Pablo Escobar: Beyond Narcos - Shaun Attwood (2016)
Chapter 5. Death to Kidnappers
In Colombia, kidnapping was a business strategy. A trafficker owed money might kidnap the child or wife of his debtor. Sometimes family members or business associates were deposited with creditors as collateral. If a deal fell through, depending upon the rationality of the creditor, more time might be allowed for the transaction to be concluded and the collateral released, or the collateral might be killed to set an example to other debtors.
Kidnappers targeted a future founder of the Medellín Cartel, Carlos Lehder. With millions to spend, Lehder decided to invest in his Colombian hometown, Armenia, population 180,000 – where he was remembered as a lively young person willing to share his lunch with fellow high-school students. At first, he donated – by way of a German with blonde hair, who didn’t speak any Spanish – a Piper Navajo plane to his community, but they didn’t know what to do with it. Adorned with fancy jewellery, clothes, cars and friends, he swaggered around the town, opening businesses and making pronouncements. He triggered a bubble in real estate that tripled prices. He gathered a following of young fans and lovers, several of whom ended up pregnant. Hailing him as Don Carlos, teenagers copied his haircut: tousled with a centre parting. When asked about the source of his wealth, he replied, “I worked in restaurants in New York. Then I sold cars. Later I sold airplanes in the United States.”
Lehder should have known better than to travel without his neo-Nazi friends. In November 1981, he got into a chauffeur-driven car and set off for a ranch twenty miles away, towards Cali. After eight miles, he spotted a car in the middle of the road with its hood up, the driver examining the engine. The chauffeur stopped, left his gun on the front seat and both men got out.
Two men with guns appeared, dragged the chauffeur away and deposited him at the side of the road. They tied Lehder’s hands behind his back and threw him into the car. They dropped the hood and sped off.
Due to his knowledge of karate, Lehder convinced himself that he could escape. He wriggled his bound hands free, opened the door and dived out. After rolling down a grassy slope, he ended up in a park. While he sprinted away, bullets whizzed by him. Hit in the back, he fell, but managed to spring up again and run so far that the kidnappers quit.
Citizens were outraged by the assault on the German-Colombian investor. A hunt proceeded for the kidnappers. For two weeks, Lehder was convalescing in a clinic, with his entourage all over the place, hanging onto every update on his health.
His hit men tracked the kidnappers down to the April 19 Movement or the M-19, a 2,500-member guerrilla army engaged in a war with the Colombian army in the Valley of Cauca. Just a year earlier, Lehder had boasted to Jung about his alliance with these fellow revolutionaries.
In the 1980s, the M-19 was a popular political movement, but Narcos portrayed them as a clownish urban cell willing to do anything for Pablo. Sometimes the M-19 worked with the traffickers, other times they kidnapped them, depending upon whatever was more profitable. After all, the traffickers were wealthy and they couldn’t run to the police. They were supposed to be easy targets.
On November 12, 1981, the M-19 snatched Martha Ochoa, the Ochoa brothers’ youngest sister, from the campus of the University of Antioquia in Medellín, and demanded millions of dollars from the Ochoas. In response, Jorge Ochoa – seconded by Pablo – hosted a meeting, where he proposed the formation of an army, Muerta a Secuestradores, MAS, translated as Death to Kidnappers. Recovering from his gunshot wound, Lehder also played a key role in the meeting.
Also present was another co-founder of the Medellín Cartel, Rodríguez Gacha a.k.a. the Mexican because of his love of mariachi music and all things Mexican. Due to his affection for wearing straw fedoras, his other name was Big Hat. Short stubby Gacha named his ranches after Mexican cities. He was born in a small town, Pacho, north of Bogotá, to a poor family of pig farmers. As a young man, he developed a lethal reputation as a hired killer. One of his early alliances was with a cocaine queen who had earned her status by murdering her competition. He rose up in the emerald business, which had an even more violent reputation than cocaine. Killing anyone who got in his way, Gacha pioneered trafficking routes through Mexico and into the US.
Gacha entered Narcos with a dramatic scene, whereby he gate-crashed a party and shot all of the guests, including one of his business partners. Although Gacha had sanctioned such a hit, he wasn’t present when it had happened in 1989, a decade after its portrayal in Narcos. The hit had occurred in the mansion of Gacha’s associate, Gilberto Molina, killing eighteen.
Two hundred and twenty-three businessmen based all over Colombia attended the meeting and approved Death to Kidnappers. They included traffickers, smugglers and pilots. Each donated two million pesos and ten hit men.
