Pablo Escobar: Beyond Narcos - Shaun Attwood (2016)
Chapter 2. Trafficking Cocaine
In Peru, the Cockroach introduced Pablo and Gustavo to suppliers of cocaine paste who were offering it for $60 a kilo at a time when a kilo of cocaine was selling for up to $60,000 in America. The Narcos scene with the Cockroach surviving a military firing squad in Chile is false.
In Renault 4s, Pablo smuggled the paste from the Andean mountains, across three countries: Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. He had a separate Renault 4 for each country, with the relevant country’s license plate. Sometimes, he raced his cousin, Gustavo - who had penetrating dark eyes, a square face and a tidy moustache similar to Pablo’s - to see who could get back to Medellín first. The winner kept all of the proceeds. The paste was hidden in a compartment installed above the passenger’s-side wheel, which the checkpoint police never searched.
In a residential neighbourhood, the paste ended up in a house with covered windows, where it was transformed into cocaine. The cooks lived on the second floor. Most of the first floor had been converted into a kitchen. The cocaine was cooked in old refrigerators that Pablo had converted into ovens. Hoping for feedback on his first batch, he gave ten samples away. The majority said they preferred it to weed and requested more. Some said it gave them energy. Others said it calmed them down. Pablo didn’t like it. He preferred smoking pot.
With the coca plant growing widely in the jungles and mountains of Peru, cheap paste was readily available. Due to drug laws, the price of cocaine in America was sky high. The US authorities were focused on marijuana and heroin coming in from Mexico, not cocaine. Pablo calculated that he could make more from a single load of cocaine sold in America than he could from a convoy of trucks smuggling normal contraband.
Testing the export business, Pablo discovered that he’d underestimated the demand for cocaine. He could sell any amount to any country, especially to America, the largest consumer of cocaine in the world.
Pablo’s smugglers took drugs on flights and returned with large amounts of cash. Trucks replaced the Renault 4s. More workers were hired.
Vulture was one of Pablo’s drivers. As he racked up profits from his trips, Vulture started showing off by buying an expensive car, a motorbike and clothes. This did not go unnoticed by one of his relatives in the DAS, the Colombian equivalent to the FBI. Vulture told his relative that he was transporting potatoes.
The DAS stopped one of Pablo’s trucks and demanded the driver call his boss to pay a bribe. After Pablo and Gustavo showed up, they were arrested. The next day, Pablo’s mugshot was on the front page of the newspaper. His mother sobbed for hours.
After spending eight days in jail, Pablo paid to be transferred to a facility with outdoor recreation, including soccer. He bribed the judge but after two months, it was decided that he would be tried in a military court which was more difficult to corrupt. His lawyer warned that he could get a long sentence. One night, Pablo told a guard that he needed to stretch his legs to reduce his stress. After being allowed onto the soccer field, he escaped.
The prison director called Pablo’s mother, begging her to get her son to return, otherwise he’d end up in jail. When Pablo called her, she insisted that he return. Pablo and his mother showed up at the prison, with some x-rays of a sick person. Claiming he’d been ill, Pablo showed them to his military escorts, who were satisfied about his absence. In the end, Pablo bribed the judge. Pablo and Gustavo walked free. Sentenced to five years, the driver ended up in a prison with good facilities. Pablo gave the driver’s family a house, a car and money.
Upon his release, Pablo resumed his cocaine enterprise, but now the police knew about it. He and Gustavo were pulled over by the two DAS agents who’d previously arrested them. They took him and his cousin to a remote area by a garbage dump, tied their hands together and forced them onto their knees. After roughing them up, the agents demanded a million pesos in exchange for their lives. While Gustavo went to get the money, Pablo offered more cash for the name of the person who’d arranged for them to kidnap him. He was surprised to learn it had been the Cockroach.
