Pablo Escobar: Beyond Narcos - Shaun Attwood (2016)

Chapter 16. On the Run

Pablo’s escape had embarrassed the president, who was appearing on TV daily, trying to explain the situation. He told the American ambassador that he didn’t have a problem with US troops on Colombian soil. He wanted all of the help he could get to quickly fix the Pablo situation.

Grateful to have miraculously survived the raid, Mendoza flew back to Bogotá, where the president told him, “We must hide nothing in this. Don’t take time to prepare a response. Just get out there and tell people exactly what happened.”

Mendoza brought the Americans up to speed. They were delighted that they could resume the hunt for Pablo. It was an opportunity for George HW Bush to distract the public from domestic issues and to boost his popularity. Catching the person he’d labelled the biggest cocaine trafficker in the world would surely increase his chances of re-election. The DEA in Bogotá sent a cable to Washington:

The BCO [the local US embassy] feels that Escobar may finally have overstepped his self-perceived illegitimate boundaries and has placed himself in a very precarious position. Escobar’s gall and bravado may lead to his ultimate downfall. But then again, the GOC [government of Colombia] has always bowed to Escobar’s demands in the past. This current situation again provides the GOC with an opportunity to demonstrate its dedication to bring all narco-traffickers to justice, including the most notorious and dangerous cocaine trafficker in history, Pablo Escobar.

Amid hyped-up threats that Pablo might assassinate him and set bombs off in America, George HW Bush dispatched Delta Force, Centra Spike, the DEA, the FBI, the ATF, the CIA, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the army, navy and the air force after Pablo. Out of all of the agencies, Centra Spike quickly obtained results by flying planes over Medellín with technology that picked up Pablo’s calls.

Pablo responded to America’s involvement with a fax:

We, the Extraditables declare: that if anything happens to Mr Pablo Escobar, we will hold President Gaviria responsible and will again mount attacks on the entire country. We will target the United States Embassy in the country, where we will plant the largest quantity of dynamite ever. We hereby declare: the blame for this whole mess lies with President Gaviria. If Pablo Escobar or any of the others turn up dead, we will immediately mount attacks throughout the entire country. Thank you very much.

George HW Bush approved a $2 million reward for information leading to Pablo. The US Embassy in Colombia offered $200,000 and relocation to America for any useful information. Advertised on TV, the reward program included pictures of Pablo and his henchmen.

The Centra Spike eavesdropping enabled the authorities to determine that Pablo was using at least eight cell-phones. He viewed himself as a victim of a violation of his agreement with the government and wanted to return to the Cathedral.

Centra Spike overheard Pablo tell a lawyer that he feared the raid on the Cathedral was a US-sponsored assassination attempt: “The situation arose because they went in there shooting and all, and we were defending our lives, but our intention was to comply with the government until the end… It is possible that one or two persons were smuggled into the jail. I won’t deny it… that happens in jails all over the country and the world, and, in reality, I am not to blame. The person to blame is the person who lets them in… So that if people entered shooting and all, and we had information that Americans were participating in the operation, we have to put our lives first. We have families!” He said that incarceration outside the Cathedral was unsafe.

“Yes,” a lawyer said. “That was the first issue that I explained to the president.”

Pablo criticised Mendoza’s attempt to construct a new prison at the Cathedral. “There was a delineation of the jail. It had been arranged. We made the design. We reworked the map, so the only thing that we didn’t bargain for was a jail different from that one. And we need a public guarantee from the president that he will not take us out of the country… The problem is, I have some information… that there were some gringos [Americans] looking for Bush’s re-election, so we need their [the Colombian government’s] guarantee in this respect… Do me a favour. Tell Señor President that I know he’s misinformed. Now, they say that I am perpetrating crimes from jail.” Even if he were found guilty of committing a crime while in jail, Pablo said that they could have extended his stay up to a maximum of a life sentence, but they had no legal right to move him from the Cathedral.