After the MAS meeting and the drafting of a communiqué, the participants attended a picnic at a ranch outside of Medellín, where they discovered that they had lots in common. Never before had they gathered like this to form public policy.
The relationships cemented that day gave birth to the Medellín Cartel, whose leaders were Pablo Escobar, the Ochoa brothers, Carlos Lehder and Gacha. The term Medellín Cartel came from American prosecutors looking to simplify their cases and obtain longer sentences. A Medellín lawyer, Gustavo Salazar, said that the cartels never existed. They were collections of traffickers who collaborated sometimes.
Copies of the MAS communiqué were loaded onto a plane, which flew towards a Cali soccer stadium on a Sunday afternoon, just prior to a match between Medellín and Cali. After the referee blew the starting whistle, leaflets descended from the sky onto the pitch. They described a general assembly, whose members would no longer tolerate kidnappings by guerrillas seeking to finance revolutions “through the sacrifices of people, who, like ourselves, have brought progress and employment to the country… The basic objective will be the public and immediate execution of all those involved in kidnappings, beginning from the date of this communiqué.”
It offered twenty million pesos for information leading to the capture of a kidnapper and guaranteed immediate retribution. The guilty parties “will be hung from the trees in public parks or shot and marked with the sign of our group – MAS.” Kidnappers in jail would be murdered. If that was impossible then “our retribution will fall on their comrades in jail and on their closest family members.”
Pablo told a journalist, “If there was not an immediate and strong response, the M-19 were going to continue screwing our own families… We paid law enforcement eighty million pesos for the information they had at that moment and the next day, they began to fall. My soldiers took them to our secret houses, our secret ranches, and people from law enforcement went there and hung them up and began to bust them up.”
With hit men roaming the countryside, many of the M-19 and anyone suspected of being involved in the kidnapping of Martha were murdered in the tradition of The Violence in which Pablo had grown up, including the Colombian Necktie and the Flower Vase Cut. Within six weeks, over one-hundred of the M-19 had been dealt with, putting the Colombian army to shame as they hadn’t apprehended that many since the M-19 had started in 1974.
On December 30, 1981, a terrified woman was discovered chained to a steel gate, with a sign around her neck declaring that she was the wife of the M-19 boss who’d kidnapped Martha Ochoa. Her kidnapped daughter had been returned to relatives because the MAS Constitution prohibited harming innocent children.
On February 6, 1982, the MAS issued a statement about their patience wearing thin. On February 17, Martha Ochoa was released unharmed.
The MAS treated informants the same as kidnappers. According to Brian Freemantle in The Fix, the informant who told the DEA about the first MAS meeting didn’t fare well. His hands were tied behind his back with barbed wire, and his tongue cut out before they killed him.
The success against the M-19 demonstrated what unity could achieve. The different groups started to see the benefits of not competing against each other. If they pooled their resources to ship cocaine to America, they’d all make more money. Independent operators put aside their differences and started cooperating in the manufacturing, distribution and marketing of cocaine, while continuing to run their own enterprises.
In future meetings, trafficking methods were streamlined. They offered government officials “plata o plomo” – silver or lead – meaning they could either accept a generous bribe or be killed. Their network had access to anyone in Colombia, so officials knew they couldn’t avoid the death penalty. With the M-19 under control and the relevant officials accepting bribes, the cocaine business flourished out of Medellín. If the cartel leaders called a meeting, traffickers from across Colombia showed up. The American market was divided up between the Medellín and Cali Cartels. Cali had New York. Medellín had Miami. Los Angeles was split between the two.
As sending death squads in to fight Communism was a beloved strategy of the CIA, the creation of the MAS allied the interests of the traffickers with US foreign policy. After all, the M-19 ideology included revolutionary socialism and populism. In Puerto Boyacá, the MAS model was adopted by local Liberal and Conservative party leaders, businessmen, ranchers and representatives from the Texas Petroleum Company, with the goal of cleansing the region of subversives and anyone who opposed the MAS. They killed a council member, a politician, an activist and a doctor for being members of the progressive wing of the Liberal Party.
The MAS are commonly portrayed as a horde of hit men working for the traffickers, but a government investigation concluded in 1983 that out of 163 individuals found to have links to the MAS, 59 were active duty police and military officers, including the commanders of the Bárbula and Bomboná Battalions. The Americans provided key MAS members with support and training such as a course in Combined Strategic Intelligence in Washington, DC. They also provided arms. On American soil, politicians were obtaining votes by purporting to take a hard line against cocaine, while the US government supplied weapons to the MAS, a death squad allied to Pablo. As usual, these weapons ended up killing mostly civilians. In 1989, the Colombian president stated that the majority of the victims of paramilitaries such as the MAS were not guerrillas, but men, women and children who hadn’t taken up arms against institutions.
