Killing Pablo: Chapters One Through Seventeen
Source: Inquirer (PA)
Author: Mark Bowden, Inquirer Staff Writer
Published: November 12 through December 17, 2000
Copyright: 2000 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.
Address: 400 N. Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA 19101
Web Site: http://www.phillynews.com/inq/
Contact: [email protected]
Colombia: Killing Pablo - Escobar's Rise To Power
Chapter One In A Continuing Serial
Pablo Escobar was arguably the richest and most violent criminal in history. Forbes Magazine in 1989 listed him as the seventh-richest man in the world.
A small-time gangster and car thief from Medellin, the second-largest city in Colombia, Escobar violently consolidated the cocaine industry there in the late 1970s. Elected as an alternate to Colombia's Congress in 1983, Escobar enjoyed widespread popularity among the poor in Colombia, especially in his home state of Antioquia.
He turned his violent methods against the state in 1984, when Colombia began cracking down on the cocaine exporters and extraditing them to the United States for trial.
His campaign of murder, kidnapping, bombing and bribery from then until his death in 1993 forced a constitutional crisis in Colombia. He cowed the government into banning extradition, and his murder campaign against judges and prosecutors so intimidated the nation that it abandoned trial by jury and began appointing anonymous, "faceless" judges to prosecute crimes.
At the height of his power in the late 1980s, Escobar and his Medellin drug cartel controlled as much as 80 percent of the multibillion-dollar export of Colombian cocaine to the United States.
Escobar was blamed for assassinating three of the five candidates for Colombian president in 1989, and for instigating a takeover of the Palace of Justice in Bogota in 1986. More than 90 people died in the subsequent siege, including 11 Supreme Court justices.
When one of Escobar's bombs brought down an Avianca Airliner in Colombia in November 1989, killing 107 people, he became one of the most feared terrorists in the world.
Men working for Escobar were caught that same year trying to buy Stinger antiaircraft missiles in Miami.
A heavy pot-smoker, Escobar cultivated a relaxed, informal style with his friends and associates, but he was so vicious to his enemies that he was feared by everyone. In his battle with Colombian police, he placed a bounty on the head of officers in Medellin, paying higher rewards for killing those of greater rank. By the time of his death at age 44, Dec. 2, 1993, Escobar was considered responsible for thousands of deaths in Colombia, yet he was mourned publicly by large crowds in his home city.
A Deadly Manhunt Guided By The US
Eight years ago, at the request of the Colombian government, U.S. military and spy forces helped fund and guide a massive manhunt that ended with the killing of Pablo Escobar, the richest cocaine trafficker in the world.
While portraying the pursuit of Escobar as essentially a Colombian operation, the United States secretly spent millions of dollars and committed elite soldiers, law enforcement agents and the military's most sophisticated electronic eavesdropping unit to the chase.
The full extent of the U.S. role has never before been made public. Details of the 15-month operation, which began during the administration of President George Bush and continued under President Clinton, are revealed in a serial beginning in The Inquirer today.
A two-year Inquirer investigation has found that:
The Army's top secret counterterrorism unit, Delta Force, along with a clandestine Army electronic surveillance team, tracked the movements of Escobar and his associates and helped plan raids by a special Colombian police unit called the Search Bloc. The former American ambassador to Colombia directed the U.S. effort with assistance from agents of the CIA, FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, and National Security Agency.
Midway through the operation, the Search Bloc began collaborating with vigilantes, who assassinated Escobar's associates and relatives. U.S. soldiers and agents said they witnessed the cooperation. The United States continued to supply intelligence, training and planning to the Search Bloc even as the assassinations continued.
In November 1993, Pentagon officials sought to end U.S. involvement in the manhunt. They were concerned that American forces in Colombia were going beyond their instructions and possibly violating a presidential directive prohibiting American involvement in assassinations of foreign citizens. The campaign to withdraw the U.S. personnel was stalled by a lobbying effort led by the American ambassador in Bogota. Five weeks later, Escobar was killed by Colombian police.
Official accounts at the time said Escobar, 44, was killed Dec. 2, 1993, in a gun battle on a rooftop in the city of Medellin. Autopsy reports and photos reveal that he was shot point-blank in the ear. A senior Colombian National Police commander said Escobar was executed by a member of the Search Bloc after being wounded. The Colombian government had said its aim was to arrest Escobar, an indicted criminal.
The mission to track down Escobar rid Colombia of a violent menace who threatened to topple the state. Escobar had terrorized his country beginning in 1984 - assassinating judges, police officers, journalists and politicians. Much of the violence was meant to coerce the Colombian government to ban extradition of drug traffickers to the United States. Escobar was believed to have ordered the killings of three of the five candidates for president of Colombia in 1989.
But eliminating Escobar did nothing to stem the flow of cocaine to the United States, and may have inadvertently contributed to the formation of "super cartels" - alliances among guerrillas, growers, paramilitaries and traffickers that today threaten the government of Colombia. Those alliances are one target of the $1.3 billion in U.S. anti-narcotics aid to Colombia this year, which includes 300 American troops training Colombian security forces.
American involvement in the hunt for Escobar began in 1989, when President Bush authorized a secret military effort to help Colombia track down leaders of the Medellin cocaine cartel. Its code name was Heavy Shadow.
Centra Spike, a top-secret Army unit that specialized in tracking people by monitoring telephone and radio calls, was covertly sent to Colombia in August of that year.
The sophisticated surveillance helped chase Escobar into hiding and a life on the run. He surrendered to Colombian authorities in 1991 after negotiating a deal that allowed him to live with his closest associates in a comfortable "prison" built for him in his hometown of Envigado, near Medellin.
Escobar fled the prison on July 22, 1992, when Colombian authorities tried to move him to a real prison. After he disappeared, Colombian President Cesar Gaviria asked the United States to expand its assistance. Bush authorized the clandestine deployment of Delta Force and other U.S. personnel, and the multimillion-dollar effort continued during the Clinton administration until Escobar's death.
Public statements by U.S. officials during the manhunt acknowledged that American forces had helped train the Colombian Search Bloc. But American involvement in the effort was far more extensive than that.
Participants said that secret U.S. contributions totaled hundreds of millions of dollars in hardware, personnel and cash. At its height, with all these forces assembled under Ambassador Morris D. Busby and CIA station chief Bill Wagner, Bogota was the largest CIA station in the world.
The hunt for Escobar took an ugly turn in February 1993, when a vigilante group calling itself Los Pepes (Perseguidos por Pablo Escobar, or People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar) embarked on a campaign of murder and bombings.
The vigilantes burned Escobar's mansions and luxury cars and began methodically killing off lawyers, bankers, money-launderers, assassins and relatives who helped him maintain his cocaine empire. In so doing, the vigilantes made a key contribution - stripping away the infrastructure of Escobar's organization and leaving him isolated and afraid for his family.
In communiques, Los Pepes said it was composed of relatives of people murdered or terrorized by Escobar. The vigilantes hung a sign around the neck of one victim that read: "For working with the narco-terrorist and baby-killer Pablo Escobar. For Colombia. Los Pepes."
The Search Bloc's methods were no less brutal. So many of its targets were killed, rather than arrested, that American officials came to regard the phrase "Killed in a gun battle with the Colombian police" as a euphemism for summary execution.
Busby, then the U.S. ambassador, and Colombian Gen. Hugo Martinez, the Search Bloc commander, both deny that the hunt for Escobar was tainted by cooperation with Los Pepes, who at their busiest were killing as many as five people a day. The group assassinated an estimated 300 people. No one was ever prosecuted for these murders.
Martinez said in interviews that he and his men had no association with Los Pepes, whom he called a "nuisance."
"They made more trouble for us than help," said Martinez, who survived numerous attempts on his life and on his family. He said he turned down a $6 million bribe from Escobar to abandon the chase.
Busby said he had been told of evidence that the Search Bloc and Los Pepes were working together, but never found it convincing. He said that if he had believed the two groups were linked, "it would have been a show-stopper. We would have pulled everybody out of the country. I communicated that directly to the Colombian president."
The evidence Busby had seen was detailed in a secret cable he wrote on Aug. 1, 1993. In it, the ambassador said that Colombia's top prosecutor had told him he had "very good" evidence of a connection. Busby also said that "our own reporting" suggested a link.
Separate DEA cables from the embassy noted the connection between the Search Bloc and a leader of Los Pepes.
Busby, in an interview, said he had not seen the DEA cables and that DEA agents and Delta Force operatives never informed him of the interactions they witnessed between members of the Search Bloc and Los Pepes.
He said he still does not believe the Search Bloc and the vigilantes were connected.
In a series of interviews, former Colombian President Gaviria, now general secretary of the Organization of American States, said he suspected ties between his police generals and Los Pepes.
"I was very concerned there was a connection," Gaviria said. "I spoke out against Los Pepes very strongly from the beginning, but I feared there was a connection with the police. I think the police felt they were very close to getting Escobar, and maybe they went ahead because of that."
Colombian Fiscal General Gustavo de Greiff, the equivalent of the U.S. attorney general, had more than suspicions. During the summer of 1993, he told U.S. officials in Bogota that he had strong evidence that Martinez and several top officers of the Search Bloc were working with Los Pepes. He said the evidence was sufficient to charge them with bribery, drug trafficking, torture, kidnapping and possibly murder.
Busby relayed this information to Washington in his secret cable of Aug. 1, 1993. The ambassador expressed misgivings about the sources of de Greiff's information. Many of the allegations, he wrote, were made by "ex-Escobar assassins" trying to discredit the Search Bloc.
Nevertheless, Busby said, he had urged de Greiff and the Colombian defense minister to immediately remove Martinez and the other officers, and had threatened to withdraw American support if they failed to do so. Busby said he wanted to "remove the taint from the anti-Escobar effort."
Contrary advice was being offered by Joe Toft, the DEA chief in Bogota. In a cable written two days after Busby's, Toft said he had urged Colombian officials to keep Martinez in place. The message reads in part: "The BCO" - Bogota Country Office, meaning the U.S. Embassy - "continues to support Colonel Martinez and his subordinates."
Martinez remained commander of the Search Bloc. Neither he nor any member of the unit was ever prosecuted, and U.S. support for the Escobar manhunt never wavered.
Colombian Police Col. Oscar Naranjo, then intelligence chief of the National Police and now chief of analysis for the Ministry of Defense, said in an interview that Los Pepes had worked closely with the Search Bloc.
"The Pepes were a desperate option after Pablo Escobar had generated so much violence in Medellin," Naranjo said. "Old partners of Escobar's got together to offer their services to the government. For the high-ranking officers of the police and government, their relationship with the Search Bloc was kept deliberately unclear, but people celebrated the actions of Los Pepes at all levels of the government. They and the Search Bloc acted on information gathered by the U.S. Embassy, and the Colombian army and police."
Toft's Aug. 3, 1993, cable said: "At this point, according to de Greiff, police officials were probably already too deeply involved with Los Pepes to withdraw. The witnesses' testimony indicates that not only were some members of the Bloque and Los Pepes running joint operations, some of which resulted in kidnappings and possibly killings, but that the leadership of Los Pepes was calling the shots, rather than the police."
There is other evidence of cooperation between the Search Bloc and Los Pepes.
Fidel Castano, a colorful and ruthless Colombian paramilitary leader known as "Rambo" who at one time had helped Escobar ship cocaine and who was killed in 1994 fighting against Marxist guerrillas, acknowledged publicly to reporters before his death that he was a founding member of Los Pepes. He and his brothers turned against the drug boss after he murdered their associates, he said.
In a dispatch to DEA headquarters on Feb. 22, 1993, DEA agent Javier Pena in Bogota identified Castano as "a cooperating individual who was once a trusted Pablo Escobar associate." Pena noted that Castano had valuable connections with the Colombian drug underworld. The cable went on to detail a recent Search Bloc raid on a suspected Escobar hideout that had been led by Castano.
Castano's connection with the Search Bloc was noted in another DEA memo, written in September 1993 by agent Steve Murphy.
A Colombian pilot and former drug trafficker, who asked to be identified only as Rubin, said he was associated with the death squad but stopped short of saying he was a member.
Rubin said one leader of Los Pepes, a man he identified only as "Bernardo" or "Don Berna," had worked for two Medellin drug bosses who had been murdered by Escobar. Two DEA agents said they were familiar with Bernardo, who lived with other members of the group in a house just outside the gate to the Search Bloc headquarters in Medellin. They said they witnessed his regular association with Search Bloc commanders.
Toft, who resigned as Bogota DEA chief months after Escobar was killed to protest growing links between drug dealers and the Colombian government, said the entire effort to track down Escobar was tainted by association with criminal elements.
"On the day Escobar was killed, there were all these celebrations in Bogota," Toft said. "I went to the parties. Everybody was drinking champagne and slapping each other on the back, and the whole time I had this knot in my stomach. I was happy we had gotten Escobar, but at what price? It took away a lot of the joy."
As the manhunt intensified in 1993, two high-level Pentagon officials began to express concerns about potential violations of Presidential Executive Order 12333, which originated during the Nixon administration after congressional hearings exposed excesses in the intelligence community. It has been updated under Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
The order states: "No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination." It adds: "No agency of the Intelligence Community shall participate in or request any person to undertake activities forbidden by this Order."
Concerns about potential violations of the order prompted Lt. Gen. Jack Sheehan of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to recommend the withdrawal all American military forces from Colombia in November 1993, just weeks before Escobar was killed. At the time, Sheehan was in charge of all U.S. military operations overseas.
Sheehan said he made the recommendation after two CIA analysts briefed him at the Pentagon about suspected links between the Search Bloc, Los Pepes and American forces in Colombia.
The analysts, according to Sheehan, noted that the tactics employed by Los Pepes were similar to those being taught to the Search Bloc by Delta Force; that intelligence gathered by U.S. forces was being shared with the death squads; and that Delta Force operatives were overstepping their deployment orders by accompanying Search Bloc members on raids.
Sheehan's recommendation was supported by Brian Sheridan, deputy assistant secretary of defense for drug enforcement.
When he learned of Sheehan's recommendation, Busby was angry. He said he "used my influence" in Washington to try to keep the troops in Colombia. According to Sheehan, the ambassador phoned the White House from Bogota and enlisted support from the National Security Council.
"They all lined up against pulling our guys out," Sheehan said. "I thought this thing had gone way past the original deployment order, and I didn't like the way it looked at all. For Busby and the others, it was an ends-justifies-the-means kind of thing. I was opposed to it, as was anyone who takes seriously the importance of civilian control over the military."
Busby said he believed the CIA analysts who made the report to Sheehan had been "misinformed" about the seriousness of the evidence linking the Search Bloc and Los Pepes.
"We had made promises to President Gaviria that I felt we were obligated to keep," Busby said. "I was not about to abandon him at that late date. It was too important to him and us. I was also, frankly, angry that I had not been consulted."
In the end, the Pentagon ordered the covert units in Colombia - Centra Spike and Delta Force - replaced by unclassifed special forces. The changeover had not been completed by the time Escobar was killed on Dec. 2, 1993.
When Los Pepes had publicly surfaced earlier that year, Clinton had just assumed office. There is no indication that suspicions of American involvement with the vigilantes ever reached him.
A senior Pentagon official said of the manhunt: "There's no question that things down there got ugly. Pablo Escobar was like a man standing on top of a mountain . . . consisting of every family member, business associate, friend and admirer he had built up over 40 years. And ultimately the only way to get at him was to take down the mountain, one person at a time, until Pablo had no place left to hide."
A former American army officer who took part in the manhunt called the effect of Los Pepes "very significant."
"They were stunning," he said. "There was no question in my mind that they were acting on information we gathered. It made it more and more difficult for him to hide. As more and more people were killed, he became terrified for his family. Ultimately, that was what enabled us to find him."
Months after Escobar's death, former Bogota DEA chief Toft released surveillance tapes showing that cocaine traffickers in the Colombian city of Cali had helped finance the presidential campaign of Gaviria's successor, Ernesto Samper. Toft said he believed the hunt for Escobar actually helped create the alliances that today bedevil the country.
Gaviria said that from his standpoint, "the battle against Pablo Escobar was never primarily about stopping drug smuggling.
"He was a very serious problem because he was so violent," the former president said. "He was a threat to the state. The level of terrorism we had to live with was something awful."
