bread served by a beauty queen. He once outraged the more puritanical among his flock by sending a fundraiser invitation to the actress Bridget Bardot who was renowned for her sex appeal.
On April 12, 1991, Father Garcia set off to visit Dr Patarroyo, who was famous for developing a chemical malaria vaccine in 1986 and donating its patent to the World Health Organisation. He wanted the doctor to help him set up an AIDS clinic. On the journey, he was accompanied by an old friend whom he often sought advice from, and who’d financed his chapel and many of his projects.
“Listen, Father,” the old friend said. “Why don’t you do something to move this thing along and help Pablo Escobar turn himself in?” Much later, the old friend would claim that his request that day had been inspired by God, and that, “It was like Father was floating. During the interview [with Dr Patarroyo] the only thing on his mind was what I had said, and when we left I thought he looked so excited that I began to worry.”
With the priest in a rapturous state over what to do about Pablo, the old friend took him to rest at a holiday home in the Caribbean. But Father Garcia slept little. He jumped up in the middle of meals to go on long walks of contemplation. “Oh sea of Coveñas!” he yelled at the tide. “Can I do it? Should I do it? You who know everything: will we not die in the attempt?” After such walks, he’d return as if hypnotised and discuss the answers he’d received from God with his friend.
By April 16, a complete plan had unfurled in his mind. On April 18, Father Garcia arrived at the TV studio at 6:50 pm. Pablo’s workers watched the man whom they considered a saint deliver a message to their boss:
They have told me you want to surrender. They have told me you would like to talk to me. Oh sea! Oh sea of Coveñas at five in the evening when the sun is setting! What should I do? They tell me he is weary of his life and its turmoil… Tell me, oh sea: can I do it? Should I do it? You who know the history of Colombia, you who saw the Indians worshipping on this shore, you who heard the sound of history: should I do it? Will I be rejected if I do it? If I do it: will there be shooting when I go with them? Will I fall with them in this adventure?
Afterwards, Father Garcia was inundated with messages from across Colombia. A swarm of journalists started to shadow his movements. The public was divided. Some believed he was acting on behalf of God. Others thought that he was insane and he’d crossed a line that separated beliefs in redemption from naiveté.
The next day, he showed up unannounced at the prison holding the Ochoas, who also trusted in his divine powers. As the negotiations required a degree of secrecy, the Ochoas were concerned about his high profile. They referred him to Fabio Sr, who told him that Pablo would be amenable to his idea and that the traffickers - who generally believed in the Virgin Mary, the Holy Infant and assorted saints - would be more likely to surrender if Father Garcia were to bless such activity. Two days later, the priest told journalists that the hostages would be freed soon and that he was communicating with the Extraditables.
With Pablo having kidnapped his wife and sister, Alberto Villamizar had paid close attention to the priest’s broadcast. The president had commissioned Villamizar to negotiate the release of the captives. His sister had recently been freed after the murder of Marina, but the Extraditables were still holding his wife. As a politician, Villamizar had fought attempts by colleagues to pass legislation against extradition. In return, Pablo had sanctioned a hit on him in 1986. Following its failure, Villamizar was appointed as Ambassador to Indonesia, where he’d felt safe until US security forces captured a hit man in Singapore sent to kill him.
Watching God’s Minute convinced him that Father Garcia could play an important part in the negotiations. In recent months - with media interest in Pablo’s possible surrender escalating - Villamizar’s letters to Pablo had achieved nothing. Pablo was still insisting on the police being held accountable for the murders of slum kids and claiming that General Maza had been behind the assassination of the presidential candidate, Luis Carlos Galán, for which Pablo had been blamed. “Tell doña Gloria that Maza killed her husband, there can be no doubt about it.” Pablo continued to accuse Maza of allying with the Cali Cartel. Maza responded that he wasn’t going after the Cali Cartel or even drug traffic, but after traffickers committing terrorism. Maza sensed that Pablo was going to call for his resignation as a condition of his surrender.
Many books on Pablo have portrayed his battle with Maza as one of evil versus good. The reality was far more complex. On November 25, 2010, Colombian prosecutors issued an arrest warrant for Maza for his involvement in Galán’s murder. The prosecutors claimed that Maza had intentionally reduced Galán’s bodyguard contingent to enable the assassination of which Pablo had been accused. Pablo had told Villamizar the truth about Maza.
Seeking advice, Villamizar - with a stern intellectual face, bags under his hazel eyes, short brown parted hair and a slight beard turning grey - visited Jorge Ochoa in prison, who sent him to the Ochoa ranch, La Loma, to see his father.
Cradling a whiskey and sitting in his throne-like chair, Fabio Sr sympathised. “We won’t screw around anymore with letters. At this rate it will take a hundred years. The best thing is for you to meet with Escobar and for the two of you to agree on whatever conditions you like.”
In a letter to Pablo, Fabio Sr proposed that Villamizar be transported to him in the boot of a car. Pablo responded, “Maybe I’ll talk to Villamizar, but not now.”
