Pablo Escobar: Beyond Narcos - Shaun Attwood (2016)
Chapter 15. The Cathedral
Behind the scenes, lawyers for both sides distilled the negotiations down to three issues: the location of the prison, the prison staff and the involvement of the police and the army. As the prison holding the Ochoas was susceptible to car bombing, Pablo had refused that suggestion. He had wanted to convert a convent in El Poblado into a prison, but the nuns had refused to sell it to him. A proposal to reinforce a Medellín prison had also been rejected.
The remaining option was the Municipal Rehabilitation Centre for Drug Addicts on property called La Catedral del Valle, stationed on a mountainous slope over the Honey Valley, 7,000 feet above sea level, which would give the guards and the occupants a bird’s-eye view of any threats. The area was foggy in the evening and at dawn, which made a surprise raid from the air more difficult and provided a means for the occupants to slip away unnoticed if they needed to flee. They could easily lose their pursuers in the surrounding forest, which was teeming with wildlife, such as armadillos, sloths and huge iridescent butterflies.
The building and 30,000 square metres of land had been registered in the name of one of Pablo’s friends, a trusted old ironmonger. Pablo wanted only local guards and for the police and army to have nothing to do with it. The mayor of Envigado approved the transfer of the building into a prison called the Cathedral.
The building had cement floors, tile roofs and green metal doors. Formerly a farmhouse, the administration section included three little rooms: a kitchen, a courtyard and a punishment cell. It had a big dormitory, library, study and six cells with their own bathrooms. The large dayroom included four showers, a dressing room and six toilets. Motivated by Father Garcia’s blessing of the project, seventy men had been working around the clock, remodelling it. Due to its inaccessibility, furnishings had arrived on mules: water heaters, military cots, tubular yellow armchairs, potted plants…
Despite its secure location, Pablo wanted a standing army of bodyguards inside the prison, just in case anything unexpected happened. “I won’t surrender alone.” He stated that he wouldn’t abandon his associates to be slaughtered by the Elite Corps, while omitting to say that by keeping his network close, he could continue to run his operation. As added insurance, Pablo and Roberto buried weapons near their designated cells. “One day we’ll need them,” he told Roberto.
The night of his wife’s release, Villamizar stayed up until dawn chatting with her. After an hour’s sleep, he set off for Medellín. At La Loma, he met the Monkey, one of two men, including Jorge Ochoa, whom Pablo had authorised to finalise the negotiations. The Monkey was tall, blonde and had a golden moustache.
The phone rang. “Dr Villa, are you happy?” Pablo asked Villamizar. “I thank you for coming. You’re a man of your word and I knew you wouldn’t fail me. Let’s start to arrange how I’ll turn myself in.”
The Monkey and Villamizar visited the Cathedral and discussed security concerns as they examined a double fence over nine feet high, with fifteen rows of electrified barbed wire. Out of the nine watchtowers, the two at the entrance were being reinforced. Villamizar frowned upon the Italian tiles in Pablo’s bathroom, so they were changed. After the inspection, Villamizar said, “It seemed to me a very prison-like prison.”
An arrangement with Pablo had been made whereby Villamizar would receive an anonymous call: “In fifteen minutes, Doctor.” Then he’d go to his upstairs neighbour, Aseneth, and take a call from Pablo. As her house was a stronghold of writers and artists, who came and went throughout the day and night, it was considered a safe place for Pablo to call.
One evening, Villamizar didn’t get to the phone on time. Aseneth answered, “He doesn’t live here.”
“Don’t worry about that,” Pablo said. “He’s on his way up.”
Villamizar tried to tell Aseneth what was going on. She covered her ears. “I don’t want to know anything about anything. Do whatever you want in my house, but don’t tell me about it.”
At La Loma, Villamizar’s wife thanked the Ochoas for facilitating her release. Villamizar mentioned that her emerald and diamond ring, taken by her kidnappers, had not been returned as promised. The Monkey’s offer to buy a new one was declined because Maruja wanted the original due to its sentimental value. The Monkey said he would refer the matter to Pablo, who tracked the ring down and returned it.
The president’s fear of the priest saying a word that might threaten the negotiations at the last minute was realised during a broadcast of God’s Minute. Father Garcia called Pablo an unrepentant pornographer and demanded that he return to God’s path. The about-face astounded the viewers. Pablo thought that something seismic must have occurred behind the scenes. As the priest’s blessing had cajoled Pablo’s devout underlings into mass surrendering, Pablo was now faced with a rebellion. Pablo refused to surrender unless there was an immediate public explanation.
In response, Villamizar hustled the priest over to La Loma to speak to Pablo on the phone. Out of the various explanations he offered, the one that satisfied Pablo was that an editing error had made him appear to say pornographer by mistake. Having recorded the conversation with the priest, Pablo played it to his underlings, which squashed the rebellion.
Demands imposed by the government presented the next challenge. They wanted more say in the selection of the guards. They wanted army and National Guard troops to be on patrol outside the Cathedral. They wanted to cut down trees to make a firing range adjacent to the Cathedral. Citing the Law on Prisons, which prohibited military forces from going inside a jail, Pablo rejected the idea of combined patrols. Cutting down trees would permit helicopter landings and a possible assault on the prison, which Pablo found unacceptable. He changed his mind after it was explained that the removal of the trees would provide greater visibility, which would give him more time to respond to an attack. The national director of Criminal Investigation was insisting on building a fortified wall around the prison in addition to the barbed wire, the prospect of which infuriated Pablo.
On May 30, 1991, newspapers began reporting the terms of surrender. What caught the public’s attention the most was the removal of General Maza and two prominent police leaders. After meeting the president, Maza sent him a six-page letter, saying he was in favour of Pablo’s surrender: “For reasons known to you, Mr President, many persons and entities are intent upon destabilising my career, perhaps with the aim of placing me in a situation of risk that will allow them to carry out their plans against me.” He suspected that the government had negotiated his position away, even though there was no official evidence of them doing so.
Pablo informed Maza that their war was over. There would be no more attacks. His men were surrendering. He was turning in his dynamite. He listed the hiding places for 700 kilos of explosives. Maza was sceptical.
