Return To Chapters One Through Seventeen
Los Pepes' Killings Put Heat On
Chapter 18 of a Continuing Serial
By January 1993, the Americans directing the search for Pablo Escobar had managed to produce elaborate organizational charts for his Medellin drug cartel. The charts were displayed in the secret vault at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota and inside the Delta Force outpost in Medellin.
Some of the information had been gleaned from months of electronic eavesdropping on Escobar and his associates by Centra Spike, the secret U.S. Army unit. Some had been coerced from people interrogated by Col. Hugo Martinez and his police Search Bloc, and some came from informants recruited by the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Search Bloc to work in Medellin. Of these, according to an informant known as "Rubin," some were members of Los Pepes, the death squad that was methodically killing Escobar's hit men, relatives, lawyers and business associates.
The embassy's charts laid out Escobar's financial network, his businesses, his extended family, his legal teams. Many of those on the charts were not known to be criminals, or had not been indicted for crimes, but they were part of the mountain that propped up the drug lord. Such information would have been useful to a group like Los Pepes, and more than one American at the embassy believed it was finding its way to them.
The pattern of Los Pepes' hits corresponded neatly to the charts, and it wasn't just whom they were killing, but whom they were not. Some of the top names on the embassy's organizational charts were now under almost constant surveillance - and seemed immune to Los Pepes.
"It sure seemed to us like they knew who we were watching most closely, because they left those people alone," one of the Centra Spike operators said.
After a hiatus following the first dramatic raids on Escobar's properties the previous autumn, Los Pepes went on a killing rampage. The group had actually been killing people quietly for months, but now a decision was made to go public. On Feb. 3, the body of Luis Isaza, a low-level Medellin cartel manager, was discovered in Medellin with a sign around his neck: "For working for the narco-terrorist and baby-killer Pablo Escobar. For Colombia. Los Pepes."
Four other low-level cartel workers were found murdered in the city that day. The next day the bodies of two men known to be Escobar's business associates were discovered. There were more murders the next day, and the next, and the next. It was a controlled bloodbath. All of the victims had one thing in common - Pablo Escobar.
Among them was a former director of the Colombian National Police, Carlos Casadiego, who had been publicly linked to the Medellin cartel. On Feb. 17, one of the dead was Carlos Ossa, the man thought to be financing Escobar's day-to-day operations.
On the same day Ossa's body was found, a government warehouse burned to the ground, destroying Escobar's collection of 17 antique and luxury cars, valued at more than $4 million. The vehicles had been seized by Colombian police in 1989, but it was assumed that Escobar would one day reclaim them.
Fidel Castano, a paramilitary leader cooperating in the search, told the Americans in Medellin that Escobar was now in bad shape because so many of his men had been killed or jailed. A memo by DEA agent Javier Pena that February quoted Castano:
"Escobar was having trouble getting his hands on cash as he was spending a great deal of money in his present war with the government of Colombia."
The day Ossa's body was found, one of Escobar's most notorious assassins, Carlos Alzate, turned himself in. A day later, a man thought to be one of Escobar's chief money launderers, Luis Londono, was found murdered with a Los Pepes sign around his neck. Two weeks later, Jose Posada, the man Ossa had replaced, also surrendered.
As the pace of killings and surrenders mounted, Los Pepes publicly offered cash rewards for information on Escobar and his key associates and began broadcasting threats against the drug lord's family.
American soldiers and agents in Medellin believed there was a direct connection between the Search Bloc and Los Pepes. They observed men they associated with the death squad meeting with officers at the Search Bloc base. The men carried radios and appeared to maintain communications links with Col. Martinez's men.
DEA agent Pena knew their leader only by the name Don Berna, a stooped, fat man with buck teeth and bad skin who always had pretty girlfriends and wore an expensive watch. Don Berna had been at the compound from the earliest days after Escobar's escape. He presented Pena with a gold watch as a gift of friendship.
Col. Martinez, now a general, denies all this. He calls Los Pepes criminals, former associates of Escobar's who turned against him, originally working as informants, and then as killers.
"They began to employ against Pablo Escobar the same kind of terror he employed," Martinez said recently. "Pablo Escobar would set off a bomb in Bogota, and Los Pepes would set three against Escobar's interests, his family, or the criminal group he headed. It was a black spot on the Search Bloc, because Pablo Escobar manipulated the media very well. Whether writing or speaking, he always publicly claimed that the Search Bloc was in fact Los Pepes. However, Los Pepes and our group did not share any links at all."
In any case, it was clear that the vigilante group had spooked Escobar more than anything the government had been able to do. One sign that the fugitive was feeling the heat came Feb. 19, when Pena learned from the prosecutor's office in Medellin that Escobar intended to send his children to Miami. Escobar's wife, Maria Victoria, had purchased tickets for their son, Juan Pablo; their daughter, Manuela; and a woman friend named Doria Ochoa on an Avianca flight scheduled to leave Medellin at 9:30 a.m.
Ambassador Morris Busby moved fast. He believed that Escobar's most vulnerable pressure point was his family. If they were tucked away in relative safety in the United States, it would ease a tremendous daily psychological burden on the fugitive.
Meeting with Colombian Defense Minister Raphael Pardo at his residence early the next day, Busby explained that he did not want the family to leave.
They had visas to enter the United States, but Busby wanted them stopped. Since they had been issued tourist visas, Pardo and the ambassador discussed turning them back because what they were doing, in fact, was fleeing from danger. This could not be called "tourism."
Then Busby's public affairs officer suggested, "Why don't we poke fun at him?" Why not turn them away on the grounds that children under the age of 18 could not travel to the United States without both parents?
DEA agent Pena was at the airport in Medellin when the children arrived, surrounded by bodyguards and accompanied by Ochoa. Manuela carried a small, fluffy white dog. They were allowed to board the plane before police moved in. Three of the family's bodyguards were arrested, and four others fled. The Escobar children and Ochoa were escorted off the plane.
It created a raucous scene in the airport. Doria Ochoa argued vehemently with Pena, who took their passports. Juan Pablo, a tall, chubby 16-year-old, joined in the commotion.
Manuela sat down on the floor in the terminal and quietly petted and cooed to her dog. Pena felt sorry for her. She had a kerchief around her head, covering her ears, and Pena remembered a bomb blast that had reportedly damaged her hearing.
He eventually handed back the passports and the Colombian police informed Ochoa that they would not be allowed to fly.
The U.S. Embassy took out newspaper ads the next day explaining that Juan Pablo and Manuela could obtain visas if both parents, Pablo and Maria Victoria, showed up in person to apply at the embassy.
Escobar Complains Of Unfair Treatment
Chapter 19 of a Continuing Serial
If Pablo Escobar had ever doubted that the United States was hot on his trail, those doubts vanished after the U.S. Embassy in Bogota refused to issue visas for his wife and children to flee to the United States in February 1993.
Escobar had always tried to avoid picking a fight with America, but now the Americans' latest moves clearly distressed him. Ambassador Morris Busby received by mail a newspaper clipping in an envelope that appeared to have been hand-addressed by the fugitive. The clipping was about the decision to turn back his family, and in a quotation from one of Escobar's defenders, one line was circled: ". . . is it valid to cancel the visas of children because one is persecuting the father?"
On March 2, Busby received a handwritten letter from Escobar, with his signature and thumbprint at the bottom. The letter mentioned a comment by a prosecutor in New York, in reference to the World Trade Center bombing earlier that year, that no enemy of the United States could be ruled out in investigating the attack. Included on the enemies list was Escobar's Medellin cartel.
Escobar wrote that he wasn't at war with the United States "because in your country the government has not been participating in bombings, kidnappings, torture and massacre of my people and my allies."
If he had carried out the World Trade Center bombing, he added, "I would be saying why I did it and what I want."
The bloodbath continued in Colombia, with Escobar's random car bombs increasingly answered with chilling precision by the vigilantes from Los Pepes. The day after Luis Londono - described by the DEA as one of Escobar's primary money-laundering experts - was killed, his brother Diego Londono, an architect, turned himself in, claiming Los Pepes had also tried to kill him.
Diego Londono told the National Police where to find a young man named Lisandro Ospina, who had been kidnapped the previous December. When the Bogota apartment was raided, Ospina, chained to a bed, was executed by his kidnappers, all of whom were then killed by the police. Escobar had ordered Ospina kidnapped in an effort to find his sister, Dolly Moncada, who was in hiding and cooperating with the Americans.
The day Londono surrendered, Escobar's brother-in-law, Hernan Henao, known as "HH," was killed by Search Bloc members as they raided his apartment in Medellin.
Dolly Moncada had urged her new American allies to go after not just Escobar's gunmen, but his infrastructure, his family and his legal teams. In the spring of 1993, that's what started happening.
For surveillance purposes, the Drug Enforcement Administration had compiled elaborate lists of Escobar's relatives, with many of the names provided by Dolly Moncada. A list given in February by Joe Toft, the DEA country chief, to John Craig, the CIA deputy station chief, listed names and phone numbers for Escobar's father, mother, wife, brothers, sisters, brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law, mother-in-law, and children.
On March 4, an attorney who had worked for Escobar, Raoul Zapata, was found murdered. The next day another attorney, Maria Munoz, was murdered. After another of Escobar's car bombs exploded in Bogota on April 15, killing 11 and injuring more than 200, Los Pepes exacted swift revenge, blowing up two fincas, or estates, owned by Escobar's key associates.
The same day, two more of Escobar's lawyers, Juan Castano and Guida Parra, were killed. Parra was murdered along with his 18-year-old son, Guido Andres Parra. They had been abducted from their apartment in Medellin by 15 heavily armed men.
Their bodies were found, hands tied with plastic tape and bullet wounds to the head, stuffed in the trunk of a taxi. A hand-lettered sign in the trunk read, "Through their profession, they initiated abductions for Pablo Escobar." It was signed, "Los Pepes," with a postscript: "What do you think of the exchange for the bombs in Bogota, Pablo?"
The body of the taxi driver was found about a mile away, with a sign that accused him of working for the Medellin cartel. Any public dismay over the killings was far outweighed by anger over Escobar's deadly car bomb in Bogota.
In a statement issued by Los Pepes to the press, the vigilantes referred to Escobar's "demented attitude" and concluded, "We challenge Pablo Escobar and all his people to fight a frontal war which only affects the parties involved and doesn't incur the vile assassination of Colombians, under the false pretense that with these actions he will convince the last hopefuls of the power of his extinct organization; otherwise we will be forced to fight a frontal war against him and his close ones."
Los Pepes saw themselves as a military organization. They called for the war to be fought without involving "civilians," but evidently Escobar's "close ones" and innocents such as the son of Guido Parra did not qualify. Los Pepes also spread the word that the drug boss had been condemned to death, whether or not he surrendered.
The killings of Escobar's lawyers prompted three of the drug lord's best-known attorneys, Santiago Uribe, Jose Lozano and Reynaldo Suarez, to publicly resign from his service. In June, Lozano, who continued to represent Escobar despite his public resignation, was shot 25 times in downtown Medellin as he walked with his brother, who was badly injured. In July, seven other lawyers who had worked for Escobar or his cartel resigned (Uribe for the second time) after Los Pepes publicly threatened "potential harm or murder."
As this lawlessness accelerated through the spring, no one from Washington questioned it or noted America's possible links to it. No one from Colombia was complaining, or explaining.
The only voice of complaint came from Pablo Escobar. On April 29, he wrote a letter to Colombia's chief prosecutor, Gustavo de Greiff, who had recently indicted him for murder and other crimes. Escobar named Fidel Castano, a paramilitary leader who had secretly been providing information to the Americans, as the head of Los Pepes:
"Los Pepes have their headquarters and their torture chambers in Fidel Castano's house, located . . . scarcely 40 yards from an incinerated house which belonged to a relative of mine. There they torture trade unionists and lawyers. No one has searched the house or confiscated their assets."
Escobar went on to complain that the murders and kidnappings he attributed to Los Pepes were not investigated by the government. The government, he said, offered rewards for information on the leaders of his cartel and leftist guerrilla commanders, but nothing for Los Pepes members.
The letter ended with yet another indication that the killings of his associates, the attacks on the homes of his loved ones, the relentless pursuit by the Search Bloc - all of it - were starting to wear on Escobar. He was ready to surrender.
"I remain disposed to turn myself in . . ." he wrote. And as always, he listed his conditions: ". . . if given written and public guarantees."
U.S. Spy Data, Vigilante Killings Start To Coincide
Chapter 20 of a Continuing Serial
In the fifth-floor vault at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, Centra Spike analysts were not missing the distinct pattern in the Los Pepes hits. The death squad was killing off the white-collar infrastructure of Escobar's organization, targeting his money-laundering experts, bankers, lawyers and extended family - names listed on the very charts that Centra Spike's surveillance experts and the CIA had painstakingly assembled over the previous six months.
Often the hits corresponded with intelligence Centra Spike was turning over to CIA Station Chief Bill Wagner, who was passing it along to Colombian police commanders in charge of the Search Bloc. More and more of the people identified by Centra Spike's Beechcraft spy planes were turning up dead.
