Pablo Escobar: Beyond Narcos - Shaun Attwood (2016)
Chapter 6. Lara Bonilla
Hoping to achieve his childhood dream of becoming the president, Pablo ran for political office. While vowing to help the poor, he aimed to gain exemption from laws that would have allowed him to be extradited to America.
With so many of them on his payroll, Pablo was no stranger to politicians. Cartel members competed to own the most powerful ones, just like they outdid each other with luxury cars, homes and zoos. Politicians were approached by cartel lawyers with brown envelopes full of cash. If they declined the bribe, they’d receive a call asking if they’d prefer to be killed. With so many of their colleagues taking money, and the cocaine business bringing so much prosperity to Colombia, it was easy to say yes. Many of them felt that cocaine was America’s problem because that was where it was mostly consumed. If they didn’t want it, Colombia wouldn’t produce it. Due to America’s history in Central and South America – supporting right-wing death squads, assassinating democratically elected left-wing leaders, a blood-lust for foreign resources – the US was viewed dimly by many Colombians. Some saw cocaine as the lesser-developed world’s atomic bomb against the US, and believed that imperialism would be destroyed from within by its own excesses.
Having created a power base for himself in the barrios of Medellín, Pablo was elected as an alternate to Congress in March 1982, which rendered him immune from prosecution under Colombian law.
Giving speeches as a politician, Pablo wore chino trousers, polo shirts and a gold Rolex. He spoke politely and softly at the openings of soccer pitches, roller-skating rinks, hospitals and schools he had invested in. He started a radio show, Civics on the March, and a program called Medellín Without Slums. One project, Barrio Pablo Escobar, consisted of five hundred two-bedroomed houses built over a garbage dump, complete with truckloads of free food. It was in north Medellín, a tough area where Pablo was extremely popular – a recruiting ground for young hit men and enforcers. While Pablo did the rounds, he was accompanied by two Catholic priests who were board members of Medellín Without Slums. The priests introduced him at public events, accompanied him in the slums and blessed a charity art auction he hosted at the Intercontinental Hotel, which was called Paintbrush of Stars.
Pablo hired publicists and journalists to boost his man-of-the-poor image. A column in his own newspaper, Medellín Cívico, lavished him with praise: “Yes, I remember him… his hands, almost priest-like, growing parabolas of friendship and generosity in the air. Yes, I know him, his eyes weeping because there is not enough bread for all of the nation’s dinner tables. I have watched his tortured feelings when he sees street children – angels without toys, without a present, without a future.”
In April 1983, a popular magazine, Semana, branded Pablo as “A Paisa Robin Hood.” Pablo told Semana, “When I was sixteen, I owned a bicycle-rental business… then I started buying and selling automobiles, and finally I got involved in real estate… I didn’t have any money, but as a community action member in my barrio, I promoted the construction of a school and the creation of a fund for indigent students.”
The same month that Pablo was elected, March 1982, a new president came to power. His main goals included making peace with the guerrillas and improving housing and education. Drugs seemed to be off his agenda. With the majority of politicians taking donations from the traffickers, why ruffle any feathers? Besides, many previous presidents had taken drug money. Those who hadn’t didn’t stay in office for long. When the president announced that he was philosophically opposed to the extradition of Colombian nationals, the traffickers were delighted as they all dreaded the prospect of serving life sentences in America.
But the Reagan-Bush administration had other ideas. In 1982, Reagan announced, “My very reason for being here this afternoon is not to announce another short-term government offensive, but to call instead for a national crusade against drugs, a sustained relentless effort to rid America of this scourge by mobilizing every segment of our society against drug abuse.”
Ramping up the War on Drugs, the Reagan-Bush administration tried to link the FARC guerrillas with marijuana trafficking, hoping to stir up war by labelling the 5,000-strong pro-Communist army as narco-guerrillas. The Colombians saw through the propaganda. The new Colombian president was upset because the outside interference had disturbed the peace negotiations with the guerrillas. The Americans changed their strategy. The Reagan-Bush administration had their emissaries search for a Colombian politician amenable to their goals. They settled on Rodrigo Lara Bonilla.