Losing patience with Pablo, the government appointed an outsider as the director of the prison, not a local person as Pablo had requested. They assigned twenty National Guards to the prison, who were also outsiders.
“In any event,” Villamizar said, “if they want to bribe someone it makes no difference if he’s from Antioquia or somewhere else.”
Not wanting to make a fuss, Pablo agreed that the army could guard the entrance. The government offered assurances that precautions would be taken to ensure that his food wasn’t poisoned.
Policies and procedures for the prison were determined by the National Board of Prisons. Prisoners had to wake up at 7 am. At 8 pm, they had to be locked in their cells. Females could visit on Sundays from 8 am until 2 pm. Men could visit on Saturdays. Children could visit the first and third Sunday of each month.
On June 9, 1991, Medellín police troops started to implement security measures, including removing people from the area who didn’t live there.
Two days later, Pablo asked for a final condition: he wanted the prosecutor general to be present at the surrender.
Pablo lacked the official ID necessary for a surrendering person. To get citizenship papers, he was supposed to go to an office at the Civil Registry, which was impossible for a man with so many enemies. His lawyers asked the government to issue citizenship papers without him having to make an appearance. The solution proposed was for him to identify himself with his fingerprints and to bring an old notarised ID, while declaring that his new ID had been lost.
On June 18, the Monkey called Villamizar at midnight, waking him up. Villamizar took the elevator up to Aseneth’s apartment, where a party with accordion music was in full swing. Wrestling his way through the revellers, he was stopped by Aseneth.
“I know now who’s calling you. Be careful because one false step and they’ll have your balls.” She escorted him to her bedroom, where the phone was ringing.
Above the ruckus, Villamizar heard, “Ready. Come to Medellín first thing tomorrow.”
At 5 am, Villamizar appeared at the dwellings of Father Garcia, who was in the oratory finishing mass. “Well, Father, let’s go. We’re flying to Medellín because Escobar is ready to surrender.”
On the Civil Aeronautics plane were representatives of the government. Travelling with the priest was his nephew, who assisted him. They were met at the Medellín airport by Martha Ochoa and Jorge Ochoa’s wife, Maria Lia. The officials went to the capitol building. Villamizar and Father Garcia headed for Maria Lia’s apartment.
Over breakfast, the arrangements for Pablo’s surrender were finalised. The priest was told that Pablo was on his way, employing his usual evasive techniques, travelling sometimes by car and at other times walking around checkpoints. Pablo’s imminent surrender unnerved the priest so much that one of his contact lenses fell out and he stood on it. To remedy his despair, Martha Ochoa took him to an optician to get a pair of glasses. On the way there and back they were stopped at numerous checkpoints, where the guards saluted Father Garcia for bringing peace to Medellín.
At 2:30 pm, the Monkey showed up and said to Villamizar, “Ready. Let’s go to the capitol building. You take your car and I’ll take mine.”
At the capitol building, the women waited outside. Putting on dark glasses and a golfer’s hat, the Monkey disguised himself. Misidentifying the Monkey, a bystander called the government to report that Pablo had just surrendered at the capitol building.
About to leave the building, the Monkey received a call on a two-way radio notifying him that a military plane was heading for the city, carrying injured soldiers. To keep the airspace open for Pablo, Villamizar had the military ambulance rerouted and repeated his order to keep the sky clear.
“Not even birds will fly over Medellín today,” the defence minister wrote in his diary.
After 3 pm, a helicopter lifted from the capitol building’s roof with the government’s representatives and a popular journalist. Ten minutes later, an order was despatched to the Monkey’s radio. A second helicopter took off with the Monkey, Villamizar and Father Garcia. As they flew, a radio broadcast announced that the government’s position on extradition had been defeated in the Constituent Assembly by a vote of fifty-one to thirteen, with five abstentions. It was official confirmation of Pablo’s demand for non-extradition.
The reversal on extradition had come about at a time when President George HW Bush was mustering support for the invasion of Iraq. Colombia had used its seat on the United Nations Security Council to vote against the attack. Bush had wanted the Colombian government to reverse its position. Dozens of traffickers had been extradited to America, which was still providing arms and soldiers to Colombia. In a quid pro quo, the Colombian president had voted to attack Iraq, while reversing its policy on extradition.
The Monkey directed the helicopter to Pablo’s location, a mansion behind a grove, with a soccer pitch and tropical-flower gardens. “Put it down over there. Don’t turn off the engine.”
As the helicopter descended, the armed bodyguards on the field became apparent, encircling a bearded man with long hair. Over a dozen approached the helicopter. Wearing tennis shoes and a light-blue jacket, the man walked with a carefree stride. Thick-set and tanned, Pablo said goodbye to and hugged the nearest bodyguards. He told two of his closest bodyguards, Otto and Mugre, to come with him.
In the helicopter, he offered his hand to Villamizar. “How are you, Dr Villamizar?”
“How’s it going, Pablo?”
Smiling, Pablo thanked Father Garcia. He sat next to his bodyguards. Upon noticing the Monkey, he said, “And you, in the middle of this right to the end.” His friendly tone left the passengers wondering whether he had praised or chastised the Monkey.
Smiling, the Monkey shook his head. “Ah, Chief.”
Based on Pablo’s tranquillity and self-control, Villamizar’s first impression of Pablo was that he possessed a dangerous level of confidence bordering on the supernatural.
The Monkey was unable to close the helicopter door, so the co-pilot did it.
“Do we take off now?” the pilot said.
“What do you think? Move it!” Pablo said, briefly dropping his polite mask. As the helicopter ascended, Pablo said to Villamizar, “Everything is fine, isn’t it, Doctor?”
After fifteen minutes, the helicopter landed next to the first helicopter on a prison soccer field with broken goalposts and rocks everywhere. Pablo got out. Fifty men in blue guard uniforms aimed their guns at him.
He responded like thunder: “Lower your weapons, damn it!”
The guns were lowered before their commander issued the same order.
They walked to a house containing the official delegation, more of Pablo’s men who’d surrendered and his wife and mother.
“Take it easy, Ma,” Pablo said, patting his mother on the shoulder.
The prison director shook Pablo’s hand. “Señor Escobar. I’m Lewis Jorge Pataquiva.”