Despite this, Centra Spike's operators felt they were well within the legal boundaries of their mission. They gave their information to Wagner, and what happened to it after that was, as far as he was concerned, none of their business. If Col. Hugo Martinez and his men were attempting to enforce Colombia's laws and arrest criminals, whatever they did on their own could hardly be the responsibility of the embassy.
If Los Pepes were working with the Search Bloc, that would explain their apparent access to fresh U.S. intelligence. After the vigilante group's murders and bombings on April 15, a Drug Enforcement Administration memo to Washington summed up the official attitude at the embassy:
While not completely unexpected, the attacks by Los Pepes further demonstrates their resolve to violently retaliate against Escobar each and every time Escobar commits a terrorist attack against the GOC and/or the innocent citizens of Colombia. Although the actions are not condoned nor approved by the CNP nor the BCO, they may persuade Escobar to curb such behavior for fear of losing members of his own family. Too, these types of attacks will seriously cut into those assets owned by Escobar and his associates.
As long as any American linkage with Los Pepes remained circumstantial, the embassy had little to fear.
And as long as the Colombian government did not object, and the new U.S. administration and Congress did not notice, the pursuit of Escobar could proceed as a war. The phrase dirty war was redundant. Innocent people would always get killed in the cross fire, but at least Los Pepes was choosing targets with a great deal more precision than Escobar was.
After Los Pepes killed one of Escobar's top lawyers, Guido Parra, and Parra's teenage son, the public outcry prompted President Cesar Gaviria to make another public statement denouncing the group. This time he offered a $1.4 million reward for information leading to the arrest of members of the vigilante squad. Los Pepes promptly issued a communique announcing that it was disbanding, having "made a contribution" to the effort against Escobar.
Several months earlier, the secret informant Dolly Moncada had given the Americans the names of six key members of Escobar's organization who she thought should be taken out, one way or another. By summer, three had surrendered and were in prison and one was dead. Of the lawyers she had named, all were either dead or had publicly resigned.
Despite Los Pepes' public pledge, the killings continued. The death toll now included Escobar's brother-in-law, Carlos Henao, and his cousin, Gonzalo Marin. Another nephew was kidnapped.
Fear of Los Pepes had taken root in Escobar's family. By the end of June 1993, many members of the extended family had fled the country, or had tried. The United States was using its influence to deny them safe havens. When Nicholas Escobar, a nephew of Escobar's, and his family were traced to Chile, the embassy prevailed on the government there to evict them. The family appealed through Chile's courts, which bought them a few weeks before the appeal was denied and they fled to Germany.
In early July, the president of neighboring Peru announced that his country would not allow Escobar's relatives to enter even as tourists. Meanwhile, Escobar's brother Argemiro, nephew, sister Luz Maria and her husband and three children were discovered in Costa Rica, where they were deported and flown back to Medellin.
Back in Colombia in mid-July, Escobar's wife filed a legal petition demanding that the Colombian government allow her children to leave the country. It was denied.
Escobar made another offer to surrender in March, just before the Search Bloc killed one of his most notorious assassins, a man known as "El Chopo." The offer was delivered by an Escobar lawyer to a Roman Catholic bishop.
By now the fugitive drug boss, his ranks riddled by deaths and surrenders and increasingly isolated and vulnerable, had dropped many of his former demands for surrender. He no longer insisted in living in his own prison, surrounded by his own men and guards. Now he asked that his family be given government protection - earlier he had demanded U.S. government protection - - that he be given a private cell with his own kitchen (to prepare his own food to prevent poisoning), and permission to phone his family three times a week.
President Gaviria reiterated the government's refusal to accept any conditions for Escobar's surrender, but Fiscal General Gustavo de Greiff sounded a dissenting view: "I do not see any difficulty in abiding by these requests, not as a concession but as a solution."
De Greiff was increasingly at odds with the Gaviria administration. Elected independently, unlike the American system in which the attorney general is a presidential appointee, he felt his role was to uphold the nation's laws and basic human rights. He viewed the official search for Escobar as a killing mission, and began pressing instead for Escobar's capture or surrender.
His office assumed responsibility for protecting the drug boss' immediate family, offering bodyguards (paid for and fed by the Escobars) for the apartment building where they lived in Medellin. De Greiff also pushed for investigation and prosecution of Los Pepes.
By early August 1993, the new Clinton administration overseers had noticed how neatly the dirty work of Los Pepes dovetailed with the U.S. mission against Escobar, and representatives from the Justice Department and the Pentagon flew to Bogota to demand answers.
Ambassador Morris Busby was asked directly about Los Pepes in August, when Brian Sheridan, the Clinton-appointed civilian overseer at the Pentagon for covert operations, visited Bogota. Sheridan left the meeting convinced there was no evidence linking Los Pepes to the Search Bloc.
Busby had heard about evidence to the contrary, but nothing that he found convincing. He would later say he had not seen DEA reports suggesting such a connection, including one written by agent Steve Murphy noting that "the police were cooperating with the group at some level, including sharing information."
Busby himself had written about the alleged connection a month earlier.
In a secret State Department cable titled "Unraveling the Pepes Tangled Web," dated Aug. 1, just days before the meeting with Sheridan (a cable Sheridan would not see until months later), the ambassador noted that he had met with President Gaviria on April 13 to "express his strongest reservations about the group." Busby wrote that he had discovered that Fidel Castano, one of the suspected Los Pepes leaders, was in constant contact with the national police.
The memo said Busby requested that all police contact with Castano cease, and he was assured that it would.
'Tacit Support' For Tough Tactics
Chapter 21 of a Continuing Serial
Concerned that the manhunt he was leading might somehow be linked to the vigilantes of Los Pepes, U.S. Ambassador Morris Busby wrote a long, secret memo to the State Department in August 1993.
Busby explained that he had warned the Colombian government to sever any ties with members of the vigilante group, which had been killing as many as five people a day.
The ambassador wasn't convinced the alleged connection was true, but there was evidence that Los Pepes was working closely with the elite Colombian police unit, known as the Search Bloc, which was partially funded by the U.S. government and guided by American military officers, law enforcement agents and CIA operatives - all of whom reported to Busby.
In his memo, Busby reported that Colombian President Cesar Gaviria had called a meeting of his key advisers in April and ordered that any contacts between the Search Bloc and Los Pepes be terminated at once. After that meeting, Busby wrote, the president called a top police commander who was not suspected of links to the death squad and ordered him to "pass the word" that Los Pepes must be dissolved immediately.
"Gaviria's effort to send such an important message to Los Pepes via one of his key police commanders . . . indicated that the president believed police officials were in contact with leaders of Los Pepes," Busby wrote.
His memo went on to note that the message clearly got through: The very next day, Los Pepes publicly announced that the group was disbanding.
But it never happened. Los Pepes soon resumed the campaign of terror against Escobar, and evidence of a link to the Search Bloc continued to mount.
By July 29 - three days before Busby wrote his memo - the ambassador was told by Colombia's top prosecutor, Fiscal General Gustavo de Greiff, that there was sufficient evidence to issue warrants against the Search Bloc commander, Col. Hugo Martinez, and half a dozen police officials. Busby's memo said the charges included accepting bribes, drug trafficking, kidnapping, torture and "very possibly murder."
The memo said de Greiff had told a Drug Enforcement Administration official that the key witness against Martinez was a prosecutor who had been jailed on corruption charges. The prosecutor said he had been paid bribes by Martinez, with the money coming from the Cali drug cartel, Escobar's hated rivals. Martinez vehemently denied the allegation.
Deep into the memo, Busby revealed that the fiscal general had made a stunning allegation: Not only were Los Pepes and the Search Bloc working hand in hand, but Los Pepes had taken charge of the hunt for Pablo Escobar.
De Greiff believed that Los Pepes, which surfaced with "harmless" attacks against residences of Escobar's relatives, later began murdering and kidnapping citizens whose only crime was their relationship with Escobar, Busby wrote. The fiscal general said the police, whose "tacit support" helped Los Pepes get started, then "went too far" and moved from simple intelligence-sharing to violent attacks against civilians, according to Busby's memo.
At this point, Busby quoted the fiscal general as saying: "Police officials were probably already too deeply involved with Los Pepes to withdraw. . . . Not only were some members of the Search Bloc 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."
The prosecutor supplying this evidence had worked with the Search Bloc at its headquarters in Medellin - by law, a representative of the fiscal general's office had to authorize all the unit's searches, seizures and arrests - and had been charged with selling an expensive car seized during a raid. In an effort to help his case by assisting prosecutors, he had described torture sessions and murders committed by Col. Martinez's men.
Still, Gaviria had decided not to have Martinez arrested, for fear "the police might not obey" the order, Busby's memo said. Gaviria was also concerned that a public scandal involving the Search Bloc would effectively end the hunt for Escobar, conceding another huge victory to the drug boss.
"It would be terrible, if after all the deaths and upheaval in the country, Escobar was victorious," the memo said. But Busby also noted that de Greiff had promised that charges would be brought against Martinez and the others eventually, "even if they are national heroes."
Busby's memo said that he had pressed the fiscal general to act, saying that if there was good evidence against the officers they should be replaced immediately.
"The investigation could then proceed at its own pace and the would maintain the integrity of the unit," Busby wrote. "Justice would be served and the effort against Escobar kept intact. Additionally, if tainted officers, at least one of whom was a principal contact of ours, were kept in place, we would have no choice but to withdraw our support for the unit."
Busby then met with Colombia's defense minister, who said the allegations had been falsely spread by Escobar. Busby said Gen. Octavio Vargas, administrative head of the Search Bloc, promised him that Martinez would be transferred and that charges against the colonel would he handled by a military tribunal. Busby's memo promised that the embassy was "aggressively pursuing this matter" and that his "thinly veiled threats to withdraw our support" seemed to have been heeded.
Busby concluded by noting that Escobar and his assassins, who feared and despised the Search Bloc, had every reason to try to discredit the unit by publicly linking it to Los Pepes.
"On the other hand," he wrote, "it is not hard to believe that policemen who have been hunting Escobar for years without success, who have seen the bloodshed firsthand, could have been attracted to an 'easy solution' like the Pepes. . . . The key points for us are to distance ourselves from the accused - by having them transferred - until the matter is clarified, and to continue to pursue the investigation."
If Busby was pressing the Colombian president to remove Martinez immediately, Gaviria was getting a different message from Joe Toft, the DEA's top man in Bogota. The day after the ambassador wrote his memo, Toft met with de Greiff to encourage him to let Martinez stay. According to a DEA cable describing the meeting, Toft and another DEA official encouraged de Greiff to honor the president's request:
"Obviously, the impending implications and repercussions . . . would almost certainly overwhelm the Gaviria administration," the cable said. "Also, this type of information could potentially elevate Escobar once again to the status of national hero. . . . The BCO has enjoyed a long and successful working relationship with Colonel Martinez. . . . Of interest is the fact that the Medellin cartel has been decimated and practically brought to its knees, all under the leadership of Colonel Martinez. To date, the BCO continues to support Colonel Martinez and his subordinates."
This was the message that got through, not the ambassador's "veiled threat" to the president. Col. Martinez was not transferred. There were no charges against him or any members of his Search Bloc for involvement with Los Pepes, nor would there ever be. And American support for the unit never wavered.
Records pertaining to U.S. actions in Colombia in 1993 remain classified. Questioned about the vigilante group years later, former CIA Station Chief Bill Wagner said: "I have no memory of them."
Other American principals, including Busby and Toft, now dismiss Los Pepes as creatures of the Colombian underworld, a plague Escobar brought upon himself, and a welcome one. Gen. George Joulwon, chief of the U.S. Army Southern Command, said: "I only vaguely remember some of that. If there was a connection it went expressly against my instructions."
The vigilantes of Los Pepes resumed their bloody work, sometimes with dark panache. On July 14, a prize stallion owned by Roberto Escobar, Pablo's brother, was stolen, its rider and trainer shot dead. The stud, named Terremoto, or Earthquake, was worth millions and commanded a breeding fee of $600,000.
The horse was found three weeks later, tied to a tree just south of Medellin, healthy but neutered.
The hunt continued.
Martinez Pushes Ahead With The Hunt
Chapter 22 of a Continuing Serial
Col. Hugo Martinez did not protest when he learned that his superiors in Bogota were planning to replace him, and had even picked his successor. He offered to step aside. As the first anniversary of Pablo Escobar's escape passed in July 1993, there seemed to be better reasons to leave than to stay.
Col. Jose Perez, his proposed replacement, was a respected officer who had been working on a poppy eradication program, which meant he probably had a comfortable relationship with the U.S. Embassy. So Martinez requested a transfer to Bogota, citing stresses caused by long separations from his family, who had been sent back to the capital from Medellin for their protection.
The hunt for Pablo Escobar had created strains in many families, the colonel's perhaps most of all. His children had been forced out of school for long periods when they were in hiding, and he hardly saw them or his wife, who blamed him for the problems in their marriage. As much as he wanted to finish the job, and as much as he felt that to step down would be an admission of failure, he was ready to quit. The manhunt simply demanded too much.
