Pablo Escobar: Beyond Narcos - Shaun Attwood (2016)

Chapter 17. People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar

Unable to catch Pablo, the Americans stepped things up with a two-pronged strategy. As Pablo had targeted the family members of his enemies, the CIA proposed doing the same to him:

Escobar does seem to have genuine paternal feelings for his children, and the young daughter Manuela is described as his favorite. His parents were once kidnapped by a rival group and Escobar apparently spared no effort or expense rescuing them. Whether his concern for his parents or his children would overcome his stringent security consciousness is not clear.

The other prong was to employ a method that the CIA had used for decades in South America: arming and training death squads. It was a policy described succinctly by Bill Hicks, the comedian and social critic: “… the reason I didn’t vote for Bush is because George [HW] Bush – along with Ronald Reagan – presided over an administration whose policies toward South America included genocide. So yeah, ya see? The reason I didn’t vote for him? ’Cause he’s a mass murderer. I’ll pay the extra nickel on petrol, just knowing brown kids aren’t being clubbed to death like baby seals in Honduras, so Pepsi can put a plant down there.”

On January 30, 1993, Pablo orchestrated a car bombing in Bogotá by a bookstore. It destroyed part of the building and sent human limbs flying. Twenty-one died and seventy were injured.

The next day, a ranch belonging to Pablo’s mother was torched. His family’s dwellings were bombed, injuring his mother and aunt. Days later, one of his ranches was burned. A DEA cable described a vigilante group – ideal raw material for the death squad the CIA had in mind:

The CNP [Colombian National Police] believe these bombings were committed by a new group of individuals known as “Los Pepes” (Perseguidos por Pablo Escobar) [People persecuted by Pablo Escobar]. This group… has vowed to retaliate against Escobar, his family, and his associates, each and every time Escobar commits a terrorist act, which injures innocent people… Obviously the CNP and the GOC [Government of Colombia] cannot condone the actions of “Los Pepes,” even though they may secretly applaud these retaliatory acts.

The government’s response to Pablo’s bookstore bomb was to make him “public enemy number one” and to offer over $6 million for information leading to his capture. The Search Bloc and Los Pepes – many members of the latter were from the former – started to execute any of Pablo’s underlings they could get their hands on. Murders were reported as “Killed in a gun battle with the Colombian police.”

Los Pepes included former members of the Medellín Cartel and, in particular, the Moncada and Galeano families, with whom Pablo had remained at war. The Cali Cartel joined forces with Los Pepes by providing money and intelligence.

The CIA didn’t want to get caught training and arming a death squad that was getting financed by the Cali Cartel, which wanted to expand its cocaine business at Pablo’s expense. To circumvent the law, the CIA trained the Los Pepes members who were police and special forces. With $2,000 bounties on their heads, many of the police had become frustrated by the limits of the law that prevented them from responding to Pablo with the same deadly force he’d used on them. In their official capacity, these police were trained by the CIA in torture and assassination techniques.

Rodolpho Ospina was a descendant of Colombian presidents. After getting involved in trafficking, Pablo had attempted to kill him twice. After turning informant, he gave the Americans some advice, which the DEA relayed in a cable:

[Ospina] states that Pablo Escobar’s apprehension should be planned by accomplishing five goals. First… key Escobar organization members… should be arrested or killed, if there are no charges pending against them in Colombia. [Second], [Ospina] then named attorneys who handle Escobar’s criminal problems and whose deaths would create havoc for Escobar. Third, the informant named properties and important assets belonging to Escobar which should be destroyed…

Ospina stated that the five lead attorneys who handled Pablo’s criminal and financial activities were worse than Pablo and should be killed. “These attorneys negotiate with the Colombian government on [his] behalf and are fully aware of the scope of [his] activities since [he] consults them before he carries out any action.” Step five was the destruction of Pablo’s property and possessions to make Pablo angry.

[Ospina] claimed that in order to bring Escobar out of hiding, he needs to be provoked or angered and made desperate so that he wants to strike back. The informant claimed that Escobar may then make mistakes.

