Why you should care
Because there’s no negotiating with drug lords.
He just had to switch off a 10,000-volt security fence and walk out of his resort-style prison. From there he took off, with his brother and nine of his lieutenants who’d been jailed along with him, to the place where he had ordered four chalk bricks be installed in the outer prison wall. Pablo Escobar kicked his way to freedom that July night in 1992 — not unlike the recent escape of Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, who again reminded us that powerful drug lords should never be underestimated.
In the wake of Escobar’s prison break, Colombia learned that it wasn’t merely dealing with a convict in a high-security jail, but rather the country’s most powerful man, who had been managing his lucrative business from inside his personal bunker. Known as “the Boss,” Escobar was always in control, having used his ill-gotten gains to build an army that made Colombia kneel to his whims. His motto was plata o plomo — cash or lead — meaning “take the bribe or be killed.” And he found numerous ways to make good on the threat, bombing airplanes and public buildings; ordering the assassinations of politicians, judges, journalists, prosecutors, law enforcement agents and civilians. He was responsible for thousands of deaths, kidnappings and incidents of torture too vast to quantify.
It will take generations before Colombia can dismantle Escobar’s legacy.
When he escaped, Escobar caught Colombia “with its pants down,” says Daniel Mejía, director of the Research Center on Drugs and Security at Universidad de los Andes, in Bogotá. Security forces and institutions, from the presidency and Congress to the courts, were disorganized, easy targets for his corruption. They lacked the money, weapons, training and laws to fight him. Such a weakened Colombian state, not unlike Mexico today, was fertile ground for people like Escobar to disregard the law with impunity.
Which he did until June 1991, when he finally agreed to turn himself in after the government of President César Gaviria agreed not to extradite him. The 5-foot-5 Medellín native was willing to negotiate rather than risk being sent to the U.S., because he couldn’t control his empire from there. Under the deal, Escobar got to build his own prison, La Catedral, using his own money, contractors and property, and handpick his guards from his army of henchmen.
Inside, the luxurious cells came with a personal chef, a billiards hall, a Jacuzzi, chandeliers and expensive artwork. On the Boss’ orders, visitors could come and go. Top henchman John Jairo Velásquez later testified that buses would ferry in Escobar’s associates to keep the business running smoothly. And it was only after word got out that he’d had one of his enemies killed — cut into pieces and incinerated for trying to take advantage of his absence — that Gaviria sought to move the high-profile prisoner to a more secure location, which prompted his escape.
“It’s very hard to negotiate with drug dealers because of the power they amass,” says retired Gen. Rosso José Serrano, the former chief of Colombian police. Eventually, however, Colombia was able to gain leverage over its drug kingpins, once foreign help started to arrive — mostly from U.S. and U.K. intelligence assets. Equipment, money and training enabled the country both to fight back militarily and to strengthen its courts and Congress. Equally critical was Colombian society, which had grown weary of violence and bloodshed.
Having played a key role in the hunt for Escobar, Serrano was one of three Colombian cops to advise Mexico on how to recapture Guzmán. The retired chief wouldn’t divulge details, but he did say that locking up El Chapo is not the endgame. “It’s clear that, like Escobar, El Chapo had complete control of the prison,” Mejía says, adding that Mexico should accept more outside help.
Even when countries can mobilize resources to stamp out drug lords, purging narco power demands a new approach that decriminalizes at least part of the business. Otherwise, the profit margins are simply too tempting. A gram of cocaine, for example, is produced for $3 in Colombia’s jungle; by the time it’s sold on U.S. streets, it can fetch $180. “With those margins, there will always be someone willing to assume the risks,” Mejía says. If other countries don’t get involved, he adds, “we are just going to continue in this vicious cycle.”
Escobar’s luck ran out when, following a major manhunt, he was gunned down a year and a half later. But it will take generations before Colombia can dismantle his legacy. Others stepped in to fill Escobar’s void, and while those too have been eliminated, the business is now being run by smaller cartels, guerrillas and paramilitary armies — most notably by the Mexican cartels.
“Easy money is the great scar that remains,” says Mejía, noting that Colombia is still the No. 1 cocaine supplier in the world.