The Cocaine King: Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel

In 1990, one of the richest men on the planet was Pablo Escobar. To some, he was a ruthless drug lord who murdered thousands of people. To others, he was a Robin Hood who gave millions of dollars to poor neighborhoods in Colombia.

Members of the DEA and Colombian police pose with the dead body of Pablo Escobar  (Photo from DEA)

In the mid 1970’s, the recreational drug of choice in the United States was marijuana. Much of this was grown in Mexico or South America and then smuggled into the US, and much of this illegal smuggling was done by Cuban exiles living in Florida. In those times, security at airports was minimal, and it was a fairly simple matter for drug smugglers to hire flight attendants or passengers as “mules”, who would travel to Columbia or Bolivia, fill their suitcases with marijuana, and bring it back to the US.

In the late 1970’s, however, the rules of the game began to change, as increasing security made it more difficult for the mules to move their product. In 1977, two convicted drug smugglers who had just been released from Federal prison, Colombian Carlos Lehder Rivas and American George Jung, hatched a new plan: instead of relying on mules to spirit in small amounts of pot at a time, they would obtain their own light aircraft, fly them to the production fields in South America, and fly back to the US fully loaded and unsuspected, to land at surreptitious grass airfields in Florida for unloading.

Part of the reason for the Lehder network’s success would be its contractual relationship with a pair of Colombian producers, Jorge Luis Ochoa Vasquez and his partner Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria, based near the town of Medellin, Colombia. And the network’s fortunes increased dramatically when, in the late 1970’s, Ochoa and Escobar began to supplement, and then virtually replace, their marijuana with a new product, one that was low-cost, high-profit, and would quickly become enormously popular in the US–cocaine. By 1980, virtually every high society figure in the US, from Hollywood to Wall Street, had his or her own personal cocaine dealer, and most of it was coming from the Medellin Cartel.

Pablo Escobar had been born in December 1949 in a little town called Rio Negro, the son of a schoolteacher. Although he was accepted to the provincial university, he was unable to afford to stay, and dropped out in 1966 and drifted into car theft and then the marijuana-growing businesses, eventually partnering with Jorge Ochoa. Flush with cash from marijuana crops, they expanded quickly into the new cocaine business, buying up all the local coca crops by paying local farmers up to twice the going rate. By 1978, Escobar and Ochoa monopolized most of the cocaine production in Medellin, and the Medellin cartel controlled most of the cocaine going to the huge North American market. A Cuban mule might be able to deliver 5 or 10 kilos of pot or cocaine at a time; a single light airplane from Colombia could carry 300 kilos, worth over $15 million in the US. With one trip per week, Escobar and Ochoa were making over $1 billion a year in profits. Within a few years, the Cuban networks had virtually disappeared.

But it was not simply the greater economic efficiency of the Medellins that allowed them to dominate the trade: it was Escobar’s talent for undiluted violence. Between 1978 and 1981, a period that became known as “The Cocaine Wars”, the Medellins sent dozens of hired guns to the US to eliminate the Cubans as well as other rival South American groups. Like Chicago in the 20s, gang wars became an almost daily occurrence, and hundreds were killed.

When the smoke cleared in 1982, the Medellin Cartel was the undisputed master of the American cocaine trade. There was so much cocaine flowing from Colombia into the US that the tiny grass airfields in Florida were not enough to handle the traffic, and Lehder bought himself a private island in the Bahamas, Norman’s Cay, which was transformed into one of the busiest unofficial airports in the Carribean. As the amount shipped to the US continued to grow, the cartel began new ways of smuggling the product in, including freighters anchored in international waters that unloaded cocaine into small speedboats which then dashed in to the Florida shore. Later, miniature submarines would be used to evade the Coast Guard. By 1982, Escobar and the Medellins were sending two tons of coke every week to Florida, for annual profits over $5 billion.