Busby, who is retired from the State Department and works as a consultant, described the long pursuit of Escobar as highly secret, but also satisfying.
"Lots of things happened that no one is ever going to talk about," Busby said. "Nobody has ever really talked about this. I will say that in my long experience, I have never seen so many different American agencies, military and civilian, work together with such professionalism and efficiency. I'm really proud of that, and, let me tell you, at that point I would not have wanted to be Pablo Escobar."
Escobar's Escape Opens a Door For the Americans
Morris D. Busby, the U.S. ambassador to Colombia, was awakened by two phone calls early Wednesday, July 22, 1992, at a house in Chevy Chase, Md., where he and his wife were staying with friends.
The first call was to inform him that Colombian President Cesar Gaviria had finally decided to move the drug outlaw Pablo Escobar to a new prison, something Busby had been urging for more than a year. Shortly after that call came another, telling him that Escobar had somehow escaped through an entire brigade of the Colombian army.
The ambassador had spent too much time in Colombia to be surprised. He cut his vacation short and, within hours, flew back to Bogota.
Busby believed this bad turn of events for Colombia might be just the break he needed. Ever since he had been assigned to the embassy in Bogota the previous year, handpicked for the assignment in large part because it had become so dangerous, Busby had been eager to make an example of Escobar, but was frustrated by the drug boss' deal with the government.
The most notorious drug trafficker in the world had been perched on a spectacular Andes mountaintop, running his cocaine business surrounded and protected by the Colombian army. Current estimates were that 70 to 80 tons of cocaine were being shipped from Colombia to the United States every month, and Escobar controlled the bulk of it.
Inside his custom prison, Escobar lived like a sultan. There were parties with gourmet food and booze, beauty queens and whores. There were drugs, water beds and elaborate sound systems. Escobar ran his narcotics empire by phone. He ordered the murders of anyone who crossed him - including four of Escobar's onetime associates who were tortured and killed inside prison walls - according to one account, hung upside down and bled like steers.
At the presidential palace in Bogota the day of Escobar's escape, Busby found President Gaviria pacing in his office with fury. Gaviria had been up all night receiving one outrageous report after another: No assault had been made on the prison during daylight, despite Gaviria's orders. His vice minister of justice and his Bureau of Prisons chief had gone in themselves without authorization to talk with Escobar, and both had been taken hostage. And, finally, the worst of all scenarios had played out: Escobar had vanished.
It had taken more than two years, hundreds of lives, and hundreds of millions of dollars - much of it from U.S. covert funds - to hound the murderous drug billionaire into his surrender. Now, in one night, it had all come undone.
Waiting with Busby through the president's lamentations were Joe Toft, the flinty Drug Enforcement Administration office chief, and Bill Wagner, the "political secretary" who was in fact Bogota's CIA station chief.
"An entire brigade!" Gaviria shouted in amazement. "And the general allows two officials inside the prison to talk to him! For what? To notify him that he was going to be taken? What did he expect would happen? Such a stupid thing! I mean, such a stupid thing!"
Gaviria was fed up. For many long months, he had resisted the entreaties of the U.S. government. He had tried to control Escobar on his own. Now everything had changed. The time had come, he had decided, to call in the Americans.
The agreement that had landed Escobar in his prison suite at La Cathedral the year before was a masterpiece of duplicity. A man with the blood of thousands on his hands was allowed to plead guilty to having introduced his cousin to a man who had arranged a single drug shipment overseas. Escobar was to serve a prison term and emerge a free man, all sins forgiven.
The length of the term was undetermined because prosecutors were allowed to add new charges if they obtained evidence of further crimes - not likely, for witnesses against Escobar typically were either bribed or murdered. In return, the government agreed not to extradite Escobar to the United States.
Everyone knew La Cathedral was no prison. Escobar had paid to have it built on the site of one of his favorite resort hideaways near Medellin. His fellow prisoners were his cronies. He exercised a commanding influence over the local government of Envigado, where it was built, and Medellin, the booming northern city that was the base of his drug empire. In its eagerness to strike a deal with Escobar, Bogota had ceded virtually all authority for the "prison" to these locals.
La Cathedral was legally a state within a state. The national police, who had lost hundreds of officers to Escobar's assassins, were forbidden to come within 12 miles of the prison. Concerned that American Special Forces or CIA agents might descend from helicopters, Escobar asked the provincial government close the air space over the jail, which it did. Army guards fired on any aircraft that encroached.
Escobar's surrender in 1991 had allowed Gaviria to claim a political victory. Not only was the drug boss behind bars, at least technically, but the long and bloody bombing campaign directed by Escobar and his fellow narcos had been halted. Thousands of Colombians had died. Millions lived in terror. The country was exhausted by violence.
But now, a year later, Gaviria had decided to move Escobar to an actual prison on a military base in Bogota, a two-hour flight from Escobar's power base in Medellin. The president was embarrassed by newspaper exposes of Escobar's lavish life behind bars. And he was under pressure from the Americans, who had covertly pumped millions of dollars into the Colombian police pursuit of Escobar that had helped compel his "surrender."
At the presidential palace in Bogota, in front of the American ambassador and his top staff, Gaviria vented his frustration about Escobar's escape and the army's failure to stop him.
"Such a stupid thing!" he said.
The president was exasperated. He had been living with the threat of Pablo Escobar for years. During his entire campaign for president in 1989, he had expected to be killed by the drug boss. Escobar had tried several times to kill him. Gaviria had taken the place of front-running presidential candidate Luis Galan - Gaviria's good friend - after he was assassinated by Escobar's hit men.
Once he was elected, Gaviria's fondest hope was for the Escobar problem to just go away, at least for a while. Colombia was rewriting its constitution, an enormously important and historic task that could establish a stable and peaceful undergirding for the nation for the first time since civil war, La Violencia, had erupted more than 50 years before.
The last thing Gaviria needed was for Escobar to be running loose again, setting off his truck and car bombs and unleashing his sicarios, or hired assassins. Ever the pragmatist, the president put aside whatever anger he felt toward the murderous drug boss and struck the deal that had sent Escobar to prison. That Escobar had been able to simply vanish from it now confirmed all of the worst international assumptions about the country. It made Colombia look like a narcocracy.
The scene at La Cathedral remained chaotic. One soldier had been killed in the raid. Two Bureau of Prisons guards had been wounded. Five of Escobar's henchmen had been captured, but nine had walked out with him.
Gaviria feared the Americans would assume that Escobar had gotten his way again because all Colombians were corrupt. It was hard for outsiders to understand, he believed; they did not feel the full aura of menace around this man. The Americans came and went. They served their two-or three-year stints in Bogota, living behind high, well-patrolled walls, and then returned home.
For Colombians, the menace of Pablo Escobar and the other narco killers was constant. Between January and May of 1991 alone, Pablo's sicarios killed four hundred police in Medellin. He killed journalists, judges, politicians. Power was no protection; it just made you a more likely target.
Now Gaviria was sure of one thing: This escape was Escobar's last. There would be no more investigations, negotiations, trials or imprisonments. He did not expect Escobar to be taken alive again.
The president paced the room furiously as he spoke.
Busby was used to the president's temper. He admired Gaviria's courage, campaigning for president in defiance of Escobar's threats, but he did not find Gaviria a charismatic man. There was little about Gaviria that seemed presidential, Busby believed, even though he was almost classically handsome, with his dark hair and strong chin.
Both Busby and Wagner, the CIA man, saw Gaviria and the others in his administration as pleasant, well-educated, idealistic and hopelessly naive in their polite upper-middle-class ways. They hadn't stood a chance bargaining with a tough, streetwise gangster like Escobar. Even so, Busby believed that Gaviria, if frustrated and angry enough, was capable of turning cold and calculating. If they were going to get Escobar, they would need a president like that.
Busby knew this opportunity wouldn't last, and he was determined to make the most of it. It was the kind of task he was cut out for.
He was originally a military man, joining the Navy after graduating from college. Busby had served with a Navy Special Forces unit that predated the Seals, but he was often described as a "former Seal," a mistake he was always quick to correct but which nevertheless added to his mystique.
Busby did have close connections with American Special Forces, but they stemmed less from his military service than his years as ambassador-at-large for counterterrorism in the State Department, a job that involved coordinating American diplomatic and covert military action throughout the world.
He was a military man who had adopted diplomacy as a second career. That made him a new kind of diplomat.
As the Cold War world collapsed, America's enemies became drugs and thugs. Diplomats in previously unimportant parts of the world found themselves at the cutting edge of U.S. foreign relations. In certain hot-spot nations, ambassadors now functioned as field commanders, orchestrating law enforcement, military and diplomatic efforts, both covertly and in cooperation with host governments.
In that respect, Busby seemed made for the job in Colombia. To Colombians, he looked like Uncle Sam himself, minus the white goatee. He was tall, lean and tan, with graying sandy hair and the powerful arms and hands of a man who was a skilled carpenter and who loved to sail the waters of the Chesapeake Bay.
There was something about Busby that responded to the moral simplicity of confrontation. He was an American patriot, a true believer, and few circumstances in his career were more clear-cut than the challenge posed by Pablo Escobar, a man he considered a monster.
Now, as he listened to Gaviria, he knew the time for action had arrived.
There had always been restrictions on what American military forces were allowed to do in Colombia. But now, insulted and embarrassed, Gaviria said that as far as he was concerned, the door was wide open. Despite Colombian constitutional barriers and widespread public opposition to foreign troops on their soil, especially American troops, Gaviria said he would welcome any and all help they could give to find Escobar.
"This is critical, please," he told the ambassador. "Help us get this guy as soon as possible."
From Small-Time Gangster To International Outlaw
Pablo Escobar terrorized Colombia with a string of bombings and assassinations beginning in 1984.
Pablo Escobar was arguably the richest and most violent criminal in history. Forbes Magazine in 1989 listed him as the seventh richest man in the world.
His campaign of murder, kidnapping, bombing and bribery in the late 1980s and early 1990s forced a constitutional crisis in Colombia. He cowed the government into banning extradition of Colombian citizens - a step designed to counter American efforts to bring cocaine kingpins to the United States for trial.
At the height of his power in the early 1990s, Escobar and his Medellin drug cartel controlled most of the multibillion-dollar export of Colombian cocaine to the United States.
Escobar was blamed for assassinating three of the five candidates for Colombian president in 1989, and for instigating a takeover of the Palace of Justice in Bogota in 1986. More than 90 people died in the subsequent siege, including 11 Colombian Supreme Court justices.
Escobar's violence spread to the United States. His hit men were suspected of murdering Barry Seal, an American drug trafficker who had become a government witness in 1986. When forces allied to Escobar blew up an Avianca Airliner in Colombia in 1989, American concerns about the drug boss grew. The terror attack killed 130 people, including two Americans.
When men working for Escobar were caught trying to purchase Stinger antiaircraft missiles in Miami in 1989, it pushed the fugitive drug boss to the top of the U.S. list of terrorist threats. The man ultimately convicted of the Avianca bombing, Dandeny Munoz-Mosquera, was arrested at a pay phone in Queens, N.Y., ostensibly planning to bomb Drug Enforcement Administration offices in the United States.
There were intelligence reports that Escobar's Medellin cartel was planning to kill President Bush with a bomb on his visit to a Latin American summit in Cartegena in 1989. With his penchant for violence and seemingly inexhaustible resources, Escobar had emerged by 1989 as a serious threat not just to Colombia, but to America and the world.
The drug boss waged a vicious war against police in Medellin, offering bounties for their deaths. Police officers were gunned down on their way home from work, in parks with their children and on routine police duties.
Joe Toft, the DEA station chief in Bogota, said that he became so depressed attending the funerals of Colombian police that he had to stop going. Special police chapels were built in Bogota to handle the volume of dead.
A Top-Secret Electronic Tracking
Chapter Two In A Continuing Series
By walking out of prison in July of 1992, Pablo Escobar had done his enemies a favor.
He had gone from prisoner to prey. Morris D. Busby, the U.S. ambassador to Colombia, knew this opportunity would not last long. If Escobar was not apprehended quickly, before he had a chance to securely set himself up as a fugitive, the search might drag on for months or years.
Escobar had spent a lifetime building criminal associations. His wealth and his reputation for violence ensured loyalty where his popularity did not. Ensconced in his home city of Medellin, he was king of the mountain. He would be free to resume and refine the web of drug trafficking, assassinations, terror bombings, bribery and intimidation that had made him the world's most notorious outlaw.
Busby wanted Escobar now, while he was still on the run - and at a moment when the Colombian government, after years of hesitation, had finally issued the Americans an unequivocal invitation to do whatever it could to track Escobar down. The ambassador had served as State Department coordinator for counterterrorism, so he knew all the secret tools in the U.S. arsenal. And he knew exactly what he wanted: He put out a call for Maj. Steve Jacoby.
For the previous three years, Jacoby had secretly worked from a locked-down section on the windowless fifth floor of the bunkerlike U.S. Embassy in Bogota, where few people beyond the ambassador and the CIA station chief knew exactly who he was or what he did. In fact, Steve Jacoby wasn't even his real name. It was one of four identities he could assume at any moment, each supported by passports and credit cards. Changing into each one was like slipping on a new pair of shoes.
Jacoby ran a covert operation for one of the most classified units in the U.S. Army, a highly specialized cadre of communications experts that had gone by a variety of cover names over the years. It had been called Torn Victory, Cemetery Wind, Capacity Gear and Robin Court. Lately, it was "Centra Spike."
Until Escobar settled into his luxury prison suite outside Medellin in 1991, Jacoby and his handpicked operatives had spent much of their time secretly tracking the drug lord, his cronies and his rivals.
Escobar's sweetheart deal with the Colombian government had been a disappointing end to that chase and, with the elusive drug boss in prison, their mission had been throttled back. Jacoby had used the slack time to pull some of his men and equipment out of Colombia. Marriages and machines were in need of repair.
Jacoby was a career soldier and a new kind of spy. With the end of the Cold War, a profusion of small-scale, specialized American military operations were being launched in exotic places by small units of unconventional soldiers dispatched on short notice. America's newest enemies were not only regional powers and dictators and their armies, but also terrorists, crime bosses and drug traffickers.
Military commanders who once focused on enemy troop maneuvers and missile throw weights now also needed more timely, localized and specific information: How many doors and windows does the target building have? What kind of weapons do the bodyguards carry? Where does the target eat dinner? Where did he sleep last night, and the night before?
Centra Spike had evolved to provide the kind of precise, real-time intelligence that big spy outfits like the CIA were not designed to collect. Over time, the unit's primary specialty had become finding people.
Techniques for eavesdropping on radio and telephone conversations from the air had been perfected during missions over El Salvador. There were other military and spy units that could do it; what distinguished Centra Spike was its accuracy. It was capable of pinpointing the origin of a call within seconds.
The unit had advanced far beyond the primitive days of World War II, when ground-based antennas could do little more than determine the general vicinity of a radio signal. By the Vietnam War, army direction-finders had perfected techniques for quickly locating a radio signal to within a half-mile of its origin. By the '80s, when Jacoby joined a precursor of Centra Spike, that capability had been reduced to a few hundred meters.
Instead of triangulating from three receivers on the ground, the unit did it from one small airplane. Airborne equipment took readings from different points along a plane's flight path. When a signal was intercepted, the pilot would fly an arc around it. With on-board computers providing instantaneous calculations, operators could begin triangulating off points in that arc within seconds. If the plane had time to complete a half circle around the signal, its origin could be narrowed to under 100 meters.
The system was ideal for tracking a man like Escobar, who moved from hideout to hideout, communicating by cell phone and radio. While a radio or phone signal could be encrypted, there was no way to disguise its origin. And the system worked in any kind of weather or terrain.
The presence of such sophisticated military spying equipment targeted at foreign citizens was legal. A National Security Decision Directive signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986 declared the flow of drugs across U.S. borders a national security threat and authorized the use of American military forces against foreign drug traffickers. A similar classified directive signed by President George Bush in 1988 authorized the U.S. military to arrest foreign nationals and bring them to the United States for trial.
So Centra Spike was officially approved. It was also highly classified. The unit's operators and equipment had been slipped into Bogota under the direction of the previous CIA station chief, John Connolly. Colombian officials were informed that the United States, at their invitation, was to begin some fairly sophisticated electronic surveillance, but details about methods or personnel were not provided.