But his request was again rejected, and Perez never came. Despite Martinez's alleged ties to the vigilantes of Los Pepes, detailed in Ambassador Morris Busby's memos to Washington, the colonel continued to receive American support, even when he wasn't sure he wanted it. He was certain that was the primary reason he remained, for it was the Americans who had bankrolled and pushed the effort from the beginning.
Besides, no one else in the National Police wanted the job. In the year that Martinez had commanded the Search Bloc, the unit had conducted thousands of raids, arrested or killed scores of Escobar's closest associates, and seen scores of police and civilians killed in return. The hunt for Escobar had evolved into a kind of civil war between Medellin and Bogota. The Search Bloc conducted its raids in Medellin, and Escobar set off his retaliatory bombs in the capital.
The toll of the hunt was terrible, but the police could afford to lose more men than Escobar could. By the summer of 1993, the once powerful Medellin cartel was in shambles. Escobar's fincas stood empty and looted. His most palatial estate, Napoles, was now a police headquarters.
Many of his former allies had abandoned him, offering to trade information for government acquiescence in their own drug trafficking (or for protection from the vigilante group Los Pepes). But the man himself was still at large, moving from hideout to hideout, trying to hold together his crumbling empire, still setting off bombs, still sowing terror.
So long as Escobar was free, the Search Bloc's lesser successes amounted to little. Every day Escobar remained at large was an insult to the rule of law, and a blot on the reputation of Colombia . . . and Col. Martinez's force.
There were those who refused to believe Martinez was really trying to catch Escobar. Semana magazine polled officials in Bogota about the Search Bloc's failure to get Escobar, and reported that "corruption" was believed to be the primary reason. The second reason most frequently cited was "inefficiency." Meanwhile, prosecutors in Bogota were investigating the disappearance of some of the $1 million seized in Search Bloc raids.
Inside the fences at the Search Bloc base, Martinez wrestled daily with disappointment and frustration. He and his men lived there apart from their families for months at a time, always under the shadow of death. Escobar had evaded the police raids for so long that many had begun to doubt he would ever be caught. The colonel's top men complained that the effort was ruining their careers and often asked to be recommended for other assignments. The Americans provided money, guidance and information, and their support kept him in command, but Martinez knew he still lacked their complete trust.
One day in late summer of 1993, Santos, the Delta commander at the Search Bloc base, and DEA agent Javier Pena brought him a tape Centra Spike had recorded of a radio conversation between Escobar and his son.
Martinez was excited. It was the first time he had actually heard Escobar's voice in more than a year. He wanted his men to analyze it. The Americans allowed him to listen to the tape but refused to give him a copy. They remembered an embarrassing leak in 1989, when the transcript of a phone conversation recorded by Centra Spike wound up in the newspapers, tipping off Escobar to their capability. The orders were that no copies or transcripts could be made.
Martinez was furious. Pena and Santos were apologetic.
"Look, Colonel," Pena said. "I feel bad about it myself. You want to kick us all out of here . . . kick us out. We'll leave right now."
They secretly allowed the colonel to copy the tape, but Martinez stayed angry about the official snub. He had long since embraced American technology. He had been skeptical at first, and it had led them in the wrong direction often enough. But they had come so close to nailing Escobar on several occasions that he no longer doubted the spooks from Centra Spike and the CIA knew what they were doing.
The colonel had allowed the American role in his command to grow. On July 14, he met at the Search Bloc base with U.S. Army Col. John Alexander, visiting from Delta Force's headquarters at Fort Bragg, and agreed to allow the unit to establish a ground-based listening post in the Medellin suburbs to supplement its Beechcraft spy flights. This allowed the U.S. Army's snoops to keep constant tabs on radio and cell phone traffic in Medellin - but it was a potentially controversial and embarrassing move for both countries.
The presence of Delta operatives at the Search Bloc base was a closely guarded secret. Having more U.S. Army personnel living in Medellin exposed them to danger and increased the likelihood that their presence would be discovered by the Colombian press.
Revelations that gringo soldiers had been allowed not only to operate on Colombian soil but to conduct electronic surveillance in a major city might bring down the Gaviria administration. And for Washington, the presence of American soldiers set up just outside a city as violent as Medellin was fraught with danger.
As it was, Centra Spike's Steve Jacoby and Delta's commanders were being summoned to the Pentagon on a regular basis to reassure nervous administrators. But having a permanent presence on the ground gave the unit a 24-hour capability, instead of being limited to the hours the Beechcrafts were in the air.
Martinez had also agreed to Alexander's suggestion that Delta begin playing a more active role in "development of targets and subsequent operational planning," according to a memo Alexander wrote to Busby about the meeting. The ambassador himself met with Martinez at the Search Bloc base on July 22, the first anniversary of Escobar's escape, to tour the facility and underscore America's continued commitment.
Martinez hardly needed convincing. If his superiors would not let him off the hook, then finding Escobar, finishing this thing, was the only way out. When he learned that a special unit of Colombian police had been successful in tests with a new portable direction-finding kit, he requested that it, too, be sent to Medellin to aid the hunt for Escobar.
There was only one problem. The special unit included his son Hugo.
Search Bloc Leader Tries To Keep His Son From Joining
Chapter 23 of a Continuing Serial
Col. Hugo Martinez did not want his son coming to Medellin. Without telling the young man, the colonel had twice intervened to block his transfer to that dangerous city. Now he would block him again.
The younger Hugo Martinez was a lieutenant who worked for a special Colombian electronic surveillance unit that used portable devices to track down the source of a radio signal. The unit had been successful in recent cases, and was running tests in Bogota. The colonel believed it might help finally find Pablo Escobar, who was believed to be hiding somewhere in Medellin.
The Americans in their surveillance planes could tell the Search Bloc what neighborhood and even what block the signal from Escobar's cell phone was coming from, but in a city as densely populated as Medellin, a block wasn't good enough. The colonel hoped this new team might provide the pinpoint capability they needed.
"Send the team, but I don't want you to come here," Martinez told his son.
The team members using the portable electronic gear would have to live and work undercover in the city. Coming and going from the protected headquarters of the colonel's Search Bloc outside Medellin would blow their cover.
Given the bounty Escobar had placed on the head of every police officer in Medellin, and the even higher reward for killing a member of the Search Bloc, Martinez feared putting his son in such a position.
"Send someone else," the colonel said.
The younger Martinez reminded his father that he, his mother, brother and sister had been living with the threat of Escobar for years. Once, knowing that his phone conversation was being recorded and would eventually reach Col. Martinez's ears, Escobar had said: "Colonel, I'm going to kill you. I'm going to kill all of your family up to the third generation, and then I will dig up your grandparents and shoot them and bury them again."
He had been a target for a long time, Hugo told his father. "At least this way I have the chance to fight back. I'm part of the team, and it won't work as well without me. We need to try to resolve this, so that it is not always going to be hanging over our heads. We can do it together."
Young Hugo looked nothing like his father. He was short, stocky and dark where his father was tall, pale and slender. But father and son shared a stubborn ability to stay focused - a trait that Hugo would demonstrate in the coming months.
Hugo also shared his father's keen intellect, but in him it was less apparent. He was a visionary, the kind of man who could persuade other people to follow him even when only he understood where they were going.
The father led by stern discipline and example; Hugo led with enthusiasm. When he talked about technical matters that often only he understood, Hugo flushed with pleasure. He would begin making scratchy diagrams of his ideas, leap to his feet, gesturing, explaining, exhorting. He believed in technology with evangelical passion.
During his father's first war against Escobar, Hugo had been a student at the National Police Academy in Bogota. He was 20 when the threats against his family started.
Their lives changed dramatically. No longer a typical, upper-middle-class family, they effectively became fugitives. They were not allowed to travel, and hardly a month went by without hearing that someone close to them had been killed or kidnapped. Friends they had known for years shunned them out of fear.
Hugo escaped some of this when he entered the police academy, where, aside from a few appropriate precautions, he lived as a normal cadet. He was training to become a police officer, to support the nation's laws and institutions, with a full appreciation of their fragility. He longed to help his father hunt down Escobar.
When he graduated, Second Lt. Hugo Martinez was sent to an investigative arm of the Colombian judiciary. He was placed with an electronic surveillance unit that had been given portable eavesdropping and direction-finding equipment by the CIA. The surveillance team had already purchased equipment from France and Germany that was designed to perform a similar function, but they had never been able to get the direction-finding part of it to work.
Hugo was assigned to work with the CIA kit, which looked like a prop from an early science-fiction movie. It was a gray metal box about a foot square, with cables snaking out the sides, and a spray of antennae on the top, one at each corner and six more in the center. It had a screen, no bigger than the palm of his hand, that displayed the strength and direction of a signal.
The whole contraption fit inside a bulky suitcase, and was used in concert with the much bulkier French and German equipment, which was housed in three gray vans. The vans would park on the hills just outside Bogota and raise their antennae - to the uninitiated they looked like electric company repair vehicles. The three vans would go out on trial runs to triangulate a target signal, placing it within a prescribed area.
Hugo would then cruise through the streets with another officer in an unmarked car, monitoring the directional signal with the screen and headphones. In theory, Hugo's team would pinpoint the signal to the correct building, even the correct floor and apartment.
It never worked. After some wrangling the police bought upgrades that did improve the system slightly, but it fell considerably short of being able to pick one building or floor from another. Hugo and his unit could find the right two-block area, but picking the right house was beyond them.
Progress in direction-finding was further stymied because his team's simple eavesdropping capability was in demand. When President Cesar Gaviria learned that the National Police were able to park outside a building and listen in on conversations inside, Hugo's team was assigned to eavesdrop on guerrilla leaders in Bogota for peace negotiations.
The unit was able to supply government negotiators with inside information about the guerrillas' negotiating strategies, and alert them to new proposals before they were made. As a result, the team developed a reputation for surveillance wizardry that overstated the actual case.
They were not really getting better at radio direction-finding. For that purpose the equipment was still useless. But, Hugo said, they didn't let on. Each small victory brought them a better assignment.
In 1991 and 1992, they were used against guerrillas in the southern part of the country. It was only after these missions that Hugo's commander was able to convince police authorities that they really needed more work on their direction-finding skills. They were allowed to return to Bogota not long after Escobar's escape, where they resumed their tests on city streets.
As hard as they tried, Hugo knew that his little gray boxes were not yet working well enough to help him find a man like Pablo Escobar.
Pressure Mounts On Escobar Family
Equipped With Cia Direction-Finding Kits, A Colombian Tracking Unit Goes To Medellin.
Chapter 24 of a Continuing Serial
Lt. Hugo Martinez and his team of electronic surveillance experts started getting better with their funny little boxes. They combined the various components, American, French and German, and developed techniques through trial and error.
Even though they still could not trace a signal reliably, their eavesdropping capability alone was exciting. It deprived criminals of privacy. Martinez had listened to so many intercepted conversations by now that he felt he could sense when someone was about to begin discussing something illicit.
Snooping was addictive. The more he worked with the direction-finding kits, the more attuned he became to subtle nuances in the images they displayed and the sounds they emitted in his headphones. It was like learning a new language.
He was not yet thinking about using it against Pablo Escobar. He assumed Escobar was too difficult a target. The kind of criminals he was after were unsophisticated people who never suspected that someone might be listening to their phone or radio conversations.
Going up against Escobar with this equipment would be foolhardy, precisely because it could steer them so close to him without being able to pinpoint exactly where he was. The risk was that the equipment would bring members of his team just near enough for Escobar to have them kidnapped or killed.
Seizing the son of Col. Hugo Martinez, the commander of the Search Bloc that had been hounding him for so long, would be a major coup for Escobar. The elder Martinez repeatedly warned his son to be careful, and would pass along the personal threats he received.
In the first few months after Escobar's escape, Col. Martinez had banned all cell-phone use in Medellin and closed down all repeater stations for transmitting signals. People had to use standard phone lines - or point-to-point radio communications, which required a clear line of sight between transmitter and receiver.
The idea was to isolate Escobar. He was too smart to use normal phone lines, but if he tried to communicate through the uncluttered airwaves he would be much easier to find. The drug lord responded by using messengers.
It was only in the spring of 1993, as he grew increasingly concerned about the vigilantes of Los Pepes and getting his family out of Colombia, that Escobar resumed regular radio communication. He found places that provided a view of the top of the apartment building where his family was living under heavy guard, speaking most often to his son, Juan Pablo.
This was the weak link that the colonel wanted to probe. The special police technical team had just been transferred to Medellin. And joining them, despite Col. Martinez's forceful objections, was his son Hugo.
Hugo Martinez and his partners found apartments in the city. The CIA provided them with six new direction-finding kits, designed to be operated from three small Mercedes vans. Three teams were created, each assigned to a van.
Their arrival stirred hopes in the Search Bloc. A CIA direction-finding crew had been working in Medellin since the previous November, with poor results. Now the inflated reputation Hugo's unit had earned preceded it, and the new men said nothing to deflate it. They had also arrived in time to take advantage of important new information.
Medellin's chief prosecutor, Fernando Correa, who met frequently with Escobar's family, had noticed a few interesting things. The family was virtually imprisoned in Altos del Campestre, its apartment building in Medellin, and lived in terror of Los Pepes. Increasingly the family members' energies were spent looking for passage to some other country. They were despondent.