Pablo pulled up a trouser leg, revealing a Sig Sauer 9 mm pistol with a gold monogram inlaid on a mother of pearl handle. The spellbound crowd watched him remove each bullet and throw it on the ground. The gesture was designed to show confidence in the warden whose appointment had worried Pablo. On a portable phone, Pablo told his brother that he’d surrendered. Addressing the journalists present, he said his surrender was an act of peace. “I decided to give myself up the moment I saw the National Constitutional Assembly working for the strengthening of human rights and Colombian democracy.”
Journalists wrote about Pablo:
“I had thought that he was a petulant, proud, disciplined man, one of those who is always looking over his shoulder. But I was wrong. On the contrary, he is educated. He asks permission if he walks in front of a person and is agreeable when he greets someone.”
“You can see that he is someone who worries about his appearance. Especially his shoes. They were impeccably clean.”
“He walks as if he had no worry in the world. He is very jovial and he laughs a lot.”
“He had a bit of a belly, which makes him look like a calm man.”
Pablo acknowledged everyone.
“I’m here,” the special prosecutor said, taking Pablo’s hand, “Señor Escobar, to make certain your rights are respected.” Pablo thanked him.
Pablo took Villamizar’s arm. “Let’s go, Doctor. You and I have a lot to talk about.”
In an outside gallery, they both leaned against a railing. Pablo thanked Villamizar and apologised for the pain he’d caused him and his family. He said both sides had suffered in the war.
“Why was Luis Carlos Galán killed?” Villamizar said, referring to the presidential candidate.
“The fact is that everybody wanted to kill Dr Galán. I was present at the discussions when the attack was decided, but I had nothing to do with what happened. A lot of people were involved in that. I didn’t even like the idea because I knew what would happen if they killed him, but once the decision was made, I couldn’t oppose it. Please tell doña Gloria that for me,” Pablo said, referring to Galán’s widow.
“Why was an attempt made on my life?”
“A group of friends in Congress had convinced me that you were uncontrollable and stubborn and had to be stopped somehow before you succeeded in having extradition approved. Besides, in that war we were fighting, just a rumour could get you killed. But now that I know you, Dr Villamizar, thank God nothing happened to you.”
“Why did you kidnap my wife and sister?”
“I was kidnapping people to get something and I didn’t get it. Nobody was talking to me. Nobody was paying attention, so I went after doña Maruja to see if that would work.” Pablo said that the negotiations had convinced him that Villamizar was a brave man of his word, and he was eternally grateful for that. Even though he was not expecting them to ever be friends, Pablo assured Villamizar that nothing bad would ever happen to his family. “Who knows how long I’ll be here, but I still have a lot of friends, so if any of you feels unsafe, if anybody tries to give you a hard time, you let me know and that’ll be the end of it. You met your obligations to me, and I thank you and will do the same for you. You have my word of honour.” Pablo asked Villamizar if he’d have a word with his mother and wife, who were having sleepless nights as they suspected the government had arranged for Pablo to be murdered in prison.
Forty-one-year-old Pablo underwent the medical examination required for new prisoners. His health was documented as that of “a young man in normal physical and mental condition.” Pablo said that the scar on his nose was due to an injury from playing football as a child. The only abnormality found was congestion in the nasal mucous membranes.
To obtain imprisonment, Pablo cited a crime that he had been found guilty of by the French authorities: acting as a middleman in a drug transaction arranged by his cousin, Gustavo. He issued a statement: “That country’s penal code… gives one the right to apply for a revision of their case, when they appear before their national judge, in this case a Colombian judge. This is precisely the objective of my voluntary presentation to this office, in other words, to have a Colombian judge examine my case.” Rather than plead guilty to a crime, he had surrendered to appeal the French conviction.
In court in Bogotá, Pablo declared his job title as “livestock farmer,” and added, “I have no addictions, don’t smoke, don’t drink.” He said he’d done an accounting course and, while incarcerated, he was going to obtain a college degree. “I wish to clarify that there may be people who might try to send anonymous letters, make phone calls or commit actions in bad faith under my name in order to harm me. There have been many accusations, but I’ve never been convicted of a crime in Colombia.”
“Do you know where they got the 400 kilos of cocaine?” the judge said, referring to Pablo’s conviction in France.
“I think Mr Gustavo Gaviria was in charge of that.”
“Who is Mr Gustavo Gaviria?”
“Mr Gustavo Gaviria was a cousin of mine.”
“Do you know how Mr Gaviria died?”
“Mr Gaviria was murdered by members of the National Police during one of the raid-executions, which have been publicly denounced on many occasions.”
“Let’s talk about your personal and family’s modus vivendi and the economic conditions you’ve had throughout your life.”
“Well, my family is from the north-central part of Colombia, my mother is a teacher at a rural school and my father is a farmer. They made a great effort to give me the education I received, and my current situation is perfectly defined and clear before the national tax office… I have always liked to work independently and, since my adolescence, I have worked to help sustain my family. Even when I was studying, I worked at a bicycle rent shop and other less important jobs to support my studies… Later on, I got into the business of buying and selling cars, livestock and land investments. I want to cite Hacienda Nápoles as an example of this – that it was bought in conjunction with another partner at a time when these lands were in the middle of the jungle. Now they are practically ready to be colonised. When I bought land in that region, there were no means of communications or transport and we had to endure a 23-hour journey. I say this in order to clarify the image that people have that it’s all been easy…” Asked if he’d originally started in business with other people, Pablo said, “No. It all began from scratch, as many fortunes have started in Colombia and in the world.”
“Tell the court what disciplinary or penal precedents appear on your record.”
“Yes, there have been many accusations, but I’ve never been convicted of a crime in Colombia. The accusations of theft, homicide, drug-trafficking and many others were made by General Miguel Maza, according to whom every crime that is committed in this country is my fault.”
After he denied any involvement in the cocaine business, the judge insisted that he must know something about it.