In his hometown, Lehder bragged about his leadership role in the MAS and his contributions to the Liberal Party. He wanted to be a senator in order “to represent the kidnappables and extraditables of Colombia. I want to represent unions, and I want to represent the poorest of the poor.” He drove around with an armed convoy of twenty-five ex-policemen. In private, Pablo started to refer to Lehder as Big Mouth. He disliked Lehder’s cocaine habit and viewed Lehder’s openness about their activity as a liability.
Inspired by Pablo’s Hacienda Nápoles, Lehder set about constructing Posada Alemana, a giant convention centre nestled into green hills fifteen miles north of Armenia, with clubhouses, restaurants, discos, exotic-bird aviaries, beautiful gardens, gazebos and stucco bungalows with thatched roofs. By the entrance was a nude statue of John Lennon, holding a guitar, with a bullet hole in his chest and back, and a dedication: “To the Greatest Musician of the Century.”
With the goal of getting rid of Colombia’s extradition treaty with America, Lehder started the National Latin Movement Party, with green and white colours and its own brand of Hitler youth called Woodchoppers, consisting of young people toting clubs who policed his Saturday afternoon rallies. The podium included a twelve-foot poster of Lehder speaking. He claimed that Adolf Hitler – whom he referred to as Adolfo – had been misunderstood, and that international Zionism was the root of terrorism in Central America.
The Ochoas lived slightly lower key at La Loma, a hilltop property south of Medellín, where friendly pet ponies ate out of visitors’ hands, and also at Hacienda Veracruz, where they bred horses and had their own zoo. They regularly attended horse shows, and Jorge collected vintage Harley Davidsons.
With business forever expanding, new methods of outsmarting the authorities were required. Massive cocaine labs were built in the most inaccessible parts of the jungle. They grew into towns with their own housing, schools, dining facilities and satellite TV. Houses on wheels were used to disguise jungle runways. Cocaine was shipped in refrigerators and TVs with hollow insides. Electrical industrial transformers weighing more than 8,000 pounds were gutted and filled with up to 4,000 kilos. A 23,000 kilo shipment was mixed with dried fish. European and American chemists blended cocaine into items made out of plastic, metals or liquid, and other chemists separated the cocaine out at the destination. Cocaine was mixed with fruit pulp, flowers, cocoa and wine. Liquid cocaine ended up in all kinds of drinks. It was soaked into lumber and clothes such as jeans. Cocaine was turned black and mixed into black paint. It was chemically blended into PVC, religious statues and the fibreglass shells of boats. All of these methods were tested by drug-sniffing dogs.
Pablo bought planes to transport cocaine and cash, including DC-3s – fixed-wing propeller-driven airliners. He decided to invest in submarines. As buying a sub would have attracted attention, he commissioned his brother to build two, with the help of Russian and English engineers. The manufacturing was done in a quiet shipyard. The subs carried around 1,000 kilos. Unable to come close to the shore, they were met by divers who loaded the cocaine onto boats.
By 1982, Pablo was making $500,000 a day, rising to $1 million a day by the mid-80s. Millions were buried underground, but each year ten percent was lost due to rats eating it and water damage. He paid people to live in houses and apartments with up to $5 million stored in the walls, protected by Styrofoam. Using wooden cases wrapped in Styrofoam, millions were stashed below swimming pools in storage chests. Accountants in ten separate offices kept track of the money, some of which was invested in property worldwide, famous paintings and antique cars. Never forgetting the poor, he continued to build houses, schools, hospitals and to give away truckloads of food. He paid for college tuition and built soccer fields.
Refrigerators containing $7 million intended for Colombia were accidentally shipped to Panama. The money disappeared. Pablo calmly responded that sometimes he won, sometimes he lost. A plane with $15 million crashed in the jungle and exploded, turning the money into a bonfire. Workers who lost drugs or cash were given more drugs to make up for the loss. If they messed up again, they were killed.
In Medellín, plenty of killers were available to Pablo, whose reputation for extreme violence enabled his business to grow. According to Gustavo de Grieff, a former Colombian Attorney General, Pablo had sanctioned the use of a hot spoon to remove victims’ eyeballs while they were still alive. Another approved method was to drive a heated spike or nail into a victim’s skull, which was fatal when it reached the brain. One victim was tied to a tree with barbed wire, given a phone to explain his situation to his family, and tortured to death while they listened.