The first problem was getting Centra Spike's aircraft into the country without arousing suspicion.
Anyone looking for America's most sophisticated eavesdropping equipment would be watching for something high-flying and fancy, with great bulbous features and bristling with antennas. They probably wouldn't be looking for two perfectly ordinary Beechcrafts, an older model 300 and a new model 350.
Inside and out, the Beechcrafts looked like standard twin-propeller, six-passenger commercial planes. Such aircraft were common in Colombia, a mountainous country with poor roads. But these Beechcrafts were $50 million spy planes crammed with state-of-the-art electronic eavesdropping and direction-finding equipment.
A close examination of either plane would have revealed a wing span about six inches longer than the normal models - to accommodate the two main eavesdropping antennas built inside. Five more antennas could be lowered from the plane's belly in flight.
In the cockpit was more instrumentation than in a 747. Once the planes had reached altitudes of 20,000 to 25,000 feet, operators switched on laptop computers plugged into the planes' mainframe and power centers. Wearing headsets, the operators could monitor four frequencies simultaneously.
The laptops displayed the planes' positions and the estimated positions of signals being tracked. Because the planes flew so high, no one on the ground could see or hear them. It was an extraordinary capability, particularly useful because it was unknown to even the most sophisticated telecommunications experts - the kind of people drug lords hired to advise them on ways to avoid detection.
To help explain why the Beechcrafts were in Colombia, the CIA set up a dummy corporation called Falcon Aviation. The company was said to be conducting an aviation safety project, a survey of Colombia's VOR (Variable Omnidirectional Radar) beacons. These are transmitters at all airports to help pilots locate runways.
The project gave Centra Spike's pilots a plausible reason to fly just about anywhere in the country in pursuit of Escobar and other drug traffickers. There were only a few dozen VOR beacons in Colombia, so anyone familiar with the country's aviation infrastructure would know that such work would only take a few weeks. But no one ever questioned the mundane little Beechcrafts.
This ability to track and tail Escobar had been at Busby's disposal for nearly three years. Now, with Escobar back on the loose, Colombian President Cesar Gaviria was giving the Americans carte blanche to use it.
Joe Toft, the gun-toting DEA chief in Bogota, understood just how different the game had become. In a cable to Washington, Toft wrote that Escobar "has placed himself in a very precarious position."
He offered a prediction: "Escobar's gall and bravado may lead to his ultimate downfall."
Americans Summon Delta Force
Chapter Three In A Continuing Series
In the three years since their unit had arrived in Colombia, the men of Centra Spike had come to recognize not just the voice of Pablo Escobar, but his idiosyncrasies and unique personal style.
The secret electronic eavesdropping and tracking unit had heard the man's voice on radio and cell phone many times during the first hunt, before Escobar struck his 1991 deal with the Colombian government and moved into a comfortable suite in the "prison" run by his bodyguards.
Now, in the summer of 1992, Escobar had walked out of prison and was once again a fugitive. This time, the Colombian government had asked the United States to take a more assertive role in hunting down the man whose assassins and terrorists had killed thousands of Colombians, including presidential candidates and supreme court justices.
Supervised by Maj. Steve Jacoby, Centra Spike's analysts felt they knew Escobar as well as anyone, though none had ever seen or spoken to him. Inside a steel-reinforced vault on the windowless fifth floor of the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, they listened to hours and hours of Escobar's recorded conversations.
Based on Escobar's discussions with his lieutenants, lawyers and family members, it was clear that he was a man of a certain refinement. He had a deep voice and spoke softly. He was articulate, and though he sometimes slipped into the familiar Paisa street patois of Medellin, he normally used very clean Spanish, free of vulgarity and with a vocabulary of some sophistication, which he sometimes sprinkled with English expressions.
He was painstakingly polite, and he seemed determined to project unruffled good humor at all times, even though it was quite clear that everyone who spoke to Escobar was deathly afraid of him. Both the pattern and content of these calls changed Centra Spike's understanding of the Medellin drug cartel that Escobar had helped build. Particularly illuminating were the calls Escobar made after the death in 1989 of Jose Rodriguez Gacha, one of Escobar's top confederates. Jacoby's Centra Spike operators had helped the Colombian army and police track down Gacha - who was gunned down with his son and five bodyguards by Colombian government helicopters.
Instead of scrambling to fill the leadership void created by Gacha's death, or allowing feuding among Gacha's underlings, Escobar worked coolly like a chief executive officer who had lost a key associate. People called him to make decisions, and he did so calmly, redistributing Gacha's interests and responsibilities.
A few weeks later, they found out just how vicious Escobar could be. He ordered his men to kidnap a Colombian army commander, then had them slowly torture the man to death. Revulsed, one Centra Spike officer bought a $300 bottle of Remy Martin cognac and vowed not to open it until Escobar was dead.
Tipped off by the eavesdropping unit, Colombian security forces began scoring big successes. They intercepted some of Escobar's drug shipments, and some of the drug boss' key associates were arrested or killed. Escobar himself was always alerted by corrupt Colombian police or army officers in time to escape, but he began to suspect a spy. He had several members of his security force tortured and executed in his presence in early 1990. In one intercepted conversation, Centra Spike recorded the screams of victims in the background as Escobar spoke lovingly to his wife.
Now, in July 1992, Jacoby and his unit were back in Bogota to resume the hunt.
He was waiting at the U.S. Embassy when top American officials returned from an all-night session with Colombian President Cesar Gaviria at the presidential palace. It was during this session that Gaviria, breaking years of official reluctance to allow full-scale American involvement in the government's war against drug traffickers, had asked the Americans to do whatever they could to track down Escobar.
They conferred in the big steel vault upstairs in the embassy compound - Ambassador Morris Busby; Jacoby; Joe Toft, country chief for the Drug Enforcement Administration; and Bill Wagner, the CIA station chief in Bogota. It was July 23, 1992, the day after Escobar walked out of jail.
Busby looked as if he hadn't slept.
"How long do you think it's going to take for you to find him?" he asked.
Maybe a day or two, Jacoby said. They all knew that if Escobar evaded them for the first few days, the hunt would get significantly harder. The big question was how quickly the Colombians could get up and get moving once Escobar was pinpointed.
For all their determination, the National Police had proved repeatedly inept in the first war against Escobar. Despite solid leads provided by Centra Spike, he always got away. There was such fear of Escobar that the Colombians always went out in force, hundreds of men on trucks and helicopters. It was like stalking a deer with bulldozers.
Then there was the corruption issue. Among the hundreds of police involved in these raids, there was always someone willing and able to tip off Escobar for a fee.
"No matter how good our intelligence is, and how hard they try, they just can't close the last thousand meters," Jacoby told the ambassador. "With these guys, it just ain't gonna happen."
Busby considered the resources at his disposal. The CIA was good at long-term intelligence gathering, not special ops. The DEA was good at street work, recruiting snitches and building cases. The FBI in foreign countries did mostly liaison work.
What Busby believed they needed were the manhunters of Delta Force, the Army's elite and top-secret counterterrorism unit. Busby was familiar with the unit from his years as the State Department's ambassador for counterterrorism. Nobody could plan and perform a real-world operation better than the men of Delta.
Colombian law forbade foreign troops on its soil, and it would really be pushing President Gaviria's invitation, but the ambassador felt it was possible on the Colombian end. Delta was stealthy enough that the Colombian press would never find out they were there. But Busby knew there was strong resistance within the Pentagon to entering the drug war, and he believed it was unlikely that Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, would order the move over such strong objection.
"What we need is Delta, but we could never get them," Busby said.
"Why not?" Jacoby asked.
Jacoby and others in the special-ops community knew that Gen. Wayne Downing, chief of the Army's Special Operations Command, had been interested in getting Delta involved during the first war against Escobar.
What had stopped Downing was the possibility of getting one of his men killed. A dead American from Delta would provoke a crisis in Washington, bringing down scrutiny he was not prepared to accept.
"What are our chances of going in and not getting anybody killed?" Downing had asked one of his advisers.
"Almost zero," he was told. "None of these narcos is going to surrender peacefully. If you go in, you either have to take them all or kill them all."
Downing had let it be known to Jacoby and others that if a situation developed that was the right fit for Delta Force - something clean, precise, and that could be done in a nonattributable manner - he was ready to send them.
So when Busby said, "They'll never sign up," Jacoby countered by saying: "I think you're wrong. If you ask, I think you'll get what you ask for."
"I guess there's no harm in asking," the ambassador said.
Jacoby gave the ambassador some advice.
"Don't say you want them to come in here and go after Pablo themselves," he said. "That will never fly. Say you want them to offer training and advice."
They all agreed that Delta was the answer.
There was one other thing that was understood: This time nobody expected Pablo Escobar to be taken alive. The Colombians had no stomach left for putting him on trial or locking him up; Escobar had just shown how pointless that was.
Even though Escobar had been indicted by American courts, Colombia would not extradite him to the United States. Escobar's terror bombings and assassinations had cowed the Colombian congress into outlawing extradition for the drug traffickers.
No, this time the hunt was for keeps, the men in the vault concluded. No one said it out loud, but they all knew: When the Colombians cornered Escobar this time, they all believed they were going to kill him.
Colombia: Killing Pablo - Delta Force, In Bogota
Chapter Four Of A Continuing Serial
Hopes at the U.S. Embassy soared when a Delta Force team led by Col. Jerry Boykin arrived in Bogota late in the evening of Sunday, July 26, 1992.
Ambassador Morris Busby's request for Delta to assist in the hunt for Pablo Escobar, much to his surprise, had sailed through Washington. The State Department had approved it and passed it up to the White House, where President George Bush consulted with Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell and then instructed Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney to give the ambassador anything he needed. The word was that Bush, who had poured millions into a new effort to stanch the flow of drugs from South America, had taken a strong personal interest.
The order came through Maj. Gen. George Joulwon, commander of the U.S. Army Southern Command in Panama, and Maj. Gen. William F. Garrison, commander of the Joint Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, N.C. Col. Boykin and his crew flew south that evening with authorization to get the job done. Their mission was code-named Heavy Shadow. They arrived on a U.S. Air Force jet painted to look like a standard commercial flight.
Eight very fit American men dressed in civilian clothes were met at El Dorado airport in Bogota by midlevel embassy officials and driven downtown in the dark, moving swiftly along roads that in daylight would have been choked with traffic.
The U.S. Embassy was just north of central Bogota, a gray, four-story, L-shaped structure with a windowless fifth floor atop one arm. It was set back behind high walls. In the vault on the closed fifth floor, Busby was waiting with CIA Station Chief Bill Wagner and Joe Toft, the top DEA man in Bogota.
Busby and Boykin were old friends, and after a few minutes of getting caught up, the ambassador began briefing the Delta colonel on the situation. It was, to say the least, confusing.
From the rondos of blame taking place in the government palaces to the furious caterwauling of the Colombian press, the July 22 prison escape of Pablo Escobar had set off a great storm in Bogota. There were hourly contradictory reports: Pablo had been captured; Pablo had been killed; Pablo had surrendered; Pablo was still hiding in the jail.
To an extent that no one had anticipated, the Escobar problem was a keystone that touched every fissure of Colombia's confusing power structure. When Escobar walked out of jail, the hopeful administration of President Cesar Gaviria had begun to splinter. Every day a new official investigation began. The Ministry of Justice accused the army of accepting bribes to allow Escobar's escape; one widely circulated (and false) report held that Escobar had paid huge sums to the soldiers around the prison, then walked out dressed as a woman.
President Gaviria had already fired all the guards and army officers associated with the disaster, as well as the air force general whose pilots had kept the assault force waiting for hours on the ground in Bogota after they were ordered to attack the prison.
The military began spreading rumors that Escobar had escaped through a secret underground tunnel. It seemed possible: On intercepted phone calls from the prison in the weeks before the escape, Escobar and his men had been overheard speaking about using "the tunnel."
Escobar had, in fact, left by more conventional means. The "tunnel" turned out to be the drug boss' term for the covered truck that was used to roll contraband - women, weapons, bodies, alcohol - up and down the mountain under the studiously uninterested noses of prison guards and army patrols. The truck helped Escobar maintain his extravagant lifestyle inside the comfortable "prison" that he had paid to have built and that was guarded by men he controlled.
The day after his disappearance, Escobar's lawyers had presented the government with a surrender offer. In his typical arrogant, formal style, the drug boss' demands were enumerated:
(1) That he would be able to return to prison;
(2) That his guards be rehired;
(3) That aerial surveillance of the prison be stopped;
(4) That no additional charges be brought against him;
(5) That his family and those of the others be allowed unrestricted prison visits;
(6) That the National Police have nothing to do with his rearrest or imprisonment.
Much to the satisfaction of the U.S. Embassy, President Gaviria had flatly refused to negotiate.
The following day an odd communique was broadcast by the national radio station Caracol, from someone calling himself "Dakota," who claimed to speak for "The Extradictables," the theatrical form Escobar often used when making formal statements to the public. The term referred to the period, a few years earlier, when the drug barons had waged a successful campaign of terror and bribes to outlaw their extradition to the United States.
Ever concerned with his image and mindful of the storm of speculation around his escape, Escobar listed the following helpful clarifications:
One billion pesos (about $475,000 in today's dollars) were paid to bribe the army to let him escape.
Escobar was hiding at a safe location and would not surrender.
While there would be retaliation against high officials, there would be no acts of violence against the public.
There were no tunnels beneath the prison.
Seventy armed men met Escobar when he left the prison.
Escobar originally intended to kidnap and execute Vice Minister of Justice Eduardo Mendoza, and return his body "in pieces" to Bogota, but did not only because he had been forced to hurry off.
President Gaviria's pledge to protect the lives and rights of Escobar and the confederates who escaped with him were "a joke."
In addition, the U.S. Embassy had received a fax on the day of Escobar's escape - an ugly threat issued politely:
"We, the Extradictables declare: That if anything happens to Mr. Pablo Escobar Gaviria, we will hold President Gaviria responsible and will again mount attacks on the entire country. We will target the United States embassy in the country, where we will plant the largest quantity of dynamite ever.
"We hereby declare: The blame for this whole mess lies with President Gaviria. If Pablo Escobar or any of the others turn up dead, we will immediately mount attacks throughout the entire country. Thank you very much."
The slightly adolescent flavor of this message led the embassy to suspect Escobar's teenage son, Juan Pablo, a chubby would-be heir to the cocaine dynasty who had lately taken to making threats on his father's behalf. To further confuse matters, Escobar's mother, Hermilda, in a newspaper interview in Medellin, said her son had fled to southern Colombia, and would turn himself in when it was safe.
Trying to cut through all this noise - it was hard to tell what was true and what wasn't - the embassy was fortunate to have Maj. Steve Jacoby's secret electronic eavesdropping unit, Centra Spike, in the air high over Medellin. On July 24, just two days after his escape, the unit picked up Escobar talking at length on a cell phone. They pinpointed his location to an area about four miles from the prison, in a wealthy suburb of Medellin called Tres Esquinax.
Evidently assuming that the government could not yet have him under surveillance, Escobar was doing a lot of talking, using as many as eight cell phones. Already, he was providing solid leads for the Delta manhunters.
Col. Boykin boasted to Colombian National Police Col. Oscar Naranjo that he and his men would find Escobar within the week.
Raring To Get Started, Delta Learns Its Limits
Chapter Five Of A Continuing Serial
The Delta soldiers who arrived in Colombia just four days after Pablo Escobar left his prison in July 1992 had initially hoped to hunt down the notorious narco-terrorist themselves. Given the clumsy track record of the Colombians, it seemed the best chance of finding Escobar quickly.
Delta specialized in this kind of quick strike. The men trained constantly and could move rapidly anywhere, day or night. They preferred orders that explained the what and why of a mission without precisely spelling out the how. This time the initial order was, vaguely, to assist in the hunt for Escobar, who had escaped from prison just four days before.
Maj. Gen. William F. Garrison, commander of joint special operations at Delta's home base at Fort Bragg, N.C., was a veteran of covert operations. He had worked on the infamous Phoenix program in Vietnam, which targeted Viet Cong village leaders for assassination.
That was long before Executive Order 12333, the prohibition on U.S. government involvement in assassinations. The order, which originated during the Nixon administration after congressional hearings exposed excesses in intelligence operations, had been updated under Presidents Carter and Reagan:
2.11 PROHIBITION ON ASSASSINATION
No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.