Pablo Escobar's wife, Maria Victoria, wrote in a letter to her husband that year:
I miss you so very much I feel weak. Sometimes I feel an immense loneliness takes over my heart. Why does life have to separate us like this? My heart is aching. How are you? How do you feel? I don't want to leave you my love. I need you so much, I want to cry with you . . . I don't want to pressure you. Nor do I want to make you commit mistakes, but if our leaving is not possible, I would feel more secure with you. We'll close ourselves in, suspend the mail, whatever we have to. This is getting too tense.
Juan Pablo, a hulking 15-year-old who stood 6 feet tall and weighed more than 200 pounds, acted as the man of the house, at least in Correa's presence, and appeared to be making all the decisions for his family. He spent hours with binoculars observing the neighborhood from his perch, keeping a nervous eye out for those who appeared to be keeping an eye on them.
Once, he was watching when three men stepped out of a car and fired a rocket-propelled grenade at their apartment building. He carefully noted their appearance and the make and model of their car as the grenade slammed into the building, spewing smoke and debris but causing no casualties.
Juan Pablo also noted the license numbers of cars driven by those he suspected of working for Col. Martinez. He photographed men outside the building whom he found suspicious, and indignantly asked the prosecutors who visited the family to pursue and arrest those he described.
Unlike his mother, who was overcome by the situation, Juan Pablo seemed to relish it. He clearly enjoyed his dealings with Correa and other representatives from the Fiscalia, or Attorney General's Office, using their fear of his father to bully them. He received coded written messages from his father and wrote him cocky letters in return. In one undated letter written that fall, Juan Pablo updated his father:
I send you a big hug and warm wishes. . . . The prosecutor's office cannot raid the places of the guys in the pictures because unfortunately that is the way the law goes.
In the letter, Juan Pablo told his father where he thought Col. Martinez sometimes stayed overnight in Medellin, and wrote out two pages of descriptions of the men and cars he had seen outside the apartment building.
He concluded by suggesting that his father send a scare into a local TV station that had dared to air pictures of the family's apartment building: It would be good to tease the TV people so they won't make the building stand out so obviously, because when they came here they told me they were going to erase the tape and they didn't do it. Take care of yourself. I love and remember you. Your son.
On one official visit, Correa noted that Juan Pablo carried a beeper, and when it went off (at regular times during the day) he would abruptly leave the apartment. Correa presumed it was to speak on a phone or radio with his father. This was something he definitely intended to pass on to Col. Martinez and the Search Bloc.
A Father And Son's High-Tech Connection
Chapter 25 of a Continuing Serial
On one of his many visits to the apartment building that housed Pablo Escobar's wife and family in Medellin, the Colombian prosecutor Fernando Correa had noticed several cellular phones. On another visit, he discovered a radio transceiver hidden behind the trap door on the ceiling of the building elevator.
This information was relayed to Col. Hugo Martinez at the Search Bloc headquarters outside Medellin. The colonel passed it on to his son Hugo, a member of a Colombian electronic surveillance unit recently dispatched to Medellin to assist in the hunt for Escobar.
Hugo asked his father to have Correa note the make and model number of the radio, and its frequency range. He also asked his father to get Correa to do what he could to encourage 15-year-old Juan Pablo Escobar to speak for longer periods with his father.
Provided with the frequency of Juan Pablo's radio, and with a rough idea of when father and son spoke, Hugo and his surveillance teams set about intercepting these calls.
At first they tried working with the CIA, which had its own eavesdropping team in Medellin. The Americans were not having much luck tracking Escobar, but Col. Martinez urged his son to work with them because he wanted to keep an eye on them. He didn't fully trust the American spy agency. The gringos jealously guarded their methods, and they would often fail to share everything they uncovered.
The younger Martinez had his own reasons for wanting to work with the American team. He thought he might learn from them, and he, too, wanted to find out everything the Americans were doing. "With me there, you know you will get everything," he told his father.
One of the first problems faced by the new unit was deciphering the coded lingo Juan Pablo and his father had constructed to confuse their pursuers. They used key words as a signal to switch frequencies, which they did quickly and often.
At first this tactic prevented the surveillance teams from getting even a general fix on Escobar's location, because every time father and son switched frequencies the signal would temporarily be lost. The direction-finding cars drove in randomly throughout the city, racing a few blocks in the direction of a signal and then pulling over to the curb when they lost it.
After a few days of this it became clear that the streets of Medellin, with so many walls, overhead wires, high-rises and other obstructions, were the worst kind of environment for direction-finding.
In the first few weeks, the Search Bloc followed the efforts of the younger Martinez and his teams with great interest. Once or twice they launched raids, breaking into the houses of startled Medelliners who had no connection to Pablo Escobar. Very quickly, enthusiasm for this new tool dried up. The new little vans and CIA equipment were just another disappointment.
Col. Martinez told them to keep at it, but in time everyone assumed the only reason the teams were still around was because Martinez's son was working with them. This was humiliating for the son, because he knew it was true. But it wasn't true in the way everyone suspected. Without a doubt, their rapid series of failures would have sent any other unit packing, their antennae and weird little boxes heaped with scorn.
But Hugo had his father's ear. They would sit together into the night, with Hugo selling his father on the amazing potential of the technology, how close they were to actually making it work. When it failed again and again he would explain to his father exactly why, his crew-cut head hunched between his shoulders as he sketched out his diagrams with arrows and filled the margins with math.
"It isn't something simple and straightforward," Hugo said. His father listened and asked questions, and, in time, was converted. The rest of the Search Bloc may have considered the technology a useless whim, a father's indulgence, but the colonel had become a believer.
It wasn't just that he loved his son and wanted him to succeed, although the colonel was smart and honest enough to know that was part of it. The equipment, he was convinced, had potential. If Hugo and his men could work out the bugs, this was the thing that would give him a decisive advantage over Escobar, the magic device that could pick him out of the city.
The best thing about it was that Escobar knew absolutely nothing about Hugo's team. By now he knew the American spooks could pinpoint him with some accuracy from the air. He had even taken to talking on his cell phone while in the backseat of a car, moving through city streets, just to throw them off. But he did not yet suspect that their technology might, at least in theory, enable a team like Hugo's to find him in his moving car and follow him home.
In time, the colonel became convinced that when they finally got Escobar, it would be with Hugo's equipment, while the fugitive was talking on the phone, unsuspecting. He believed this in part because of Hugo, but also because he needed to believe it. He needed to believe there would be a way out of this endless struggle. And it didn't hurt that the one showing the way was his son.
Mission Stirs Concern Back Home
Chapter 26 of a Continuing Serial
Gen. Jack Sheehan Was Director Of All Special Operations Overseas.
As the hunt wore on late into the summer of 1993, at least one member of the top brass at the Pentagon began to worry about how far the Americans in Colombia seemed willing to go to get Pablo Escobar.
As the operations chief at the Pentagon, Maj. Gen. Jack Sheehan was director of all special operations overseas. Sheehan already suspected that Delta and Centra Spike were overstepping the strict limits of their deployment order, which confined them to the Search Bloc headquarters outside Medellin. There, they were restricted to training, intelligence-gathering and analysis.
Sheehan was not a big fan of special operators. He regarded the men in charge - Gens. Wayne Downing and William Garrison in the United States and Ambassador Morris Busby in Bogota - as exceptionally aggressive. He called such men "forward leaners," by which he meant that they sometimes tended to stray beyond the strict parameters of their missions. Sheehan had heard tales of Delta operators going out on raids with the Search Bloc, and he worried about a possible U.S. relationship, direct or indirect, with the vigilantes of Los Pepes.
Sheehan's chief concern was that information gathered and analyzed by Centra Spike and Delta might be used to guide assassination squads to their targets - Escobar's lawyers, bankers, associates and hired killers. If that were the case, such assistance could fall into the category of supplying "lethal information," something allowed only with authorization from the president and notification of Congress.
The Clinton administration was growing more cautious about clandestine U.S. military operations overseas, and by autumn that year seemed inclined to pull everything back. According to administration officials, President Clinton felt he had been blindsided when Gen. Garrison and his Delta special operators found themselves in a pitched firefight in Somalia, where 18 American soldiers were killed in October 1993.
The deployment order for sending the special operations units to Colombia in 1992 had been very clear. They were there only to provide training. If they were going out on missions for any purpose other than training, they were exceeding their authority.
In fact, Delta operators had been secretly going out on Search Bloc raids for months, assisting as forward observers and helping the Colombians use global positioning devices. Sheehan knew that if just one Delta soldier were wounded or killed during a Search Bloc raid, it would raise an unholy stink in Congress, which by law must be consulted before placing American troops in harm's way. The larger concern for him was civilian control of the military - a principle both he and his boss, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell, took very seriously.
The American involvement in Colombia had created a string of issues inside the Pentagon. When it was decided that Search Bloc helicopter pilots needed training flying at night with night-vision goggles, American pilots were sent to Medellin. The pace of the hunt was demanding, so any training would have to be given on-the-job. This provoked a fight over whether sending pilots along to conduct training violated the prohibition against sending American soldiers on raids.
The pilots got permission to go.
This opened the door slightly for Gen. Garrison. He sought to send Centra Spike's skilled operators, with their portable direction-finding equipment, out with an American pilot on the Search Bloc helicopters.
Steering a raid to a specific spot required smooth coordination between the technician and the pilot, something the Americans had perfected. Here Garrison saw an opportunity to get official permission to send Delta operators out on raids. He argued that with an American pilot and technician accompanying the Search Bloc, then Delta needed to go along, too, to provide protection.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff approved the request in the summer of 1993, but the Defense Department would not concur without approval from the White House. Defense officials were waiting at the White House for a meeting with Clinton's staff when a colonel on the Joint Chiefs' staff called to say they had decided to withdraw the request.
There were those working for the Joint Chiefs who, like Gen. Sheehan, weren't especially keen on sending Delta out on raids in Colombia, so they weren't about to take such a fight to the President. And as the mission evolved, Sheehan began to object more strongly.
In the late summer of 1993, Sheehan took his concerns to Powell. The chairman, who would be leaving the job in late September, asked him to look into it further. Sheehan also discussed his concerns with Brian Sheridan, the principal deputy secretary of defense for special operations. Sheridan began asking pointed questions about possible connections between the American effort in Colombia and Los Pepes.
In November, two CIA analysts met with Sheehan and other top brass at the Pentagon to report that Los Pepes were, in fact, Col. Hugo Martinez's Search Bloc. The analysts claimed that the vigilantes had been paid for and trained and, in part, led by Delta Force, and were receiving intelligence from the CIA and Centra Spike. "These guys have gone renegade, and we're behind it," one analyst told Sheehan.
Others at the meeting sharply contradicted the report.
"Bull----," one of them said, explaining that Ambassador Busby had been monitoring the situation and was convinced the Search Bloc was not involved with Los Pepes.
Gen. Sheehan believed the CIA report. He said he was taking the matter to the new Joint Chiefs chairman, Gen. John Shalikashvili, and would ask that all American special forces engaged in the hunt for Escobar be pulled out of Colombia. Sheridan backed Sheehan. He expressed concern that revelations, or even suspicions, of an American military link to Colombian death squads would harm Clinton.
It was late on a Friday afternoon in mid-November, and the only hope supporters of the mission against Escobar had of stalling the immediate withdrawal of American forces was to find someone on the Defense Department staff to oppose Gen. Sheehan. Before the night was over, a position paper had been produced that rebutted the CIA analysts' claims. That effectively countered Sheehan and Sheridan by forcing the question to a higher level at the Department of Defense.
Busby and his staff in Bogota had weighed in on the position paper, denying the CIA analysts' findings, which was enough for the Defense Department to decide to delay pulling out Delta and Centra Spike until further information was gathered.
As it happened, that mid-November delay was all that was needed. At the very moment the issue was heating up inside the Beltway, matters were finally coming to a head inside Colombia.
Trackers Get A Line On Elusive Escobar
Chapter 27 of a Continuing Serial
The Unit Had A Lot Of Faith In Its Electronic Gear And Hoped To Quiet Critics.
The special Colombian police squad sent to Medellin with its curious little portable direction-finding kits was having no luck finding Pablo Escobar. The Search Bloc was continuing to provide security for the men, but the unit itself was considered a joke. Things got so bad that Col. Hugo Martinez, the Search Bloc commander, finally sent the unit's leaders back to Bogota.
The new commander, a lieutenant put in charge by Col. Martinez himself, was the colonel's son, also named Hugo. Because of the unit's failures, and young Hugo's role in them, he was regarded with amused contempt by the men who worked for his father.
Determined to redeem themselves, Hugo and the other men began working round-the-clock shifts with the CIA's electronic-surveillance experts, monitoring the known frequencies on the radio used by Juan Pablo, the son of Pablo Escobar. Juan Pablo, holed up in an apartment building in Medellin with his mother and sister, used code words to communicate by radio with his fugitive father.
Hugo's unit had been presented with an opportunity in August 1993, when Centra Spike was ordered out of Colombia temporarily to assist with the U.S. military operation in Somalia. With Centra Spike gone, the Colombians placed an antenna on a hilltop just outside the city that helped the mobile units fix on the signal from Juan Pablo's radio.
