Pablo Escobar: Beyond Narcos - Shaun Attwood (2016)

Chapter 7. Barry Seal

For a while, Pablo hid out in the jungle, until the Ochoa brothers, Lehder and Gacha fled to Panama to live in a large house by a golf club under the protection of Manuel Noriega, a military dictator and CIA informant whose hospitality had cost them millions. With a down payment of $2 million, Pablo had authorised the deal a few months before Noriega had come to power.

Known as Pineapple Face due to his pockmarks, Noriega had ended up ruling Panama by having a bomb – provided by the CIA – planted in the plane of his predecessor, whose leftist stance – he had believed in democracy and the rights of poor people – whiffed of Communism. A master of playing every side, Noriega had profitable relationships with the CIA and the Colombian traffickers, who were working together in the fight against Communism by supporting the Nicaraguan rebels. In an expectation of CIA protection, the cartel had contributed to the Nicaraguan cause. For America, Noriega provided security for the Panama Canal, with its American bases housing over 10,000 military personnel. His contributions to America’s anti-Communism crusade included money laundering and hosting guns-for-drugs flights for the Nicaraguan rebels.

In 1982, Pablo had set up a deal with Noriega, whereby Panama was used as a trans-shipment point for cocaine heading to America, with Noriega collecting six-figure fees per load. Noriega also collected fees on the billions that the drug cartels – and intelligence agencies such as the CIA – laundered through Panama. It is alleged that Jeb Bush tapped into some of this hot money by establishing banking relationships between the CIA and the Medellín and Cali Cartels. Working in Venezuela for his CIA director father, Jeb supposedly disguised the drug money as oil industry revenues from front companies such as Texas Commerce Bank, a cartel favourite.

Protected by bodyguards assigned by Noriega, the cartel leaders entertained themselves by playing soccer on the golf course, working out at the gym and swimming. Eventually, they rented their own homes. It was around this time in Panama that Pablo and Jorge Ochoa had discussions with Barry Seal, who’d flown cocaine worth billions into America. Even though they’d never met face-to-face, Barry was considered highly reliable. From Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Barry was an overweight ace pilot with flamboyant mutton-chop sideburns, who was addicted to living on the edge. The Colombians called him the Fat Man.

Pablo recruited Barry to fly 600 kilos to America, but the drugs were seized by the DEA in Florida. Unbeknown to Pablo, Barry was a CIA pilot and DEA informant, operating under a fake name: Ellis MacKenzie. Barry had been sent on a mission by George HW Bush, who wanted to trick Pablo into doing a cocaine deal with the Communist Nicaraguan government, which Bush hoped to use as an excuse to continue to arm the Nicaraguan rebels and stir up a war from which his associates were profiting.

Even though the Medellín Cartel had contributed to the Nicaraguan rebels, its members had become far more useful to Bush as enemies to justify his War on Drugs, which was about military expenditure, advancing corporate interests overseas and providing cover for CIA drug-trafficking, which was Barry Seal’s main occupation (as detailed in my book, American Made: Who Killed Barry Seal? Pablo Escobar or George HW Bush). Barry was portrayed in Narcos as a former CIA pilot turned drug smuggler, which is false. The DEA, on the other hand, had a different objective for the cartel leaders: they wanted Barry to entice them onto US soil, so that they could be arrested and incarcerated for life.

To Panama, Barry brought Pablo large amounts of cash, daily reports from one of Pablo’s business administrators in Florida and items from a list of goods Pablo wanted purchased in America. Pablo asked Barry to fly 1,500 kilos of cocaine, but Barry said that he needed to inspect the airstrip in Nicaragua first.

Pablo told Barry that the cartel hadn’t ordered the assassination of the justice minister, Lara Bonilla. He claimed that it was a CIA plot designed to make the Colombian government want to extradite traffickers. He said that their cocaine labs had been dismantled and cocaine supplies moved to the mountains. He urged Barry to transport the 1,500 kilos as soon as possible. They would instruct him from their new headquarters in Panama.