“Perfect,” the lawyer said. “We’ll see that all this works out.”

“Anyway, accept my apologies,” Pablo said. “There’ll be no more acts of violence of any nature, although some resentful people have been making some phone calls. People want to create chaos. But anyway, we are well disposed and we want to get this thing resolved… Tell the president that we were very uneasy because the gringos were going to be a part of the operation.”

Another lawyer told Pablo, “We saw the tapes of the grey uniforms [CIA] and all that.”

“Of the gringos?” Pablo said. “And how many were there?”

“Well, we could see some uniforms on TV. This afternoon we asked for tapes from the evening news programme.”

Pablo wanted to parlay CIA and American involvement into trouble for the Colombian president.

“There are two things that are very important,” Pablo said to another lawyer. “When you have a chance of making a statement, say that what caused the biggest concern to us was the presence of the gringos. The fact that the army would be going along with the gringos. What explanation can be given for that?”

“Yes. The press is already after that. We’re on top of that.”

“OK. And another thing. The president has to say it officially and make an official commitment. Everything is a contract. Now it’s going to be a contract signed by the minister who makes the commitment that if tomorrow or the day after tomorrow I kill the warden and get thirty more years, they don’t transfer me from here. This is a commitment.”

The Colombian police converted the Cathedral into their headquarters, with the commander based in Pablo’s room. Delta Force members used Pablo’s observation tower at the prison. They were fed map coordinates from Centra Spike when Pablo got on a phone. They started to home in on a neighbourhood called the Three Corners. The next time Pablo made a call, his location was located and photographed. Upon receiving the information from Delta Force, the Colombian commander dismissed it. The Americans contacted the president and suggested he send a small covert unit. Instead, he ordered a full assault by Search Bloc special forces.

From the Cathedral, Delta Force watched the headlights of the special-forces convoy ascending a hill towards the Three Corners, while another set of headlights descended on the other side, which they assumed was Pablo and his men escaping. Troops spent four hours searching the empty ranch.

No matter what information the Americans provided to the Colombians, the response was always inept, which allowed Pablo to escape time after time. With General Maza out of the loop, the Americans needed someone just as gung-ho whom to liaise with. That person was Colonel Martinez, the head of the Search Bloc, whose troops had killed Pablo’s beloved cousin, Gustavo.

Prior to the Cathedral, Martinez had been hunting Pablo for two years. Having been unsuccessful, Martinez hadn’t received the promotion he’d hoped for. Just like with Maza, Pablo had made many attempts on his life. In 1991, he was on a flight to Spain with his family when a bomb was found on-board. The plane had to make an emergency landing otherwise the bomb would have exploded at a certain altitude. In 1992, a car bomb had been found by the Colombian embassy on the route Martinez took to work. Afterwards, the embassy asked Martinez to avoid their building.

With Pablo free, Martinez jumped at the chance to finish the job. The Americans provided him information they had received through their reward program. An informant had located Tyson, one of Pablo’s hit men who resembled the boxer Mike Tyson.

To trigger the raid, “The party has begun” was whispered over a radio to Search Bloc troops. An explosive charge blew a steel door off its hinges and blasted it through a wall. The door flew into the air and dropped nine stories. Twenty-six troops charged inside. Due to the iron bars on the windows, Tyson couldn’t escape. He was executed with a bullet between the eyes. His death was recorded as due to a gun battle with the National Police.

Pablo responded the same day. His hit men shot four police. Over the next two days, five more died. Pablo paid $2,000 per killing. Over six months, sixty-five police were killed in Medellín, including many of the men working for Martinez. Even though their identities were supposed to have been a state secret, many of them were executed at home or travelling to work.

Pablo infiltrated the Search Bloc headquarters. Centra Spike sent Pablo’s location to Martinez and promptly overheard a call from the headquarters to one of Pablo’s men: “They’re on their way. They’re coming for you.” A recording of the call was sent to Martinez, but he couldn’t recognise the voice. He fired some of his men, but the warnings to Pablo continued. The implications were so grave that Martinez tended his resignation on the grounds that he could make no progress in such a hopeless situation that was out of his control. His resignation was refused.