2.12 INDIRECT PARTICIPATION
No agency of the Intelligence Community shall participate in or request any person to undertake activities forbidden by this Order.
Maj. Gen. George Joulwon, commander of the U.S. Army Southern Command in Panama, had been emphatic in his instructions for the Escobar operation. He knew how easy it was for these "black" special-operations forces to fly beneath the Army's command radar. Joulwon knew that the Delta men wanted to do the job themselves, and probably could, but he was more concerned that in achieving the military goal of eliminating Escobar, they would create a political storm more destructive than Escobar himself.
"No, you're not going to do it yourself," Joulwon had instructed Col. Jerry Boykin, commander of the eight-man Delta team sent to Colombia on July 26.
Officially, the team members were flying to Bogota merely to provide advice and training. Of course, if they managed to kill Escobar in such a way that the Colombians got credit, no one was going to complain. But no such order was articulated, and Morris Busby, the U.S. ambassador to Colombia, was set against it anyway.
Sensitive to the precarious position of President Cesar Gaviria, the ambassador explained to Col. Boykin the political storm that would erupt if Delta operators were discovered running around in black masks shooting people. Given Escobar's penchant for spectacular violence and his well-armed bodyguards and assassins, the chances of an American getting killed or captured were high.
The ambassador simply wanted the Delta men to lend their expertise, to provide intelligence, analysis, training and operational assistance. If the Colombians took all that and then went out and shot somebody while trying to arrest Escobar, the U.S. mission would stay comfortably within the law.
The Delta operators were not to participate in raids. They were to remain at the National Police command posts in Medellin, the main one at the Carlos Holquin police academy, and the other inside the prison where Escobar had been held. Busby wanted the team members to get out there and show the Colombian police how to track down this fugitive, pronto.
They had to act quickly, before Escobar had a chance to rebuild his operation. In the four days since Escobar's escape, he already had begun reassembling his hit men and bodyguards and setting up the system that would allow him to live comfortably on the run.
Busby tried to convey urgency. He and his embassy staff had been working round the clock since the escape.
On Monday, July 27, Col. Boykin and the ambassador met with President Gaviria, while two high-ranking Colombian police commanders met at the U.S. Embassy with the newly arrived Americans. One of the Colombians was Lt. Col. Lino Pinzon, the man assigned to head the Colombian search effort for Escobar.
The Delta men inflated their ranks. They did not want the Colombians thinking a mission as important as hunting down Pablo Escobar would be relegated to midlevel soldiers. So Lt. Col. Gary Harrell, one of the largest line officers in the Army, with an aggressive personality to complement his linebacker physique, was introduced as a general.
Col. Pinzon, who already was unhappy with the Americans' refusal to allow him to see their command center inside a steel-lined vault on an upper floor of the embassy, clashed with Harrell.
Harrell was a country boy with a direct style. He had a handshake that people warned you about. Pinzon was something of a dandy, a stylish officer with a crisp salt-and-pepper crew cut who played a good game of tennis and kept a manicurist and pedicurist on his staff.
Pinzon was told of an American surveillance team's phone intercepts that had pinpointed Escobar at a finca, or estate, on a hilltop in a wealthy suburb of Medellin called Tres Equinax. He scoffed at the idea that the fugitive could be found magically by plucking his phone calls out of the air, but agreed that if another call came from the same place, his forces would be ready to move in. Four members of the Delta team would fly to Medellin the next day to help plan the assault if it came.
One of the first two operators to leave for Medellin was a man known to the Colombians as Col. Santos, or simply Jefe (Chief). None of the Delta men used their real names. While Boykin was the commander, and Harrell was initially in charge in Medellin, it was Santos, whose real rank was sergeant major, who would stay on for most of the 15-month hunt, supervising the Delta operators and Navy SEAL commandos who rotated in and out.
Santos also acted as liaison between the embassy and the Colombian units hunting for Escobar. He was a slender, exceedingly fit former track star of Mexican heritage who had grown up in New Mexico speaking both Spanish and English.
A man of exceptional warmth and poise, Santos had a wry sense of humor. Where Harrell was full of hearty bluff, Santos was calm, smart and resolutely nonconfrontational.
He and another operator boarded a plane to Medellin the following evening, laden with portable global satellite positioning devices, microwave visual imagery platforms, and video cameras with powerful lenses for remote day-and-night ground surveillance. They were to link up with Colombian forces and pinpoint the spot where Escobar's phone calls had originated, using coordinates supplied by the airborne Centra Spike electronic-eavesdropping unit.
They would train a camera on that location and begin watching for signs of the fugitive's presence. The microwave transmitter would send real-time images back to the Colombian police, so that there would be no mistaking the target.
The two Delta men were late arriving at the Holquin Academy. They had been dropped at the wrong landing strip and had to wait for their police escorts to drive from another airstrip to retrieve them.
It was bad enough that they had spent three hours in the dark at a remote airstrip deep inside narco country, two unarmed Americans loaded with sophisticated spying gear. When they finally did link up with the Colombian police search force, things would get worse.
Delta, Colombians Get Off To Bad Start
Chapter Six of a Continuing Serial
After an unnerving trip from Bogota, the two Delta soldiers
finally arrived at the Medellin headquarters of the Colombian
police units searching for Pablo Escobar in July of 1992.
The two Americans slept that night in sleeping bags on the floor
of a storehouse just inside the main gate of the Holquin police
academy - close enough, they thought, to be obliterated by a car
bomb parked outside.
They awoke to their first view of the city. Medellin, Colombia's
second-largest city, had a reputation for mercantile genius and
industry. The city's traditions had nurtured, in part, its most
recent boom as the world capital of cocaine.
One of the Americans, known to the Colombians simply as Col.
Santos, met the following morning, July 28, with Lt. Col. Lino
Pinzon, a commander of the search forces. Pinzon indicated that
he regarded Delta's arrival as an insult to his leadership
skills and a threat to his career. The elite, top-secret
American commandos had been sent after a request by Colombia's
president for help in the hunt for Escobar.
It was a classic culture clash. Pinzon had already complained to
Joe Toft, the Drug Enforcement Administration chief in Colombia.
Toft tried to calm Pinzon, to convince him that working with
these Americans would bring credit and glory to his unit, but he
knew Pinzon wasn't buying it.
When big, aggressive Gary Harrell, a Delta lieutenant colonel,
arrived later that day from Bogota, things got worse. Harrell
and Pinzon had already clashed at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota.
Now, on Harrell's first day as the top American at the Holquin
Academy, he and Pinzon began quarreling.
Still, the two men were stuck with each other and began setting
up joint operations. Delta positioned two operators in Escobar's
former observation tower up at La Cathedral, the prison Escobar
had built. One operator was Sgt. Maj. Joe Vega - a
"captain" for this operation - a broad-shouldered
weight lifter with long, black hair.
The Colombian police had moved into the prison and were living
in comfort, the commander ensconced in Escobar's former luxury
suite. Vega had a satellite phone and laptop computer to help
him rapidly correlate the map coordinates sent to him by Centra
Spike, the secret American Army team of electronic-surveillance
experts who operated from two specially outfitted twin-engine
Vega also carried an 8mm video camera with several high-powered
lenses, and a microwave relay to transmit the image down to the
The team waited for Escobar to make another phone call from a
finca, or estate, in an exclusive Medellin suburb of Tres
Equinax where Centra Spike had previously homed in on one of his
conversations. He was quiet that night, but early the following
evening, a Tuesday, Centra Spike picked up another phone call
from the same spot.
In the observation tower, Vega quickly found the coordinates on
his map and alerted Harrell, who tried to rouse Col. Pinzon and
get his men moving.
According to Delta soldiers and DEA agents, the Colombian
commander did not respond.
When the embassy in Bogota learned that Pinzon had not moved,
calls were placed to the Presidential Palace, and President
Cesar Gaviria himself finally ordered Pinzon and his men to get
going. Outraged that the Delta team had gone over his head,
Pinzon was indignant, and took hours to assemble his men.
It wasn't until early the next morning that Pinzon launched his
"raid." Pinzon dispatched about 300 men in a caravan
of pickup trucks and cars.
From his perch at La Cathedral prison, talking by phone to Steve
Jacoby, the American major in charge of Centra Spike at the
embassy, Vega noted the procession of headlights as this giant
convoy begin moving up the mountain.
"Wait a minute," he told Jacoby. "Now there's
another set of headlights moving down the hill on the other side
of the mountain."
Escobar would not have even needed to be tipped off. Everyone on
the mountain could see and hear the approach of the police.
Pinzon's men found the estate to be typical of an Escobar
hideout, luxurious furnishings far beyond the norms even for
that neighborhood, including a sparkling new bathroom with a
Pinzon seemed pleased when his men turned up nothing. He later
told DEA agent Javier Pena that he had a "gut feeling"
that Escobar had never been at the finca. He would find Escobar
quicker, he said, by relying on his own instincts rather than
all this American technology.
As soon as the police withdrew, however, Centra Spike
intercepted more phone calls, these from Escobar's men arranging
to move him to a new hideout and discussing the need to collect
identity documents and weapons. It was 4:30 a.m. when Pinzon,
clad in silk pajamas, answered Harrell's summons at the door of
"How do you know he's there?" Pinzon asked.
Harrell was not at liberty to explain.
Again, it took pressure from Bogota to force Pinzon to move, and
again he sent the caravan up the hill. They spent the rest of
the night and most of the day searching door to door, and found
nothing. Pinzon complained to Pena: "These Delta guys are
trying to get me fired in Bogota."
By the end of the week, the search force was empty-handed and
Escobar had clearly moved on. There was little chance now that
he would be found quickly.
Harrell returned to Bogota with complaints about Pinzon's
attitude, effort and tactics, while Pinzon spread word of
Delta's failure. At the embassy, Col. Pinzon would henceforth be
known simply as "Pajamas."
In the capital, U.S. Ambassador Morris Busby had his own
problems. Once the Colombian government's invitation for help
was made known at the Pentagon following Escobar's escape that
July, it had prompted an overwhelming response and now the
competition was on.
The CIA made a bid for funds to get "Majestic Eagle,"
their own more expensive eavesdropping version of Centra Spike,
flying. All the other branches had their own ideas about how to
best locate a fleeing drug lord. By the end of the first week,
the ambassador had people camped out on the floor in the embassy
Every direction-finding, surveillance and imagery team in the
U.S. arsenal descended on Medellin.
Anything that had a potential manhunting capability was shipped
to Colombia. It was like a sweepstakes. There were so many
American spy planes over the city, at one point 17 at once, that
the Air Force had to assign an AWAC, an airborne command and
control center, to keep track of them. It took 10 giant C-130s
just to deliver the contractors, maintenance and support staffs
for all this gear.
For Joe Toft, the DEA country chief who had spent years learning
his way around Colombia, the initial excitement over all this
military help quickly soured. The flood of new data required
intelligent, seasoned analysis, which was in short supply.
This sudden full-court press was meant to cause problems for
Escobar, but instead it provoked a crisis in Bogota. One night,
one of the newly arrived aircraft, an enormous RC-135, flew so
low that the Colombian press was able to photograph it clearly.
When a radio report broadcast evidence of an American military
"invasion" of Medellin, all hell broke loose. The
mayor of Medellin demanded an immediate investigation. The
Colombian defense minister was forced to admit that the
government had invited the Americans. A judicial investigation
began instantly, on charges that President Gaviria's
administration had violated the constitution by allowing foreign
troops on Colombian soil.
The defense minister argued that American troops weren't on
Colombian soil, they were just in the air - in fact, most of the
military planes were flying out of Panama. There was nothing in
the constitution about overflights. Of course, no one knew about
It was the journalistic equivalent of war. Radio Medellin
started broadcasting the tail numbers of American aircraft,
including one of the CIA planes, which was promptly flown out of
CIA Station Chief Bill Wagner was furious, Jacoby was spooked,
and President Gaviria, mindful that he had asked for this help,
was now politely complaining to Ambassador Busby, "This is
By the end of the week Busby had ordered home everything except
Centra Spike, the CIA and Delta. It was clear that Escobar was
not going to be caught, even with the most sophisticated
targeting information, until Colombia could muster a mobile,
elite strike force that was trustworthy, determined, stealthy
and fast. What was needed, clearly, was a surrogate Delta Force.
"Pajamas" Pinzon would have to go. And whether it was
quid pro quo or not, Gary Harrell was shipped back to Fort
"Captain" Vega stayed camped out up at La Cathedral,
and "Colonel" Santos stayed on at the Holquin Academy
awaiting the arrival of the one man everyone felt was needed to
make the effort come together: the indefatigable, incorruptible
Col. Hugo Martinez.
Incorruptible Colonel Rejoins Escobar Pursuit
Chapter Seven of a Continuing Serial
Col. Hugo Martinez was delighted when he got the news, in
Madrid, that Pablo Escobar had walked out of jail. No one knew
better than the colonel what a charade that imprisonment had
been. Martinez had spent nearly three years hunting Escobar
before his infamous 1991 "surrender" to a luxury
prison cell guarded by his cronies, which Martinez viewed as the
evasive drug lord's most ingenious escape to date.
Martinez had never met Escobar, but his life was inextricably
entwined with the fugitive's. From 1989 to 1991, the colonel had
been in charge of the first police campaign to capture Escobar.
His efforts, though ultimately futile, were rewarded in 1991
with a comfortable post in Madrid, as military liaison to Spain.
There was another, more urgent reason for his transfer: Escobar
had tried several times to murder the colonel and his family in
Colombia. On the very plane that took Martinez and his family
from Bogota to Madrid, a bomb had been set to explode at a
certain altitude. It was discovered, in flight, after the
airline received a last-minute phone tip. The pilots held a very
low altitude to the nearest airfield, where the bomb was found
Now, in the summer of 1992, the Colombian and American
governments had decided that with Escobar once again a fugitive,
the man to lead the new, expanded hunt for him was Police Col.
It was a good time to leave Spain. Just a few months earlier, a
car bomb had been discovered on the street outside the Colombian
Embassy in Madrid, right where Martinez passed each day to work.
The colonel avoided the street that day only because he had
heard a radio report of police activity blocking the road. The
police activity, of course, was the Madrid police bomb squad.
The device was so complicated that they detonated it on the
Everyone knew who the target was. Martinez was asked to stay
away from the embassy for a while. He took his wife and family
on an extended camping trip, feeling impotent, isolated, pursued
and angry. So long as Escobar remained in jail, there was
nothing he could do. The drug boss' escape was a godsend, an
opportunity to fight back again.
Martinez was six years older than Escobar at 48, a point in life
where a man feels it is now or never for his life's goals. He
was quiet and bookish, with an aloof manner that seemed
ill-suited to leading men in the field.
Tall and fair-skinned, with a long face, high forehead and
prominent nose, he towered over most of his comrades in the
police command, and looked more European than Colombian. He had
a wry sense of humor and a crooked smile, which leavened the
cynicism of his long police career.
When he was handed the first assignment to go after Escobar in
1989, Martinez knew all too well that he had been handed the
short straw. The police commander in the district surrounding
Medellin had just been murdered after arresting several members
of Escobar's Medellin cartel. The magistrate who had signed
Escobar's arrest order also had been killed, as had a reporter
from one of Bogota's leading daily newspapers, El Espectador,
who had written approvingly of the effort.
There was a sense that Escobar could reach anyone, anywhere, at
any time. Just days after Martinez had taken over the first
hunt, a 220-pound car bomb exploded in Bogota, killing six
people. The target of the blast, an outspoken police general,
had somehow emerged unscathed from his armored limousine, its
tires melted to the pavement.
It didn't help that Medellin, Escobar's home city, was
practically owned by the drug boss. The city's police had been
so corrupted by Escobar that the new National Police Search Bloc
under Martinez's command did not contain a single paisa, or
Medellin native, for fear he would secretly be on Escobar's
But that precaution had its own costs: Martinez's men knew
nothing of the area, and had no local sources or informants.
Even the unit's plainclothes detectives, members of Colombia's
FBI, called Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad (DAS),
stood out because none spoke with the distinctive paisa accent.