After studying law at the Externado University of Colombia, Lara was elected as the mayor of his hometown at age twenty-three. In August 1983, Lara – a member of the New Liberalism Party that he’d helped to create – became the minister of justice. His campaign against corruption upset his bribe-dependent contemporaries and attracted the interest of the DEA in Colombia, who egged him on to go after the traffickers by offering help and support.
On August 16, 1983, Pablo and his bodyguards arrived for the first time at Congress, which was packed with spectators, reporters and photographers. Even the hallways were crowded with people abuzz about a confrontation brewing between Lara and the traffickers. Dressed in a cream suit, Pablo was stopped at the door for not wearing a tie. Someone handed him one with a floral design, and he was allowed inside. People watched closely as he sat near the back. The house president requested the removal of his bodyguards. Pablo gave a nod and they left.
Pablo’s ally, Jairo Ortega, started to address allegations of taking hot money from the traffickers. He asked Lara if he knew Evaristo Porras Ardila.
“No,” Lara said, shaking his head.
Ortega said that Evaristo Porras – a resident of the Amazon border town of Leticia – had been incarcerated in Peru for trafficking drugs. In April, Porras had written a cheque for one million pesos to Lara as a campaign contribution. Holding up the cheque, he showed it to the ministers present for the debate. Copies of the cheque had been circulated. He added that Lara had thanked Porras for the cheque in a phone call. Ortega produced a tape recorder and played an unintelligible conversation.
“Let the Congress analyse the minister’s conduct with this person who offered him a million pesos. Mr Porras is a recognised international drug trafficker, according to Peruvian police. But far be it from me to try to detain the minister of justice’s brilliant political career. I only want him to tell us what kind of morality he is going to require of the rest of us. Relax, Minister. Just let the country know that your morality can’t be any different from that of Jairo Ortega and the rest of us.”
Cheering erupted in the gallery from Carlos Lehder, which others tried to hush. Sat quietly in a swivel leather chair, Pablo watched, while occasionally picking his teeth or forcing an uncomfortable smile.
Thirty-five-year-old Lara stood to respond in a business suit and tie, his thick dark hair swept aside, his charming face clean shaved. Not in the habit of scrutinising the origin of incoming donations, he’d never heard of Mr Porras, nor could he recall any such telephone conversation.
“My life is an open book.” Lara said that he was and always had been blameless, rendering him impervious to his enemies’ claims. He would resign any moment that suspicion fell upon him “knowing that I will not be followed by complacent ministers affected by the blackmail and the extortion being perpetrated against Colombia’s political class.” He damned the act of casting suspicion on the alleged recipients of the money as opposed to the senders of it, including “those, who, yes, have to explain here or anywhere else in this country where their fortunes have come from… Morality is one thing, but there are levels: one thing is the cheques… that they use to throw mud at politicians. But it’s another thing when somebody runs a campaign exclusively with these funds.” Lara pointed an accusatory finger.
“[We have] a congressman [Pablo] who was born in a very poor area, himself very, very poor, and afterwards, through astute business deals in bicycles and other things, appears with a gigantic fortune, with nine planes, three hangars at the Medellín airport, and creates the movement Death to Kidnappers, while on the other hand, he creates charitable organisations with which he tries to bribe a needy and unprotected people. And there are investigations going on in the US, of which I cannot inform you here tonight in the House, on the criminal conduct of Mr Ortega’s alternate.”
Some of the respondents defended Pablo. They said that all of them were guilty of receiving tainted contributions. Pablo had been attacked, so that Lara might gain political capital.
“It was only when Representative Escobar joined our movement that all kinds of suspicion were thrown on the sources of his wealth,” a congressman said. “I, as a politician, lack the ability to investigate the origin of any assets… Representative Escobar has no need to rely on others to defend his personal conduct, which, on the other hand, and as far as I know, has not been subjected to any action by the law or the government.”
Simmering with anger, Pablo didn’t respond. Re-joining his bodyguards, he left the chamber and walked into a swarm of reporters, whom he tried to dodge.