This round-the-clock surveillance quickly showed that Escobar restricted his radio communications to one hour each evening, roughly between 7:15 and 8:15. So each day at that time, Hugo's unit began trying to zero in on the signal the minute Escobar started talking. Hugo assigned one scanner to monitor the frequencies most often used, and another to scan the entire 120-140 MHz range that could be used by Juan Pablo's radio.
Eventually, through patient trial and error, they were able to break the code employed by father and son. If Pablo said, "Let's go up to the next floor," or "the evening has ended," it was a signal to shift to a specific frequency. Once the police units knew the code, they were able to follow the signal as it shifted. It was clear to Hugo that the Escobars believed their precautions made it impossible for their conversations to be tracked for more than a few moments at a time.
Still, in early October 1993, the Colombians experienced more setbacks.
Working with the CIA officials, Hugo's team tracked Escobar's location to San Jose Seminary in Medellin. The drug boss had a long-standing relationship with the Catholic Church in Medellin, and Juan Pablo had attended San Jose's elementary school. It was considered a promising target, and so Col. Martinez began planning a major raid.
The next day, Pablo Escobar's voice came up on the radio at the appointed time. The signal on the screen and in his headphones told Hugo that Escobar was speaking on the radio inside the main building in the seminary complex.
The raid was launched as Hugo listened to Escobar talking. Doors were blown off, flash-bang grenades exploded, police assault forces loudly descended . . . and the fugitive kept talking, as though nothing were happening. When the leaders of the assault teams told Hugo they hadn't found anything at the seminary, Escobar was still talking calmly on the radio.
"He's in there!" Hugo insisted, trusting his equipment and his ability to read the signals.
"He's not in there," the major in charge of the raid said. "We're in there. We've done our search."
Escobar was still talking. There was no background noise, and he still seemed unperturbed. Hugo had to conclude that the raid had not even come close.
The assault teams were more convinced than ever that they were wasting their time. With deepening scorn for the colonel's son, the CIA and their worthless gizmos, the teams continued searching on the chance that Escobar had a secure hiding place somewhere on the grounds. Five hundred men proceeded over the next three days to take apart the seminary and an attached school. They poked holes in walls and ceilings, probed the buildings, looked for secret rooms and tunnels. They found nothing, and left behind furious officials from the archdiocese.
It was not possible to fail more spectacularly. Hugo was a laughingstock at the Search Bloc base. He was demoralized. He gave up his command over the surveillance teams, turning the main effort back over to the CIA officials.
Hugo did, however, prevail on his father to let him keep his small Mercedes van and two men to work on the equipment alone. Working with the little direction-finding kits had always been his favorite part of the job anyway.
Now there were competing groups trying to track Escobar: Hugo's vehicle and the ones coordinated by the CIA. Over the next few weeks they picked up Escobar's signal several times, and even though the force had no faith in the equipment, it was ordered to conduct raids.
Col. Martinez protested that they needed to marshal their intelligence and men, wait until the fix was certain and the opportunity was right. But his superiors in Bogota had grown suspicious and impatient. Even the U.S. Embassy wanted more raids.
The most spectacular of these came Oct. 11, after radio telemetry placed Escobar in a finca, or estate, on a high hill near the village of Aguas Frias. Located in a well-to-do suburban area just outside Medellin, the finca had a clear line of sight to the high-rise apartment building where Escobar's family was staying.
After the raid on the seminary, Escobar's voice had disappeared from the radio waves. The Search Bloc feared the raid might have frightened him. But after days of silence he finally made a call, coming on at one of the regular times with his son.
It was this call that the Search Bloc picked up and placed at the hilltop finca in Aguas Frias. In the tone of his voice and the thrust of his conversation, Escobar gave no indication that anything untoward had happened.
As The Hunters Close In, A Narrow Escape
Chapter 28 of a Continuing Serial
His Empire In Shambles And Short On Cash, Escobar's Options Begin To Disappear.
By the autumn of 1993, Pablo Escobar was in bad shape. His lifelong, fabulously wealthy organization had been dismantled and terrorized by the vigilantes of Los Pepes.
In a single two-week period, five members of his extended family had been killed, presumably by Los Pepes, and several of his remaining key business associates had been kidnapped and murdered. Others were in prison, on the run or in hiding.
In an effort to raise money for his war against the state and to continue his flight, Escobar's associates were selling off his assets around the world. A DEA cable dated Oct. 21 noted that an Escobar family physician was traveling and selling off the family's properties: a 70,000-acre timber farm in Panama, estates in the Dominican Republic, and two 20-acre lots in South Florida. Efforts were also under way to sell his art collection, jewelry and precious stones, including a collection of uncut emeralds valued at more than $200,000.
Escobar's primary link with the rest of the world was now his loyal teenage son. Just as Col. Hugo Martinez now hunted Escobar with his son at his side, the drug boss and his son conspired daily to evade them. They were now talking by radio four times daily. So long as the Search Bloc knew where Juan Pablo was, and could monitor his communications, the colonel felt he would never completely lose track of Escobar.
For two days running, the electronic surveillance teams traced Escobar's radio to the top of a hill in the Medellin suburb of Aguas Frias in October 1993. It was a spectacular locale, a heavily wooded small mountain in the vast range of the Occidental Cordillera. There was only one road up the mountain to the finca, a collection of small cottages around a main house.
The colonel ordered a surveillance team to load a radio telemetry kit on a helicopter and fly over the area. As it happened, they were passing overhead at the moment Escobar made another call. The kit indicated that the radio call had been initiated directly below. Alarmed, the Search Bloc major in charge immediately ordered the helicopter back to the main Search Bloc base, fearing that it had alerted Escobar to their presence.
When they returned, the major told Col. Martinez that Escobar was making calls from the hillside, but there was a good chance he had been spooked by the helicopter. The colonel decided to launch a raid on the finca if Escobar made another call that afternoon.
Martinez could sense that the ring was closing around Escobar. For weeks, he had felt they were getting close to finally finishing the job. When Joe Vega, a Delta sergeant, left Medellin that fall, the colonel had warned him not to go.
"You will miss it," Martinez said. "We are going to find him soon."
He daily consulted special stones and other ritual objects, and in them he saw omens of a resolution. It was a gut feeling, well informed by the knowledge that Escobar could not hold out much longer. His ability to run was now limited, and their ability to find him was improving every day.
Now, on this day, Oct. 11, Martinez believed that the whole effort was coming together. The electronic surveillance had tracked Escobar to a likely hideout and had monitored his presence there. All of the direction-finding equipment now agreed: Escobar was staying at that finca on top of the hill. This was the day they would get him.
The usual time for his call was 4 o'clock, so with choppers circling near the hilltop, and with forces poised to move quickly up the hill, the colonel and his top officers gathered in his operations center around a radio receiver, waiting for Escobar's voice to crackle on the air. There was no call at 4. The men waited. Five minutes later there still was no call.
It was beginning to appear that Escobar had slipped the noose again. But at seven minutes after the hour, his voice came up. The raid commenced.
Escobar wasn't there.
The colonel then cordoned off the mountain for four days, establishing an outer perimeter, an inner perimeter, roadblocks and search teams. Search Bloc helicopters dropped tear gas and raked the forests around the finca with machine-gun fire. More than 700 police and soldiers searched the area with dogs, but they did not find Escobar.
He had managed another miraculous escape. The assault teams had hit the finca, assuming that Escobar would be calling from inside. It turned out - they learned this listening to Escobar's phone calls in coming days - that in order to improve the signal, every time he called his son he would hike into the woods farther up the hill. So he'd had a ringside seat as the helicopters descended. He'd hidden in the woods and then fled down in darkness. He later sent his wife a battery from the flashlight he used to light his way, telling her to keep it, "because it saved my life."
Despite its failure, the raid gave a boost to the electronic surveillance teams, because there was ample evidence that Escobar had indeed been staying at the finca. In the primary house, the base for a portable radio phone was found, turned on, the handset missing. The radio was preset to the frequency Escobar had been using for the last four weeks in his talks with Juan Pablo.
The house was run-down except for a newly installed bathroom, which always suggested the drug boss' presence. The assault teams found two women at the house, Monica Victoria Correa-Alzate and Ana Ligui Rueda, who said Escobar had been staying there for several days.
They explained, quaintly, that Escobar had been "dating" Correa, who was 18. Rueda had been working as his cook. Both women confirmed that Escobar had been nearby when the helicopters came down, and they gave the Search Bloc a description. He had been wearing a red flannel shirt, black pants and tennis shoes. His hair, they said, was clipped short but he wore a long black beard with no mustache.
In the house the police found eight marijuana joints, a large quantity of aspirin ("suggesting a great deal of stress," a DEA cable describing the raid speculated), a wig, a videocassette of the Medellin apartment building housing his wife and children, several music cassettes, two automatic rifles (an AK47 and a CAR15), just over $7,000 in cash, and photos of the fugitive's two children, Juan Pablo and Manuela.
They also found false ID documents and a list of license-plate numbers, evidently compiled by Juan Pablo, of vehicles driven by officers assigned to the Search Bloc.
The documents confirmed that Escobar's organization was in poor shape, and that he was very worried about his family. One letter said Maria Victoria, Escobar's wife, needed money to continue supporting the Colombian fiscal general's forces and bodyguards hired to protect her and the children. She complained that it was very expensive to feed 60 people and that she had to purchase beds for them. The letter blamed Col. Martinez for a recent grenade attack on the family's apartment building, which had been publicly attributed to Los Pepes.
Found with Maria Victoria's letter were unsent letters Escobar was preparing for former associates in Medellin, demanding money and threatening, "We know where your families are."
In a cable to DEA headquarters, American agent Steve Murphy stressed the positive results of the raid:
"Intelligence obtained at the search site and recent Title III intercepts indicate that Escobar no longer enjoys the financial freedom he once had. While he may continue to be a Colombian land baron, Escobar and his organization are extremely short of cash."
Escobar's Wife, Children Become The Bait
Chapter 29 of a Continuing Serial
To keep up pressure, U.S. works to keep the family in Colombia.
On the night of Nov. 26, 1993, the U.S. Embassy in Bogota learned that Pablo Escobar's wife and children were planning once more to flee Colombia.
They hoped to fly to London or Frankfurt, Germany . The family was growing increasingly desperate. They had been under round-the-clock protection by agents from the fiscal general, Colombia's top federal prosecutor, ever since a failed effort to fly Escobar's son, Juan Pablo, and daughter, Manuela, to the United States in March.
In the intervening months, Los Pepes had killed members of their extended family and burned most of the family's properties. The vigilante group seemed to be toying with the Escobars, picking off cousins, in-laws and friends, including some who had been living in the neighborhood where Escobar's immediate family was staying.
In early November, a rocket-propelled grenade had been fired at the Escobar building and another grenade had exploded outside the front doors. These were mere warning shots, but to the family it seemed that the threat was closing in.
The fiscal general, Gustavo de Greiff, was holding Escobar's family in place, officially protecting them from vigilantes but also positioning them like bait in a trap. The pressure increased when, in late October, de Greiff threatened to withdraw his protection.
Increasingly at odds with the administration of President Cesar Gaviria, de Greiff was still trying to engineer Escobar's surrender before he could be found by Col. Hugo Martinez's Search Bloc. The Americans, along with Gaviria and the Search Bloc commanders, feared that a surrender would enable Escobar to once again run his drug cartel with impunity from a comfortable "prison."
De Greiff was not above playing hardball with Escobar, who had just engineered the kidnapping of two teenage boys from wealthy families in Medellin and extorted $5 million in ransom.
De Greiff informed Juan Pablo that unless his father turned himself in by Nov. 26, the large detail of bodyguards that had been protecting the family would be withdrawn. Escobar's wife Maria Victoria, and his son and daughter, would "only be entitled to the same security as any other Colombian citizen," de Greiff informed the family.
Maria Victoria was terrified. In a letter to de Greiff, she asked him to visit her, and pleaded with him to give her husband more time to surrender so that he could consult with his attorneys. She wrote that the family was "anguished." She argued that they were not responsible for her husband's refusal to surrender, and should not be punished for it. She reminded de Greiff that she and her children were not criminals, and that they too were trying to persuade Escobar to surrender.
The same day, de Greiff received a note from Juan Pablo, which began, "Worry, desperation, anguish and anger are what we feel in these confusing moments." The young man urged de Greiff to investigate the kidnappings and killings of several close family associates, whom he said were victims of the Search Bloc and Los Pepes.
He wrote that on Nov. 5, his longtime childhood friend, Juan Carlos Herrera-Puerta, who was living with the Escobars, was kidnapped. On Nov. 8, the administrator of their apartment building, Alicia Vasquez, a close friend, was kidnapped and killed. On the same date, the family's maid, Nubia Jimenez, was kidnapped and killed.
On Nov. 10, Juan Pablo wrote, masked men kidnapped Alba Lia Londono, the children's personal tutor. On Nov. 15, according to Juan Pablo, the police attempted to kidnap a family chauffeur, Jorge Ivan Otalvaro-Marin. Ten armed men jumped him, but Otalvaro exchanged fire with them and escaped. Juan Pablo said de Greiff should prosecute these crimes as vigorously as the state was pursuing his father.