On May 20, 1984, Barry met the cartel again in Panama, in the basement of a white stucco house. Barry later told his DEA handlers – whom he was trying to impress – that the cartel introduced him to Federico Vaughan, a Nicaraguan government official. With slicked-back grey hair, Vaughan was sharply dressed in a silver business suit, tie, an expensive watch, sunglasses and cufflinks. Vaughan would accompany Barry to the Nicaraguan airfield, so he could inspect it. To avoid any harm in Nicaragua, Barry was to follow Vaughan’s instructions. Vaughan introduced himself to Barry as the interior minister of the Nicaraguan Sandinista government, which was ready to process cocaine paste for the Medellín Cartel with ether from Germany.

Barry, his Honduran co-pilot and Vaughan took a commercial plane to Managua, Nicaragua, sitting separately, so as not to be associated with each other. At the airport, Vaughan got them through immigration without having their passports stamped. Vaughan’s wife transported them to their house, where they stayed overnight.

Driving to the airfield the next day, Vaughan told them not to be worried about the guards and checkpoints, which were a mere formality. Five miles outside of Managua in a rural setting, they stopped at a large oil refinery.

“This is the country’s only refinery. Never fly near or over it.” Vaughan pointed at anti-aircraft batteries on the perimeter. “Any aircraft that flies over the refinery, friend or foe, will be shot down immediately.” He took them to a massive sunken lake, a volcanic crater full of clear blue water. “This is the purest water in the country. The only unpolluted drinking water for Managua. In its own way, it’s as vital as the oil refinery. If you fly near it, you will be shot down.”

They travelled around a mountain, across a railroad track and onto a military airfield called Los Brasiles, with a lone paved runway. At roadblocks and checkpoints, Vaughan was waved through by guards wielding AK-47s. He took them to a hangar designated for their mission. Inside was a Piper Cheyenne owned by Pablo.

Barry asked about the length of the airstrip and its foundation and texture. Vaughan escorted them along the 3,500-foot runway.

When Barry and his co-pilot walked onto the grass to examine a drainage ditch, Vaughan yelled, “Stop! It’s mined with landmines. If you have any problem landing your aircraft, don’t veer to the western side, or you’ll be killed.”

Afterwards, they ate at a steakhouse. Vaughan produced a map of Nicaragua and drew arrows to indicate the smuggling mission’s entry and exit routes. “You need a code for entering Nicaraguan airspace. You are to call the Sandino tower on a certain VHF frequency and identify yourselves as Yankee November Whisky X-ray Yankee. Then the tower will reroute you to Los Brasiles. All approaches to the city of Managua are covered by anti-aircraft guns to protect against night attacks by the Contra rebels.”

On the map, Barry drew circles around the gun emplacements, the oil refinery, Vaughan’s house and the Sandinista People’s Army headquarters.

Back in Panama City, Barry told Pablo that the runway was ideal, but the hangar was too small for the plane he had in mind. Pablo said that Barry’s mission had changed. Instead of picking up a second shipment in Nicaragua of 2,000 kilos, Barry needed to go to Bolivia for 6,000 kilos of cocaine base for their new labs in Nicaragua.

After returning to America, Barry showed up for a routine court appearance and ended up in jail. The DEA got him out, eager for him to set up a sting operation on Pablo and the other members of the cartel.

Fresh out of jail, Barry immediately called his Honduran co-pilot, who asked where Barry had been. Barry said he’d been busy. With the 1,500 kilos scheduled to be transported the next day, they had no time to waste.

Paranoid after free-basing cocaine, the co-pilot was convinced that his wife had become a government informant. “She was busted for coke while we were in Panama, but when I got home, she’d been released. She’d come with me on trips to Panama. She may have talked. Unless she comes with us, I’m not going. I need to keep an eye on her.”