“Only what I see or read in the media. What I’ve seen and heard in the media is that cocaine costs a lot of money and is consumed by the high social classes in the United States and other countries of the world. I have seen that many political leaders and governments around the world have been accused of narco-trafficking, like the current Vice President of the United States [Dan Quayle], who has been accused of buying and selling cocaine and marijuana. I have also seen the declarations of one of Mr Reagan’s daughters in which she admits to taking marijuana, and I’ve heard the accusations against the Kennedy family, and also accusations of heroin dealing against the Shah of Iran, as well as the Spanish president. Felipe González publicly admitted that he took marijuana. My conclusion is that there is universal hypocrisy toward drug-trafficking and narcotics, and what worries me is that from what I see in the media, all the evil involved in drug addiction is blamed on cocaine and Colombians, when the truth is that the most dangerous drugs are produced in labs in the United States, like crack. I’ve never heard of a Colombian being detained for possession of crack because it’s produced in North America.” Pablo had a point: the journalist Gary Webb discovered that the CIA had facilitated the importation of tons of cocaine into America, some of which had contributed to the crack epidemic. George HW Bush and other senior politicians were deeply involved in such covert activity while using Pablo’s operation as a smokescreen (all explored in my books American Made and We Are Being Lied To).
“What is your opinion, bearing in mind your last few answers, on narco-trafficking?”
“My personal opinion, based on what I’ve read, I would say that cocaine [will continue] invading the world… so long as the high classes continue to consume the drug. I would also like to say that the coca leaf has existed in our country for centuries and it’s part of our aboriginal cultures…”
“How do you explain that you, Pablo Escobar, are pointed out as the boss of the Medellín Cartel?”
Avoiding the question, Pablo referred the judge to a statement he’d submitted on videotape. “Another explanation I can give is this: General Maza is my personal enemy… [He] proclaimed himself my personal enemy in an interview given to El Tiempo on the eighth of September, 1991. It is clear then that he suffers a military frustration for not capturing me. The fact that he carried out many operations in order to capture me, and they all failed, making him look bad, has made him say he hates me and I am his personal enemy…”
The court heard a list of traffickers who’d claimed that Pablo was their boss.
“I don’t know any of these people,” Pablo said. “But through the press, I know about Mr Max Mermelstein. I deduce that he is a lying witness, which the US government has against me. Everyone in Colombia knows that North American criminals negotiate their sentences in exchange for testifying against Colombians… I would like to add to the file a copy of Semana magazine, which has an article about Max Mermelstein, to demonstrate what a liar this man is: ‘Escobar was the chief of chiefs. The boss of cocaine trafficking wore blue jeans and a soccer shirt, was tall and thin.’” Pablo stood to display his short stout body. “I ask you to tell me, am I a tall and thin person? For a gringo to say that one is tall, you would suppose that man to be very tall.”
By spending some of the millions he’d smuggled into the prison, it wasn’t long before Pablo started to modify his surroundings to suit a man of his stature. He kept his cash in milk cans inside containers of salt, sugar, rice, beans and fresh fish, which were permitted inside because they were classified as food rations. Excess money was buried near the soccer field and in underground tunnels accessible by trapdoors in the cells. When his employees needed paying, helicopters transported cash out of the Cathedral.
He added a bar, lounge and disco, where he hosted parties and weddings. Famous people, models, politicians and soccer players danced and cavorted in the Cathedral. He installed a sauna in the gym, and Jacuzzis and hot tubs in the bathrooms. In his bedroom, he had a circular rotating bed and two other beds for his family. One of the biggest benefits to Pablo of no longer being on the run was the time he could spend with his family. Above his bed was a gold-framed portrait of the Virgin Mary.
Large items such as computers and big-screen TVs – on which they watched God’s Minute – were smuggled in by Roberto’s son, who drove a truck laden with crates of soda disguising the contraband. The truck brought women in, too. Despite rules restricting visits to official days, people were always sneaking in. Vans with fake walls held up to twenty people. This method of entry was ideal for people who wanted to keep their visits a secret, such as criminals and politicians.
Pablo’s extensive record collection was there, including albums signed by Frank Sinatra from when Pablo had visited him in Las Vegas, and Elvis records purchased during a Graceland trip. His books ranged from Bibles to Nobel Prize winners. He had novels by Gabriel García Márquez and Stefan Zweig, a prominent Austrian writer from the 1920s. His movies on videotape included The Godfather trilogy and films starring Chuck Norris. Most of the prisoners had posters on their walls, whereas Pablo hung valuable paintings on his. His closet was full of neatly pressed jeans, shirts and Nike sneakers, some with spikes on in case he had to flee. Pablo never tied the laces of his sneakers – it was said that if he did, then something life-threatening was imminent. In case of danger from above the prison, a remote control allowed Pablo to turn off all of the internal lights.
Further up the slope, cabins were built for privacy with female visitors and as hideouts in case the prison was attacked. They were painted brightly and had sound systems and fancy lamps. Paths were made into the forest to allow a quick getaway and to enable the prisoners to walk where the air was freshest.
As the location included a direct sightline to his family’s home, he mounted a telescope so he could see his wife and children while talking to them on the phone. A playhouse was constructed for his daughter and filled with toys.
The soccer field was renovated, night lights installed and wires positioned above it to sabotage helicopter landings. Despite having a bad knee, Pablo played centre forward; his associates made tactful allowances for this such as passing him the ball to score winning goals. The professional teams who came to play against Pablo and his men were careful never to win. Pablo had a replacement on standby in case he grew tired. When he regained his energy after resting, he’d join back in. The guards served the players refreshments. Sometimes his lawyers had to wait hours to see him if he was playing soccer.
The introduction of two chefs known as the Stomach Brothers addressed Pablo’s concerns about getting poisoned. He enjoyed beans, pork, eggs and rice. He’d installed exercise equipment such as weights and bikes for the prisoners to get in shape, but as they were no longer on the run and had access to endless food and alcohol, they started to gain weight.
The Cathedral became known as “Club Medellín” or “Hotel Escobar.” Hustler magazine published an illustration of Pablo and his associates partying in prison, throwing darts at a picture of President George HW Bush. Pablo obtained the illustration and hung it on his wall.
Communications were a priority. Pablo had cell phones, radio transmitters, a fax machine and beepers. Roberto has denied allegations by other authors that Pablo used carrier pigeons.