Once freed, Pablo plotted revenge that he would carry out himself. Being forced onto his knees at gunpoint was unforgivable. Emboldened by their success, the two DAS agents were about to kidnap one of Pablo’s workers. They considered Pablo just another easy drug-trafficker target. Pablo’s men kidnapped the agents and took them to a house. Pablo made them get onto their knees. As they begged for their lives, Pablo put a gun to their heads and shot them multiple times. The news reported the discovery of their bodies.
In 1974, Pablo fell in love with Maria Victoria Henao Vellejo, a local beauty. Because of her age, fourteen, and Pablo being twenty-five, Maria’s mother was unenthused. He persisted, including showing up outside her home one night accompanied by a guitar player and serenading her. By 1976, she was pregnant, so they married. Three months after the marriage, Juan Pablo was born. It took two years for Maria’s mother to warm to Pablo, but she did, accepting that he loved her daughter.
Fabio Restrepo was an early cocaine boss in Medellín. By 1975, Restrepo was exporting up to one hundred kilos of cocaine a week to America, where it sold for roughly $40,000 a kilo in Miami. Pablo asked a childhood friend and future business partner, Jorge Ochoa, to set him up with Restrepo. Jorge met Pablo at a small untidy apartment in Medellín, where he bought fourteen kilos of cocaine from Pablo. Two months later, Pablo had Restrepo murdered and informed the Ochoa brothers that he’d taken over Restrepo’s business.
Whether Pablo really had Restrepo killed is in dispute. According to Kings of Cocaine, Jorge Ochoa was behind the slaying. In the mid-70s, Jorge was selling cocaine in Miami for the old-time smuggler Restrepo. In 1977, Restrepo made the mistake of telling a DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) informant that he was smuggling up to a hundred kilos a week into America. On October 12, he gave the informant twenty-seven kilos to transport to Jorge in Miami.
A sting operation to capture Jorge was set up at the Dadeland Twin Theaters, a cinema opposite a liquor store. As the deal went down in the parking lot, armed agents surrounded the vehicles and arrested nine Colombians, including Jorge’s sister and brother-in-law. Racing away on a motorbike, Jorge slipped through the sting and fled the country.
After Jorge returned to Medellín, Restrepo was murdered. On July 31, 1978, DEA correspondence reported:
Jorge Ochoa is currently residing in Medellín, although he keeps a home in Barranquilla, and it has been learned that Ochoa has inherited the trafficking organization of the departed Restrepo. It is speculated that Ochoa ordered the murder of Restrepo to install himself as the undisputed head of the organization. Several sources of information have related that Ochoa has become one of the most powerful traffickers in Medellín and the northern coast of Colombia, and is continuing to introduce between one hundred and two hundred kilos of cocaine into the US by several unknown methods.
The Ochoa brothers - Jorge, Juan David and Fabio - had grown up with money from cattle breeding and restaurants. Jorge and Juan David were stocky, but nothing compared to their rotund father, Fabio Sr, an esteemed trainer and breeder of Colombian horses. At home, Fabio Sr occupied a throne-like chair customised for his extraordinary girth. He was the patriarch over a big family of adventurous men and strong women. Although he never got caught with his hands in the trafficking operation, some authors have claimed that Fabio Sr was the true godfather of the Medellín Cartel. Pablo respected him and valued his advice and folk wisdom. In the 2006 documentary film, Cocaine Cowboys, the former Medellín Cartel associate Jon Roberts mentioned Fabio Sr: “As many people want to believe that Pablo Escobar was the king of cocaine, they can believe that, but the man that was really the king was Ochoa.”
In the mid-1960s, the Ochoa family toiled around the clock at their restaurant, Las Margaritas. Jorge Ochoa later joked that he’d invested in cocaine to prevent the rest of his family from working themselves to death in the restaurant. After Restrepo’s murder, Jorge (a.k.a. the Fat Man) assumed leadership of the family’s cocaine business.
