Pablo Escobar: Beyond Narcos - Shaun Attwood (2016)

Chapter 8. The Extraditables

After the MAS had started to annihilate the guerrillas responsible for kidnapping Martha Ochoa, Pablo had met their leader, Ivan Marino Ospina. Not only did each side agree not to attack the other, but as a show of good faith, Ospina gave Pablo the famous sword of the liberator Simón Bolívar, a Venezuelan military leader who’d helped Colombia gain independence from Spain in 1810. The founder of the M-19, Jaime Bateman, had stolen the sword – a symbol of unfulfilled liberation – from a museum in 1974 and announced that it would not be returned until the government agreed to peace with the M-19. Initially, Pablo hung it on a wall. Eventually, he gave it to a nephew to hide. The chronology of these events was condensed in Narcos, which showed a sad and incompetent member of the M-19 and his glamorous lover breaking into a museum to steal the sword, only to have their leader hand it to Pablo in the next episode.

Relations between the guerrilla groups and the cartel were generally in a state of flux; however, since the handing over of the sword, the friendship between Pablo and the M-19 leader, Ivan, had lasted. With the M-19 known for committing spectacular attacks against the government, they came to mind when Pablo thought of targeting the government’s files on extradition, which were housed in the Palace of Justice in Bogotá. If Pablo could destroy or intimidate the Colombian judiciary system in a sensational way, then maybe he could take over the entire country. He would do the unthinkable: go after the Supreme Court.

By September 1985, six Colombians out of 105 on the US list had been extradited, and nine were in jail. Pablo formed a group called the Extraditables with the motto: “Better a grave in Colombia than a jail cell in the US.” The cartel leaders made a blood pact that they would commit suicide rather than rot away in an American prison. Their preferred method was to shoot themselves behind the ear, which allowed a bullet easy access to the brain by circumventing the skull.

Since his early arrests, Pablo had refined his intimidation tactics against judges. A judge assigned to a narcotics case would be visited by a bright young well-dressed lawyer, carrying a briefcase. On the judge’s desk, he’d put a brown envelope.

The lawyer would say something like, “You have a choice. You can have lead, bullet in your head, or silver, some money as a payoff. It’s your call.” If the judge prevaricated, the lawyer would reach inside his briefcase and take out a photo album containing pictures of the closest family members and friends of the judge: their children leaving home in the morning, going to school, playing in the playground, talking to friends… The threat of their entire family being wiped out persuaded most judges.

Pablo was about to refine his tactics again. The Extraditables sent letters to the Supreme Court justices, demanding that they declare the extradition treaty illegal. The letters were designed not to give any evidence to the police. Block letters were used. They were signed by the Extraditables or a first name such as Manuel. When Pablo wasn’t writing on behalf of the Extraditables and he wanted people to know that he’d authored a letter, he wrote in his own handwriting, signed his name and added his thumbprint. Some people wondered whether Pablo was the Extraditables, whereas others thought that he was a front for them.

The Extraditables obtained the justices’ private phone numbers and threatened them. With a ruling due on extradition, the justices were afraid. More letters came for the justices stating that the Extraditables knew everything going on in their lives.

“We declare war against you. We declare war against the members of your family. As you may suppose, we know exactly where they are – we will do away with your entire family. We have no compassion whatsoever – we are capable of anything, absolutely anything.”

Some letters included taped recordings of private conversations they’d had. A voice on a tape recorder warned a justice called Alfonso that his wife wouldn’t be alive to make an upcoming trip.

“I’m having a little trouble,” Alfonso told his wife. “You should change your travel routes during the day. Don’t talk to me over the phone about your plans, and, really, be very careful.”

After Alfonso reported the intimidation tactics, he was assigned four DAS bodyguards, and his wife got one.

Alfonso learned that all of the justices were suffering the same treatment. One had taken his daughter to a hospital for an operation and was about to leave her there when he was paged to the reception. A nurse handed him a phone. A voice said, “We know where she is.”

A judge with a heart condition received a miniature coffin with his name on it, which caused him panic attacks.

Even though Alfonso had four bodyguards, the pressure from the cartel increased. Numerous letters arrived on one day, including one for his wife: “You must convince your husband to abrogate the treaty. Remember, we are the same people who dealt with Rodrigo Lara Bonilla. Your bodyguards won’t save you, no matter how many you have.” An accompanying cassette contained recordings of his wife on the phone in her office in the Foreign Ministry.

The couple stopped taking walks and going out at night. They gave relatives numbers to decode to ascertain their whereabouts. Alfonso insisted that they no longer drive to work together. “That way, you’ll save yourself.”

The night before the decision about extradition, the couple couldn’t sleep. Before leaving for work, Alfonso kissed his wife. Heading for the Palace of Justice on November 6, 1985, he had a bad feeling in his stomach.