With the government protecting him instead of hunting him down, Pablo’s cocaine business thrived. Father Garcia tried to help Pablo make peace with the Cali Cartel. He arranged for Pablo to speak to its leaders, but little progress was made as they were too stubborn. “I don’t believe a word of those two,” Pablo told Roberto. A DAS agent working as prison security discovered that the Cali Cartel had bought four bombs from El Salvador, and was attempting to buy a plane to drop them on the Cathedral. From then on, the guards fired at any planes flying too close to the prison.
To address legal problems, Pablo had thirty lawyers working for him almost full-time. He was facing an indictment for being the intellectual author of the murder of the presidential candidate, Galán. One of Pablo’s men, La Quica, was arrested in New York for traveling with a fake passport, and was accused of being a player in the bombing of Avianca Flight 203. During a raid of one of Pablo’s properties, the authorities found paperwork linking Pablo to the assassination of the journalist, Guillermo Cano.
When he wasn’t meeting his lawyers, Pablo was usually on the telephone or reading. He tried to learn Mandarin. At nights, he sat in a rocking chair and watched the lights come on in Envigado, while thinking about his family.
He received endless letters from people asking for help, business advice and money. If their stories checked out, Pablo often sent them cash. A teenager sent a photo of herself in a wedding dress and a letter offering her virginity in exchange for Pablo paying her college fees, so she could become a lawyer. After her story was confirmed, he paid the fees, without taking her offer up. People also gathered at the prison gate with notes for Pablo, seeking his assistance.
On December 1, 1991, Pablo celebrated his forty-second birthday with a party in the Cathedral, where his guests ate caviar and pink salmon while listening to live music. His gifts included a Russian fur hat from his mother. Photographed wearing it, he declared it would be his trademark.
Pablo took trips to watch soccer games at the stadium he’d built in Medellín. The police diverted traffic to allow his vehicles access. He went Christmas shopping at a mall. He spent the one-year anniversary of his surrender at a nightclub with family and friends.
When the government attempted to build a maximum-security prison based on the American model to transfer Pablo to, no construction company would accept the job. One said, “We’re not going to build a cage with the lion already inside.” Finally, a company owned by an Israeli security expert attempted to build it, with supposedly incorruptible workers from afar. Watching the work crew, Pablo’s men started writing down their license-plate numbers, and eventually attacked them, causing many to quit. The project was abandoned.
In early 1992, the attorney general’s office published photos taken at Hotel Escobar, including waterbeds, Jacuzzis, big-screen TVs… The embarrassed president commissioned an investigation, but the justice minister found that the furnishings were legal because each prisoner was allowed a bed and a bathtub, and TVs were permitted for good behaviour.
“I want all of these things taken out immediately!” the president said. “Tell the army to go in there and take everything. Escobar has to know we’re not kidding.”
No government department wanted the job. “No way,” the minister of defence said. “I cannot do it because I don’t have the people.” When it was pointed out that he had 120,000 troops, he still refused the assignment.
Due to the deal struck with Pablo, the police couldn’t do it. The DAS said that they couldn’t act because they were only allowed inside the prison in the event of a riot.
In the end, a lawyer was told to take a truck and some workers, and to go to the prison and get the goods. “What have I ever done to you?” the lawyer responded. “Why’d you give me this assignment?”
Banking on the truck not being allowed to enter the prison, so he could turn around and go home, the lawyer set off. When he arrived, the prison gate opened and Pablo waved them in.
Upon being told why they were there, Pablo said, “Certainly, Doctor. I didn’t know these things bothered you. Please, take everything out.” Pablo and his men helped them carry the goods until everything was gone.
The lawyer rushed to his boss with photos of the bare prison. While the president was examining the photos, all of the goods were heading back to the Cathedral.
Pablo claimed that his imprisonment was a personal sacrifice for the good of all of the traffickers – for whom he’d single-handedly got rid of extradition. Due to the benefits they were receiving, they were expected to compensate him by paying a tax. In prison, Pablo was tuned into everything going on outside thanks to his extensive communications network. Those who tried to cheat him out of the tax or were perceived to have swindled him in any way were dealt with harshly.
Pablo’s friends, Fernando Galeano and Kiko Moncada, ran two of the biggest trafficking groups that Pablo taxed. They were smuggling cocaine into America via a route that Pablo had established through Mexico. Word trickled back to the Cathedral that they’d been short-changing Pablo, who viewed their deceit as a prelude to a takeover of his organisation. Pablo learned where they stashed their money. His men confiscated $20 million. After denying Pablo’s allegations, Galeano and Moncada asked for it back. He told them that he wanted to discuss it in person at the prison.
Pablo gave Galeano and Moncada a lecture about everything that he’d done for them. According to Roberto, they were killed after they’d left the Cathedral: Popeye killed Moncada and Otto shot Galeano. Within days, their brothers were also killed. Their distraught families begged for their corpses to give them proper burials, so Pablo told them where to find them.
Pablo wanted all of the property belonging to their organisations. Their employees were told that they worked for Pablo. Their key people were smuggled into the Cathedral through a secret tunnel to attend a meeting, many of them thinking they would die.
“I’m declaring an emergency,” Pablo said. “Your bosses are already dead. Now you’ll turn over all their resources to me. If you lie, you’ll die very painfully.” He reminded them that he was the boss. He said that they’d all be safe provided they paid him the tax.
The DEA recorded a version of events based on an informant’s statement:
Escobar argued that while he and his close associates were in jail and needed money for their expensive war with the Cali Cartel, Galeano and Moncada preferred to store money until it became moldy rather than use it to help their friends… Escobar convinced cartel members who genuinely liked Moncada and Galeano that if the two men were not killed, the Medellín Cartel would be in a war with itself, and they would all perish.
Word got out about the murders of Galeano and Moncada, which made the president appear weak for not taking any action. Two of Pablo’s biggest enemies – George HW Bush and the Cali Cartel – were putting relentless pressure on the government to eliminate Pablo once and for all by moving him to another prison, where he could be assassinated, or by extraditing him to the US, where he would never get out of prison.
Roberto told Pablo that he felt something bad was imminent. He asked Pablo to look into it. Government and army people on Pablo’s payroll confirmed that he needed to abandon the Cathedral. He was told that George HW Bush was threatening to invade Colombia on the grounds that the government was incapable of extraditing Pablo.