Villamizar tried to broker a month’s truce from the National Police, who refused to halt operations against such a criminal as Pablo. “You’re acting at your own risk and all we can do is wish you luck.”
Villamizar went to see Father Garcia at the TV studio. They visited the Ochoas in prison. In a cell, the priest dictated a letter in the exact same manner he delivered his sermons on TV. He invited Pablo to join him in bringing peace to Colombia. In this endeavour, he hoped to be accredited by the government, so that Pablo’s “rights, and those of your family and friends, will be respected.” He asked Pablo not to make impossible demands on the government. He concluded with, “If you believe we can meet in a place that is safe for both of us, let me know.”
Pablo responded three days later. He requested disciplinary sanctions against the police he’d accused of murdering the kids in the slums. He agreed to surrender and to confess to a crime even though no evidence existed anywhere in the world of any crime alleged to have been committed by him. The priest was disappointed that Pablo hadn’t agreed to meet him.
After corresponding with Pablo in secrecy for five months, Villamizar was concerned about the priest’s high profile, which now included journalists camped outside of his ascetic living quarters.
On May 13, 1991, Villamizar received a letter from Pablo, requesting that he take the priest to the Ochoas at La Loma and keep him there for as long as possible. It could be days or months because Pablo needed to examine every detail of the operation. If any security issues arose, negotiations would collapse.
On May 14 at 5 am, Villamizar showed up at the priest’s study where he was hard at work. “Come, Father, we’re going to Medellín.”
Fabio Sr was away, so the Ochoa sisters welcomed the priest. After breakfast, Martha Ochoa said that Pablo would be seeing the priest soon. He was delighted until Villamizar clarified what that meant.
“It’s better for you to know from the very beginning, Father. You may have to go alone with the driver and nobody knows where he’ll take you or for how long.”
The prospect of danger upset the priest. Pacing, he prayed and fumbled with his rosary beads. Occasionally, he glanced out of the window in case Pablo had sent a car for him. Resisting the urge to make a call, he said, “Fortunately, there’s no need for telephones when you talk to God.” He refused a sumptuous lunch. Resting on a canopy bed, he couldn’t sleep.
At 4 pm, he appeared in Villamizar’s room. “Alberto, we’d better go back to Bogotá.”
With difficulty, the Ochoa sisters convinced him to stay. As the sun set, he insisted on leaving but was rebuffed by the majority.
Although Father Garcia was adept at many things, he was useless at removing his contact lenses. That job was entrusted to his faithful secretary, Paulina, who’d been working for him since she was a teenager and even after marrying and having a son, had continued to attend to his daily needs. She usually travelled everywhere with him and handled the delicate matter of his lenses. On this occasion, the Ochoa sisters helped the troubled priest extract his lenses.
Expecting Pablo to send a car in the dead of night, Father Garcia and Villamizar couldn’t sleep. In the morning, despite many attempts, nobody was able to put the priest’s contact lenses in, which upset him so much that he didn’t sit for breakfast. Finally, a woman in charge of the ranch managed to get them in.
After gazing out of the window in a bad mood, Father Garcia sprang from his chair. “I’m leaving! This whole thing is as phoney as a rooster laying eggs.” Persuaded to stay until lunch, he regained his composure and resumed eating and talking in a friendly way. He announced that he was going to take a nap. “But I’m warning you, as soon as I wake up, I’m leaving.” Hoping to come up with a strategy to retain the priest beyond his nap, Martha Ochoa made some calls, but none were productive.
Around 3 pm, a car arrived.
Villamizar went to the priest’s room. “Father, they’ve come for you.”
The half-awake priest shook his terror off and made the sign of the cross. “Kneel down, my boy. We’ll pray together.” After praying, he stood. “Let’s see what’s going on with Pablo.”
Outside, Villamizar told the driver, “I’m holding you accountable for the father. He’s too important a person. Be careful what you people do with him. Be aware of the responsibility you have.”
The driver’s face pinched with disdain. “Do you think that if I get in a car with a saint anything can happen to us?” The driver had the priest don a baseball cap to disguise his snowy hair.
In the passenger seat, the priest removed his baseball cap, tossed it out of the window and yelled at Villamizar, whose face was crinkled with concern, “Don’t worry about me, my boy. I control the waters.”
It rained so much on the journey that they breezed through all of the police checkpoints not under Pablo’s control. After being on the road for over three hours and changing cars three times, they arrived at a house with a massive swimming pool and sports facilities. In a garden, Father Garcia was approached by twenty armed men, whom he berated for not surrendering and for living sinful lives. On a terrace, Pablo was sporting a long beard and casual clothes.
“Pablo, I’ve come so we can straighten this out.”