Soon, the Medellins had graduated to hiring US pilots to fly DC-3 and DC-6 airplanes, packed with 3 tons of cocaine, to Lehder’s base in Norman’s Cay. When United Airlines went bankrupt, Escobar bought 13 of their Boeing 727’s, stripped out the seats, and carried 11 tons of cocaine in each. The US DEA at this point didn’t know about the Medellin cartel’s production assets, but they did know that an enormous amount of cocaine was going through the Bahamas, and diplomatically pressured the government there to do something about it. In September 1983 Lehder was forced to leave the Bahamas, but soon found another haven in Panama, under the protection of strongman Manuel Noriega. By 1984 there was so much cocaine flowing into the US that the bloated supply drove down the price, to less than $16,000 a kilo. Nevertheless, because of the huge amounts, the Medellin cartel was still netting billions a year; according to legend, they were spending $2500 each month just for rubber bands, to bundle their bricks of cash. About half of all the cocaine going into the US, from Peru and Bolivia as well as Colombia, was going through the Medellin Cartel. Pablo Escobar’s personal worth was at least $3 billion, making him the richest man in Colombia. By 1989, with an estimated $24 billion, Escobar was named by Forbes magazine as the seventh richest person in the world.

As ruthless as he was in producing his fortune, Escobar was generous in spending it. Although he lived in a sprawling 5,000 acre mansion with a private zoo (with hippos, tigers, lions and zebras) and six swimming pools, he painted himself as a man of the people and a friend of the downtrodden, and often paid for soccer stadiums and schools for poor villages. The cartel employed over 750,000 people in Medellin; the cocaine processing centers were cities in themselves, with their own schools, churches and hospitals. Escobar even managed to get himself elected to the Colombian Legislature.

His cartel was already more powerful than the national government. Escobar’s ruthless policy towards judges, police and political officials was one he called “Silver or Lead”: he first offered generous bribes (the silver), and if that was refused, Escobar simply had them shot (the lead). Throughout the 80’s, the Medellins killed thousands of police, judges and politicians, including even Presidential candidates.

Escobar’s biggest fear, though, was of being extradited to the US to face charges, where he had no political influence and his bribery attempts would likely not work. As US pressure on Colombia increased, Escobar first bribed politicians in Bogata to end the extradition treaty with the US (offering at one point to pay off the country’s entire $13 billion in foreign debts if the government agreed not to extradite him), then in 1991 volunteered to submit to arrest in Colombia if he were not extradited, offering to pay for the construction of his own prison. At the same time, Escobar turned the streets of Colombia into a killing ground, shooting and bombing police, judges, journalists, and bystanders. The Colombian government, to end the violence, agreed to Escobar’s terms: he was “imprisoned” in a grand mansion in the Medellin jungle that American law enforcement officials referred to contemptuously as “Club Medellin”. Not surprisingly, Escobar continued to run the cartel from his private prison, named “La Catedral”.

But things began to fall apart for Pablo Escobar in 1992, when he had four members of the rival Cali Cartel brought to his prison and executed them there. The President of Colombia ordered the army to move in and grab Escobar to relocate him to a real prison and, very likely, extradite him to the US. Instead, Escobar escaped before the troops could get there, and went on the run. With every law enforcement group on Colombia looking for him (and with the US quietly sending DEA and Special Forces teams to help), Escobar had no chance. (He was also faced with a secretive paramilitary group calling itself “Los PEPE’s”, or “People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar”, who used Escobar’s own methods against him by ruthlessly hunting down and killing most of his friends, contacts and associates. Rumor has long held that Los PEPE’s were financed and supported both by the US Government and by the Cali Cartel.)

In December 1993, Escobar was traced by US forces to an apartment hideout in Medellin, where he was killed by Colombian police as he tried to run away across a rooftop.

The Medellin Cartel, meanwhile, had already lost its dominant position, as Mexican cartels began to monopolize the drug flow into the United States.

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