Barry tried to talk him out of bringing his wife, but it was no use. For two days in Louisiana, Barry waited for the co-pilot, who kept promising to get on the next flight, but never showed up. In the end, Barry asked his trusted friend, Emile Camp, to step in.

On May 28, 1984, they flew a Learstar from Arkansas to Medellín over the Colombian jungle.

“That strip looks mighty wet!” Barry yelled.

“So,” Emile said. “You gonna try it?”

“I didn’t fly all this way to turn around.”

“That mountain’s awful close, and that river’s pretty high. Do not enter that banana grove. It’ll take the wings off. That grass is too wet. You’re gonna pay hell getting out of there, I’ll tell you that.”

“Anything else?” Barry asked.

“It’s a piece of cake.”

With its propellers roaring, the plane swerved to land. Water and mud splashed off the wheels as it skidded on the landing strip.

Barry was talking to the ground crew when a long-haired man galloped towards the plane on a white Arabian stallion, brandishing a machine gun and barking orders.

“Who the hell are you?” Barry asked.

“Carlos Lehder!” he yelled. Barry had heard stories about Lehder and Norman’s Cay. “Now you will do what I say! Immediately! Before someone sees your plane from the air!”

A tractor appeared, pulling over a ton of cocaine.

“Holy shit!” Emile said. “They expect us to fly out of this swamp with all of that shit.”

“No, of course not,” Barry said.

“We can’t get up with that much weight.”

“Don’t you worry. I’m gonna reason with the man.” Barry laughed. “Hey, lifting off this muddy strip with all of that weight is impossible.”

Barry’s attempt at reasoning ended up with him pinned against the tractor and Lehder shoving a gun in his chin. “I don’t care what you say. You’ll fly every last gram of it out of here, just like you contracted to do. And if you refuse, I’ll kill you right now, and your co-pilot will do it. We’re going to load this plane and you’re going to get out of here. You start loading fuel.”

With a defeated expression, Barry complied. In fifteen minutes, 1,500 kilos of cocaine in duffel bags and burlap sacks were loaded.

Barry manned the plane. “You ready?”

“No,” Emile said.

“I knew I could count on you.”

As it picked up speed on the muddy runway, the plane rumbled and bounced, but failed to gain height.

“C’mon, baby,” Emile said.

Lehder gallop alongside, shooting into the earth, his workers lined up at the periphery of the jungle, yelling for the plane to rise. It lifted to cheering, but fell and skidded. The right wheel sank into the mud and was ripped from its undercarriage. Barry lost control. The plane crashed with a crunch of mechanical destruction.

“Get out, man! The fuel’s gonna blow!” Barry said, scrambling to exit.

Lehder appeared, bursting off more gunfire. “Gringos! Maricones!”

Anticipating an explosion, Barry and Emile dived into the jungle.

Lehder ordered his workers to rescue the cocaine from the burning plane.

“That crazy bastard’s making them go to the plane,” Emile said, clutching a tree. “They’ll be barbecued.”

Barry and Emile leapt from the jungle and tried to stop the two dozen workers charging towards the plane.

“Help them now!” Lehder yelled, shooting his gun at the dirt around their feet.

Barry and Emile joined the men grabbing huge packages of cocaine from the plane. As they charged away, the plane exploded, knocking the men over. Flames shot dozens of feet in all directions. Two workers were burnt. The tractor transported the cocaine back to its storage facility, where it was inventoried.

“Cabrones, we have another plane!” Lehder yelled.

“I don’t give a damn what kind of plane you’ve got,” Barry said, his face muddy. “We can’t take off with that load. We’ve gotta wait for this field to dry.”

Barry and Emile were flown to Medellín. After showering in a cartel member’s mansion, they were shown around the grounds. They admired a waterfall, a tropical garden, a swimming pool and an Olympic-sized cycling track.

A replacement plane was found: a Titan 404. “Certainly you’re not going to be able to carry the full 1,500 kilos that you tried to carry with the larger plane. Can you carry half of it?” the cartel man asked.