Juan Pablo defended his father's honor vigorously, negotiating with government representatives as though Escobar were a head of state. By early November, the son (speaking several times a day with his father) was hammering out a secret deal with de Greiff's office for the long-awaited surrender. De Greiff did not share the plan with President Gaviria or the U.S. Embassy.
De Greiff agreed to several of Escobar's demands: To transfer Escobar's brother Roberto from isolation to a part of Itagui Prison where other Medellin cartel members were housed. And to place Escobar in the same section upon his surrender, and to allow him 21 family visits each year.
The deal was contingent on getting Escobar's family out of Colombia. The fugitive was insisting that he would not turn himself in until Maria Victoria and the children were flown to a safe haven. De Greiff promised to help the family flee, but only after Escobar's surrender.
In early November, Juan Pablo assured de Greiff that his father would surrender on or before the Nov. 26 deadline, either at the fiscal general's office in Medellin or the family's apartment building, and that he would likely demand that representatives of the National Police and the Colombian army be present. De Greiff eventually acquiesced, and began laying plans to get Escobar's family out of the country.
Word of these surrender negotiations leaked in early November, alarming the U.S. Embassy. In a Nov. 7 cable, DEA agent Steve Murphy wrote:
"Obviously, if the above is true, and the BCO has no doubts about its accuracy, then the GOC and particularly the Fiscal's office has not been straightforward with the BCO or other American embassy personnel. Should Escobar agree to the one remaining condition regarding his family's departure from Colombia, his immediate surrender may be imminent."
Surrender, of course, was what the Americans, the National Police and Escobar's other enemies hoped to prevent. Mindful of the extent to which Escobar had corrupted and intimidated the Colombian judiciary, agents had warned in an earlier cable that if he managed to surrender before he was found by the Search Bloc, it would begin "a new farce."
American officials at the embassy believed the Search Bloc was closing in. With Escobar's wife and children baiting the trap, and Los Pepes continuing to kill off his associates, he was isolated and desperate. If he managed to get the family to safety, there was no telling what would happen. He might surrender - or launch a new campaign of bombings, kidnappings and assassinations.
Everyone involved in the manhunt knew that the best leverage for catching Escobar was his concern for his family. It wasn't an impeccably ethical strategy, but it was working. Ever since Los Pepes had begun killing those close to Escobar in retaliation for his assassins' attacks, Escobar's bombings had dropped off almost to nothing.
When Ambassador Morris Busby learned of the family's pending flight, he went to work. He was assured by Colombia's defense minister that the government was opposed to letting the Escobars go, but there was no legal reason to prevent them from leaving Colombia.
So the government concentrated on slamming doors of entry to all the family's known destinations. Maria Victoria had purchased tickets to London and Frankfurt. Because the London flight stopped over in Madrid, the defense minister contacted the Spanish, British and German ambassadors there, formally asking that they refuse entry and return the family directly to Colombia if possible.
So long as his wife and children were in Colombia, Escobar would keep worrying about them, and keep calling them. With the Search Bloc's improving targeting methods, every time Escobar made contact with his son or wife it gave Col. Martinez and his men another chance at him.
Escobar Employs A Ruse As His Family Takes Flight
Chapter 30 In Continuing Serial
Closing In, The Drug Lord's Pursuers Received Some Alarming News: Their Quarry Had Escaped To Haiti.
By November of 1993, Gustavo de Greiff was becoming a problem.
He was the Fiscal General, Colombia's top federal prosecutor, and he was now working in open defiance of President Cesar Gaviria on the matter of Pablo Escobar. De Greiff had told Gaviria that he disagreed with effectively holding the Escobar family hostage. As an elected official - an "independent entity," he called himself - he had decided to help the family leave Colombia in order to complete his deal for the fugitive's surrender.
When word spread that the family was looking for a haven in Canada, Colombian Defense Minister Raphael Pardo contacted the Canadian ambassador, only to learn that de Greiff already had called to request that the Canadian government allow the family to enter. The Colombian government was now split on the matter, so U.S. Ambassador Morris Busby threw his support behind Gaviria, contacting the various governments himself and winning assurances that the Escobars would be turned away.
During these negotiations, de Greiff suddenly informed the U.S. Embassy that Escobar had escaped to Haiti. He said his office had learned from a reliable informant that the drug boss had landed safely in Haiti on Nov. 25. According to the source, Escobar was now under the protection of a Haitian death squad called "Night Services," which was unofficially attached to the Haitian police.
The hunt for Escobar appeared to be coming apart. The embassy traced de Greiff's sources to Miami - an imprisoned cocaine dealer connected with the Cali cartel named Luis "Lucho" Sanatacruz and two men with the nicknames "Navigante" and "Hector." DEA agents were dispatched to debrief the men personally. The Haitian death squad leader supposedly protecting Escobar was a man named Joel Deeb.
"We are analyzing the developing situation for clues to the potential motivation of someone like Joel Deeb in providing Pablo Escobar with sanctuary," read a secret State Department cable written that weekend.
While the embassy tried to verify Escobar's presence in Haiti, the cable concluded, the Search Bloc was continuing to operate in Medellin under the assumption that Escobar remained in the area.
In light of what happened over the next two days, the Haiti tip appears to have been an effort to distract the authorities and create enough confusion to help slip the Escobar family out of Colombia. The day after "Hector" "confirmed" to de Greiff that Escobar was in Haiti, Centra Spike picked up Escobar using a phone in Medellin. If Escobar had been planning to lie low in order for the Haiti ploy to work, events soon conspired to flush him back out on the airwaves.
DEA Special Agent Kenny Magee was friendly with the security chief for American Airlines at the El Dorado Airport in Bogota, so he was selected to follow the Escobar family as they left the country. A blue-eyed former Michigan cop who had come to Bogota four years earlier, Magee had flunked Spanish in his senior year of high school. (He told his teacher, "I'm never going to need Spanish." She said, "You never know.")
Magee showed up at the airport on Saturday, Nov. 27, with two plainclothes Colombian National Police colonels, and with DEA agents Steve Murphy and Javier Pena. Magee had purchased tickets on two early evening flights booked by the Escobars, one to London and the other to Frankfurt. The planes were leaving within 10 minutes of each other, so Magee and the two Colombians pocketed their boarding passes and waited for the family to show up.
It wasn't hard spotting them. The family's plans had evidently been leaked to more than just the National Police and the U.S. Embassy. The departure of their plane from Medellin had been captured by TV camera crews there, and three dozen reporters were waiting for them inside the terminal in Bogota.
The small plane stayed out on the tarmac, and all of its passengers except the Escobars were let off. Bodyguards carried the Escobars' luggage to a waiting Avianca Airlines bus, followed by more than 20 heavily armed men escorting Escobar's wife Maria Victoria, daughter Manuela, son Juan Pablo and Juan Pablo's plump 21-year-old Mexican girlfriend, Doria Ochoa. The family members held jackets over their heads to avoid being photographed. They boarded the bus and were driven to a remote entrance where they could wait out in private the six hours until their overseas flight.
Five minutes before the Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt was scheduled to depart, the family emerged surrounded by bodyguards and were hustled through the main terminal. All but Juan Pablo held jackets over their heads. The teenager shouted threats at the mob of reporters pushing around them, then disappeared down the jetway.
Magee and the Colombian policemen followed, taking seats in business class. It was the first time Magee had seen the family. Maria Victoria was a short woman with glasses, conservatively and stylishly dressed. The tiny Manuela, 9, clung to her mother. Juan Pablo stood 6 feet tall at age 16, a round-shouldered, portly boy. He and his girlfriend sat apart from his mother and sister.
Magee carried a shoulder bag with a camera built into the bottom. He began snapping pictures of the family surreptitiously. An enterprising journalist had a seat next to Juan Pablo, trying to interview the youth with what appeared to be little success.
When the plane landed in Caracas, there was so much security out on the runway that it looked to Magee like a head of state was arriving. It was the same in Frankfurt, hours later.
Unknown to the family, just an hour after their flight had left Bogota, a spokesman for the German Interior Minister had released a statement announcing that the Escobars would not be allowed to enter Germany. Soon afterwards, an angry Pablo Escobar was on the phone, blowing his Haiti cover story. He called the Presidential Palace in Bogota.
"This is Pablo Escobar. I need to talk to the president," he told the operator at the palace.
"OK, hold on, let me locate him," the operator said, and immediately patched the call to the National Police. After a delay, a police officer posing as a palace operator came on the line and said, "We can't get in touch with the president right now. Please call back at another time."
The police officer had sized it up as a joke, and hung up. The phone rang again.
"This is Pablo Escobar. It is necessary that I talk to the president. My family is flying to Germany at this time. I need to talk to him right now."
"We get a lot of crank calls here," the officer said. "We need to somehow verify that it is really you. It's going to take me a few minutes to track down the president, so please wait a few more minutes and then call back."
With that, the officer informed his superiors that Pablo Escobar was making calls to the palace. President Gaviria was notified; he refused to speak with Escobar. When the fugitive called back a third time, the Search Bloc was waiting, and the call surfaced on its electronic web.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Escobar, we have been unable to locate the president."
Escobar went berserk. He swore at the officer on the phone. He threatened to detonate a bus filled with dynamite in front of the palace and set off bombs all over Bogota. He said he would bomb the German Embassy and begin killing Germans if his family was not allowed to enter that country. Minutes later he made similar threats on the phone to the German Embassy and the Lufthansa office in Bogota.
No one had been able to get a precise fix on his location, but he was without a doubt still in Medellin.
Denied Escape, Escobar's Family Returns Home
Chapter 31 of a Continuing Serial
New Threats By Los Pepes Prompt A Bitter Response From The Fugitive.
When the Lufthansa plane carrying the family of Pablo Escobar finally landed in Frankfurt, Germany, on a Sunday afternoon in November 1993, it was forced to taxi to a remote spot on an alternate runway, out of the view of press waiting in the terminal.
Colombian President Cesar Gaviria had been on the phone to officials in Spain and Germany, urging them to refuse the Escobars. He explained that if the family was safely removed from Colombia, there would be another vicious bombing campaign by Pablo Escobar.
It was not the kind of request from a head of state that other nations were likely to ignore. There was nothing to be gained by Spain, Germany or any other country in allowing entry to the family of such a notorious outlaw.
German Interior Ministry officials drove out to the plane to process the other passengers' passports and immigration documents, including those of DEA Special Agent Kenny Magee and the Colombian police colonel flying with him. A bus took them to the terminal.
The Escobars were taken by another bus to an office in the international section. Maria Victoria, Escobar's wife, who was carrying $80,000 and large amounts of gold and jewelry, asked for a lawyer and was provided one. The family immediately petitioned for political asylum, then waited through another long night for a ruling.
Magee was met in the main terminal by two DEA colleagues based in Germany and they, too, waited through the night. Early the next morning, the Escobars' petition was denied. The family was escorted by heavily armed German police back out to a Bogota-bound plane that had been kept waiting for two hours.
Also escorted to the plane were three men believed to be personal family bodyguards, whom the German authorities described as "thugs." Magee boarded the plane with four German immigration officers assigned to escort the family back to Colombia. He sat two rows in front of the family and across the aisle.
At some point during this long flight home, the DEA agent sat down with the German immigration officers in the smoking section of the plane. They had seized the Escobars' passports and had agreed to allow Magee to photograph them. He took the passports into one of the plane's lavatories, laid them out on the narrow counter and snapped a photo of each. As he pulled the door open, sticking the passports in his back pocket, he was startled to encounter Escobar's son, Juan Pablo, standing in the doorway. The teenager was just waiting to use the toilet.
Juan Pablo and the rest of the family looked exhausted. They had been on planes or in airports since Saturday afternoon, and all they had managed was to fly in one enormous circle. When the Lufthansa flight landed again at El Dorado airport in Bogota, the weary Escobars were escorted off the plane and turned over once again to Colombian authorities.
Magee inspected the seats where the family had been sitting. He found several large empty envelopes with large dollar amounts written on them, two credit cards, and a discarded note that read in English: "We have a friend in Frankfurt. He says he will be looking for us so he can help us. . . . Tell him to call Gustavo de Greiff" - Colombia's top federal prosecutor. Magee assumed it was a note they had hoped to pass to someone at the airport in Frankfurt, but they had never reached the terminal.
After the family was taken into custody at the airport, Colombia's defense minister ordered de Greiff to drop his office's official protection of them. The Escobars were escorted by the National Police to the Tequendama Hotel in Bogota, a large modern complex that included retail shops and an apartment tower. Guests of the hotel and residents of the apartment tower began fleeing when word spread that Escobar's family was staying there, much to the dismay of the hotel's management and nearby shop owners.
Exhausted and frightened, Maria Victoria told government officials that she did not wish to return to Medellin, and pleaded to be sent anywhere in the world outside Colombia. She said she was tired of living with her husband's problems, and just wanted to live in peace with her children.
Escobar phoned the hotel not long after the family arrived, conveying a brief message to Juan Pablo.
"Stay put there," he said. "Put pressure on the authorities to leave for another country, call Human Rights, the United Nations."