Ospina suggested using the media as a weapon. “He [Pablo] controls the media through fear and payments and has confused the Colombian public by having himself portrayed as a wronged Colombian citizen, not really as dangerous as he appears to be in the foreign press.” To obtain invaluable information about Pablo, he recommended cutting deals with incarcerated traffickers.

The Americans employed Ospina’s strategy on Carlos Lehder, who was claiming that Pablo had played a role in his capture and extradition. Lehder detailed Pablo’s habits:

Escobar is strictly a ghetto person, not a farm or jungle person. He fears more the communist and nationalist guerrillas than the army, so he remains in the Magdalena Medio Valley, a non-guerrilla region. Since the guerrillas remain in the high mountains one could disregard the mountains as Escobar’s hiding place… Escobar always tries to keep within distance range for his cellular phone to reach Medellín’s phone base. That’s approximately 100 miles, so he can call any time.

Generally, P. Escobar occupies the main house with some of his hit men, radio operator (Big High Frequency radio receiver), cooks, whores and messengers. For transportation they have jeeps, motorcycles and sometimes a boat. I have never seen him riding a horse. Escobar gets up at 1 or 2 pm and goes to sleep at 1 or 2 am.

Fugitive Escobar uses from 15 to 30 security guards, with arms and WT (walkie-talkies). Two shifts of 12 hours each. Two at the main road entrance, some along the road, the rest around the perimeter of the main house (one mile) and one at his door… The main house always has two or three gateway paths which run to the forest and thus toward a second hideout near a river where a boat is located, or a tent with supplies and radios. Escobar is an obese man, certainly not a muscle man or athlete. He could not run 15 minutes without respiratory trouble. Unfortunately, the military-police has never used hunting dogs against him.

The only realistic de facto solution, as I analysed it, is a new military government or, at the very minimum, a freedom fighters brigade, controlled by the DEA, and independent of the Colombian politicians, police or army… There are a great number of Colombian people from all walks of life that are genuinely willing to assist, support, finance and even participate in the effective forming of a civilian militia… The rich, the poor, the peasant, the political left, center and right are willing to cooperate. Every day Escobar remains at large, he becomes more powerful and dangerous.

Thanks to all of the insider knowledge and terror methods taught by Delta Force, Los Pepes went on the rampage; kidnapping, bombing, torturing and murdering anyone associated with Pablo, regardless of whether they had committed a crime. Prime targets were family members, his workforce and especially his lawyers and accountants. Many of his employees defected to the Cali Cartel, which was flourishing and tightening its grip on the Colombian government through bribery. The Americans claimed to be in Colombia waging a War on Drugs, yet they were sharing intelligence with Los Pepes and the Cali Cartel, who were increasing the cocaine supply to America.

In a note, Pablo blamed Colonel Martinez:

Personnel under your supervision set car bombs at buildings in El Poblado, where some of my relatives live. I want to tell you that your terrorist actions will not stop my struggle under any circumstances. Your threats and your car bombs against my family have been added to the hundreds of young people that you have murdered in the city of Medellín in your headquarters of torture in the school Carlos Holguin. I hope that the Antioquian community becomes aware of what you do with the dynamite you seize, and of the criminal actions undertaken by men who cover their faces with ski masks. Knowing that you are part of the government, I wish to warn you that if another incident of this nature occurs, I will retaliate against relatives of government officials who tolerate and do not punish your crimes. Don’t forget that you, too, have a family.

The warning from Pablo didn’t deter Los Pepes, who were just getting started on annihilating his personnel. Using Medellín Cartel organisational charts provided by the CIA and Centra Spike, Los Pepes knew exactly who to target to maximise the damage. They offered rewards for information and caused a stir in the media by announcing what they were going to do to Pablo’s associates.