The next day, Lara received notification that he had a day to back up his claims with evidence, or else be sued. While Lara set about gathering evidence, he issued statements criticising drug-trafficking, which necessitated “a frontal fight, clear, open, without fear or retreat, running all the necessary risks.” He classified the allegations of the cheque he’d received from Porras as a smokescreen. “My accusers could not forgive the clarity of my denunciation of Pablo Escobar, who through clever business deals has manufactured an enormous fortune… This is an economic power concentrated in a few hands and in criminal minds. What they cannot obtain by blackmail, they get by murder.”
The media contacted Porras, who acknowledged donating a million pesos to Lara and admitted that he had been indicted by the Peruvian police for trafficking, which he put down to a youthful indiscretion. Working in the coca-leaf business for Pablo, Porras claimed that his wealth had originated from winning the lottery three times. Faced with Porras’ testimony, Lara admitted receiving the cheque, which he said had been for a family debt. At Pablo’s behest, a judge initiated an investigation into the cheque, which went nowhere.
Lara received help from a newspaper, El Espectador, which ran a story about Pablo’s arrest for cocaine in 1976, including mugshots of Pablo and Gustavo. Pablo ordered his men to buy every copy of the newspaper, which only increased sales and encouraged the newspaper to publish daily stories about him. It described how he’d played the system by having his case transferred to various courts and judges, and how all of his criminal records had disappeared. The exposure led to an investigation into the murders of the policemen who’d arrested him. A new arrest warrant was issued for Pablo, but the judge who’d granted it was murdered in his car.
Lara obtained a recording of a DEA-assisted ABC News documentary about Colombia’s biggest traffickers, including Pablo – who they claimed was worth $2 billion – and played it in Congress. While casting Lara a death stare, Pablo demanded proof of the allegations.
Rebutting Lara’s accusations in an interview, Pablo said his money came from construction. While denying that he was a trafficker, he extolled the benefits that trafficking had brought Colombia such as creating jobs and providing capital for numerous projects that had contributed to economic growth. Insisting that the allegations of trafficking were untrue, Pablo showed a visa he’d recently obtained from the US embassy. Within days, the embassy cancelled the visa. Pablo lambasted Lara for becoming an instrument of US foreign policy.
Lara held his ground. He exposed how the traffickers had financed Colombia’s main soccer teams. He tried to cancel the licenses for 300 small planes they owned. He attempted to confiscate Pablo’s zoo animals and named thirty politicians he believed had taken drug money.
On September 2, 1983, an arrest warrant for Carlos Lehder was issued after the Supreme Court ruled in favour of America. Having already disappeared, Lehder claimed he’d seen it coming, “because my friends in the Ministry of Justice alerted me regarding Lara Bonilla’s intentions.” He told reporters that the only way he would be extradited was over his dead body.
On September 10, Pablo was asked by a senator to quit politics, give up his parliamentary immunity and answer the charges against him. On September 11, Pablo refused, stating that he’d entered politics because, “only inside the government could a man best serve the community.”
Within two weeks, a judge issued an arrest warrant for Pablo for conspiracy to murder the DAS agents who’d arrested him in 1976. Two had been executed in 1977. In 1981, hit men on motorbikes had assassinated the officer in charge.
In October, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the extradition of two marijuana traffickers. Lara signed off on it, but the president refused to do so. He referred it to the Colombian courts. Lehder’s extradition order remained unsigned.
Lara demanded that Congress remove Pablo’s immunity from extradition. The newspapers reported Pablo’s 1974 car-theft indictment, while championing Lara. The biggest newspaper asked, “How is democracy going to continue in Colombia if it is managed and manipulated by these criminals?”
On November 17, 1983, Pablo was fined 450,000 pesos for the illegal importation of eighty-five animals, including camels, elephants, elk and a large Amazonian rodent called a capybara.
The evidence against Pablo was so overwhelming that there was nothing he could do to salvage his political career. He was forced out of the Colombian Liberal Party. He quit Congress in January 1984 and issued a statement: “The attitude of politicians is very far from the people’s opinions and aspirations.”
His presidential plan had backfired so badly that the media was exposing his cocaine business and the police were trying to muscle in on it. Fighting back in the courts, he managed to get his extradition warrant withdrawn on February 13, 1984.