Military trucks were spotted heading for the Cathedral. Pablo received a message that officials were coming to speak to him.
Aiming to transfer Pablo to Bogotá, the president told the deputy justice minister, Eduardo Mendoza – a thin young man with a boyish face – to go to the Cathedral and liaise with an army general, whose troops were already raiding the Cathedral.
“Shall I bring Pablo back to Bogotá?” Mendoza said.
“Yes,” the defence minister said. “We’re moving him to a military base in Bogotá. Now run!”
On the way to the airplane, Mendoza picked up Colonel Navas, the military director of prisons.
“This is totally crazy,” Navas said. “You cannot do this to Escobar and get away with it.” Navas viewed the action as a violation of the government’s agreement with Pablo and a resumption of war. “Lots of people will die.”
“Colonel, this isn’t my decision,” Mendoza said. “We’ve been ordered to go and we’re going to put him on a plane and bring him back.”
At the airport, they were told that their military plane had no fuel.
Waiting around, Mendoza decided to seek further clarification from the justice minister. “I don’t understand what’s going on. Tell me again, what am I supposed to do?”
“Look, if the prisoners give you any trouble, tell them it’s because of the construction. Tell them we’re having problems because they’ve been bullying the workers, so we have to move them temporarily out of the way.”
The sun was setting over snowy mountain crests when they landed. It was getting cold. Ascending a dirt road, Mendoza was expecting to hear gunfire from the raid in progress. He translated the silence to mean that the raid was over and Pablo had been captured. Bringing Pablo back would be easy now.
When the jeep pulled up at the prison, a general in green battle garb approached Mendoza. “What are your orders?”
“General, my orders are to take Escobar back to Bogotá.”
“I have different orders.”
Mendoza was dismayed to learn that the general hadn’t raided the prison. The troops were still outside.
“If they want Escobar,” the general said, “I’ll go in there myself and get that bandit and tie him up and bring him out! But until my orders change…”
Mendoza explained that he’d been told that the raid was underway. A press release had been issued stating that Pablo was at another prison.
“This is very confusing,” the general said. “Do you think we should do this tonight or shall we wait until tomorrow morning?”
“General, I have no idea. I was sent to do this immediately. I thought it was done. I don’t have the authority to tell you to wait until tomorrow. If it would be easier for you to do it in daylight, maybe we should wait, but I’m not a military officer. I don’t know. Let’s call Bogotá.”
The general got on a radio phone. “I’m here with the vice minister. He wants me to do this thing tomorrow.” The general hung up and invited the dumbfounded Mendoza to dinner.
A presidential military aide called Mendoza and chewed him out for interfering with a military operation by postponing it until tomorrow – which hadn’t been Mendoza’s idea. Troops gathering around the Cathedral was a hot media story. Pablo might be escaping.
Attempting to get things back on track, Mendoza turned towards the general. “You must do it tonight. Immediately.”
After getting off the phone, the general said that the new plan was to send Colonel Navas into the prison to assess the situation.
“I should be the one to go in, not you,” Mendoza told the colonel.
“No, Doctor, don’t worry about it.” The colonel marched to the prison gate. “Open up!” Almost an hour later, he returned. “Well, the situation is under control, but these people are very scared. They told me that they’ll start blowing the place up if the army tries to come in and take Escobar, which is what they hear on the radio is about to happen. Doctor, if you were to go in there and explain what is going on and calm them down, we may be able to save lots of lives.”
Exasperated and cold, Mendoza opted to go in. The gate opened. The guards lined up in formation.
“Señor Vice Minister, welcome to the Cathedral!” After declaring the numbers of prisoners and guards, the captain said, “All is quiet.”
In jeans, a dark jacket and sneakers – with the laces untied – Pablo emerged with Roberto to discuss the situation. “Good evening, Doctor,” he said to Mendoza.
Despite being protected by fifteen armed prison guards, Mendoza trembled as he said that the army had been ordered to search the rooms.
“I’m sorry, but I’ve made a deal with the government,” Pablo said. “The police and the army are not permitted inside. If you want, you can bring the regular prison officials to do this search, but I will not allow the army and even less the police. Please remember, gentlemen, I fought a war with the police and this policy is the result.” Watching Mendoza turn pale and agitated, Pablo said, “I’ll allow some soldiers inside, but without their weapons.”
Mendoza made a call. Refusing to accept Pablo’s offer, the president demanded that the army enter with weapons.
“They can’t come inside with weapons,” Pablo said. “No one’s coming here armed to kill us. We don’t know what their intentions are. I don’t trust them with my life.”
An army general called Pablo, and stated that the president intended to kill, capture or extradite him. Pablo told Roberto that he was going to keep Mendoza and the colonel hostage. Wearing jackets with concealed weapons, a dozen bodyguards arrived and formed a semicircle around Pablo.
“You’ve betrayed me, Señor Vice Minister,” Pablo said. “The president has betrayed me. You’re going to pay for this and this country is going to pay for this because I have an agreement and you’re breaking it.”
“You have nothing to fear for your life. You’re only being transferred.”
“You’re doing this to deliver me to the Americans.”
“Kill them!” Popeye yelled with a cruel expression on his round face. “Sons of bitches.”
Mendoza steered his eyes towards the prison guards and gazed as if imploring their help. They looked away.
“You’re going to deliver me to Bush, so that he can parade me before the election, just like he did with Manuel Noriega. I’m not going to allow that, Doctor.”
“We should have killed this one during the campaign!” Popeye said. “It would have been easy.”
“Look,” Mendoza said. “It would be unconstitutional for us to send you to the United States.”
“Then you’re going to kill me. You’re going to take me out of here and have me killed. Before I allow that to happen, many people will die.”
“Let us kill them, boss!”
“Do you really think they’re going to send someone like me to kill you?” Mendoza said. “There are hundreds of soldiers outside and other officials. Do you think we would send for this many witnesses if we were going to kill you? This is just not reasonable. I’ll stay with you, if you want, all night. Wherever you go, you’re a prisoner and we’re obliged to guarantee your safety. So you don’t have anything to worry about.”
“All we have to do is finish the prison,” Mendoza said, “and we can’t do that with you here.”