“No, sir,” Barry said, worried about the plane going down in the Gulf of Mexico. “Because then I wouldn’t be able to add any fuel.”

“And with a stop in Nicaragua? How much can you take?”

“Well, with a stop in Nicaragua, we can probably take 700, 750 kilos.” The crash had played into Barry’s hands because the sooner he could get to Nicaragua, the more the Reagan-Bush administration would be satisfied by the drugs link and the more predisposed they would be to helping his legal situation.

At the Hotel Intercontinental in Medellín, Barry called the DEA to appraise them about the new flight schedule. In Gulfport, DEA agents were waiting for the cocaine with a recreational vehicle. Such a large seizure would make their careers.

The next day, Barry and Emile returned to the jungle airstrip. Each got on top of the burned remains of the Learstar while the other snapped photos. In the jungle, they spent three days with Lehder, who was guarding the cocaine. Lehder showed them 3,000 kilos and claimed that 6,000 kilos of cocaine base in Bolivia were heading for Nicaragua.

On June 2, 1984, Barry told the DEA that he was flying to Nicaragua the next day. On June 3, at 10:30 pm, the DEA received a call in Miami from one of Barry’s associates, stating that a radio transmission had been received and Barry was returning to Nicaragua after experiencing engine trouble. Three hours later, the DEA heard that Barry had landed in Nicaragua and might have some legal problems. No more contact was received.

Three days later, Barry appeared in the US without any cocaine. At a debriefing, he told the DEA that on June 3, he’d flown the Titan 404 from Colombia with 700 kilos of cocaine aboard. Stopping for fuel in Los Brasiles, Nicaragua, had taken longer than expected. After taking off in darkness, Barry had flown without any lights over a mountainous region. North of Managua, the plane was illuminated by anti-aircraft tracers. His left engine was hit. The plane started to descend fast. To avoid crashing, Barry had returned to Los Brasiles. Unable to land at the dark airfield, he scrambled to radio Vaughan, but he’d gone home.

With no options left, Barry radioed an emergency broadcast to Sandino International Airport in Managua, using a code provided by Vaughan. Upon landing, the plane was surrounded by soldiers. Barry insisted on talking to Vaughan and was granted a phone call. Vaughan was still not home.

A sergeant who knew Vaughan had the cocaine unloaded from Barry’s plane. He told Barry and Emile to keep quiet and to play along with whatever happened. “Everything will be fine.”

Barry and Emile were incarcerated overnight in The Bunker, a military compound in downtown Managua. The next day, they were released to Vaughan and transported to a large landed estate. Pablo greeted them. He’d moved there to supervise the cocaine-processing operation.

A few days later, Vaughan showed up with a newspaper, El Nuevo Diario. “This is the reason we wanted you to keep your mouth shut at the airport, because we had to keep this entire incident very quiet in the newspapers. We don’t control all the newspapers here.” He showed Barry a two-paragraph article that stated anti-aircraft gunners at Sandino Airport had shot at an Agrarian Reform Air Transport Company plane because the plane was unable to signal its location:

“The DAA [Anti-Aircraft Defense] had to signal and fire warning shots to induce it to land at the airport – which happened without untoward consequences.”

Vaughan said that the accident had happened because he hadn’t prepared for a smuggling flight in the darkness. The gunners hadn’t seen Barry. They’d heard him and shot at the noise. Better communication was required for the next time. Upset that he hadn’t been able to reach Vaughan from the plane, Barry said they should buy walkie-talkies.

Pablo said that the new cocaine lab was at a ranch south of Managua. It would be ready for full production in two weeks. Lehder had almost fifteen tons of cocaine base, which would produce approximately one-fifth of the cocaine consumed in America annually.

“Well, that’s going to take a real large plane,” Barry said. “You should buy a military cargo plane like those I’ve seen advertised in the aviation-trade magazines.”