After a politician pushing for Pablo’s extradition was murdered, Lara made an announcement that upset the traffickers: “The more I learn, the more I know of the damage that the narcos are causing this country. I will never again refuse the extradition of one of these dogs. So long as Colombian judges fear drug traffickers, the narcos will only fear judges in the US.”
Lara suspected that Pablo’s guys were shadowing him. When he answered his phone, his own conversations were played back. He rebuffed offers of large sums of money. Death threats against him increased.
He hit back by busting cocaine labs across the country. With the help of the DEA, the Colombian authorities located a giant jungle lab called the Land of Tranquillity, which was mostly owned by the cartel leader, Gacha. Over two years, it had produced cocaine worth $12 billion. Almost 200 people lived there. The authorities knew about it, but had been reluctant or unable to find it, lying some 250 miles from the nearest road.
The DEA had discovered that a Colombian working for Pablo was trying to make a $400,000 purchase of ether, an ingredient in the traditional method for processing coca paste to coca-hydrochloride. The two sellers recommended to him were undercover agents. Before the first seventy-six barrels of ether left for Colombia, DEA technicians cut two open and concealed battery-powered transponders inside. Pablo had no idea that when the ether left the plant it could be traced all the way to Colombia. Signals from the transponders were picked up by a spy satellite as the ether moved south through New Orleans and Panama to Colombia. The signals indicated a spot near the Yari River, deep in the densest part of the jungle, where Gacha and his partners had built the Land of Tranquillity.
Tipped off by the DEA, the anti-narcotics unit of the Colombian National Police was on standby to raid the location with a lone DEA agent. Out of fear that Pablo would receive inside information about the raid, the men in green military garb didn’t know the nature of the operation until they were airborne.
On March 10, 1984, helicopters took off from Bogotá at 6 am. An hour later, they started monitoring the transceiver, homing in on the tones. By noon, they were skimming jungle treetops and almost out of fuel when they spotted an airstrip and smoke rising from the trees. The helicopter attempted to land, with a second helicopter giving it cover. Armed with submachine guns, the troops getting off the first helicopter came under sniper fire. After the shooting stopped, they were attacked by tiny gnats and mosquitoes.
Putting up no resistance, dozens of impoverished workers waited to be arrested. Some fled into the jungle. The troops found a giant jungle complex of nineteen labs and eight airstrips. Worried about retaliation, they called for immediate reinforcements. The next day, they filmed more airstrips and labs. It was the biggest cocaine manufacturing plant in world history.
Colombia’s head of anti-narcotics, Colonel Ramirez – an early nemesis of Pablo – arrived. Feisty and proud of his country, he was clean shaved with a square solid face and thick lips. Men from Medellín showed up at his brother’s house with a message for the colonel: if he would cease all operations in the Land of Tranquillity area and withdraw his forces, he’d receive a multi-million-dollar payment.
Colonel Ramirez responded by ordering gallons of ether to be thrown into each room, many of which contained chemical barrels. When the soldiers lit the ether, it exploded, almost setting them on fire and burning the trees. Multiple explosions throughout the Land of Tranquillity sent thick black plumes up through the jungle trees and into the sky.
The cartel lost 12,000 drums of chemicals and all of the cocaine that was being processed. The colonel’s integrity endangered his family. His kids guarded their house with submachine guns.
Paperwork found at the site – waybills, receipts and accounts – helped the authorities piece together information about the cartel. It revealed that the biggest players were combining their raw materials. Some of the evidence alerted them to Gacha’s importance. Prior to the raid, the authorities had believed that Gacha worked under Pablo. On a jungle airstrip, they found a crashed plane registered to Gacha’s brother. Sources told them that out of all of the investors in the Land of Tranquillity, Gacha had suffered the biggest loss, from which they inferred that Gacha was a senior partner.
Pablo issued a statement to the US ambassador denying any role in the Land of Tranquillity: “I can only characterise your statements as tendentious, irresponsible and malintentioned without any basis in reality; they denigrate the good faith of public opinion. My conscience is clear.” He accused Lara of being “the representative of your government in the Colombian cabinet.”