Due to visiting foreign dignitaries, pomp and circumstance was in full swing in the Protocol Salon of the National Palace. National anthems were being played. Armed grenadiers were marching in the courtyard. At first, the gunfire was difficult to hear over the noise, but the sound of marching boots made people question what was going on.

At 11:40 am, dozens of guerrillas with rifles, machine guns and grenades jumped from a truck and stormed the Palace. They blasted at security guards and joined their comrades who’d entered the night before in civilian clothes. In no time, they had almost 300 hostages, including Alfonso and most of the justices. Other hostages included lawyers, secretaries, shopkeepers and shoeshine people. The guerrillas blocked stairwells with furniture and mounted machine guns on top. They issued a demand for the highest court in the nation to put the president on trial for failing to keep his promise to establish peace.

The police on the scene rescued some hostages, but were repelled with gunfire. The army showed up with tanks, grenade launchers, helicopters and hundreds of troops with hard helmets and rifles, who positioned themselves in rows against various walls for cover. They blasted rockets at the massive building with its masonry façade, making holes in the walls. Debris littered the sidewalk. Tank fire and rockets pounded the entrance door. Helicopters landed on the roof, and troops alighted to sniper fire coming through the skylights. Troops who managed to get inside couldn’t get past the blocked stairwells and received machine-gun fire. A day went by with the guerrillas in control of the building.

Alfonso was trapped on the fourth floor with his bodyguards. With no guerrillas there, they felt relatively safe until a secretary screamed, “They’re coming through the wall!” When the guerrillas arrived, they put up no resistance.

Alfonso’s phone rang. A guerrilla commander angrily told Alfonso’s son to tell the police and soldiers to stop shooting. He gave the phone to Alfonso.

“I’m all right,” Alfonso said, “but see if the DAS and the police will stop shooting.”

With the sound of shooting in the background, the guerrilla commander got back on the phone. “If they don’t stop shooting in fifteen minutes, we’re all going to die!”

When Alfonso’s son called back, the distraught guerrilla commander was prophesying doom because the government was refusing to negotiate. A goal of the guerrillas was to draw attention to the systematic aerial bombardment of their forces in the wake of a negotiated peace agreement with the president.

“The shooting must stop,” Alfonso told his son, who was so frustrated that he gave a radio station his father’s telephone number.

With the televised attack shocking the nation – Pablo was watching, too – Radio Caracol called Alfonso. Across the country, Colombians heard Alfonso request a ceasefire and negotiations. An hour later, he spoke to his son. “The guerrillas want to negotiate.” Shortly after 5 pm, the line cut out.

Around 7 pm, smoke started filtering through the building. Burning files ignited a fire, which spread to the wooden building dividers. Gagging and coughing, some of the people hiding on the top floor went downstairs, where the guerrillas captured them. They were thrown on top of sixty hostages compressed into a bathroom, who were traumatised by the likelihood of imminent death. Some were bleeding. Others had stopped breathing. The room stank of sweat and bodily fluids.

The next afternoon, troops braced to go inside. Instead of complying with the guerrillas’ demand for negotiations, the president had authorised a military assault. After a tank rammed the front door, troops charged in. The guerrillas sifted through the corpses to find the living, whom they ordered to get up. Hostages shoved out of the door were annihilated by the army. Grenades toppled some of them, leaving them injured and bleeding or dead. Guerrillas threw corpses down the stairwell, including one of the justices who looked dead but was still alive, his artificial leg shattered by a bullet. After the guerrillas left that area, the injured justice crawled to the cellar and up a flight of stairs. Mustering energy, he raised himself and his arms. “Don’t shoot!”

Approximately one hundred died in the bloodbath. Alfonso didn’t make it. He was one of the eleven justices – half of the Supreme Court – shot dead. All of the guerrillas died, as well as eleven police and soldiers. Some of the survivors disappeared immediately afterwards, with the government suspected of killing them.

At first, the cartel’s role wasn’t obvious. Many people blamed the guerrillas and the government’s overreaction. Controversy remains to this day, with some researchers claiming that the fire that torched the extradition files was due to the army’s response. Roberto Escobar stated that the Extraditables had financed the operation for the destruction of the records – not mass murder – and the traffickers had offered to double the fee to the guerrillas if the government negotiations had worked out.

Survivors, including the justice who’d been thrown down the stairs with the corpses, criticised the government for not negotiating. When the president eulogised in a church for the dead justices, the survivors didn’t attend.

Afterwards, some people quit working for Pablo, others for the government, including many judges.

The violence increased into 1986, with journalists, prosecutors and judges getting killed by hit men on motorbikes.