On the unit's first foray into Medellin, 80 men in 10 vehicles
Not all the local police were corrupt, and some fell to
Escobar's assassins during the first hunt. They were killing
police in Medellin at a rate of six per day, some of them from
the Search Bloc. With so many killings, and so much paralyzing
fear, Martinez's men were now emotionally engaged. When the
National Police considered moving the unit out of Medellin, the
colonel and his men insisted on staying. They would weep and
pray at funerals for their dead comrades, then go back to work,
their fear warring with a powerful sense of mission. Martinez
fought this internal war himself, and there were times when his
fear won out.
Once, the colonel rushed back home to Bogota after a bomb was
discovered in the basement of his family's apartment building.
Nearly all the residents of the building were high-ranking
National Police officers, but their response to the bomb was not
to rally around their besieged colleague. Instead, they held a
meeting and voted to ask Martinez to move his family out.
The colonel flew home from Medellin to help his family pack. It
was during this trip that Escobar proved how vulnerable the
colonel and his family were - and just how far Escobar's reach
extended, even in Bogota.
Martinez remembered the scene well years later. He had told only
his boss at police headquarters, Gen. Octavio Vargas, that he
was returning that day to Bogota. So only the general,
Martinez's pilot, and anyone who saw him land knew he was there.
He was stuffing boxes when a retired police officer, someone he
had known since his days in the academy, arrived at his door.
The colonel was surprised and alarmed. How had this man known to
find him in Bogota?
"I come to talk to you obligated," the retired officer
said with a pained expression.
Martinez asked what he meant.
"If I did not agree to come talk to you, they could easily
kill me or my family."
Then the man offered the colonel $6 million, a bribe from Pablo
Escobar to call off the hunt. More specifically, the officer
explained: "Continue the work, but do not do yourself or
Pablo Escobar any real damage."
Escobar also wanted a list of any snitches in his own
Escobar's Nemesis Hones his Troops for the Hunt
Chapter Eight of a Continuing Serial
Two years later, in the summer of 1992, the Americans working
with the Colombian police search team were more impressed by its
new commander's will than his methods.
This tall, taciturn colonel nicknamed "Flaco" (Skinny)
meant business. Martinez had been the driving force behind the
first hunt, which had hounded Escobar to his surrender in 1991.
He began this second, more intensive search by rounding up top
people from the first operation and recruiting police and army
veterans to create a new, elite Bloque de Busqueda, or Search
Bloc. It would eventually number 600 men.
One of Col. Martinez's first acts at the Holquin Academy
headquarters in Medellin was to line his lieutenants against a
wall and tell them that if he discovered any of them betraying
their mission, "I will personally shoot you in the
He locked down his men to prevent uncontrolled communication in
and out of the compound, and, perhaps most important, he showed
genuine frustration and anger when a mission failed. The
Americans had worked with Colombian officers who would joke
about failed missions, who took them no more seriously than
getting the wrong order at a restaurant.
But the men of Delta Force and Centra Spike were appalled by the
Search Bloc's lack of tactical sophistication. One morning,
approaching a suspected Escobar hideout, the assault force lined
up along a ridge and then simply walked toward the target house.
A Centra Spike man accompanying them on the raid, helping to
locate Escobar, suggested that the force drop down and crawl.
"In the dirt?" a Colombian officer asked. "My
guys don't crawl in the dirt and mud."
The occupants of the target house easily spotted the slow-moving
assault force and escaped. They had fled in such haste that they
hadn't completely burned documents, so they had urinated and
defecated on them.
When an American from Centra Spike began fishing papers out of
the mess, Col. Martinez himself had objected.
"I can't believe you'd do that," he said. "That's
"Where I come from, we also low-crawl and get our uniforms
dirty," the Centra Spike man said.
After the documents were cleaned and dried, the unit found
handwritten notes from Escobar, sealed with his thumbprint. The
notes promised financial security for the caretaker of the
farmhouse. Copies had been prepared for several other fincas, or
estates, indicating that Escobar kept a string of such safe
houses. The recovered documents provided valuable insights into
how he recruited and nurtured assistance in the hills.
After entering the finca, the assault force settled in front of
the television and began drinking Escobar's sodas and cooking
his steaks. Two men who had stayed behind in the farmhouse, the
caretakers, were bound and gagged. Martinez's men began beating
"What are your guys doing?" the Centra Spike man asked
"We're interrogating them," the colonel said.
"If you want them to talk, why don't you take the gags out
of their mouths?"
"No, no," Martinez said. "Leave it alone. You
shouldn't be here." He ushered the American away from the
After that, the colonel tried to keep Americans away from the
action - not to protect them, but to protect their eyes. Reports
drifted back about Martinez's tactics - beatings, electroshock
torture, killings - and it was evident to Americans working with
the Search Bloc in Medellin that some of these things went on,
but always out of sight.
It was a smart move, one that some officials at the U.S. Embassy
appreciated. Human rights abuses were problematic. But as long
as the Americans didn't see them, they didn't feel obliged to
If the Search Bloc was torturing people, American soldiers in
Medellin did not object. The fact that Martinez played rough
with his fellow citizens was seen as an advantage. Let the word
go out to anyone who cooperated with Escobar.
Another thing the Americans working with the Search Bloc liked
about the colonel was that he learned from his mistakes. His men
did learn to low-crawl, and to fish documents out of latrines.
He was candid about his unit's tactical shortcomings, and took
steps to correct them.
Martinez was skeptical of American technology, but he learned
fast. When he overheard Escobar's voice on a portable radio
monitor carried by one of the Centra Spike men during a raid,
the colonel asked for the same equipment the next time out.
Later, when rumors began to circulate that Martinez was eager to
nail Escobar because he was secretly on the payroll of the rival
Cali cartel - rumors that some of the DEA men took seriously -
the group in charge at the U.S. Embassy discounted them. And
Martinez himself vigorously denied them.
Ambassador Morris Busby and CIA station chief Bill Wagner were
not about to discard the colonel. As far as the embassy was
concerned, Hugo Martinez was exactly the kind of man to go up
against Escobar. The drug boss had finally met his match.
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
Sometimes the fate of an entire nation can hinge on the
integrity of one man. Police Col. Hugo Martinez had been handed
a suicide mission in 1989 - hunting down drug kingpin Pablo
Escobar. This was during the Colombian government's first war
against Escobar, before Martinez was called back in 1992 to
rejoin the hunt. He and his men had worked in an atmosphere of
terror throughout 1989 and into 1990, every man expecting to be
betrayed by his fellows.
The National Police had constructed special chapels in Medellin
and in Bogota just to handle the heavy demand for funeral
services for officers murdered by Escobar's assassins. From the
first day the colonel believed he would be killed in this war.
He accepted the risk. But his greatest fear was for his wife,
his daughter and his two sons. In late 1990, Martinez flew from
his headquarters in Medellin to Bogota, where a car bomb had
been discovered at his family's apartment building. As he was
helping his family pack, he was approached by a retired police
officer, an old friend, who offered him a $6 million bribe from
Escobar to sabotage the hunt. This bribe had come after a
chilling demonstration of his family's vulnerability.
The bomb in their basement made it clear that Escobar could find
them. Now he had shown that he could follow Martinez's every
move - Martinez had told only his boss about flying to Bogota -
and also send the colonel's old friend to do his bidding. The
colonel's colleagues did not want the family in their building
if it meant they were likely to be bombed. His own department
was shunning him and his family and abandoning them to their
fate. And for what? Martinez could not even see the wisdom of
going after Escobar. Cocaine was not Colombia's problem, it was
the norteamericanos' problem.
And even if they got Escobar, as the United States insisted, it
was not going to curb the cocaine industry. This first effort to
get Escobar was being pushed hard by the U.S. Embassy, a fact
that Escobar exploited skillfully in his public pronouncements.
It resonated with the Colombian public because it was true. The
public believed the violence was provoked by the Americans'
desire to extradite Escobar. It was Martinez's own dogged effort
on the gringos' behalf that made the drug boss more desperate
and determined. If the search effort stopped, he felt, the
bloodshed and kidnappings would probably end as well. There were
car bombings in Bogota almost every day.
By November 1990, Escobar's men had kidnapped 10 prominent men
and women, including the editor-in-chief of the newspaper El
Tiempo, and the daughter of a former Colombian president. These
carefully chosen kidnappings had rocked Bogota to its social
core. In Medellin there was open war. Escobar still had a bounty
on the head of every policeman there, more for members of
Martinez's search team. The colonel and his men were being
accused of using torture to extract information. Colombia was
locked in a nightmare of blood and pain, and the colonel felt
sometimes that he alone was orchestrating the whole terrible
symphony. Now he was being offered a generous ticket out. All he
needed to do was side with Escobar, take his $6 million, and
silently betray any tipster who contacted the Search Bloc.
But the colonel did not consider the bribe for any longer than
it took him to have those thoughts. His gut rebelled against the
offer. His old friend showing up unannounced had spooked him
badly; the whole conversation had seemed off-balance. Martinez
cursed at his friend, and then his anger turned to pity and
disgust. "Tell Pablo that you came but did not find me
here, and then leave this matter as if it had never
occurred," he said. Martinez had known other police
officers who took bribes, and he had always held them in
contempt. Once he had accepted the bribe, he knew, Escobar would
own him, just as he owned the friend who had approached him with
the words, "I come to you obligated."
For Martinez, it would be like turning over his soul to the
devil. After he dismissed his old friend, Martinez drove to
police headquarters and informed his boss, Gen. Octavio Vargas,
of the bribe attempt. They agreed it was a good sign. "It
means we're getting to him," Martinez said.
Eighteen Through Conclusion
Luxury Prison Affords a Rare Look at Escobar
Chapter Nine of a Continuing Serial
Four days after Pablo Escobar's escape from prison in July of 1992, a team of
American DEA agents took a leisurely tour of La Cathedral, the site of Escobar's
luxury prison suite.
The mountaintop "prison" was now a hot tourist attraction for
top-ranking American and Colombian officials. CIA station chief Bill Wagner
would tour it days later with a video camera, accompanied by several members of
The visits confirmed all the worst suspicions about Escobar's supposed
imprisonment, but it also gave the Americans a rare glimpse into the life and
mind of the world's most famous fugitive.
Although the agents suspected the Colombian army of destroying or carrying off
most of the documents left behind, including floppy discs and the hard drives
from Escobar's computers, much of interest still remained.
First, there was the sheer opulence of the place. The "cells" were
lavishly furnished suites with living rooms, bathrooms, bedrooms, kitchens and
balconies that offered a stunning vista of Medellin, the surrounding valley and
Just outside Escobar's suite was a small table with telephones and a metal box
mounted on the wall that was the main circuit box for all the communications
lines to the prison - leaving little doubt who was in charge. Down a flight of
steps from Escobar's balcony was an elaborate dollhouse, large enough for his
7-year-old daughter to play inside.
The tour revealed that Escobar had been raising and using messenger pigeons to
thwart electronic surveillance. They found little metal leg-bands for the
pigeons neatly labeled: "Pablo Escobar/Maximum Security Prison/Envigado".
There was also evidence of Escobar's fears. Any flat ground on the hillside
complex had wires suspended overhead, attached to tall posts around the
perimeter to prevent helicopters from landing. One of Escobar's biggest concerns
was that airborne American commandos or paid assassins would come for him in the
There were secret hiding places built into the walls of the prison suites, and
trick doors to afford quick, silent avenues of escape. The gymnasium and kitchen
were below, just inside the fence. The living quarters and cabanas were up an
incline so steep that the DEA agents were breathing heavily when they reached
Beyond the cabanas, the Colombian police had found a sizable arsenal of
automatic weapons and ammunition. Escobar and his men had been prepared to hold
off a sustained military assault.
On a shelf over Escobar's desk was a neat library of news clippings, diligently
clipped, pasted and sorted in file boxes. His correspondence included fan mail
from all over the world, requests for money, notes of thanks for favors
bestowed, letters of sympathy after his arrest and imprisonment. One was from a
local beauty queen, who referred to Escobar as her lover.
There was a handwritten draft of a letter from Escobar to President Cesar
Gaviria, requesting armor-plated cars for his wife and children. One pathetic
letter was from a man pleading with Escobar not to kill any more members of his
family, as he had already done away with nearly all of them. There was a letter
from the wife of a prison guard, thanking him for her husband's recent
Escobar had kept copies of all his indictments, and had framed a collection of
the mug shots taken at each arrest. One showed the lean, tousle-haired young man
arrested for stealing cars in Medellin in 1974; another was the fuller-faced,
mustachioed shot from his first and only drug bust in 1976.
Escobar kept files on his Cali cartel rivals, complete with photographs,
addresses, descriptions of their vehicles and license numbers. He had a framed
picture of Ernesto Che Guevara, the Argentine-born Marxist revolutionary.
Alongside was an illustration from Hustler magazine, depicting Escobar and his
associates cavorting in an orgy behind bars (throwing darts at a picture of
President George Bush on a TV screen), and a photograph of himself and his son
Juan Pablo posing before the front gate of the White House.
Among his collection of videotapes was, predictably, a complete set of The
Godfather films, Chuck Norris' Octagon, Steve McQueen's Bullitt and Burt
Reynolds' Rent-a-Cop. There were five Bibles, and collections of prize-winning
books. These were not the shelves of an avid reader, but of a self-improver who
purchased books in bulk intending to begin a course of reading.
The closet in the bedroom was stacked with identical pairs of Nike sneakers and
a neat pile of pressed blue jeans. Over Escobar's huge bed was a golden, ornate
portrait of the Virgin Mary painted on inlaid tile. There were photographs of
Escobar, his family and his fellow inmates at what appeared to be a lavish
Christmas dinner in the prison's disco and bar, and pictures of Escobar posing
with Colombian soccer stars.
In the prison bedrooms were wide-screen TVs, electronic game players, stereos,
VCRs, laser disc players, laser discs and videotapes (some of them pornographic,
including homemade sex movies starring inmates and girlfriends). One framed
photo showed Escobar costumed as Pancho Villa; another showed him and a
bodyguard dressed as Prohibition-era American gangsters, complete with tommy
The DEA agents itemized all they found and posed for snapshots, happy as high
schoolers invading a rival gang's clubhouse. They posed sitting on Pablo's bed,
taking turns wearing a thick fur cap that the drug boss had worn in a famous
photograph reproduced on the cover of the Colombian weekly newsmagazine Semana.
It was all just scraps left behind by the Colombian investigators, but it still
added up to a fascinating portrait of a man who clearly relished his celebrity
outlaw status, even though he was known to protest his innocence at every public
Escobar was a man of stark contradictions. He was a determined hedonist who
recruited teenage beauty queens for sex on water beds under the florid portrait
of the Virgin Mary, yet was so devoted to his family that his pursuers
considered his most vulnerable spot to be the safety of his wife, Maria
Victoria, and children, Juan Pablo and Manuela.
Escobar signed all his correspondence with his thumbprint, and he stamped one on
the framed photo of him and his son at the White House. It was a form of
graffiti, Pablo Escobar's thumbprint on the front door of the home of the
President of the United States.
At the end of July, drawing on this information and its own files, the CIA
prepared a brief "personality assessment" of the infamous fugitive. It
attempts, with thinly veiled contempt, to sketch the internal life of this
complex new military target, and concludes with chilling prescience about the
tactics that would ultimately lure Escobar to his death:
"Despite Escobar's authoritarianism, extreme self-centeredness and
grandiosity . . . he is not a madman . . . he is in touch with the realities
around him. In fact, Escobar is resilient and can generally adjust well to
changes in the environment. . . .
"Escobar appears to derive pleasure from the havoc he creates . . . Escobar
has only a very limited capacity to tolerate frustration, competition, or
challenges to his authority. He does not feel bound by the normal rules of
conduct and frequently expresses his aggression in raw, direct forms. . . .
"Escobar nurses a grudge, sometimes for years, until he can get his
revenge, which is often of homicidal proportions. And Escobar kills
gratuitously, with total disregard for innocent bystanders. Moreover, he lacks
the capacity to feel remorse. . . .
"Escobar . . . appears to be motivated primarily by money and power - he is
"Escobar's paranoia is his greatest vulnerability. . . As he begins to feel
more pressured he will become more rigid and less able to adjust to changes in
his environment. . . .