“No, Doctor,” Pablo said. “That problem we had with the workers was just a misunderstanding.”
“Look, I’m going to walk out of here. I’ll be right out there.” Mendoza pointed at the dirt road. “We’re going to deliver the prison to the army. I’ll be out there and I’ll stay with you guys wherever you’re going.”
As if making a decision, Pablo scanned the area beyond the fence.
“I’ll talk to you later.” Mendoza, the colonel and the prison guards advanced towards the gate.
“Boss, that son of a bitch is going to betray us. We should kill them all! Are you going to let them walk out?”
The officials were almost at the gate, when Pablo’s bodyguards rushed after them with their guns drawn. Mendoza expected the prison guards to defend him. Instead, they pulled out their weapons and pointed them at him. Wondering what to do next, Mendoza glanced at the colonel, who looked like he wanted to vomit.
“Boss, look, look! They are sending messages to each other. Kill him! Kill him, the son of a bitch!” Popeye said, stamping his feet.
Bodyguards shoved the officials towards the prison.
“I’m sorry,” Pablo said, “but you can’t leave right now. We need you to ensure our own safety while we figure out what to do.”
At the warden’s house, Popeye threw Mendoza through the doorway and aimed a gun at the side of his head. “I’m going to kill the guy! I’ve always wanted to kill a vice minister.” With his face right up to Mendoza’s, he yelled, “You son of a bitch. You motherfucker. You’ve been trying to get us for years. Now I’ll get you.”
“Popeye, not now,” Roberto said. “Maybe later. Relax. He’s worth more alive.”
Mendoza was instructed to sit on a sofa in the warden’s room.
“Señor Vice Minister,” Pablo said, brandishing a gun. “From this moment, you’re my prisoner. If the army comes, you’ll be the first to die.”
“Don’t think by holding me you’ll stop them,” Mendoza said. “If you take us hostage you can forget about everything. They have heavy machine guns, lots of them. They’ll kill everybody here! You can’t escape!”
Pablo smiled. “Doctor, you still don’t understand. These people all work for me.” Pablo called his wife. “We’re having a little problem here. We’re trying to solve it. You know what to do if it doesn’t work.” He gave Mendoza the phone. “Call the president.”
“The president won’t take the call,” Mendoza said.
“Get somebody to take the call because you’re about to die.”
Mendoza got through to a staff member at the president’s office.
“Are you being held hostage?”
The staff member hung up. Trembling, Mendoza imagined himself dying in the raid.
“Let me kill him, boss,” Popeye said.
To make a private call, Pablo left the room for five minutes. He returned with a gun tucked into his pants. “Doctor, you’re detained, but you’re not going to be killed. If anyone touches you, he’ll have to answer to me.”
“You can’t escape from here,” Mendoza said. “The army has the prison surrounded.”
“You had an agreement with me and you’re breaking it. Doctor, I know you guys are bothered about those killings,” Pablo said, referring to Galeano and Moncada. “Don’t worry. They were problems among Mafioso. They don’t concern you.”
Mendoza and the colonel were escorted to Pablo’s lavishly furnished cell, where Popeye and a bodyguard kept watch. They were given ponchos to wrap around themselves to keep warm. Popeye kept pumping his shotgun near Mendoza, who was still ruminating on his own slaughter at the hands of the troops.
The colonel picked up a bottle. “This could be the last whiskey I’ll drink in my life.” After swigging some, he reached for a Bible and read Psalm 91. He asked for and was granted a telephone. He told his family goodbye.
“How do you stay so thin?” a bodyguard asked Mendoza.
“I’m a vegetarian.”
“What should I eat to lose weight?”
“More fruits and vegetables.”
The bodyguard fetched a plate of apple slices. “Now I’m going to start a healthy diet.”
Popeye shook his head. “What are you going to do that for? We’re all going to be dead by seven o’clock.”
The weapons buried by Roberto and Pablo – prior to their arrival at the Cathedral – were unearthed. In addition to the pistol in his pants, Pablo slung an Uzi over his shoulder. Approaching the perimeter, they relied on the fog for cover. With soldiers nearby, Roberto used wire cutters on the electrified fence, making a gap big enough for a person to slip through.
While preparing to escape, Pablo kept trying to contact the president. His lawyers and Father Garcia were rebuffed by the president’s office.
“Either we flee or we all die,” Pablo told his men. He and Roberto entered a hidden room and grabbed lots of cash. To thwart the spy planes, Roberto used his emergency remote control to plunge the prison into darkness, which terrified everybody inside, including the hostages.
Pablo listened to radio stations report different stories. One claimed he’d been captured and was on a plane to America. Another said the military had taken over the Cathedral and lives had been lost.
Concerned about his family hearing these reports, he called them. “Don’t worry. Don’t listen to the news. The situation is being resolved directly with the president.” After hanging up, he called and reassured his mother. Pablo crouched down, grabbed his shoelaces and finally tied them. “Roberto, let’s put our radios on the same frequency.”
Pablo returned to his room to check on the hostages. “Try to remain calm. The situation will be resolved without anyone getting killed. I’m going to sleep. I’ll see you in the morning.”
With darkness, fog and rain providing cover, Pablo told his men to simply walk out through the hole that Roberto had cut in the fence, one after the other, five minutes apart. Hoping to blend in with the military units surrounding the prison, most of the men had put on army fatigues. Pablo went first. He positioned himself to watch the others emerging and everything going on around them.
Due to the poor visibility, Roberto got lost. After wandering around afraid, he found the hole in the fence at around 2 am.
The group set off down a wet slippery surface that presented a risk of injury or death. Confronted by a rock face, the brawniest went first and allowed the others to stand on their shoulders. While thorny vegetation prickled them, they held hands going down another slope. After two hours, visibility improved as the fog thinned. Realising they’d gone in a circle and hadn’t achieved much distance from the prison, they traded expressions of shock and frustration. They needed to keep moving because they could easily be shot. Pablo estimated that they had two hours left to evacuate the area.
The sun was up when they reached a neighbourhood called El Salado. People were going to work and children to school. In filthy ripped clothes, Pablo and his men emerged like vagrants. They headed for a farm belonging to Memo, a trusted friend.