Pablo wanted Barry to obtain such a plane and to pick up the first 700 kilos.

“Is that cocaine safe?” Barry said.

“We haven’t lost one single gram,” Vaughan said.

In Escobar’s Piper Cheyenne, which required maintenance in America, Barry and Emile flew home with Pablo’s latest shopping list, which included night-vision goggles and a dozen high-frequency radios that cost $12,000 each.

The CIA provided Barry with a Fairchild C-123K Provider, a massive camouflage-green twin-engine military cargo plane from the Vietnam War. He nicknamed it the Fat Lady. On June 18, 1984, Barry flew the Fat Lady to Rickenbacker Air Force Base near Columbus, Ohio. Repairing and retrofitting the plane, Air Force employees worked around the clock. The military made repairs worth $40,000 at the taxpayers’ expense.

Barry was instructed to take pictures of Nicaraguan officials associated with cocaine. He told the CIA, “Let me explain something to you, mister. There’s gonna be a lot of men with guns down there. Nervous men, who aren’t gonna exactly say cheese to some gringo pilot with a camera.”

Five days later, the plane was at Homestead Air Force Base near Miami. A transponder was installed to allow the DEA to track its flight. The CIA added a hidden 35-mm camera in the nosecone and another was put inside of a fake electronics box in the rear cargo hold, facing the doors. A pinhole lens in the box allowed the camera to film the cocaine coming into the back of the plane. Barry was given a radio-controlled trigger for the cameras, with a long wire antenna attached to it.

“What! Where in the hell do you expect me to hide that? Stick it up my ass?” Barry said, referring to the antenna.

“You can put it in your pocket.”

“All five feet of it?”

“Put it in your pocket and let the antenna slide down your leg.”

Barry did so and pressed the remote control. Enraged by the loud noise the camera made, he cursed the CIA men in suits. “I’m tired of wasting my time with you assholes. I’ll get your fucking photographs. Autographed! But what are you gonna do for me?”

“We have a deal, Mr Seal.”

“The judge. Say it, dammit!”

“We’ll speak to the judge on your behalf.”

In a Miami hotel room, Barry called Vaughan, recording the call for the DEA. “I was going to see my grandmother at noon on Saturday,” Barry said, using code for the cocaine shipment. Referring to the Fat Lady, Barry said, “It’s a big Cadillac… Very big, big car… I just wanted to make sure that my grandmother was going to tell the landlord that the car was very big, so that the landlord wouldn’t be excited when they saw it.” Worried about getting shot down again, Barry wanted the Nicaraguan government to stay calm when they saw the Fat Lady.

“No, no, no,” Vaughan said. “Everything is OK about that.”

On June 24, 1984, Barry told Vaughan about a party tomorrow at his grandmother’s, meaning the cocaine was coming the next day. “I mean, everybody is coming to the party, and you’ve notified those boys in green.” Barry was still concerned about getting shot down.

“Right,” Vaughan said.

“Everybody is notified?” Barry said.

“Yes,” Vaughan said.

“Excellent. OK. I just want to make sure. I don’t want any problems.”

“Yes, everybody is going to be there.”

“OK, good. And is Pedro coming? Because I have that liquor for him,” Barry said, referring to Pablo and the items on his shopping list.

“Yes, yes, he’s coming,” Vaughan said.

“I’m leaving for the party at midnight. Has it been raining on the yard where we park the cars at the party?” Barry said.

“It’s dry and hard and only a little bit muddy in one small area.”

“I can’t stay at the party long. I have to try to leave as soon as possible,” Barry said, hoping for a fast refuelling.

“Yeah, we’re going to be ready for that.”

“OK. Now remember this motorhome is very big, and it’s a funny, funny colour, so don’t let anybody get excited.”

Vaughan laughed. “No, that’s perfect.”