In February 1993, a manager low down in the cartel hierarchy was found dead with a sign attached to his neck: “For working for the narco-terrorist and baby-killer Pablo Escobar. For Colombia. Los Pepes.” They started to kill up to six of Pablo’s employees and associates a day, including a director of the National Police of Colombia who was on Pablo’s payroll. They shot the man in charge of financing operations multiple times in the head. Pablo’s warehouse stocked with antique cars worth $4 million was torched. On February 28, 1993, the Search Bloc killed a brother-in-law of Pablo.

Rattled by Los Pepes, Pablo desperately wanted to get his family out of the country. Knowing that his family was his weakness, the US authorities intervened to prevent them from leaving.

Los Pepes killed the brother of a man who dealt real estate for Pablo. They bombed properties belonging to Pablo’s bankers and lawyers. On March 4, 1993, the corpse of one of Pablo’s lead lawyers was discovered with a note from Los Pepes threatening the rest of his lawyers, two of whom were swiftly killed. They killed Roberto Escobar’s lawyer as he exited the prison he’d been visiting. They tortured and killed one of Pablo’s lawyers and his eighteen-year-old son. Kidnapped by fifteen men with machine guns, the father and son were found in the trunk of a car, shot in the head, their hands taped together, with a note from Los Pepes: “Through their profession, they initiated abductions for Pablo Escobar. What do you think of the exchange for the bombs in Bogotá, Pablo?”

The rest of Pablo’s lawyers resigned. One thought he could outsmart Los Pepes by continuing to work undercover. In Medellín, he was strolling with his brother when Los Pepes shot him twenty-five times. One lawyer fled the country.

Pablo responded with bombs, but he was losing his ability to retaliate as the violence spiralled out of control and eroded his organisation. No one dared to stand up to Los Pepes, including the authorities who made up so many of their membership.

On April 29, 1993, Pablo wrote a letter to the attorney general:

Los Pepes have their headquarters and their torture chambers in Fidel Castaño’s house, located on El Poblado Avenue near the country club… There they torture trade unionists and lawyers. No one has searched the house or confiscated their assets… The government offers rewards for the leaders of the Medellín Cartel and for the leaders of the guerrillas, but doesn’t offer rewards for the leaders of the paramilitary, nor for those of the Calí Cartel, authors of various car bombs in the city of Medellín.

The state security organisations have zero victories in the matter of the assassinations of the lawyers, zero victories in the El Poblado car bombs, zero victories in the investigation into the deaths of the trade unionists and zero victories in the investigations into the massacres in which thousands of young Antioquians have died. I remain disposed to turn myself in if given written and public guarantees…

Pablo had referred to Fidel Castaño’s house because the Castaño brothers, including Carlos and Vicente, were key players in Los Pepes. After their father had been kidnapped by guerrillas, the brothers had formed their own army, which had thousands of troops with a reputation for extreme violence. Carlos believed that Pablo wanted him dead because his army was taking over cocaine labs in the jungle. DEA cables documented Fidel Castaño’s role in the hunt for Pablo:

As a result of a disagreement with Escobar, Castaño contacted the… [Search Bloc] and offered his help in attempting to locate Escobar. Castaño advised… that his disagreement with Escobar stemmed from his (Castaño) telling Escobar that he (Castaño) was not in agreement with his (Escobar) terrorist campaign, i.e., bombs, police killings. Castaño was also concerned that Escobar could have him (Castaño) killed at any time as had been the case with the Galeano/Moncada brothers.

Fidel Castaño had made telephonic contact with the incarcerated Ochoa clan (Jorge, Fabio and Juan David). Castaño asked the Ochoas to leave Escobar and join sides with him. Castaño explained that Escobar would have them killed just like the Moncadas and Galeanos. The Ochoas stated that they had recently given Escobar $500,000, however, they were thinking of abandoning him…. Castaño told the… [Search Bloc] that the Ochoas would never abandon Escobar for reasons of fear and that they “always lied in order to stay in neutral with everybody.”

Due to the uproar, the Colombian government pretended to clamp down on Los Pepes. In response, Los Pepes announced that they had disbanded, but the killings didn’t stop. On July 14, 1993, Los Pepes castrated Roberto Escobar’s prize stallion and executed its rider and trainer.