After the raid on the Land of Tranquillity, the Medellín Cartel decided that it was time for Lara to go. The $500,000 contract went to Los Quesitos, a gang controlled by Pablo. Three of the gang’s field commanders took a green Renault, loaded with guns, grenades and bullet-proof vests from Medellín to Bogotá. After settling into a four-star hotel, they discussed the hit over food in the company of the Snore, a Medellín hitman with lots of kills under his belt who was ready to serve as backup if the others failed. The hit would be performed on a motorbike, with Iván, a thirty-one-year-old drifter, as the shooter. Iván had a history of murder, robbery and assault. The driver would be a teenager called Byron, who was looking to earn a reputation among the big boys. Teenagers like these – poor and with nothing to lose – were easily recruited to perform hits. Unemployed or working jobs that paid $1 a week, they could earn thousands for each murder. For several days, the team waited, made calls back to Medellín and dined out.
The US emissaries encouraging Lara to extradite Pablo showed up with a bullet-proof vest. “You should be more concerned. You should take more precautions.” Lara declined the vest, but they left it with him.
Aware of the threat, not just to him but to his wife and three little children, Lara beefed up security. “I am a dangerous minister for those who act outside the law,” Lara said. “I only hope that they don’t take me by surprise.” Despite the tough talk, Lara called the US embassy and excitedly revealed that he was getting transferred out of the country to work as the ambassador to Czechoslovakia.
“You’ll be safe there,” the US Ambassador said. “All the terrorists are in the government.”
As the transfer would take thirty days, Lara said he needed a place for him and his family to hide at because he felt that the Colombian government couldn’t protect him anymore. The US embassy offered to put him in a Texas safe house owned by a rich businessman for as long as he needed it.
On April 30, 1984, Lara thanked a journalist friend for publishing an article about his work. “I am going to be killed today, but that article can be my will for the Justice Department.” After playing his friend some samples of the fifty death threats that he’d received that morning, Lara said, “If I don’t answer this phone, it will be because I am dead.”
In the afternoon, Iván and Byron visited the shrine of Santa María Auxiliadora, near Medellín, to say a prayer. For good luck, Byron put a picture of the Virgin Mary into his underwear. At 7 pm, they got on a Yamaha motorbike and headed to Bogotá, armed with grenades and a MAC-10.
Sat on a back seat, Lara was stuck in traffic with his bullet-proof vest next to him.
Iván and Byron stopped at an address they’d been given earlier that day. They were told people were talking about them in Medellín, which was code for “Find Lara and kill him.” On the hunt for a white Mercedes-Benz limo, they found the roads still jammed. It was around dusk when they spotted Lara. Weaving around cars, they homed in from the rear and slowed down.
After extracting the MAC-10 from his jacket, Iván took aim at the figure in the back of the limo. Within seconds, the MAC-10 emptied its magazine, shattering the rear window, hitting Lara fatally seven times in the head, chest, arm and neck. Lara’s escort limo pursued the assailants. A bullet hit the Yamaha’s gas tank, setting it on fire. The motorbike crashed into a curb. Machine-gun fire exploded Iván’s head. Next to the Yamaha, he dropped dead. Hit in the arm, Byron was arrested.
The president and his cabinet stayed up until 3 am, discussing what to do. No cabinet minister had ever been assassinated in Colombia. Perhaps cocaine wasn’t just an American problem after all. Trafficking was ruining Colombia’s reputation in the eyes of the world. With the justice minister gone, it would appear that the president had lost control of the country. Lara’s death swung them in favour of extradition. In an emergency radio broadcast, the president declared war on the traffickers and said that drugs were “the most serious problem that Colombia has had in its history.”
In the Rotunda of the Capitol Building, thousands visited Lara’s closed coffin, which military guards took to the National Cathedral. Outside, mourners from all sections of society were crying and chanting that they loved Lara. In the cathedral, emotions ran high. Amid the top brass from the military and the government, the president appeared tense.
A plane transported Lara to his home city, where he was buried. At the funeral, the president said, “We have reached a point where we must reflect on what is our nation. What does the word citizen mean? Stop! Enemies of humanity! Colombia will hand over criminals wanted in other countries, so that they may be punished as an example.” His eulogy received a standing ovation.