At 1 pm on June 25, 1984, Barry landed at Los Brasiles near Managua and dropped open the back of the plane. He’d brought $454,000 for Pablo. He later claimed that on the ground were Vaughan, Pablo, Gacha and a group of soldiers. “How do you like the plane?” Barry yelled over the engine noise. “I call her the Fat Lady.”

Soldiers started loading duffel bags of cocaine into the cargo hold. Every time Barry pressed the remote control to take a picture, the camera clicked so loudly that it could be heard outside the Fat Lady. To drown out the noise, Barry switched on the plane’s generators. An American spy plane above took high-resolution pictures.

“Shut down your engines!” Pablo yelled.

“I can’t. We gotta keep them hot,” Barry said, maintaining the sound to disguise the camera noise.

An overweight bodyguard with a gun entered the plane and started looking around as if he could hear the camera noise. Emile revved the propellers to camouflage the sound. The bodyguard checked around and finally left. After being loaded with 700 kilos of cocaine and 2,000 gallons of fuel – which took about an hour – the plane took off.

The following morning, the Fat Lady landed at Homestead Air Force Base near Miami. The DEA seized the cocaine and the CIA took the camera film. The mission had been a success. The photos showed Barry, Pablo, Vaughan and Gacha loading twenty-five-kilo duffel bags.

With Barry’s mission complete, George HW Bush had him assassinated through the CIA, which used Colombian hit men, so the blame could be put squarely on the Medellín Cartel – documented in my book, American Made. Following his successful mission to Nicaragua, Barry had felt so let down by George HW Bush that he’d threatened to blow the whistle on the cocaine he’d been transporting to Mena, Arkansas for the CIA, and he’d also boasted that he had videotape evidence of Jeb and George W Bush getting caught in a DEA sting operation.

On March 16, 1986, one month after Barry’s death, Ronald Reagan went on TV with Barry’s photos. “I know every American parent concerned about the drug problem will be outraged to learn that top Nicaraguan government officials are deeply involved in drug trafficking. This picture, secretly taken at a military airfield outside Managua, shows Federico Vaughan, a top aide to one of the nine commandants who rule Nicaragua, loading an aircraft with illegal narcotics bound for the United States.” Reagan was attempting to drum up support for the provision of weapons and training for Nicaraguan rebels on the basis that the Nicaraguan government was involved in trafficking cocaine, which was killing young people in America. Even though they didn’t know that the opposite was true – that the Nicaraguan rebels were trafficking cocaine with the help of the CIA – the public wasn’t swayed.

The DEA knew that Reagan had lied. Furious over the death of Barry Seal – who’d been one of their key operatives and was on the verge of helping them take down the Medellín Cartel, which would have been the biggest drug arrests in history – the DEA stated that it had no information implicating “the Minister of the Interior or other Nicaraguan officials.” It seems that Barry had embellished the Nicaraguan government’s involvement in cocaine to try to curry favour with George HW Bush. After Reagan showed the grainy photographs on TV of Pablo in Nicaragua loading drugs onto Barry’s plane, Pablo told his brother that he couldn’t possibly have been in that photo because he never loaded drugs onto planes. Maybe the CIA had doctored the photos.

With the Reagan-Bush administration hyping-up the crack epidemic for political gain, the US authorities increased their efforts to extradite Pablo. Eight different agencies were pursuing him, including the DEA, US Customs, the Coast Guard, federal police, state police and the military, none of which put a dent in the supply of cocaine to America, which tumbled in price from $40,000 a kilo to $9,000.

In April 1986, Reagan signed National Security Decision Directive 221, which classified drug-trafficking as a threat to national security. In retaliation, traffickers targeted the staff at the American embassy in Bogotá, and a $350,000 contract was put out on the head of the DEA. Car-bombers repeatedly attacked the buildings occupied by Americans. Family members of diplomats and DEA agents fled Colombia.

