Pablo Escobar: Beyond Narcos - Shaun Attwood (2016)

Chapter 9. Colonel Ramirez and Cano

In late January, 1986, an informant told the police that Pablo had issued a contract worth $150,000 on a police colonel, which had gone to the Medellín chapter of the Ricardo Franco Brigade, a guerrilla group that had recently butchered a few hundred of its own members suspected of being police infiltrators. The Brigade had delegated the hit to its chief of executions, Foxy, who’d taken a $12,000 down payment from Pablo, which had been spent on a MAC-10, four pistols and a revolver. The weapons were outside one of Pablo’s safe houses in North Bogotá, stashed in a Renault 18, with one hit man overseeing it.

The informant said that Pablo had accumulated a file of information on the colonel, which he’d shared with Foxy. Pablo had paid $30,000 for the information to a lieutenant trusted by the colonel. They were aware that the colonel was starting a course at generals’ school, and they had details of his going-away party. They knew where he lived, his mother’s address, the car he owned and that he drove an armoured Mercedes-Benz on loan from the DEA – the informant gave all of the specific details.

A hit scheduled for outside of a club had been called off due to the colonel’s large escort. A hit at his mother’s house had also fallen through as too many relatives had accompanied the colonel, and Pablo wanted a clean kill without numerous casualties. The hit team had picked three potential locations: his mother’s house, a highway overpass by a police academy and across the street from a bakery. In regular contact with Foxy, the informant pledged to give further information for the right price.

Police intelligence pegged Colonel Ramirez as the target and assigned surveillance to the safe house with the weapons in the car outside. Neighbours spotted the undercover agents taking photos and called the police.

With Colonel Ramirez on leave – he’d been relieved of duty at the end of 1985 – it was decided not to tell him about the hit until they knew for sure.

Ramirez returned to work in February in high spirits. He’d survived his tenure as Anti-Narcotics Unit police chief, during which his men had managed to make almost 8,000 arrests and confiscate more than half of the cocaine seized in the world in 1985, as well as countless vehicles, boats and planes. Also in 1985, he’d overseen the destruction of ninety percent of the marijuana crop, which had been poisoned by crop dusters with herbicide provided by the DEA. He’d won awards, was ready for a promotion to general and his advice on drug eradication was being sought around the world.

Ramirez had cost the cartel so much money that other members had bought shares in the hit: Gacha wanted revenge for the Land of Tranquillity; Lehder because the colonel had hounded him for more than a year, almost arrested him twice, had incarcerated the mother of his three-year-old daughter, had decimated his trafficking operation and reduced his stature in the cartel.

On August 5, 1985, Lehder had only just managed to slip away from Ramirez by fleeing towards a river in his red underwear, carrying a machine gun. The police found a letter from one of his lawyers: “All your problems began when you started with the politics. The trick is to make yourself dead, the phantom – no publicity so the gringos and Colombians forget you… The important thing is not to die rich. The important thing is to live rich – like before.”

In February 1986, Ramirez and his family relocated to the General Santander Police Academy in Bogotá, which offered extra protection. He was safe at the base, but he had to drive to the war college daily. He knew the traffickers wanted him dead, but would they dare go after him? No evidence had come about from surveying the safe house with the Renault parked outside.

Ramirez grew more concerned after questioning the informant, who detailed the two previously planned hits that had been cancelled. The thought of hit men staking out his parents’ Christmas Eve party disturbed him. When the interview ended, the informant promised to keep providing information. Ramirez told his family that the informant was truthful.

The threat had come at an awkward time because Ramirez was no longer in command of an armed force that could retaliate against Pablo. Unable to adhere to his motto of constantly kicking the traffickers in the nuts, he started to worry. For eight months, he only left the base to drive to police headquarters in an armoured Ford LTD provided by the DEA, wearing a bullet-proof vest, armed with a revolver and a MAC-10 and protected by a chauffeur with a revolver. Mindful of the details provided by the informant, the driver always varied the route. Before Ramirez set off, the route was checked by police on motorbikes.