"Escobar does seem to have genuine paternal feelings for his children, and
the young daughter Manuela is described as his favorite. His parents were once
kidnapped by a rival group, and Escobar apparently spared no effort or expense
rescuing them. Whether his concern for his parents or his children would
overcome his stringent security consciousness is not clear."
A Conditional Offer To Surrender
Chapter 10 of a Continuing Serial
Two days after his escape from prison in July of 1992, Pablo Escobar sent a
taped statement to selected Colombian TV and radio reporters. It was signed:
"Colombian jungle zone, Thursday, July 24, 1992. Pablo Escobar and
This was a bit of theater, because Escobar was actually only a few miles from
the prison, ensconced on a private estate in a wealthy suburb of Medellin.
Judging from the aggrieved tone of the statement, he was in a petulant mood.
He alternated between indignation at the Colombian government and resentment
that his comfortable life in prison had been so disrupted. He portrayed himself
as a misunderstood victim.
In the statement, Escobar complained that even though he and his men - his
fellow inmates - had generously agreed to "lose control over more than half
of the jail, and our rights" to accommodate the government, he was shocked
when the army suddenly surrounded the compound on the night of July 22. The army
acted after the government decided to move Escobar to an actual prison, in
It had become clear to the government, in early 1992, that Escobar had
completely taken control of the prison. His armed bodyguards decided who and
what came in and out of the prison gates. He and his men lived in suites
equipped with big-screen TV sets, king-size beds, sound systems, a Jacuzzi and a
bountiful supply of booze, drugs, guns and whores. He ran his vast drug empire
from inside his prison suite, even torturing and murdering two former associates
behind prison walls.
In the confusion, Escobar also escaped - through an entire brigade of the
Colombian army. In his taped statement, he said he was driven out in the truck
his men had used to haul contraband into the prison.
Now, once again a fugitive, Escobar began issuing the same menacing demands that
he had laid out during his campaign of bombings and assassinations before his
surrender in 1991. In his statement from hiding, he made it clear that he would
prefer to resume his life of comfort in "prison," only this time under
protection of the United Nations:
"As for the aggression carried out against us, we won't take violent
actions of any nature yet and we are willing to continue with the peace process
and our surrender to justice if we can be guaranteed to stay at the [prison], as
well as handing control of the prison to special forces of the United
The same day he issued the statement, Escobar also spoke with two of his lawyers
during a long telephone conference call. Recording the conversation were
American electronic-eavesdropping experts from Centra Spike, the U.S. Army unit
that was secretly operating out of the U.S. Embassy in Bogota.
What the Americans heard was Escobar's well-founded suspicions that the U.S.
government was very interested in tracking him down.
"We had information that the Americans were participating in the
operation" at the prison, Escobar told his lawyers. "I have some
information . . . that there were some gringos."
In fact, there is no evidence that Americans had any direct role in the raid on
the prison by the Fourth Brigade of the Colombian army. But Escobar was
absolutely correct when he described for his lawyers a coordinated effort by the
American and Colombian governments to eliminate for good their mutual problems
with Pablo Escobar. (Over the next six months, the secret CIA operation in
Colombia would swell to nearly 100 people, making it the largest CIA station in
"There's a combined force. The army and the gringos looking for Bush's
reelection," Escobar said.
Escobar instructed one of his lawyers, who had been in touch with President
Cesar Gaviria's administration, to stress to Gaviria personally just how
troubled he was by these Americans.
"When you have a chance of making a statement, say that what caused the
biggest concern was the presence of the gringos," Escobar said. "The
fact that the army would be going along with the gringos. What explanation can
be given for that?"
Escobar knew that any covert intelligence or military association with the
Americans would cause severe domestic political pain for Gaviria, so raising the
issue with the president was a way of reminding him that he was playing a
dangerous game. Escobar proposed that he and Gaviria sign "a contract"
allowing him to return to his luxury prison outside Medellin and guaranteeing in
writing that he was never to be moved without his consent.
There would be no agreement. Gaviria flatly refused to make any concessions, and
a Colombian court rejected a formal appeal by Escobar's lawyers to have his
escape ruled a legitimate action taken in fear of his life.
His prison lifeline gone, his enemies in government allied with the hated
Americans, Escobar was now a full-fledged fugitive. But he was still richer than
his friends and more ruthless than his enemies. In this second round of his war
against the government, he would rely once again on violence and terror, but
also on his countrymen's resentment of the United States.
To many of Colombia's poor, America was the enemy, an oppressive world power
propping up the wealthy elite in Bogota. Escobar was expert at playing on this
populist theme. He was a hero to many in Medellin's ghettos. If America was
allied with the Colombian government against him, that was tantamount to a
betrayal of the mother country. Surely the public, his public, would not stand
for it. If some Colombians did tolerate such a blasphemy, his bombs would bring
them back to reality soon enough. It would take time, but he was sure this
alliance against him would buckle.
It had to buckle, because Escobar knew well the consequences of remaining a
fugitive, how easy it was in Colombia for a suspect to be killed tying to escape
from the police. To anyone with eyes to see, killing Escobar appeared to be the
government's plan. Pablo certainly understood. It was a practice so commonplace
throughout South America that there was an expression for it: La Ley de Fuga.
The Law of Escape.
Frustrating Hunt Gives Rise To
Chapter 11 of a Continuing Serial
On Jan. 30, 1993, a car bomb exploded in Bogota, blowing a crater several feet
deep in the street and sidewalk and taking a savage bite out of a bookstore.
Bogota was accustomed to car bombs by now, but even by that weary city's
standards this was a nightmare. The bookstore bomb was estimated to have
contained 220 pounds of dynamite.
Inside the store, children and their parents had been buying school supplies.
Torn body parts were strewn about. In all, 21 people were killed, 70 more
injured in an attack blamed on Pablo Escobar.
Bill Wagner, the CIA station chief in Colombia, recoiled when he stepped past
the police barricades. The first thing he saw was a severed hand in a gutter
running with blood. It was the hand of a small child.
He thought: "We are going to kill this son of a bitch if it's the last
thing I do on this earth."
Despite the determination of the United States, the expenditure of hundreds of
millions of dollars, and the deployment of elite U.S. military and espionage
units, six months had passed in the hunt for Escobar and the effort had yielded
little but frustration. Their prey was always one step ahead. And even though
Escobar was on the run, he was quite capable of ordering terrorist bombings
anywhere and at any time.
But his pursuers were growing stronger. Discipline instilled by a new commander,
Col. Hugo Martinez, and Delta Force training had vastly improved the speed and
efficiency of the Colombian National Police Search Bloc, based at an old police
academy in Medellin. The academy now felt almost like home to Delta chief
"Col." Santos, Joe Vega and the other Delta soldiers and Navy SEALs
who regularly rotated through.
There had been successes, most notably on Oct. 28, 1992, when Brance
"Tyson" Munoz, one of Escobar's most notorious sicarios, or assassins,
was killed in the proverbial "gun battle with national police," a
phrase that drew winks at the U.S. Embassy.
Centra Spike, the top-secret U.S. Army electronic-surveillance unit, had first
located Tyson at a house outside Medellin. A killer whose nickname came from his
resemblance to the American boxer, Tyson was renowned for his ferocity and
loyalty to Escobar, whom he had known since childhood. He had gained weight and
grown his hair long in an effort to disguise himself.
Tyson was located when an informant took advantage of reward money offered by
the U.S. Embassy. Delta operators in Medellin then watched him for days,
determining that every day at noon he played soccer in the yard of his house. A
raid was planned for one of these soccer sessions. The Search Bloc wanted to
catch him outdoors and unarmed.
On the day of the raid, as Centra Spike operators listened in, they picked up a
call tipping off Tyson. The killer at first misunderstood the warning. Assuming
that Escobar himself was the target, Tyson quickly called the boss and warned
him to move. Predictably better informed, Escobar explained the mistake, and
Tyson fled to a new hideout, this time in a ninth-floor apartment in northern
Medellin. He shared the apartment with his girlfriend and their small child.
Centra Spike promptly found him again by tracking his wireless phone calls;
Escobar and his men had not yet learned how quick and precise the surveillance
could be. Again Delta operators watched him through high-powered lenses,
studying his routine.
The raid was launched at 1 a.m. with the whispered radio code "The party
has begun." Search Bloc officers found Tyson's apartment secured with a
heavy steel door, which they blew off its hinges. The breeching charge was a bit
overdone. It blasted the door across the apartment and punched it completely
through an outer wall, sending it crashing to the street nine stories below.
Tyson was shot, according to the Search Bloc's report, as he climbed out a back
window to the fire escape. It was particularly good shooting. He took a bullet
between the eyes.
There was always a steep price to pay for these victories. On the day Tyson was
killed, four police officers were shot in retaliation, and three died. In the
six-month hunt for Escobar, more than 65 police officers had been killed in
Medellin, including some Search Bloc members whose identities were supposed to
be secret. Often these men were killed in their homes or while traveling to and
from the academy, which demonstrated that Escobar knew their identities, work
shifts and home addresses.
The officers' funerals were grueling. Colombians were not fastidious embalmers,
so the special chapel the National Police had built in Bogota often reeked of
death, an odor that in time seemed to hover over this entire enterprise.
The women would wail and the men would gasp and weep and then retire to get
staggeringly drunk. After attending one funeral in which a pregnant widow
clutching a small child threw herself on her husband's casket and had to be
pulled away, the normally stoic DEA country chief, Joe Toft, went back to his
secure apartment and cried.
Escobar issued occasional galling communiques. He had given a rambling interview
in September to a journalist, in which he portrayed himself as a persecuted
national hero with broad popular support. He had donated millions of dollars for
soccer fields and housing in urban slums.
"Sixty percent of the people say that the government betrayed me . . .
," Escobar said. "I think all the saints help me, but my mother prays
a lot for me to the child Jesus of Atocha." Escobar said he would like to
"die standing in the year 2047," and added: "Those who know me
know that I have a good sense of humor and I always have a smile on my face,
even in difficult moments. And I'll say something else: I always sing in the
Bill Clinton took office in January 1993 with an inclination to reverse the
priorities of President Bush's drug war. The new administration planned to
attack addiction at least as hard as it went after suppliers. Bush's defeat
meant that Ambassador Morris Busby's days in Bogota were numbered, and few in
the embassy believed that President Clinton and his new ambassador would share
their enthusiasm for the hunt for Escobar.
It felt as if time was running out. The prospect of Escobar slipping away once
more was frustrating to the Americans who had devoted so much time, money,
effort and emotion to the chase.
It was at precisely this moment that the hunt for Escobar took a dramatic new
turn. One day after the bookstore bombing, "La Cristalina," a hacienda
owned by Pablo Escobar's mother, was burned to the ground. Two large car bombs
exploded in Medellin outside apartment buildings where Pablo's immediate and
extended family members were staying. No one was killed - the guards had been
warned to flee minutes before the bombs went off - but the message was clear.
Several days later, another of Escobar's country homes was torched. All of these
acts targeted individuals who, while related to Escobar, were not themselves
considered criminals. In the timeless hammerlike prose of the police teletype,
DEA agent Javier Pena explained in a cable to headquarters in Washington that a
new, homegrown resistance had emerged:
"The CNP believe these bombings were committed by a new group of
individuals known as 'Los PEPES' (Perseguidos por Pablo Escobar/ People
Persecuted by Pablo Escobar). This group, which has only recently surfaced in
the Medellin area, has vowed to retaliate against Escobar, his family, and his
associates, each and every time Escobar commits a terrorist act which injures
The Colombian police, Pena wrote, had determined that the targets of three
attacks attributed to Los Pepes were Escobar's wife, mother and aunt. And while
the police and Colombian government had officially denounced the attacks, he
wrote, "they may secretly applaud these retaliatory acts."
In the cable, Pena outlined Escobar's likely response:
"He will either slow his terrorist campaign in order to protect his family
and property, or he will escalate his attacks to demonstrate his power and lack
of respect and fear of his enemies."
Homegrown Escobar Enemy Joins Fight
Chapter 12 of a Continuing Serial
Officially, the U.S. Embassy in Bogota was silent on the sudden emergence in
early 1993 of Los Pepes (People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar), a vigilante group
apparently dedicated to violent retribution against the fugitive drug lord.
The gang in the steel vault on the fifth floor of the embassy - Ambassador
Morris Busby, CIA Station Chief Bill Wagner, and the Drug Enforcement
Administration country chief, Joe Toft - was not displeased. Nor were the DEA
agents, Delta Force operators and Centra Spike electronic surveillance experts
at the Search Bloc headquarters outside Medellin.
And why would they be? What could be better than a homegrown vigilante movement
against Public Enemy No. 1? All along, Escobar's official pursuers in the Search
Bloc had fought at a disadvantage. The unit's Colombian commander, Police Col.
Hugo Martinez, was suspected of employing vicious tactics in his hunt. But
compared with Escobar, who kidnapped and murdered the sons and daughters of his
enemies, who set off bombs in public places filled with children, the Search
Bloc had been a model of decorum.
The Search Bloc was, of course, limited to seeking out wanted criminals, while
Escobar routinely targeted innocents. The unit had to take a judge along on
every raid, and if the judge did not like the way the Bloc members conducted
themselves, he could file human-rights abuse charges - certain to be encouraged
by Escobar's many well-paid allies in the Bogota bureaucracy.
When things got too hot for Escobar or his associates, they had always been able
to wriggle out by arranging to surrender and, sheltered by a small army of
lawyers, work a deal. In short, Escobar had long hidden behind the law and his
In an interview he gave while hiding the previous September, Escobar had said:
"In jail or on the street, they have to respect my rights." To his
pursuers, of course, this afforded him an enormous advantage, which made the
sudden appearance of Los Pepes tremendously satisfying to the Search Bloc.
The governments of Colombia and the United States might deplore terrorism, but
there was no doubt about its effectiveness. Terror was Escobar's strongest
weapon. Why not turn it against him?
The drug boss certainly didn't lack for bitter enemies, but his foes had little
in common. They ranged from some of the wealthiest and most powerful families in
Bogota to rival street thugs in Medellin and Cali. What if someone were to give
them a push - some organization, some money, some useful intelligence, some
training, planning and leadership?
Los Pepes were so perfect they were . . . well, too perfect.
One of the men involved with Los Pepes, a Medellin drug trafficker and pilot who
used the code name "Rubin," said he was recruited as an informant by
DEA agent Javier Pena.
"I met with Javier in October 1992 in Medellin," said Rubin, who asked
that his real name not be used. "He explained that the idea was to expand
the informants net for the Search Bloc, and wanted me to help."
Pena said he remembered Rubin's working closely with the Search Bloc as an
informant, but he did not recruit him or offer to get him a visa to the United
States - as Rubin had claimed.
"He was wanted in the United States," the agent said.
Rubin said that in Medellin he met with a man who was known as Don Berna, a
former hit man for the Galleano family. The Galleanos had been major drug
traffickers in Escobar's organization until the drug boss murdered the two
brothers who led the family.
Rubin said Don Berna was one of the leaders of Los Pepes, which he said
consisted of 12 men "and three jeeps" who worked with Col. Martinez's
men. In the fall of 1992, this group began to make associates and family members
of Escobar's an offer they dared not refuse.
"We would offer people money, supplied by the DEA, in return for their
cooperation," Rubin said. "They could accept the money and help us, or
the Los Pepes would return and kill them. It was that simple. Either help us or
you will become a target. That's how we developed the information that led us to
Pena said that DEA money was offered to the Search Bloc to pay informants, and
that the money might have been distributed through Rubin and the others, who
were identified as "informants."
The activities of Rubin, Don Berna, and others in their group were known to
Delta operators and DEA agents who worked in Medellin, all of whom ultimately
reported to Wagner, the CIA station chief, at the embassy in Bogota. In an
interview for this story, Wagner said he did not remember Los Pepes.
One of Wagner's goals in Colombia was to establish a link between cocaine
trafficking and Colombia's dominant guerrilla group, FARC - links that would
justify pushing antidrug work from the realm of law enforcement into the realm
of war. That would unleash against men like Pablo Escobar the kinds of forces
and resources typically directed against communist insurgencies and outlaw
states. He had top-level allies in this effort. Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of
the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he was advised by President George Bush and
Defense Secretary Dick Cheney that combating drugs would be "a No. 1
priority" of their administration.