Pablo had wanted to make Panama a temporary hub, but Noriega hadn’t embraced the idea. The agreement had been to make Panama a transportation point, not an operations centre. Pablo got word from a Panamanian Colonel that Noriega was making overtures to the DEA. For the benefit of the cartel, Noriega had authorised the construction of a cocaine lab in Panama, but his military seized 16,000 barrels of ether destined for the new lab and arrested twenty-three Colombian workers. The angry cartel leaders demanded an explanation, but were told that Noriega was in Europe.

Through President Fidel Castro, a meeting was arranged for the Colombians and Noriega in Cuba. Before Noriega arrived, the cartel attended a preliminary conference with the Panamanian government. After the meeting, Noriega released the Colombian prisoners and returned $3 million in cash and lab equipment to the cartel.

Growing homesick and distrustful of Noriega, the cartel tried to reach an agreement with the Colombian government, whom they asked to consider the possibility of their re-incorporation into Colombian society in the near future. They denied any responsibility for the assassination of Lara Bonilla. Their memorandum offered a history of drug trafficking in Colombia and asserted that their organisations “today control between 70 and 80 percent of Colombia’s drug traffic,” which equated to “an annual income of around $2 billion.” Pablo offered to move billions from overseas accounts into the Colombian banking system and to dismantle the cocaine empire, but the deal was refused.

On June 15, 1984, the cartel lost 1.2 metric tons of cocaine packed in freezers and perfume cartons to US Customs agents in Miami. A Panamanian charter company owned the cargo jet transporting the cocaine. The next week, Panamanian authorities confiscated 6,159 drums of ether.

Pablo advised his fellow Colombians to leave Panama. Private planes and helicopters arrived. The Colombians dispersed to Medellín, Brazil and Spain. According to Roberto, Pablo and his brother went to Nicaragua. Pablo took 1,100 kilos of cocaine with him, aiming to convert it into cash.

Even though extraditions to America had begun, things had settled down a bit in Colombia since the aftermath of Lara’s death. The majority of those who’d been arrested in the raids following Lara’s death, including Fabio Ochoa Sr, had been released due to a lack of evidence and the usual corruption.

Giving an interview from abroad, Pablo said, “People who know me understand very well that I am involved in industry, construction and ranching… the fact that I attack extradition does not make me extraditable.”

Lehder had managed to evade capture, and was still issuing statements: “I am a symbol of those men who battle imperialism. In this struggle, the end justifies the means.” In 1984, his political party, Carlos Lehder’s National Latin Movement, won two seats and four city council seats.

The pressure on the authorities from the traffickers had never relented. They had obtained the president’s private telephone number – which had spooked the president – and were issuing threats.

Outside a courthouse, a man approached the judge who’d indicted the cartel for Lara’s murder and requested a temporary dismissal. “Ask for whatever you want, and they’ll put it wherever you want it, in Colombia or outside the country… Then you can relax. Neither your life, nor the lives of your family members will be in danger.” The judge refused. Climbing into a taxi, he was shot dead by five men in a Mazda.

Armoured vehicles transported US embassy staff. Their children went to school on a bus protected by army jeeps with machine guns. On the roads, the staff kept their eyes peeled for motorbike assassins. Some kept their windows down, so they could listen for the distinct sound of a motorbike approaching. In their guarded living quarters they heard guns fired every night. An empty car aimed at the embassy rolled down a hill, hit a curb and exploded, sending flames three hundred feet into the air. Embassy staff was reduced to a bare minimum.

Any locals working with the Americans were killed in grotesque ways. One had pins inserted under his fingernails, before being shot in the head and left on the street with a sign around his neck: “Killed for Being a DEA Informant.” After the DEA got word that a guerrilla hit team had been contracted by Pablo to kidnap key members, they closed their Medellín location.

In the latter half of 1984, Pablo thought it was safe to return home. He convened a meeting of seventy important people, ranging from traffickers to priests, who arrived with 200 bodyguards. Extradition was discussed. Pablo proposed that Medellín should have a united group of bodyguards divided into zones. Among the big four founders of the Medellín Cartel, Gacha’s power was rising, while Lehder’s was falling. Lehder was assigned to oversee jungle operations and to maintain relations with the guerrillas guarding the labs.