In the living room, they sat opposite each other in armchairs. A drop of whiskey steadied the priest’s nerves, whereas Pablo drank fruit juice. Due to his age and bad memory, Father Garcia asked Pablo to jot down his conditions. When Pablo was finished, the priest examined the list and crossed some conditions out, stating that they were impossible. With a stroke of a pen, the priest had eliminated things Pablo had been stuck on for months, such as his grievances with the police accused of killing slum kids. The document ended up a combination of Pablo’s conditions modified by the priest’s scrawl, with the addition of further clarifications by Pablo.
“Are you responsible for killing four presidential candidates?” Father Garcia said.
“I’ve not committed all of the crimes attributed to me…” Pablo said. “The Extraditables have Maruja [Villamizar’s wife] in normal conditions and good health. The hostages will be released as soon as the terms for surrender are arranged… I acknowledge the president’s good faith and willingness to reach an agreement.”
When the priest stood to leave, a contact lens fell out. He struggled, but couldn’t put it in. Pablo tried and failed. As did the staff. “It’s no use. The only one who can do it is Paulina.”
“I know who Paulina is and exactly where she is,” Pablo said, taking the priest by surprise. “Don’t worry, Father. If you like, we can bring her here.”
Eager to go home, Father Garcia opted to depart with one eye minus a lens.
“Will you bless this little gold medal?” Pablo pointed at it around his neck.
In the garden, surrounded by bodyguards, the priest blessed Pablo’s medal.
“Father,” a bodyguard said, “you can’t leave without giving us your blessing.”
Around the priest, they all kneeled, including Pablo. After blessing them, he urged them to renounce crime and help to bring peace.
At 8:30 pm, the priest arrived at La Loma on a tranquil night with the stars shining bright. After the car parked, he sprang out with athletic dexterity into the hands of Villamizar. “Take it easy, my boy. No problems here. I had them all on their knees.”
For the rest of the evening, Father Garcia remained in a sprightly mood. He wanted to jump on a plane and meet the president, but the Ochoa sisters convinced him to rest. In the middle of the night, he paced around the house conversing with himself and God.
On Thursday May 16 at 11 am, Father Garcia and Villamizar landed in Bogotá, where Villamizar told his son that his mother would be released in three days.
The priest was besieged by journalists. “If we don’t defraud him [Pablo], he’ll become the great architect of peace. Deep down, all men are good, although some circumstances can make them evil.” Contradicting the media’s portrayal of Pablo for the previous two years, Father Garcia said, “Escobar is a good man.”
The Extraditables issued a statement the day before the presidential meeting: “We have ordered the release of Francisco Santos and Maruja Pachón.” Journalists descended on Villamizar’s house.
Pablo sent a message to Villamizar, confirming that his wife would be released on Monday at 7 pm. On May 21 at 9 am, Villamizar would have to return to Medellín as part of Pablo’s surrender.
On Monday, the 6 am news announced that Father Garcia would be hosting a press conference at noon after meeting the president.
Up early, the president had adjusted his schedule to meet his advisers, whom he told, “OK, let’s finish this assignment.”
One adviser conveyed General Maza’s belief that Pablo would not surrender without a pardon from the Constituent Assembly, but added that such a pardon would be useless to Pablo, whose enemies such as the Cali Cartel had condemned him to death. “It might help him, but it’s not exactly a complete solution.” Pablo’s main concern was being housed in a prison that would protect him and his people.
Worried that the priest might convey an impossible demand from Pablo that would sabotage the negotiations, the advisers recommended that the president not attend the meeting on his own, and that he issue a statement immediately after the meeting to quell speculation.
The special meeting commenced at noon. Father Garcia was accompanied by two clerics and Villamizar, who brought his son. With the president were his private secretary and a senior politician.
While the meeting was photographed and videoed, Father Garcia detailed his discussion with Pablo, and expressed a belief that Pablo would surrender and free the hostages. He produced the notes from the meeting - rumours of which had achieved great heights in the media. Pablo’s main condition was that the prison be the one he’d selected in Envigado.
Studying the notes, the president expressed dismay over Pablo not promising to release the hostages but only agreeing to bring the matter up with the Extraditables. Villamizar smoothed things over by pointing out that it was Pablo’s strategy to not provide any written evidence that could be used against him.
The priest wanted to know what he should do if Pablo requested his presence at the official surrender.
“You should go, Father,” the president said.
“Who would guarantee my safety?”
“No one can provide better guarantees than Escobar for the safety of his own operation.” The president asked Father Garcia to tread lightly with the media to prevent them from quoting anything that might upset Pablo.
The priest agreed. “I’ve wanted to be of service in this, and I am at your disposal if you need me for anything else…”
The meeting lasted for twenty minutes and there was no press release.
Anticipating his wife’s return, Villamizar took a shower.
At 6 pm, his phone rang. “She’ll arrive a few minutes after seven,” a stranger said. “They’re leaving now.”
In the living room, he waited with family members and journalists.
After 7 pm, Maruja called from a house near to where she’d been dropped off by the kidnappers. Villamizar sped over there. He sprinted into the house and embraced his malnourished wife, whose large brown eyes gleamed with love and relief.