After Martinez returned to his headquarters, suspicion fell on a policeman who guarded the perimeter of the base. They fed him some false information, which was forwarded to Pablo. The policeman confessed to accepting money to kill Martinez. He’d been practising with a gun with a silencer.

Martinez and Pablo probed each other like chess players. Trying to shut down Pablo’s ability to communicate and run his organisation, Martinez oversaw a blackout of cell-phone use in Medellín. Pablo switched to radio and couriers. Knowing that Martinez was listening to his calls, Pablo displayed a remarkable ability to use code words and numbers with his underlings. Nothing fazed Pablo. Every time Martinez tried something new, Pablo shifted his strategy with the indifference of a grandmaster.

With so many agencies after him, including foreign mercenaries wanting the reward offered by the Americans, Pablo was slowly getting backed into a corner. A Colombian judge had ruled against his claim that his escape from prison had been legitimately taken out of fear for his life. The president was resolutely against Pablo returning to the Cathedral. Even though the forces against him were increasing, Pablo felt confident enough to give a radio interview in mid-1992.

“Do you regret having surrendered a year ago?”

Pablo responded that he did, but it had been necessary to stay alive. “Does one seek escape alternatives when you have arrived at a jail to which you have voluntarily surrendered?”

“Were you the man in charge in the prison?”

“I wasn’t in charge… I wasn’t just any prisoner. I was the product of a peace plan, whose cost wasn’t high for the government… They simply gave me a dignified prison and special conditions previously agreed to by the government with the lawyers and me.”

On the subject of his extravagant living quarters in the Cathedral, Pablo said, “Even if it is the most beautiful mansion in the world, if you’re limited in your movements and watched by tower guards with weapons and soldiers, then that is a prison. But I’m not going to evade responsibility in the sense that I permitted some curtains and some special furniture, and I’m willing to pay for that error in accepting the most humble cell in any jail in Antioquia as long as my rights are respected and I’m guaranteed that I’ll not be moved for any reason.”

“Is your head worth more than the one billion pesos offered by the government and more than the two and a half billion pesos offered by the government of the United States?”

“It seems my problem has become political, and could be important for the re-election of the president of the United States.”

“At this moment, you’ve become once again the most sought-after man in the world. The Colombian authorities, other secret services, DEA agents, the Cali Cartel, former accomplices of your activities, deserters from your organisation, indirect or direct victims of terrorist acts. Whom do you fear the most? How do you defend yourself from them?”

“I don’t fear my enemies because they are more powerful. It has been my lot to face difficult circumstances, but I always do it with dignity.”

“For you, what is life?”

“It’s a space of time full of agreeable and disagreeable surprises.”

“Have you ever felt afraid of dying?”

“I never think about death.”

“When you escaped, did you think about death?”

“When I escaped, I thought about my wife, my children, my family and all the people who depend upon me.”

“Do you believe in God and the hereafter? In heaven and hell?”

“I don’t like to speak publicly about God. God, to me, is absolutely personal and private. I think all the saints help me, but my mother prays a lot for me to the child Jesus of Atocha, that is why I built him a chapel in Barrio Pablo Escobar. The largest painting in the prison was of the child Jesus of Atocha.”

“Why have you been willing to risk having yourself killed?”

“For my family and for the truth.”

“Do you accept that you have ever committed a crime or had someone killed?”

“That answer I can only give in confession to a priest.”

“How do you think everything will end for you?”

“You can never foretell that, although I wish the best.”

“If it depended on you, how would you like to end your life?”

“I would like to die standing in the year 2047.”

“Under what circumstances would you commit suicide?”

“I have never thought about those types of solutions.”

“Of all the things that you have done, which ones are you most proud of and of which are you ashamed?”