This was the bigger picture Wagner had in mind when he arrived in Colombia in
January 1991, and Escobar's escape a year later had hastened the transition. Now
the CIA station chief had the kinds of resources in Colombia needed to wage war
against the narcos, and for him the hunt had become very nearly a full-time job.
After the frustrations of the first six months, there was a strategy shift. If
Escobar stood atop an organizational mountain that consisted of his family,
financial associates, sicarios and lawyers, then perhaps the only way to get him
was to first take down the mountain. During the late fall and early winter of
1992-93, the effort against Escobar began targeting more aggressively his
worldwide financial empire.
Sickened by the carnage of the January 1993 bookstore bombing, Wagner had
personally taken charge of the agency's efforts to undermine Escobar's bombing
campaign. Just days before the bombing, his agents by chance had made a
connection with a man involved with Escobar's bomb squads. Wagner decided to
work the man himself, employing all his spy-craft to protect the source from
He met with the man just days after the bookstore blast, and about once a week
after that. He learned that the bookstore bomb had originally been planned for
the Ministry of Justice, but when the car bombers discovered that security was
too tight there, they panicked, parked the car nearby, and ran. Wagner also
began learning the names of the men running Escobar's bombing campaign.
The bookstore blast had just about erased what was left of Escobar's popularity
outside Medellin. Days later, the government, responding to public outrage,
declared him Public Enemy No. 1, and offered the unprecedented reward of five
billion pesos ($6.5 million) for information leading to his capture.
The forces pursuing Escobar had long been united in their desire to get him
before he was able to negotiate another comfortable "surrender" deal.
Search Bloc and government correspondence was always careful to record that the
desire was to "capture" Escobar, but privately they said they did not
expect to take him alive.
Inside Search Bloc headquarters in Medellin, DEA agent Pena detected a distinct
shift in mood after the bookstore bombing. Just after the blast, Pena
encountered a group of Martinez's top men emerging from a meeting with the
"Things have changed now," they told Pena.
The hunt for Escobar, already bloody and terrible, was about to take an even
darker turn. In the previous months, Los Pepes had operated quietly, but in late
January a decision was made - Rubin said he thought it was a mistake - to begin
publicizing its actions. Bodies of Escobar's associates began turning up all
over Medellin and Bogota, most with signs around their necks advertising the
Sometimes they were victims of Los Pepes; sometimes they were killed by the
Search Bloc. Among the dead were some of the names Wagner had uncovered with his
mole. Whenever the Search Bloc was publicly responsible, the reports read:
"Killed in a gun battle with Colombian police."
Eighteen Through Conclusion
Escobar's Powerful Foes Ally Against Him
Chapter 13 of a Continuing Serial
The hunt for Pablo Escobar grew uglier in 1993. In his desk at the Search Bloc
headquarters, Col. Hugo Martinez kept a growing pile of grisly photographs of
the dead. Displaying the photos to a Delta Force operator one afternoon, the
colonel said of Medellin cartel members his men had not yet found, "As long
as I'm the commander here, they're not going to live."
Delta soldiers interviewed for this story said they weren't surprised or
distressed by the colonel's attitude. Indeed, they supported it. As far as they
were concerned, it was a bad idea to bring narcos back alive, because they all
had good lawyers and Colombia's legal system was so corrupt there was no real
chance for justice.
Of no one was this more true than Escobar himself. While never stated as an
official position, none of the men pursuing Escobar, American or Colombian,
expected to see him taken alive. The search forces saw themselves in a race with
more liberal elements in the Colombian government, particularly Fiscal General
(Attorney General) Gustavo de Greiff, who was trying to negotiate another
A DEA memo written in September 1993 noted that both the National Police and the
U.S. Embassy hoped that somehow Escobar would be "located" before he
was able to strike another deal with the government, "which could amount to
the beginning of a new farce."
Some key Escobar associates did manage to surrender. On Oct. 8, 1993, his
brother Roberto and one of Escobar's sicarios, or assassins, Jhon
"Popeye" Velasquez, turned themselves in. They were promptly locked up
at Itagui, a conventional maximum-security prison in Medellin.
It was only a matter of time before Escobar worked out his own terms. The
ambassador and other officials at the U.S. Embassy knew that President Cesar
Gaviria himself had been drawn into a dialogue with the drug boss' lawyers just
days after his escape.
These developments lent urgency to the effort against Escobar, and made welcome
the sudden, dark contributions of Los Pepes in 1993. If those who had been
hunting Escobar for six months - Martinez for nearly four years - were hunting
him down to kill him, who or what would stop them?
Everyone would be careful not to say this aloud, although it did slip out.
When police Col. Gustavo Bermudez (director of the military side of the Medellin
task force) told a Colombian TV station in October that he would rather see
Escobar killed than captured, it caused a brief furor in the press. Juan Pablo
Escobar, the drug boss' teenage son, called the National Police hotline and said
that if his father were killed, "Col. Bermudez will find his whore mother
dead." Bermudez retracted his statement and said it had been taken out of
context, but he had accurately reflected the sentiments of many of those
involved in the search.
If handled discreetly, who would know except those who had much to lose by
revealing the truth? The bureaucrats and politicians in Washington didn't read
Colombian newspapers. The embassy was the lens through which the United States
viewed the country. And the embassy was guiding the hunt for Escobar.
As for the Medellin cartel associates turning up dead - as many as three or four
a day by the summer of 1993 - it wasn't as if the government and the Americans
were the only likely suspects. Escobar had been warring with other drug
exporters and crooks his entire adult life. His campaigns of intimidation and
murder had left hundreds, if not thousands, of mourners, some of them from
Most of the victims of Escobar's violence came from the upper middle class in
Bogota. As a class, however, they were unlikely to form bands of hit squads.
Many of Bogota's most prominent families had members who invested heavily in the
Right-wing paramilitary squads and leftist guerrillas had long experience with
hit squads and were clearly capable of the work attributed to Los Pepes.
But Escobar had never been especially political, and he had formed alliances of
convenience over the years.
The paramilitaries had close ties to the Colombian army, with whom Escobar
enjoyed cozy relations; he had "escaped" from prison in July 1992 by
strolling through the army's Fourth Brigade. The right-wing death squads had
been bankrolled to a large extent by Escobar and other drug kingpins. Some of
them were getting rich exporting drugs themselves.
Leftist guerrillas had even less reason to go after Escobar. His dramatic
ongoing flight was distracting the United States and tying up Colombia's elite
The protracted effort to track Escobar was given such high priority by both the
Colombian government and the U.S. Embassy that it began to deeply trouble Joe
Toft, the American country chief for the DEA.
Toft never lost sight of the fact that Escobar was part of a much larger
problem. As the hunt stretched into 1993, Toft could see that the Cali cartel,
the main rival to Escobar's Medellin cartel, was growing richer and stronger.
Its cocaine shipments to the U.S. actually had grown while Escobar was on the
run. The longer the hunt went on, the better it was for its business.
Given the timing and tactics, the most likely forces behind Los Pepes were the
Moncada and Galeano families, against whom Escobar had declared open war, and
the National Police, which had lost hundreds of officers to Escobar's sicarios.
Both were receiving American support.
The execution of the Galeano and Moncada brothers, ordered by Escobar, had
fractured the Medellin cartel. Having been in business with Escobar for years,
the widow Dolly Moncada, along with Mireya Galeano and her brother Raphael, knew
many of his secrets. The murder of their loved ones was sufficient motivation to
seek Escobar's own death.
Within weeks of Escobar's escape, a DEA memo written by agent Steve Murphy noted
that the two families were trying to recruit sicarios "to battle
Escobar," offering 20 million pesos ($29,000). Another Murphy memo written
on Oct. 16, 1992, noted that Marta Moncada, a sister of the slain men, was
cooperating with the hunt for Escobar.
A former drug trafficker and pilot who went by the name "Rubin" said
he worked in Medellin with a group headed by a man known as Don Berna, who had
been the chief hit man for the Galeano family. Rubin said Don Berna and the
others in the group, which would eventually call themselves Los Pepes, worked
closely with the Search Bloc, and with the DEA.
"At first, Los Pepes would just kill people," said Rubin, who asked
that his real name not be used. "Then the philosophy changed at one point.
. . . Those in charge said: 'Let's not kill them all.' "
Both the Galeano and Moncada families were angry, rich and powerful, but they
were not strong enough to go up against Escobar's organization on their own.
They needed a strong push, some organization, some inside intelligence, and
cash. Suspicion has traditionally fallen on the rival Cali cartel, but an
equally likely suspect would be the Americans.
Angry Widow Aids Pursuit of Escobar
Chapter 14 of a Continuing Serial
At least one person in Colombia felt there was no mystery at all about the
vigilante group that called itself Los Pepes. The day after several of Pablo
Escobar's properties were bombed in January 1993, the fugitive drug boss sent a
note to Col. Hugo Martinez, who headed the police Search Bloc.
The message flatly accused Martinez of ordering the "terrorist
actions" against the homes of his relatives. Escobar did not mention Los
Pepes. Instead, he wrote: "Personnel under your supervision set car bombs
at buildings in El Poblado, where some of my relatives live."
Pointedly, Escobar also mentioned the supposedly secret headquarters of the
Search Bloc at the Holquin Academy in Medellin - what he called Martinez's
"headquarters of torture." Those headquarters, Escobar wrote, had
directed "criminal actions undertaken by men who cover their faces with ski
Escobar concluded the note with his customary coda, a thumbprint and a death
"Knowing that you are part of the government I wish to warn you that if
another incident of this nature occurs, I will retaliate against relatives of
government officials who tolerate and do not punish your crimes. Don't forget
that you, too, have a family."
The colonel hardly needed to be reminded. His family had been living with
Escobar's threats for years. Martinez had moved his wife, a dentist, and his two
younger children with him to the Holquin base (his eldest son, Hugo, had
recently graduated from the National Police academy in Bogota). Just four months
earlier, three police officers assigned to protect his family had been gunned
down in Medellin. The hit was a very personal message from Escobar. The officers
had been on their way to pick up Martinez's youngest son for school.
Escobar had been aware for years of Martinez's pivotal role in the government's
campaign against him. He had suspected, correctly, that the Americans were
helping to guide and finance the Search Bloc. And now he had concluded that the
newly emergent vigilante group, Los Pepes, was directly linked to the Search
But Escobar didn't know, six months into his second sojourn as a fugitive, how
deeply the Americans were penetrating his organization.
In August 1992, just two weeks after Escobar's escape from prison, the U.S.
Embassy in Bogota secretly flew a young woman to Washington, D.C. Her name was
Dolly Moncada, and she knew every detail of the inner workings of Escobar's
Medellin drug cartel.
She had been part of the cartel while her husband, William Moncada, was serving
as one of Escobar's top associates. Now Dolly was a widow, and a vindictive one.
Escobar, suspicious that William Moncada was withholding money from him, had
ordered him tortured and murdered. Then he sent word to Dolly, demanding that
she turn over to him all of her assets and threatening a war against her and her
Dolly was a dangerous woman. Instead of giving in to Escobar, she vanished in
mid-August. Escobar searched desperately for her. He ordered her former
residence in Medellin ransacked and her caretakers taken hostage. The kidnappers
painted the word guerra (war) on the walls.
Three days later her dead husband's business associate, Norman Gonzales, was
kidnapped, held captive and tortured over 13 days. His captors tried drugs and
electric shock in an effort to learn Dolly's whereabouts. Gonzales didn't know.
Escobar then offered a $3 million reward for whoever could help him find her.
By now, Dolly was in the hands of the U.S. government. Desperate and angry, she
had struck a deal with the administration of President Cesar Gaviria. She handed
over most of her family's assets, and won American protection. She was quickly
flown to Washington, where she became Confidential Informant SZE-92-053.
Dolly had been talking to DEA agents in the United States when, in December, her
23-year-old brother, Lisandro Ospina, was kidnapped. He was a student with no
involvement in the drug cartels and had been visiting Bogota after finishing his
first semester at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Up to this point,
Dolly had seemed intent on merely crippling Escobar's empire. Now she wanted to
harm Escobar himself.
Dolly "was extremely upset by this occurrence," a DEA memo said,
"and wants to take some type of retaliatory action against Escobar
Dolly knew exactly how to hurt Escobar. In a series of debriefings conducted in
Washington and recorded by the DEA, she outlined in detail Escobar's entire
criminal organization. She was impatient with what she considered the gentle
tactics employed by the Search Bloc, which was authorized to go after only those
suspected of criminal activity. Dolly wanted to go after everyone associated
with Escobar, his family members, his lawyers, anyone. She wanted people killed.
She gave the names of the key members of Escobar's inner circle. If they had
been indicted, she said, they should be arrested. If not, she suggested, they
should be killed.
Dolly listed five lawyers who, she said, "handle Escobar's criminal and
financial problems and are worse than Escobar. These attorneys negotiate with
the Colombian government on his behalf and are fully aware of the scope of
activities since he consults them before he carries out any action."
She provided a list of Escobar's most prized properties and assets, his antique
cars, country homes, apartments, aircraft and airports.
Dolly also offered what she considered helpful advice on how to bring Escobar
out into the open, where he could be trapped and killed: "He needs to be
provoked, or angered and made desperate so that he wants to strike back. . . .
Escobar may then make mistakes," a DEA memo said, quoting Dolly. She
recommended confiscating his assets - or destroying them.
The memo said Dolly also advised, wrongly as it turned out, that Escobar would
attribute any deaths of his associates not to the authorities, but to the rival
Cali cartel. "As a result," Dolly predicted, according to the DEA
memo, "the Escobar organization would turn on itself and begin killing
There was one other piece of advice proffered by Dolly Moncada: Perhaps the U.S.
should take another look at some Colombian drug traffickers held in American
prisons. Although these narcos had been talking to U.S. authorities in hopes of
earning reduced sentences, Dolly said, they knew a lot more than they were
telling about Pablo Escobar.
A Former Ally Offers a Profile of Escobar
Chapter 15 of a Continuing Serial
After her husband was murdered by his former boss Pablo Escobar, Dolly Moncada
began providing valuable information to the Americans who were helping direct
and finance the hunt for the fugitive drug lord. Among her suggestions was that
the authorities talk to Colombian drug traffickers held in American jails.
Soon after Dolly was debriefed by the DEA in Washington, D.C., in late 1992, an
incentive was offered to jailed Colombian drug dealer Carlos Lehder, a former
associate of Escobar's. Lehder, seeking a reduced sentence, responded with his
own suggestions for closing in on his former ally.
In a letter to the DEA from federal prison in Leavenworth, Kan., where he had
been given a new identity under the federal witness protection program, Lehder
recommended that the Americans create a Colombian "freedom fighters
brigade, controlled by the DEA, and independent of the Colombian politicians,
police or army." Lehder wrote that "the rich, the poor, the peasant,
the political left, center and right are willing to cooperate" in the
effort to bring Escobar down.
Of more immediate use was Lehder's description of Escobar's daily routine while
in hiding - how he would move from safe house to safe house, how he would almost
certainly stay close to his home base in and around Medellin. He drew a crude
map and provided insights into Escobar's habits and preferences:
"Escobar is strictly a ghetto person, not a farm or jungle person. . . .
Escobar always tries to keep within distance range for his cellular phone to
reach Medellin's phone base. That's approximately 100 miles, so he can call any
"Generally, P. Escobar occupies the main house with some of his hit men,
radio operator (Big High Frequency radio receiver), cooks, hores [whores] and
messengers. For transportation they have jeeps, motorcycles and sometimes a
boat. I have never seen him riding a horse. Escobar gets up at 1 or 2 p.m. and
goes to sleep at 1 or 2 a.m.
"Fugitive Escobar uses from 15 to 30 security guards, with arms and WT
[walkie-talkies]. Two shifts of 12 hours each. Two at the main road entrance,
some along the road, the rest around the perimeter of the main house (one mile)
and one at his door. . . .
"The main house always has two or three gateway paths which run to the
forest and thus toward a second hideout or near a river where a boat is located,
or a tent with supplies and radios. Escobar is an obese man, certainly not a
muscle man or athlete. He could not run 15 minutes without respiratory trouble.