They knocked on the door. The groundskeeper answered, but didn’t recognise them. Once it dawned, he let them in. They stripped off the soaked clothes compressed to their weary bodies. While their clothes were washed, they finally rested.
Almost an hour later, there was frantic banging at the door. Bracing for a gunfight, they grabbed their weapons and took aim. The door opened. In came the neighbours with a hot breakfast for the visitors. Other neighbours patrolled the streets to watch out for the army. Pablo and his men cleaned themselves, shaved and put on fresh clothes.
After the general outside the Cathedral had refused to launch an assault, the president had ordered in special forces. A press release was prepared, stating that Mendoza and the colonel had died in a shootout. At first, the plane carrying the troops couldn’t land due to the fog. In the morning, the troops travelled up the slope in trucks. The army units already there gave the truck drivers the wrong directions and they ended up back at the airport.
In Pablo’s room, the captives and the guards watched the news report the set-backs with the raid. Through a shortwave radio, they listened to the preparations outside as various units prepared to launch an assault. One of the units – trained by the Americans – was infamous for once having killed everybody in a building on behalf of an emerald dealer. Knowing this, the colonel started praying.
“Can I go outside for a look?” Mendoza said.
Bodyguards allowed him onto the porch. The rising sun was illuminating the fog. Due to the poor visibility, Mendoza’s imagination ran wild with visions of his executioners closing in. Hoping that they’d recognise his business suit and not shoot him, he dropped his poncho and succumbed to the chilly air.
Gunfire. Explosions. Screams.
The commander of the prison guards was opening a door as the special forces launched their assault. A hailstorm of bullets dropped him dead. Of course, it was later reported that he’d opened fire on them.
Bodyguards dragged Mendoza back inside. “Doctor, please! They’re going to kill us! Help us!”
“I’ve been telling you that all night! Now it’s too late!”
Mendoza crawled to the bathroom and coiled his body behind the toilet, hoping it would shield him. Realising the glass would shatter and injure him, he crawled back to the living room and joined the colonel who was crouched next to a prison guard. The commotion grew louder. Mendoza attempted to leave the room.
“Get on the floor unless you want to be killed!” a prison guard yelled.
Mendoza and a guard tried to raise Pablo’s mattress to hide under, but it was too heavy to move. He got down on the floor and braced to die. A grenade detonated nearby. As he twisted away from the explosion, his forehead met the barrel of a gun held by a black muscular man. With gunfire and bangs and blasts erupting all around, the special-forces sergeant holding the gun chucked Mendoza against a wall and sat on him.
“We’re going to try to get out of here,” the sergeant said. “Just look at my boot. Don’t think of anything. Just look at my boot.” They crawled onto the porch and behind a wall. “When I tell you to run, run.”
With the raid raging and smoke stinging his eyes, Mendoza sprinted uphill towards the gate with the sergeant behind him yelling, “Run! Run! Run!” Mendoza had never moved so fast in his life. He accidentally hit a wall and broke two ribs, but the pain didn’t register as his adrenaline propelled him. He bolted out of the main gate, where the general was awaiting his return.
After catching his breath, Mendoza said, “General, is Escobar dead?” The look on the general said it all. “Oh my God!” Mendoza said. “He got away! How could he get away?”
The raid netted five of Pablo’s men. Twenty-seven guards were charged with suspicion of cooperating with Pablo.
Drinking coffee at Memo’s house, Pablo listened to the radio reports, while helicopters buzzed overhead. Roberto’s son called a radio station and stated that they were hiding in a tunnel under the prison with weapons and food. He told a reporter that Pablo would surrender and return to the Cathedral if the original terms were reinstated.
Hoping to unearth the tunnel, the government sent construction equipment to the prison, so that the troops could start digging. Explosives were detonated in the fields.
Pablo gazed at the activity through a window. “The only thing they’ll find is the money in the barrels,” he said, referring to $10 million that had been buried.
The radio reported that Pablo had ordered the assassination of all of the top government officials. Hoax bomb threats and evacuation drills at schools were widespread.
On TV in the evening, the president called for calm and promised to protect the escapees’ lives if they surrendered, but he never mentioned reinstating Pablo’s original deal.
Some US news outlets reported that Pablo and his men had stormed out of the prison in a hail of gunfire, with their weapons blazing. These stories increased support for George HW Bush to send soldiers to Colombia to apprehend Pablo and to incarcerate him in America.
When darkness came, the men left Memo’s and trekked through the woods. At the Cathedral, explosions were still going off as the troops searched for the tunnel. At another farm, Pablo called his family and urged them to ignore the news. They ate and set off again.
Outside a farm, five German shepherds launched at them. They couldn’t shoot the dogs because the noise would have alerted the authorities. One bit El Mugre on the leg, drawing blood. Pablo threw some snacks at the dogs, which distracted them. He stayed with the dogs while the others moved on and then followed everyone.
At 3:30 am, they arrived at a friendly farm. A driver took Roberto to see his mother, so that he could explain the situation. He didn’t want to stay long, but she insisted on making some food for him and Pablo. Unable to say no, Roberto positioned himself at a window and watched out for the police.
When Roberto returned to the farm, some of the group had moved on because Pablo felt they’d be harder to find if they split up. More soldiers were constantly arriving in the area around the Cathedral, hoping to flush them out. For two days, they stayed at the farm, watching TV reports and listening to the radio.
On July 24, 1992, Pablo recorded a statement, offering to surrender if he could go back to the Cathedral. He said the arrival of the troops had taken them by surprise. He called Mendoza a liar as he had never been kidnapped or threatened. “As for the aggression carried out against us, we won’t take violent actions of any nature yet and we are willing to continue with the peace process and our surrender to justice if we can be guaranteed to stay at the Envigado jail [the Cathedral], as well as handing control of the prison to special forces of the United Nations.”
At the end, he said he was in the jungles of Colombia, which prompted the government to send soldiers and helicopters there.
They had been at the farm for twenty days when 5,000 soldiers were dispatched to the area. With helicopters arriving, they ran into the forest and escaped into the jungle. Unable to ascertain their location, the army kept dropping bombs, but missing them. For twelve days, they slept on hammocks, occasionally awakened by the explosions going on around them.