Jorge was quiet, strong on family values, and didn’t participate in drugs other than the occasional glass of wine. As exemplified during the sting at the Dadeland Twin Theaters, he had a knack of avoiding the law that would serve him well for the rest of his life.
While Jorge was forming El Clan Ochoa, with an established distribution network in America, Pablo was building his own gang, Los Pablos, with a fearsome reputation on the streets of Medellín. His organisation absorbed people who’d previously been rivals. When a war broke out between two cocaine traffickers in Medellín, resulting in workers and their family members getting killed, Pablo brokered a deal whereby they entered a partnership under him.
Initially, shipping cocaine to America was easy for Pablo and far more profitable than smuggling bulky marijuana. Up to forty kilos could be packed into used airplane tires, which pilots would discard at Miami. They were taken to a dump, followed by one of Pablo’s workers who would retrieve them. The cocaine was distributed through a network of Latinos in Miami.
Pablo no longer smuggled drugs himself. He paid others to do it. On the phone, he used code words such as emeralds and diamonds to frustrate the efforts of drug agencies and to avoid providing any verbal evidence that could be used against him.
To stay ahead of the DEA, he continuously changed his smuggling methods. He stopped using airplane tires and had Colombian and US citizens board planes with cocaine in their suitcases or in specially made clothes. Holding up to five kilos, the suitcases had double walls. They were paid $1,000 and their flight tickets. Some wore shoes with hollowed-out bottoms. The shoes had been manufactured with the cocaine sewn inside. As well as passengers, Pablo recruited crew members, including stewardesses, pilots and co-pilots, who breezed through airports without getting searched. People in wheelchairs could smuggle up to $1 million worth of cocaine in the frames. Some smugglers dressed as nuns. Others posed as blind people with canes packed with cocaine. Some swallowed cocaine in condoms. If the condom opened, they died. Newspapers reported such tragedies.
With the authorities obsessed with eradicating the drug that had been demonised for decades in America - marijuana - cocaine slipped into the US unnoticed. The federal government had classified marijuana as a Schedule 1 substance, more harmful than cocaine, and equally as harmful as heroin, where it remains to this day.
Over time, instead of sending people with suitcases, Pablo just sent the suitcases. They were checked onto a flight and picked up at the other end. Airport officials were bribed with hundreds of thousands of dollars to look the other way. An official on a meagre salary ended up getting arrested with $27 million in his bank accounts.
To keep expanding, Pablo paid bigger bribes. To enable the police on his payroll to get promotions and pay increases, Pablo allowed them to confiscate massive amounts of cocaine. The media recorded the busts and reported them on the news. The government was delighted as such seizures enabled them to get more money from America to fight the War on Drugs. The confiscated cocaine was reported as destroyed, returned to Pablo and exported to the US. Corrupt governments all over the world still run this scam on US taxpayers.
Due to the smells released from making cocaine, Pablo moved his kitchens from residential areas to the jungle.
He moved into El Poblado, one of Medellín’s wealthiest neighbourhoods with lots of white stucco houses, heavy on marble, glass and armed guards. The locals ate at fancy restaurants with views of the city lights and shopped at expensive boutiques. His brother urged him to stop and focus on real-estate investments, but Pablo was addicted to the power, money and lifestyle.
By offering high rates of return, Pablo attracted investors. An investment of $50,000 would be repaid with $75,000 in two weeks. If the drugs were busted, investors received half of their money back. To obtain investment capital, people sold their cars and houses or cashed in their savings.
Pablo set up a form of insurance whereby businessmen could invest a few thousand dollars for a share in a shipment of cocaine. After it was sold in America, the profits would be distributed. Pablo guaranteed their original investment even if the shipment was seized. For providing this insurance premium, he took ten percent of the American value of the cocaine. He even offered businessmen loans to invest.
Pablo was making millions, but things were still relatively small. For him to become a billionaire, it would take the ideas of a man who worshipped both John Lennon and Adolf Hitler: Carlos Lehder, the character in Narcos with a swastika on his arm.