Unfortunately, the military police has never used hunting dogs against
Lehder told the agents that any time the lookouts on the far perimeter saw a
vehicle approaching or a low-flying airplane or helicopter, they would
"scream through those walkie-talkies" and Escobar would immediately
In addition to Dolly Moncada and Lehder, the DEA noted with approval the
cooperation of another former Escobar associate with a grudge. Colombian
paramilitary leader Fidel Castano was a charismatic assassin who occasionally
exported drugs and smuggled diamonds. A onetime friend of Escobar's who had
helped him hide during the government's first war against the narcos, Castano
turned against Escobar after the murders of Castano's friends, the drug-dealing
Moncada and Galeano brothers.
In a dispatch to DEA headquarters on Feb. 22, 1993, DEA agent Javier Pena
identified Castano as "a cooperating individual who was once a trusted
Pablo Escobar associate." He reported that Castano had actually accompanied
the Search Bloc on a raid 10 days earlier, when one of the unit's top officers
drowned as the raiding parties crossed the Cauca River. Castano had reportedly
made heroic efforts to rescue the man.
In Castano, Lehder and the Moncada and Galeano families, the hunt for Escobar
had gained allies willing to play by the bloody rules of Medellin's underworld.
The Colombian government and the U.S. Embassy used them throughout the fall and
winter of 1992 to gather information about Escobar and his organization.
As early as September, the search effort seemed to be acting on Dolly Moncada's
suggestion to go after Escobar's lawyers. On Sept. 26, the Search Bloc raided an
estate owned by Escobar's attorney, Santiago Uribe, one of those named by Dolly.
The raiders were in the process of ransacking the place when Uribe himself drove
up. He was arrested and questioned.
Uribe acknowledged that he was one of Escobar's lawyers but denied knowing his
fugitive client's whereabouts. Among Uribe's files the Search Bloc found letters
from Escobar and tapes linking him to drug dealing, bribes and murder -
including the assassination just days before of Judge Myrian Velez, one of the
"faceless" judges in Medellin, who had been appointed, supposedly in
secret, to investigate the murder of a crusading newspaper editor. Velez had
been preparing to indict Escobar as the "intellectual author" of the
The evidence added to the government's criminal case against Escobar, but by now
few in the government - and virtually no one within the Search Bloc - were
talking about arresting Escobar and putting him on trial. As a DEA memo pointed
out in summarizing the raid against Uribe, the Colombian police officer in
charge "relayed a message that they were continuing their search for
Escobar and preferred that Escobar not surrender."
As determined as its leadership was, the Search Bloc was still a step or two
behind its prey. The team simply could not close the last one hundred yards.
This was the assessment delivered by "Col. Santos," the chief Delta
operator assigned to the Search Bloc headquarters in Medellin. After the first
blundering raids in 1992, when Escobar and his entourage had driven down one
side of a mountain while the Search Bloc lumbered up the other, the unit had
blown one good lead after another.
Despite these failures, the Americans were impressed with Col. Hugo Martinez
after he took command following Escobar's escape. None of the Americans assigned
to the Search Bloc headquarters had been in Colombia during the first war
against Escobar, so they didn't realize at first how far back went this war
between the colonel and the drug lord.
The colonel knew how the game was played. American soldiers working closely with
the Search Bloc knew that when Martinez grabbed somebody associated with
Escobar, the man had better start talking fast. If the man did talk, he would
end up arrested instead of having his photo added to the growing pile of
photographs of bloody corpses in the colonel's desk drawer.
Between October and the end of December 1992, 12 major players in Escobar's
empire had been killed by the Search Bloc. Often the photos in the colonel's
drawer would show the victim with a bullet wound in the forehead, or through the
ear. Each one was reported killed "in gun battles" with the Search
A Traitor Within the Search Bloc
A Rivalry Grows Between Spy Units
Chapter 16 of a Continuing Serial
The Americans based at the Search Bloc headquarters in Medellin occupied a small
room where they slept on cots or air mattresses. They covered the walls with
giant photo-maps of the city of Medellin and surrounding areas.
Whenever the American electronic eavesdropping experts from Centra Spike would
forward the coordinates for a target, "Col. Santos," the Delta Force
chief and his men would locate the exact spot on their maps. Col. Hugo Martinez,
the Colombian commander of the Search Bloc, was always glad to receive the
information, and usually acted upon it, but he was too proud to permit the
Americans to help plan his assaults.
For Santos and his squad, usually six U.S. Army Delta operators and Navy Seals
who rotated in for shifts, the mission had become a sometimes numbing routine.
They spent most of their time holding classes for Search Bloc members, or in
their small rooms playing cards or video games and counting the days until they
got to go home.
Two CIA agents and a Centra Spike technician normally shared this cramped space.
Whenever DEA agent Steve Murphy or agent Javier Pena rotated through, usually
for a day or two at the end of the month (enough to continue qualifying for
"danger pay"), they stayed there as well. The Americans were allowed
to wander outside the compound's barbed-wire fence to visit the little stores or
restaurants inside the main checkpoint, but otherwise they were forbidden to
leave the compound.
Despite Ambassador Morris Busby's strict orders, the Delta operators and DEA
agents left the compound anyway, usually for Search Bloc assaults. Over time,
the Americans became illicit forward observers, heading off with a new set of
Centra Spike coordinates, searching for a convenient observation post where they
could watch a suspected hideout, sometimes for days.
Usually they went along with Col. Martinez's assault forces, operating global
positioning devices that they knew how to use better than the Colombians. Such
sojourns were unauthorized, but the Americans believed they were essential for
earning the respect of Martinez and his men.
Escobar's reputation was so frightening that the Search Bloc initially would
only go after him with a large force. In time, Col. Martinez began employing
smaller units for assaults, as Delta suggested, but always the sound of
approaching helicopters or vehicles was enough to send Escobar fleeing.
"The last hundred yards" became a refrain among the frustrated
Americans, a gap some feared the Search Bloc would never learn to close. The
Delta operators were eager to set up a solo American raid, perhaps four or five
men. They believed they could nail Escobar their first time out.
Santos had to calm them. If one of them were killed or injured it would end the
mission - not to mention their careers. But concerns about getting in trouble
with the U.S. Embassy or with the military chain of command weighed
unimpressively against the risks the Colombians were taking every day.
Pena and Murphy felt the same pressure to put themselves on the line, and also
went along on raids. They continued, according to members of the Search Bloc,
even after they were ordered to stop. It was hard to continually urge the
Colombians to put themselves at risk, then wave good-bye to them from the safety
of the compound.
The Americans would ride in on choppers with Martinez or one of the other
Colombians leading an assault. There were occasional firefights, but few members
of the Search Bloc were killed on such raids; most of the unit's casualties came
when off-duty members were killed by Escobar's assassins.
Sometimes Search Bloc commanders would ask the Americans to accompany them with
a video camera to record payoffs to informants. There was such suspicion about
corruption that the agents were asked to keep the camera focused on the bag of
money from the minute it left the base until it was handed over to an informant.
When word of unauthorized excursions reached the U.S. Embassy, there was usually
trouble. Murphy was told once, "If you do it again, you will be back in the
United States before your luggage arrives." But with so little else to do
inside the compound, it was hard for the Americans to sit back and watch.
The Search Bloc was, after all, trained, financed and even clandestinely guided
by Americans. As Col. Martinez later described his feelings, the whole thing was
in that sense an American production.
And now, just as friction between the Americans and Colombians at the Holquin
Academy was beginning to subside, problems developed among the Americans. There
is nothing unusual about competition between military and nonmilitary units
thrown together on a mission, but in Colombia it grew into a significant
The appetite for fresh intelligence from Medellin was fierce in Washington,
which was pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the hunt. Each
organization was out to prove that its men, equipment and methods were superior.
Success on this unconventional mission in Colombia would likely have a big
impact on future funding.
The CIA operated two kinds of aerial surveillance. It flew the wide-winged,
silent Schweitzer aircraft to provide imagery, and had its own version of Centra
Spike, code-named Majestic Eagle, to electronically eavesdrop on targets and
pinpoint their location.
Centra Spike, the Army's secret unit, had its Beechcraft twin-engine planes
performing essentially the same mission as the CIA's planes, but at a much lower
cost. Centra Spike considered the CIA's radio telemetry inferior.
The Centra Spike team drew from the Army's vast talent pool, recruiting
operators with both language and technical skills. These operators designed
improvements to the system in the field, sending detailed suggestions to
engineers in the United States. When Escobar switched from using standard cell
phones to digital phones in 1989, for instance, it had taken the unit only 15
days to adapt.
There was always a race to send information back to Bogota and Washington. Pena
remembers seeing the CIA and Centra Spike men actually racing from a meeting to
be the first to telephone back new information.
Escobar's knowledge of electronics and law enforcement capabilities far exceeded
the Middle East terrorists and Central American guerrillas Centra Spike had
chased in the past. When Congress had begun authorizing more secret funds for
Centra Spike after its early successes in Colombia, it was painful to the CIA.
Now, with Escobar at large, the two units were competing head-to-head.
One problem for Centra Spike was that it reported to the CIA station chief. So
even delivering fresh intelligence first was no guarantee of getting credit for
The Centra Spike operators were furious when a report from the National Security
Council congratulated the CIA for useful information that in fact had been
gathered by Centra Spike. Because budget dollars would grow more scarce in 1993
and the years ahead, it was more than just galling to see the CIA taking credit
for the Army unit's success. It was a threat to the unit's survival. The Centra
Spike commander, Maj. Steve Jacoby, complained bitterly to Ambassador Busby.
A competition was arranged: The rival units ran a series of field trials to see
which could do a better job of pinpointing targets. They set up phony targets
over Medellin and flew a series of missions in late 1992.
The contest wasn't even close. Centra Spike pinpointed signals to just under 200
meters. The best the CIA plane could do was more than four miles, even after
trying three separate telemetry methods. That settled things, and the CIA backed
off its claims for Majestic Eagle.
Centra Spike got another boost in congressional funding, and the operators
looked forward to new equipment in the coming year that would double their
system's accuracy as they tried to close the gap in the hunt for Pablo Escobar.
Chapter 17 of a Continuing Serial
Up in their Beechcraft spy plane over Medellin one day, the Centra Spike
operators were stunned by what they overheard.
They had just picked up a brief radio transmission from Pablo Escobar. They
plotted the coordinates, then sent the data to the Search Bloc headquarters.
There, the unit's commander, Col. Hugo Martinez, shared the information with his
It was at this point that the Centra Spike men picked up a phone call from the
base. Someone was calling from the Search Bloc headquarters to warn Escobar.
Apparently there was a soplon, a traitor, within Martinez's handpicked inner
Escobar had been tipped off in plenty of time to escape. But the Centra Spike
operators had recorded the soplon's warning - "They're on their way,
they're coming for you!" - which had gone out to an Escobar associate
Several days later, a Centra Spike technician visited Martinez at the base and
played the tape. The colonel didn't recognize the voice, but he assumed it was
one of the men on his command staff. So the colonel dismissed all but his two or
three most trusted officers, sending all the others to Bogota for reassignment.
Eight days later, after briefing only his top commander, Maj. Hugo Aguilar,
about a pending raid, Martinez was again called by the man from Centra Spike:
Minutes after sending coordinates to the Search Bloc base, the unit had picked
up another telephone warning to Pinina.
"If it isn't you," the American said, "it has to be one of the
men who are right there with you."
Martinez was angry, and frightened. It had only been two minutes! He knew he
could trust Aguilar ... or could he? He summoned the major to his office and
confronted him. Aguilar swore he had made no such call, and was wounded to be
Martinez felt wounded, too. Aguilar said he had conveyed the colonel's plans to
three other top officers, but that was it. The information had not traveled
outside the Search Bloc's smaller new inner circle.
The colonel was spooked. If he couldn't carry on a conversation with his most
trusted officer without Escobar finding out about it minutes later, what hope
did he have of ever catching the man? Within 30 minutes, he was on a helicopter
to Bogota, where he turned in his resignation. He explained to the generals that
the situation was out of his control. The generals refused his resignation, and
ordered him back to Medellin to straighten things out.
When Martinez returned the following day, Aguilar met him at the helicopter and
said they had found the soplon. Just after Martinez had flown away from the
base, Aguilar had stormed out to confront the officers he had spoken with. All
three angrily denied the betrayal, but as they spoke they noticed that a
mechanic who worked at the base was standing close enough to overhear. He had
been standing at the same spot when they had spoken earlier.
"That's got to be him," Aguilar said.
Before accusing the man, they set a trap. With the colonel back in his office
the next day, they ran through the same scenario. Aguilar emerged from
Martinez's office and consulted with his three officers, standing close enough
for the mechanic to overhear. Minutes later, Centra Spike recorded a phone call
from the base delivering the false information.
The mechanic was confronted, and confessed. Fearing for his life, he said he had
been recruited by a second lieutenant, one of the men Martinez had banished from
the base nine days earlier. He said he also had been paid to kill Martinez. He
had been given a pistol with a silencer and had actually climbed a tree several
nights before outside the window where the colonel often sat reading. The
mechanic said he was too far away to fire accurately and, fearing an errant shot
would prompt return fire, he had resolved to spend a few days practicing with
the pistol. He had planned to try again the night before, but the colonel had
not returned from Bogota.
The incident reinforced the pervasiveness of Escobar's influence, even within
the Search Bloc compound. The traitor lieutenant had been handpicked for the
Search Bloc. Like the other men at Holguin, he had no access to telephones or
radios, so he had recruited the worker.
Now more than ever, the colonel realized how dangerous his mission had become,
and how hopeless the entire effort sometimes seemed. Not long afterward, the
traitor lieutenant was killed, Martinez said, "fighting against the
guerrillas." Several of Martinez's men said they believed the man was
Even after this soplon had been sniffed out, there was still reason to believe
Escobar had sources inside the compound. In November 1992, two raids on targets
where Martinez was convinced Escobar had been hiding turned up nothing. Yet
during the same period, raids on some of the cartel's midlevel management
routinely got results. The experience confirmed Centra Spike's accuracy, yet
when it came to Escobar, the raids were always too late.
Over the Christmas holidays in 1992, Escobar made yet another surrender offer,
this time in a letter to two sympathetic Colombian senators. He would turn
himself in if the government agreed to house him and 60 members of the
"military and financial arms" of his organization at a police academy
in Medellin, to be supervised by members of the Colombian army, navy and air
He also demanded that all members of the Search Bloc be fired. In the letter, he
accused Col. Martinez of routinely torturing those he arrested. Escobar demanded
an investigation of these "human rights abuses," and then issued a
"What would the government do if a 10,000-kilogram bomb were placed at the
Colombian prosecutor general's office?"
He promised a new wave of kidnappings, threatening members of the
"diplomatic community." He vowed to plant bombs at the
government-owned radio and television station, the national tax offices and the
newspaper El Tiempo.
Colombian President Cesar Gaviria responded in early January by calling the
demands "ridiculous," and he dismissed Escobar's charges of human
rights abuses as a public-relations ploy. Still, the warnings spread fear
throughout official Bogota. Fiscal General Gustavo de Greiff, Colombia's top
federal prosecutor, asked U.S. Ambassador Morris Busby to help relocate his
family to the United States for safety.
For all the misery Escobar had caused, Martinez could not help but admire the
way his enemy never seemed to lose his temper, especially when he was in danger.
In the recordings of Escobar talking to his associates, the drug lord seemed to
radiate calm. Martinez was impressed by his ability to manage several problems
at once, and by the care with which he planned his moves.
Escobar proved to be flexible and creative. During the months when Martinez
imposed a blackout on all cellular-phone use in Medellin, hoping to make it more
difficult for Escobar to communicate with his organization, the drug boss just
switched over to radio or communicated by messenger.
Escobar seemed able to anticipate how others would react, and plan accordingly.
He and his friends would speak in elaborate impromptu codes that required
remembering specific dates, places and events. Often Escobar's fluency with
these facts tripped up his associates, who couldn't keep up with their boss'
It was clear that Escobar believed he could stay one step ahead of the colonel
for as long as it took for the Gaviria administration, or perhaps the next
administration, to capitulate to his demands. Martinez was stubborn, but after
six months of futile searching, after the deaths of 65 police and scores of
civilians, he was no closer to finding Escobar in January 1993 than when he had
The colonel became devoted to his superstitions, bathing stones he carried in
goat's milk, watching for omens to supplement the steady stream of intelligence
he got from the Americans.
It was in this climate of frustration and fear that Los Pepes suddenly began to
Eighteen Through The Conclusion