As if to tighten the screws on Escobar, Los Pepes chose this day of his family's return to Colombia to issue another public pronouncement. In a communique to the press, the vigilantes said they could no longer respect the government's wish that they desist and were going to resume actions against Escobar.
Escobar responded bitterly. On Nov. 30, he wrote a letter to the men he suspected of leading the vigilante group. Among those he listed were Col. Hugo Martinez, commander of the police Search Bloc hunting Escobar; the "DIJIN Members in Antioquia" (the Search Bloc); Miguel and Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, purported leaders of the rival Cali drug cartel; and Fidel and Carlos Castano, the paramilitary leaders who secretly had been cooperating with the Search Bloc.
He sealed the letter with his thumbprint, and forwarded it to his few remaining front men for public release:
The communique you produced today is full of lies, deceit and falsities, like all the previous ones. You promise to reappear but the truth is that you have always been active because just a few days ago you perpetrated kidnappings, murders and dynamite bombings. . . .
You say in your lying communique that you have never attacked my family and I ask you: Why did you bomb the building where my mother lived? Why did you kidnap my nephew Nicolas? Why did you torture and strangle my brother in law Carlos Henao? Why did you try to kidnap my sister Gloria? You have always characterized yourselves by being hypocrites and liars . . .
The prosecutor's office has a lot of evidence against you. . . . The government knows that [the Search Bloc] is the Pepes' military branch, the same one that massacres innocent young men at street corners.
I have been raided 10,000 times. You haven't been at all. Everything is confiscated from me. Nothing is taken away from you. The government will never offer a warrant for you. The government will never apply faceless justice to criminal and terrorist policemen.
What credibility can Colonel Martinez have . . . if he himself planted a revolver and dynamite in my lawyer's car so he would appear to be a terrorist? The same colonel who tortured and murdered lawyers is now promoted to brigadier. What can be expected of people like you, who don't even show respect for honor and truth?
Copy to national and foreign media, the President, Minister of Defense, Prosecutor . . .
The Colombian police finally had members of Escobar's family exactly where they wanted them. Now that they were out from under the official protection of Fiscal General de Greiff, Escobar's wife and children were in the hands of Los Pepes as far as the fugitive was concerned. The police knew Escobar would be frantic.
Police at the hotel reported hearing Escobar's little girl, Manuela, singing a Christmas carol to herself as she wandered the empty complex. She had substituted the traditional chorus with one of her own that went, in part, "Los Pepes want to kill my father, my family, and me."
Ever Elusive Escobar Still Intent On Settling Scores
Chapter 32 of a Continuing Serial
Moving Is Constant. So Is Worrying About His Loved Ones. If They Were Safe, He Could Fight Full-Force.
After Hugo Martinez's success in tracking down a Medellin drug dealer with his police unit's high-tech gear, his father gave him a few days off to visit his wife and children in Bogota. But on Hugo's first night back, in late November 1993, Pablo Escobar started issuing phone threats, which were traced to a neighborhood in Medellin.
It was bad luck and good luck. Hugo was disappointed at having to cut short his vacation - he flew back to Medellin early the next morning - but he was also excited. He had full confidence again in his unit's special direction-finding equipment, and he knew that with the Escobar family being held at the Tequendama Hotel in Bogota, Pablo would be worried and on the phone often.
The hotel was owned by the Colombian armed forces. While Escobar's wife, Maria Victoria, and their children had been under the protection of Colombia's top federal prosecutor, it had been unlikely that the Search Bloc or Los Pepes (which Escobar considered one and the same) would harm them. It was the fear that the prosecutor was going to drop his protection that had prompted the family's futile flight to Frankfurt, Germany, earlier in November.
Now Escobar's wife and children were in the hands of the police, which meant their safety depended on nothing more than the goodwill of the men who were hunting him down.
Col. Hugo Martinez, commander of the Search Bloc and father to Hugo, took steps of his own to make the most of this moment. Unsure of his own colleagues in Bogota, the colonel had someone he trusted assigned to the hotel complex switchboard - an officer who had been a friend of Hugo's in the intelligence branch and had lived for a time at the Tequendama.
They devised a system to tip off Hugo immediately each time Escobar phoned. All calls to the hotel came through the switchboard, so if a call sounded like Escobar, they would delay making the connection to the family's apartment upstairs until Hugo had been alerted. That way, his unit's monitors in the air and on the ground could start tracing the call before the conversation even started.
Escobar gave them plenty of chances. Over the next four days, he would call six times. Even though the first few conversations were very short - Escobar checking to see how the family was holding up and urging his son to continue doing everything possible to get out of Colombia - Centra Spike was able to get a precise fix on his location. It was a middle-class neighborhood in Medellin called Los Olivos, a sector that included blocks of two-story rowhouses and some office buildings.
For his part, Escobar tried to confuse his pursuers, who he knew were listening, by speaking from the backseat of a moving taxi, using a high-powered radio phone that was linked to a larger transmitter that his men constantly moved from place to place. Escobar himself had moved into a rowhouse on street 79-A, house number 45D-94, in the third week of November 1993, more than a month after he had narrowly escaped a Search Bloc raid of his hideout in Aguas Frias, a Medellin suburb.
He was constantly moving, buying houses throughout the city and surrounding area he knew so well, for Medellin was his hometown. He carried dozens of newspaper ads for real estate with his notebooks, and was always buying and selling hideouts. That way, he was always home, even though he had no home.
He moved with his collection of wireless phones. It didn't trouble him to know that the authorities listened whenever he spoke on the phone. It had been that way for years. He used the knowledge to feed disinformation, to keep his pursuers running in every direction but the right one. The game wasn't to avoid being overheard, which was impossible, but to avoid being targeted.
It was evident from Escobar's phone conversations and letters he had written over the previous months how infuriated he was with his reduced circumstances, but clearly he also felt some pride. The same man who had posed dressed as Pancho Villa and Al Capone had been the most wanted fugitive in the world for 15 months - for more than three years if you counted his first war with the government.
After so much carnage, so many millions spent to hunt him down, he was still alive, and still at large. Many people wanted him dead: the Americans, his rivals in the Cali cocaine cartel and their government lackeys, the Search Bloc and Los Pepes, whom he was convinced were really just Search Bloc forces in league with his other enemies.
As he moved from place to place in Medellin, he took comfort in all the simple people of his home city who still believed in him, who still called him El Doctor or El Patron. They remembered the housing projects he had bankrolled, the soccer pitches, the donations to church and charity, and they had little affection for the government forces closing in on him.
And even though Escobar's organization had been taken apart, so many of his friends killed or in jail, he believed he could still right things. Then there would be many, many scores to settle. As his son, Juan Pablo, had sneered to a representative from the prosecutor's office a few months before: "My dad is also searching for everyone who is after him, and destiny will say who finds who first."
But Maria Victoria (he called her "Tata") and the children had to be moved out of the way. Escobar believed his family was in terrible danger. Any harm that came to his family would cause him great pain, but would also be the greatest insult. If he could not protect his own family, his enemies and his friends would know he was finished.
Escobar hadn't seen his wife and children in more than a year and a half. He clearly admired the way Juan Pablo had stepped forward in this crisis, and he was relying on his son more and more to protect Maria Victoria and Manuela.
He had to get his family out of Colombia, not just for their protection, but to free his hands. With Maria Victoria and the children safe, he could turn on his enemies full-force, unleash a bombing and assassination campaign that would bring the government to its knees and send his would-be rivals in the Cali cartel scurrying for cover.
He would give them a war they had no stomach for - he knew that much from past experience. They would beg him to stop, offering him anything he wanted in return for his token surrender, just like the last time, in 1991. That was the road back.
Quietly, Search Bloc Pins Escobar Down
Chapter 33 of a Continuing Serial
Surveillance Had Pinpointed His Location. This Time, No Dragnet Would Tip Him Off.
Hugo Martinez got an incorrect fix on the source of the first call Pablo Escobar made to his family at the Tequendama Hotel in Bogota on a Tuesday in late November 1993.
But by the next day, the American surveillance experts at Centra Spike and the Search Bloc's own fixed surveillance teams in the hills over Medellin had pinpointed Escobar's location in the neighborhood called Los Olivos.
Hugo's father, Col. Hugo Martinez, knew they were very close. At first, he asked permission to cordon off the entire 15-block neighborhood and begin going door-to-door, but that was rejected - in part because a Delta Force commander and others at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota advised against it.
Escobar was an expert at escaping such dragnets. Closing down the neighborhood would just let him know they were on to him. Instead, the colonel began quietly infiltrating hundreds of his men into Los Olivos. His son, Hugo, stayed with a group of 35 in a parking lot enclosed by high walls, where the men and vehicles could not be seen from the street.
Similar squads of men were sequestered at other lots in the neighborhood. They stayed through Tuesday night until Wednesday, the first day of December. Food was brought in. There was only one portable toilet for all the men.
Hugo spent virtually all this time in his car, waiting for Escobar's voice to come up on his mobile surveillance equipment. He ate and slept in the car.
Later on Wednesday, Escobar spoke on the phone with his son, wife and daughter as they wished him a happy birthday. He was 44 years old that day. He celebrated with marijuana, a birthday cake and some wine.
Hugo raced out of the lot in pursuit of this signal, tracing it to a spot in the middle of the street near a traffic circle just after the conversation ended. No one was there. Hugo was convinced his scanner was right. Escobar evidently had been speaking from a moving car. Hugo returned to the parking lot discouraged, and the men camped out there were again disappointed.
Hugo waited until about 8 on Thursday morning before Col. Martinez gave the men permission to come back to base, clean up and rest. Hugo drove back to his apartment in Medellin, took a shower, and then fell asleep.
On this day, Thursday, Dec. 2, 1992, Pablo Escobar awakened shortly before noon, as was his habit, and ate a plate of spaghetti before easing his widening bulk back into bed with his wireless phone. Always a heavy man, he had put on about 20 pounds while living on the run, most of it in his belly.
"On the run" was a misnomer, for Escobar did not do much running. He spent most of his time lying low, eating, sleeping, talking on the radio. He hired prostitutes, mostly teenage girls, to help him while away the hours. It wasn't the same as the lavish orgies he had arranged in years past, but his money and notoriety still allowed for some indulgences.
Escobar had trouble finding jeans that would fit. To get a waist size to accommodate his girth, he had to wear pants that were a good six inches too long. The light blue pair he wore on this day were turned up twice in a wide cuff. He wore flip-flops and had pulled on a loose blue polo shirt.
Prone to intestinal discomfort, he may have been feeling the effects of his birthday revelry the night before. On this afternoon, the only other person in the house was Alvero de Jesus Agudelo, known as Limon, who served as Escobar's valet, driver and bodyguard. The two others staying with them, his courier, Jaime Alberto Rua-Restrepo, and his aunt and cook, Luz Mila Restrepo, had gone out after fixing breakfast.
At 1 o'clock, Escobar tried several times to phone his family, posing as a radio journalist, but the switchboard operator at the Tequendama Hotel told him the staff had been instructed to block all calls from journalists. He was put on hold, then asked to call back, but finally he got through on the third attempt, speaking briefly to his daughter, Manuela, and then to his wife, Maria Victoria, and his son, Juan Pablo.
Maria Victoria sobbed on the phone. She was depressed and fatalistic.
"Honey, what a hangover," Pablo said sympathetically. She continued crying. "These things are a drag. So, what are you going to do?"
"I don't know."
"What does your mother say?"
"It was as if my mother fainted," she said, explaining they had last seen her as they left the airport Friday in Medellin during the family's failed attempt to flee Colombia for Frankfurt, Germany. "I did not call her. She told me bye, and then- "
"And you have not spoken to her?"
"No. My mother is so nervous. My mother will die because she made me crazy," Maria Victoria said, explaining how all the family deaths in the previous year - most at the hands of the vigilantes from Los Pepes - - had just about killed her with sorrow.
At his apartment, Hugo was awakened by a phone call from his father.
"Pablo's talking!" the colonel said. Hugo dressed quickly and hurried back out to the parking lot, where the other officers were assembling.
Escobar was still on the phone.
"So, what are you going to do?" he asked his wife gently.
"I don't know. I mean, wait and see where we are going to go and I believe that will be the end of us."
"So?" Maria Victoria asked flatly.
"Don't you give me this coldness! Holy Mary!"
"What about me?"
"What are you going to do?"
"Nothing. . . . What do you need?" Pablo asked. He did not want to talk about himself.
"Nothing," his wife said.
"What do you want?"
"What would I want?" she asked glumly.
"If you need something, call me, OK?"
"You call me now, quickly. There is nothing more I can tell you. What else can I say? I have remained right on track, right?"
"But how are you? Oh, my God, I don't know!"
"We must go on. Think about it. Now that I am so close, right?" Pablo said, in what appears to be a suggestion that he was about to surrender.
"Yes," his wife said, with no enthusiasm.
"Think about your boy, too, and everything else, and don't make any decisions too quickly, OK?"
"Call your mother again and ask her if she wants you to go there or what."
"Remember that you can reach me by beeper."
"Ciao," said Maria Victoria.
"So long," her husband said.