“I am proud of my family and my people. I’m not ashamed of anything.”

“Whom do you hate and why?”

“In my conflicts, I try not to end up hating anybody.”

“What advice have you given your children? What would you do if either of them dedicated themselves to illegal or criminal activities?”

“I know that my children love me and understand my fight. I always want the best for them.”

“What do your wife and children mean to you?”

“They are my best treasure.”

“Do you accept that you are Mafioso? Does it bother you that someone says that about you?”

“The communications media has called me that thousands of times. If it bothered me, I would be in an insane asylum.”

“What is it that most angers you and gets you out of control?”

“You can get angry, but you cannot lose your control. I get angry at hypocrisy and lies.”

“Do you accept that they say you are a drug dealer or a criminal or don’t you really care?”

“My conscience is clear, but I would respond as a Mexican comedian once said, ‘It’s completely inconclusive.’”

“People say that you always get what you want.”

“I have not said that I have always gotten what I wanted. If I had always gotten what I wanted, everything would be rosy and I would calmly be drinking some coffee in the Rionegro Plaza or the park at Envigado. I fight tirelessly, but I have suffered too much.”

“What is the key to your immense power?”

“I don’t have any special powers. The only thing that gives me strength to keep on fighting is the energy of the people who love and support me.”

“Corruption. To what extent has it taken hold in the government?”

“Corruption exists in all the countries of the world. The important thing would be to know the causes of corruption in order to avoid it and stop it.”

“Of what do you repent?”

“All human beings make mistakes, but I don’t repent of anything because I take everything as an experience and channel it into something positive.”

“If you were born again, what would you do? What would you repeat and what would you dedicate yourself to?”

“I would not do those things that I thought would turn out right, but which came out wrong. I would repeat everything that has been good and nice.”

“What did your wife and children say when you were in prison and what did they think of your activities?”

“They have loved and supported me always. And they accept my cause because they know it and understand it.”

“Do you consider yourself an ordinary man or someone of exceptional intelligence?”

“I am a simple citizen, born in the village of El Tablazo of the municipality of Rionegro.”

“Have you personally ever taken drugs?”

“I am an absolutely healthy man. I don’t smoke and I don’t consume liquor. Although, with respect to marijuana, I’d have the same reply that the president of Spain gave when he was asked about it.”

“Do you consider it a mistake on your part to have entered politics?”

“No, I do not accept it as a mistake. I am sure that if I had participated in other elections, I would have defeated everyone in Antioquia by an overwhelming majority.”

“Why so much money? What do you do with it? Is your fortune as large as the international magazines say?”

“My money obeys a social function. That is clear and everyone knows about it.”

“If you had to make a profile of yourself, what would you say about you, Pablo Escobar?”

“It’s very difficult to portray oneself. I prefer that others analyse me and that others judge me.”

“Why did you enter drug trafficking?”

“In Colombia, people enter this type of activity as a form of protest. Others enter it because of ambition.”

“Do you feel bigger than Al Capone?”

“I’m not that tall, but I think Al Capone was a few centimetres shorter than I am.”

“Do you consider yourself to be the most powerful man in Colombia? The richest? One of the most powerful?”

“Neither one nor the other.”

“Did you feel complimented when the magazine Semana presented you as Robin Hood?”

“It was interesting and it gave me peace of mind.”

“By temperament, are you violent and proud?”

“Those who know me know that I have a good sense of humour and I always have a smile on my face, even in very difficult moments. And I’ll say something else: I always sing in the shower.”

During Christmas 1992, Pablo wrote to two senators, offering to surrender if he could be housed at a police academy in Medellín, under the supervision of the military. He wanted the Search Bloc to be disbanded and claimed that Martinez was torturing people to get information. He said he was going to respond to the war in kind with kidnappings and bombings: “What would the government do if a 10,000 kg bomb were placed at the Colombian prosecutor general’s office?”