The threat made his wife ill. His father dreamt that he was dead. He urged his brother to minimise any descriptions of the danger to his father. His two boys travelled to school in an armoured bus. The family rarely went out to eat, and if they did, they wore bullet-proof vests. One of his sons had become proficient in the use of a MAC-10, which accompanied them on family journeys.

Prior to Easter Sunday, his brother invited him and his family to stay at a cabin. Ramirez was desperate to blow off steam. “I’ve always been the pursuer, and now they’re pursuing me. I’m the one who puts people against the wall, not the other way around.”

The information coming from the informant suddenly stopped after he revealed that the hit team had acquired nine vehicles, explosives and rocket-propelled grenades and launchers. Security around Ramirez was increased. Investigators were unable to find any new leads or the identity of the lieutenant alleged to have been providing information to the cartel.

Due to his previous successes with traffickers, Captain Ernesto Mora of the Anti-Narcotics Unit was assigned to infiltrate the cartel and issue reports to Ramirez with any updates on the threat. Ernesto ascertained that the contract with Foxy was still active and that other cartel leaders had shares in the contract. New information had come to light that Pablo was considering cancelling the contract, but this needed further confirmation.

Pablo’s overtures to Ramirez – requesting a meeting to talk things over – were declined by Ramirez, who believed that the proposal was a trap. Not necessarily that he would be killed, but secret photos would be taken of him with Pablo, and his career ruined. Ernesto delivered a message from Ramirez: Pablo would be treated fairly if he turned himself in.

In May 1986, four strangers – who’d arrived in a red Renault – were noticed lurking around the ranch belonging to Ramirez in Granada. Their leader had curly hair and a solid build. For a few days, they walked around, staking out the house. The caretaker took a bus to Ramirez. At the police academy, the caretaker identified the leader of the strangers from a photo.

In August, Ramirez and his classmates went to Europe for a month, where they visited other law enforcement and did workshops. With his luggage crammed with tons of information and reports, Ramirez returned excited to apply the knowledge in the hope of enhancing and modernising the police force.

While awaiting his new career, scheduled for the end of the year, Ramirez did jobs at police headquarters and also worked as a consultant with foreign governments fighting the War on Drugs. In Bolivia, as part of the DEA’s Operation Blast Furnace, Ramirez was finally able to strike back at Pablo by helping to find some of Pablo’s labs, which the authorities burned down. Returning to the thick of the action lifted his spirits, but the threat from Pablo – particularly to his family – gnawed at him.

On October 21, 1986, Foxy was killed in a gunfight in Medellín. In light of this development, Ernesto told Ramirez that Pablo had probably cancelled the contract, and that it was unlikely that anyone would attempt to kill Ramirez in the wake of Foxy’s death as a new hit team would have to start from scratch, gathering information and staking out locations. The safe house with the Renault outside had been raided many times. The raids had produced no leads. No further sightings of the strangers led by the curly-haired man had occurred.

Feeling safer, Ramirez gave up his bodyguards. On a daily basis, he spoke to Ernesto. Each day, there were no new developments, so he relaxed more.

On Thursday, November 13, 1986, Ramirez was invited to a family dinner scheduled for Monday. Even though the thirty-mile drive seemed comparatively risk-free, Ramirez said that he would have to give it more thought.

On Friday, he received a ten-minute call from Ernesto. After hanging up, he turned to his wife. With his face transformed into a relaxed state that had been absent for a long time, he said, “They’ve suspended the contract.”

With the threat gone, the family looked forward to the upcoming get-together. It was the kind of occasion that they’d learned to appreciate after everything they’d been through. Finally, things were back to normal.

On Sunday afternoon, they left the armoured vehicle in the garage and set off in a Toyota minivan with a MAC-10 on the floor by one of Ramirez’s sons. With so much holiday traffic, it would be difficult for any pursuers to set a trap. After stopping to eat at a ranch near Bogotá, they drove for another hour to a friend’s house, where they stayed overnight.

At 10 am on Monday, they set off in high spirits for the ranch belonging to the brother of Ramirez. The four family members hadn’t taken a trip together like this in a long time. The ranch was packed with family members in a celebratory mood, anticipating a feast.