On May 8, 1984, the president signed an extradition order for Carlos Lehder. Traffickers would be tried in military courts and denied access to bail. Prison sentences would be increased, with limited possibility of parole. Suspected traffickers would have their gun permits cancelled.
Immediately, hundreds were arrested and jailed, including the Ochoa brothers’ father, Fabio Sr. Property was seized. Helicopters landed at Hacienda Nápoles. With rifles and search dogs, troops in green battle fatigues stormed inside, provoking raucous cawing from Pablo’s exotic birds. Seizing weapons and evidence, the troops trashed the property and handcuffed low-level workers, whom they lined up by a swimming pool. After the raid, they left the zoo animals to starve. Upon receiving complaints about the animals, the government reopened the zoo.
With Lehder on the run in the jungle, his property deteriorated. Lacking an expensive diet of fresh horsemeat, his tigers withered. The Humane Society stepped in. As the property crumbled from fire and rain damage, only one thing survived: the naked statue of John Lennon.
In response, the traffickers declared war on Colombia. All-out mayhem ensued: bombings, kidnappings, mass murders and death squads. The judge investigating Lara’s death was killed.
Hoping to weaken the cartel, the authorities targeted Lehder, as his extradition treaty had been signed. If they arrested him, they could swiftly send him to his fate in America. On his trail, they missed him by four days, a hundred miles south-east of Bogotá. But this raised their hopes. Moving around with twenty-three aliases and three passports, including a German one, Lehder was unfazed. He called radio stations to rant and penned open letters, criticising American imperialism. Raiding a possible Lehder hideout in November 1984, the police found 230 kilos of cocaine. Sources gave more information about his whereabouts, but he remained elusive.
In February 1985, Lehder authorised a Spanish TV crew to interview him at a hideout. In army fatigues, a black vest and sporting a beard, he announced the formation of a 500,000-man army to defend national sovereignty. “The extradition problem has grown to become a problem of national liberation. It was the people who shot Lara Bonilla before he could – with imperialism’s help – send more than 300 Colombians en masse to be processed in the US.” When asked whether it was wise to find inspiration in Hitler – who’d killed six million Jews – he replied, “That is misinformation. We know that there were never more than one million Jews in Germany. Half of the blood running through my body is German, right? In other words, if there is someone who can talk about Germany, it is not the Jew, it is the German! If one can talk about Colombia, it is the Colombian. It shall not be a Brazilian or a Czechoslovakian. Am I right?
“I say with all honesty that Adolfo, along with six million soldiers, eliminated twenty-one million Communists, right? And he eliminated ten million Allied enemies. In other words, he, Adolfo, is and shall be – right? – until someone surpasses him, he shall be the greatest warrior the world has ever seen.” Despite his ramblings, his eyes were open to the aims of the US, which he described as being “guided by a military industry that forces the US to open fronts of war and fronts for the sale of arms, and one of the newest and most novel excuses [to open such fronts] is the struggle against drug trafficking.”
US weapons-manufacturer profiteering was even worse than Lehder had described. Not only were they profiting from fighting traffickers, but through the CIA, they were accepting drug money as one of the biggest forms of payment for arms. In public, the US government was raising Pablo up the charts of enemy status in the War on Drugs, while in secret, the CIA was facilitating cocaine smuggling to finance a war in Nicaragua, cocaine that was flooding America. General Pinochet wasn’t the only one fighting a War on Drugs so that he could profit from it personally. It had corrupted governments all over the world. Such covert activity needed constant smokescreens, and a mass murderer such as Pablo was ideal. In the US media, his crimes allowed him to become the personification of the cocaine scourge, but journalists rarely mentioned that his empire existed because of a black market in cocaine worth billions that had been created by US drug laws; or that his weapons came from America. It was a no-lose situation for the Reagan-Bush administration. Even though they knew from America’s earlier experiences with the prohibition of alcohol that taking down Pablo wouldn’t alter the flow of drugs, fighting traffickers not only justified the military expenditure Lehder ranted about, but it enabled the US to extend its influence into Colombia, a country whose oil and other resources US corporations and bankers, perched like vultures, were eager to plunder.