A little after midnight on the night of the meeting, a Mercedes arrived at the farmhouse. A well-dressed woman emerged. She knocked on the door and claimed to have flowers for Dr Hernandez. Roberto told her that she was at the wrong address. He warned his brother that he’d never seen anyone in the flower-delivery business arrive in a Mercedes-Benz. Pablo dismissed it as nothing. Roberto instructed the bodyguards to start shooting in the air if any strangers showed up.

Around 2 am, shots were fired. Pablo and his brother ran out of the back of the farmhouse. A shot grazed Roberto’s leg and pieces of brick hit him in the face, causing lots of bleeding. They came across one of their bodyguards returning in a car. They escaped in it along with Gustavo.

A trafficker from the city of Cali, which had a history of rivalry with Medellín, had attended the meeting at the farmhouse and subsequently snitched Pablo out, hoping for a government guarantee against extradition.

The colonel in charge of the raid had been paid $50,000 a month by Pablo. Pablo sent him a message, “Now you are against me and you know what I think about that.”

On the same night as the raid, Jorge Ochoa got into trouble in Spain, where he’d emigrated with the boss of the Cali Cartel and settled in an 8,000-square-foot mansion, complete with a swimming pool, tennis courts, a disco and four Mercedes-Benz. An informant told Spain’s Special Prosecutor for the Prevention and Repression of Drug Trafficking that Ochoa was in Madrid under a fake name: Moisés Moreno Miranda.

Surveillance showed Ochoa living a life of luxury, frequenting restaurants and concerts, and his wife depositing hundreds of thousands of dollars in local banks, which the police concluded was hot money. The Spanish authorities tipped off the DEA, who notified Washington: “Intelligence… has indicated that suspected Colombian trafficking group intends to create investment company with unlimited funding and is in the process of purchasing several extremely expensive residences, indicating intent to remain in Spain.”

For almost three months, the Spanish authorities monitored the two drug bosses. After Ochoa asked about buying 10,000 acres in southern Spain, the police feared that he was about to set up a global cocaine hub.

On November 15, 1984, the two Colombian bosses and their wives were arrested. Attempting to capitalise on the windfall, the Americans made overtures to the Spanish in the hope of getting the Colombians extradited. The stage was set for a lengthy legal battle.

In volatile Colombia, even forming an army called Death to Kidnappers didn’t always serve as a deterrent. In 1985, Pablo’s father was kidnapped by policemen. On his way to visit one of Pablo’s farms, he was pulled over by six men in a jeep. After tying up the workers accompanying him, they drove him away. They wanted $50 million.

After she found out, Pablo’s mother spent hours yelling and crying and praying. Pablo put out the word that if his father ended up with a single bruise the ransom money they got wouldn’t be enough to pay for their own burials.

Remaining composed, Pablo formed a plan to capture the kidnappers. His father needed medicine for open-heart surgery. Many of the two-hundred drugstores in Medellín had security cameras. He installed cameras in those that didn’t. He offered a reward for photos of anyone buying the heart medicine his father needed. Two kidnappers were identified. As the kidnappers used payphones, Pablo gave hundreds of radio transmitters to people with instructions to listen to a certain radio station. Whenever the kidnappers called Pablo’s mother, the station announced a song dedicated to Luz Marina. After hearing this, the people with the transmitters rushed out to the nearest payphones.

Over eighteen days, Pablo’s brother negotiated the ransom down to $1 million. The money was delivered in duffel bags with electronic tracking devices, which the kidnappers took to a farm. The house was surrounded and assaulted from every direction. Three of the kidnappers were captured and sentenced to death by Pablo. His father was released unharmed.

Perhaps things weren’t as safe in Colombia as Pablo thought. He went everywhere with bodyguards, moved around a lot and took extra precautions.