In-between eating pigs’ knuckles, Ramirez told stories to everybody sat around outside on the lawn. He was proud of his imminent promotion. It now looked like he was going to become the police’s chief of personnel. Excitedly, he described how he was going to employ many of his former men in his new department, and encourage everyone to keep fighting the traffickers. It would be like old times.

After 4 pm, Ramirez said it was a good time to leave in order to beat the holiday traffic returning to Bogotá. As they set off, multiple cars – that had been parked in the area for hours – followed the minivan.

At 5:43 pm, the minivan encountered heavy traffic on a highway bridge. Failing to notice their pursuers, they crept along in the right-hand lane. Ramirez and his wife discussed how they were getting on in years, and how they’d like to spend the rest of their lives together. When they were halfway over the bridge, a red Renault 18 approached their left side as if overtaking the minivan. It slowed. Its occupants were watching Ramirez. One of them raised a MAC-10.

“Get down!”

An explosion of shots ripped into Ramirez, forcing him forwards, where he stayed slumped as if dead.

His two sons had been shot: one in the hand; the other in the thighs, producing lots of blood; nevertheless, the latter son tried to find the MAC-10. Hit in the knee, his wife reached for the steering wheel. Veering towards the side of the bridge, the minivan stopped at a curb.

The Renault halted in front of the van. Three smartly-dressed passengers in their twenties got out, brandishing MAC-10s. While two remained at the Renault, the third approached the van.

Bleeding from the leg, Ramirez’s wife was crawling across the bridge, hoping to get to the other side of the van to assist her husband. She looked up at an assassin. “Please don’t kill me.”

Leaving her unharmed, the hit man opened the driver’s door and blasted Ramirez. He got in the Renault, which sped away.

The day after the murder of Ramirez, the US authorities went public with a super indictment of the top traffickers – the Ochoa brothers, Pablo, Lehder and Gacha – charging them with, among other things, producing fifty-eight tons of cocaine from 1978 to 1985:

From as early as 1978 to the date of the return of this indictment there existed an international criminal narcotics enterprise based in Medellín, Colombia, South America, known by various names, including “The Medellín Cartel” (hereinafter “Cartel”), which consisted of controlling members of major international cocaine manufacturing and distributing organizations… Through the Cartel, major cocaine organizations were able to pool resources, including raw materials, clandestine cocaine conversion laboratories, aircraft, vessels, transportation facilities, distribution networks, and cocaine to facilitate international narcotics trafficking.

The indictment made more headlines in Colombia than America, especially with the newspaper El Espectador, which published multiple stories. It was the same newspaper that had published Pablo’s mugshot, seriously harming his political goals. It employed one of the bravest Colombians still willing to speak out against Pablo and the traffickers. His name was Cano, a highly respected sixty-one-year-old newsman with white hair. He wrote this in a column:

Legalise drug-trafficking? That would be like legalising and justifying all the collateral activities: money laundering, the assassination of Supreme Court justices, of Cabinet ministers, of judges, and of so many other persons who, by doing their duty have fallen victim to the narcotics traffickers and their hired killers.

On December 17, 1986, Cano returned to his office from a lunch break, laden with Christmas gifts. After working late, he left the building in the evening. With the gifts on the backseat, he started his station wagon and joined the traffic. He changed lanes to make a U-turn. While Cano waited for an opening to turn, a young man nearby stepped off a motorbike, placed a case on the ground and took out a MAC-10. He hurried over to Cano’s car. The firing began.

El Espectador lost ten staff members, including Cano. Its building was car-bombed twice. The cartel went after investigative reporters, political columnists, editors and anyone else who opposed them. Even a statue of Cano erected in his honour was bombed to bits in Medellín.

In a political debate on trafficking, a voice of reason offered a solution. “The drug business will cease to be profitable for the drug traffickers,” said the president of the Council of State, “if it is legalised and if the Colombian state assumes total control not only of its sale, but also of its use.” As usual, his proposal was ignored.