A Long Phone Call Helps Target Escobar
Chapter 34 of a Continuing Serial
With the police Search Bloc listening in and recording the conversation, Pablo Escobar chatted on the phone with his wife and family as they holed up in a hotel in Bogota, trying desperately to get out of Colombia. It was Thursday, Dec. 2, 1993.
After Escobar had spoken with his wife, his son, Juan Pablo, got back on the line. Juan Pablo had been given a list of questions from a journalist.
Often, when Escobar was in trouble, he used the Colombian media to broadcast his messages and demands, trying to whip up public sentiment in his favor. Other times, when he was displeased with the media, he would have reporters and editors killed. Juan Pablo wanted his father's advice on how to answer these questions.
"Look, this is very important in Bogota," Escobar told his son. He suggested that they might also be able to sell his answers to publications overseas, an opportunity to lobby publicly for his family to be given refuge. For now he just wanted to hear what the questions were. He said he would call back later to help his son answer them.
"This is also publicity," Escobar said. "Explaining the reasons and other matters to them. Do you understand? Well done and well organized."
"Yes, yes," Juan Pablo said. He began to read the questions: " 'Whatever the country, refuge is conditioned on the immediate surrender of your father. Would your father be willing to turn himself in if you are settled somewhere?' "
". . . Go on," Pablo instructed.
"The next one is, 'Would he be willing to turn himself in before you take refuge abroad?' "
"I spoke with the man and he told me that if there were some questions I did not want to answer, there was no problem, and if I wanted to add some questions, he would include them."
"OK. The next one?"
" 'Why do you think that several countries have refused to receive your family?' OK?"
" 'From which embassies have you requested help for them to take you in. . . ?' "
" 'Don't you think your father's situation, accused of X number of crimes, assassination of public figures, considered one of the most powerful drug traffickers in the world . . . ?' " Juan Pablo stopped reading.
"But there are many. Around 40 questions."
Escobar told his son he would call back later in the day. "I may find a way to communicate by fax," he said.
"No," Juan Pablo said, apparently concerned that use of a fax would somehow be too dangerous.
"No, huh? OK. OK. So, good luck."
Escobar hung up.
Lt. Hugo Martinez and his special Colombian police electronic tracking team had not been able to assemble in time to chase the signal from this phone call. However, the American technicians at Centra Spike and the Search Bloc's own fixed listening posts had triangulated it to the same Los Olivos neighborhood where the calls had originated the day before.
They hunkered down and waited for the promised next call. If Escobar was going to try to answer 40 questions, he was going to be on the phone a long time.
At precisely 3 p.m. that Thursday, Escobar called his son back.
Juan Pablo again began relaying the journalist's questions. The first asked the son to explain what it would take for his father to surrender.
Escobar instructed, "Tell him: 'My father cannot turn himself in unless he has guarantees for his security.' "
"OK," said Juan Pablo.
"And we totally support him in that."
"Above any considerations."
"My father is not going to turn himself in before we are placed in a foreign country, and while the police -"
"The police and DAS is better," interjected Juan Pablo. "Because the DAS are also searching."
"It's only the police."
Pablo, resuming: "While the police -"
"OK, let's change it to, 'while the security organizations. . .' "
". . . continue to kidnap . . ."
". . . torture. . ."
". . . and commit massacres in Medellin.' "
"Yes, all right."
"OK," Pablo said. "The next one."
In Medellin, The Trap Begins To Close
Chapter 35 of a Continuing Serial
Lt. Hugo Martinez drove away from his police surveillance unit's temporary staging area in a Medellin parking lot on Thursday, Dec. 2, 1993. His friend on the switchboard at the Tequendama Hotel in Bogota had just alerted him that Pablo Escobar was on the line to the hotel.
Escobar's voice had been recognized right away, even though he was still pretending to be a journalist. He had called the hotel several times to speak with his wife and family staying there.
All of the men at the staging area followed Hugo out. The rest of the Search Bloc was converging on the Medellin neighborhood of Los Olivos, where Hugo's surveillance team had pinpointed the source of Escobar's call.
Excited and nervous, Hugo could feel all of his father's men, hardened veterans of the police assault team, close on his heels. Hugo's reputation with the men in the Search Bloc had improved since his rocky beginning, but they remained skeptical. He knew that if he failed again now, with all these men awaiting his direction, he would never live it down.
The tone in his headphones and the line on his scanner directed Hugo to an office building just a few blocks from the parking lot. He was certain that was where Escobar was speaking. No sooner had he named the address than the assault force descended, crashing through the front doors and moving loudly through the building.
Escobar continued to speak calmly, as though nothing was happening. Clearly the fugitive was not in the office building now being raided.
Hugo felt panic. How could his equipment be wrong? He took two long deep breaths, forcing himself to remain calm. So long as Escobar was talking, he could still be found.
In the passenger seat of the white Mercedes van, Hugo closed his eyes for a moment and then looked again more carefully at the screen, which was no bigger than the palm of his hand. This time he noticed a slight vibration in the white line that stretched from side to side. The line spanned the entire screen, which meant the signal was being transmitted close by, but the slight movement suggested something else.
From experience, Hugo knew this vibration probably meant he was picking up a reflection. It was very slight, which is why he hadn't noticed it before. When the reflection was bouncing off water, the line usually had a slight squiggle in it, but this line had no squiggle.
"This is not it! This is not it!" he shouted into his radio. "Let's go!"
To his left was a drainage ditch with a gently moving stream of dirty water. To get to the other side, where Hugo was now convinced the signal originated, his driver had to go up a block or two and turn left over a bridge.
When the van had crossed the bridge and returned on the other side of the ditch, Hugo realized that only one car from his unit had followed him. There were three men in it. The men in the other car either hadn't heard him or were ignoring him.
Escobar's conversation with his son continued.
Juan Pablo repeated a question from a list of 40 given to him by a Colombian journalist. He and his father were formulating Escobar's replies. This question asked why so many other countries had refused to allow Juan Pablo, his mother and sister entry.
The family, under death threats from the vigilantes of Los Pepes, had been trying desperately to flee Colombia.
"The countries have denied entry because they don't know the real truth," Escobar said, answering the question.
"Yes," Juan Pablo said, evidently taking notes as his father spoke.
"We're going to knock on the doors of every embassy from all around the world because we're willing to fight incessantly," Escobar continued. "Because we want to live and study in another country without bodyguards and hopefully with a new name."
"Just so you know," Juan Pablo said. "I got a phone call from a reporter who told me that President Alfredo Cristiani from Ecuador, no, I think it is El Salvador . . ."
"Yes?" Escobar got up now and moved to the second-floor window, mindful that this conversation had dragged on for several minutes; twenty seconds was his usual limit. As he listened, he looked at the cars moving on the street below.
"Well, he has offered to receive us. I heard the statement, well, he gave it to me by phone," Juan Pablo said.
"And he said if this contributed in some way to the peace of the country, he would be willing to receive us, because the world receives dictators and bad people, why wouldn't he receive us?"
"Well, let's wait and see, because that country is a bit hidden away."
"Well, but at least there's a possibility, and it has come from a president."
"Look, with respect to El Salvador," Escobar said.
"In case they ask anything, tell them the family is very grateful and obliged to the words of the president, that it is known he is the president of peace in El Salvador."
Escobar stayed at the window, still mindful of the length of the call. When Juan Pablo related a question about the family's experiences under government protection, his father answered: "You respond to that one."
Juan Pablo rattled off three more of the questions, but then his father abruptly ended the conversation. He had seen something on the street below.
"OK, let's leave it at that," Escobar said.
"Yeah, OK," Juan Pablo said. "Good luck."
A 15-Month Manhunt Ends in a Hail of Bullets
Final Chapter of a Serial
The radio signal pointed Lt. Hugo Martinez straight ahead.
The line on his computer screen lengthened and the tone in his headphones grew stronger as his unmarked police surveillance van moved down a street in a middle-class neighborhood of Medellin on Dec. 2, 1993.
Electronic surveillance from the air and the ground had traced calls made by fugitive drug trafficker Pablo Escobar to this neighborhood. Hugo and his driver were trying to find the exact house. They drove down the street until the signal peaked and then began to diminish, the line pinching in at the edges of the screen and the tone slightly falling off.
They turned around and crept back. The line stretched slowly until it once again filled the screen. They stopped. This was it. They drove past that point again just to make sure; again the signal grew, peaked and then slightly diminished.
The driver turned around again. As they approached the house where the signal was strongest, Hugo looked up . . . and saw him.
A fat man stood in the second floor window. He had long, curly black hair and a full beard. The image hit Hugo like an electric shock. It was Pablo Escobar.
He was talking on a cell phone. Suddenly he stepped back from the window. Hugo thought he had seen a look of surprise. Through his headphones, he heard Escobar say "Good luck," and end his conversation with his son.
Hugo and his team had been eavesdropping on Escobar for three days as he telephoned his wife and son at a hotel in Bogota. The fugitive was trying to get his family safely out of Colombia. Until this moment, the officers had not been able to tell exactly where his calls were coming from.
Now Escobar was literally right in front of them. Years of effort, hundreds of lives, thousands of futile police raids, untold millions of dollars, countless man hours, all of the false steps, false alarms, blunders. And here he was at last, one man in a nation of 35 million people, one man in a ruthless underworld he had virtually owned for nearly two decades, one man in city of more than a million where he was revered as a legend.
Hugo leaned out and told the officers in the car behind him, "This is the house."
It was a simple two-story rowhouse in the middle of the block with a squat palm tree in front. Hugo suspected Escobar had been spooked by their white van cruising slowly past, so he told his driver to keep going down to the end of the block. Shouting into the radio, Hugo asked to be connected to his father, Col. Hugo Martinez, commander of the Colombian police Search Bloc.
"I've got him located," Hugo told his father. "He's in this house."
The colonel knew this was it. Hugo would not be saying this unless he had seen Escobar with his own eyes.
"Station yourself in front and in back of the house and don't let him come out," his father said.
Then the colonel ordered all units to converge on the house immediately.
Two men positioned themselves against the wall on either side of Escobar's front door. Hugo's van drove around the block to the alley. There was a one-story garage with an orange tile roof extending from the back of the house. With weapons ready, they waited.
It took about 10 minutes for the rest of the Search Bloc force to arrive.
"Martin," one of the lieutenants assigned to the Search Bloc assault team, stood ready as his men applied a heavy steel sledgehammer to the steel front door. It took several blows before it went down.
Martin sprinted into the house with the five men on his team, and the shooting began. The first floor was empty, like a garage. A yellow taxi was parked toward the rear, and a flight of stairs led up to the second floor.
As the police pushed upstairs, Escobar's lone bodyguard, Jesus Agudelo, called "Limon," jumped out a back window and fell about eight feet to a grating on the garage roof. As Limon sprinted out across the tiles, the Search Bloc force in the alley below opened fire.
According to the police, Limon was hit at least four times as he ran. Hugo said his momentum carried him right off the roof, and Limon fell lifeless to the grass below. The fatal shot struck him directly in the center of the forehead.
Escobar had come out the window behind Limon. He had stopped to kick off his plastic flip-flops, and dropped down to the roof. Police said he was carrying a pistol and a rifle. He stayed close to one wall, where there was some protection.
Police Maj. Hugo Aguilar, who had climbed onto the roof overhead, could not get a clear shot down at him. So there was a break in the firing as Escobar moved along the wall toward the back street.
At the corner, Hugo said later, Escobar pointed his weapons in both directions, shouted, "Police mother---s! Police mother---s!" and fired rounds that hit no one.
Then he broke for the crest of the gently sloping tile roof, trying to make it to the other side. A cascade of fire felled him at the center of the roof. He sprawled on his broad belly on the dislodged orange tiles, hit by a round in his thigh and another in his back, just below the right shoulder blade.
Accounts differ as to what happened next, but this much is certain: Escobar was killed by a round that entered the center of his right ear and exited just in front of his left ear.
According to Hugo Martinez, the shooting then continued. Inside the house, Martin and his men fell to the floor as rounds fired by Search Bloc members on the street below crashed through the second-floor window and into the walls and ceiling.
Martin believed he and his men were taking fire from Escobar's bodyguards. He shouted into his radio, "Help! Help us! We need support!"
Finally, the gunfire stopped.
On the rooftop, Maj. Aguilar shouted: "It's Pablo! It's Pablo!"
Men were now scaling the roof. Someone found a ladder and placed it under the second-floor window, and others climbed down to the roof from the window.
Aguilar reached for the body on the roof and turned it over. The wide bearded face was splashed with blood and already it was beginning to swell. It was wreathed in long, blood-soaked black curls.
Aguilar grabbed a radio and spoke directly to Col. Martinez, speaking loudly enough for even the men on the street below to hear:
"Viva Colombia! We have just killed Pablo Escobar!"
It is difficult to reconstruct precisely what happened on the rooftop. Each Search Bloc member interviewed for this story provided an account based on what he had seen. Certain details differed. In some cases, these accounts included descriptions given to Search Bloc members by other witnesses.
Official reports said Escobar was shot dead as he ran across the rooftop during a gun battle with police. But a senior Colombian National Police commander now says Escobar was executed at close range. Autopsy reports and photos show that the fatal round went directly into his right ear.
"I believe it is true that Escobar was shot in the head after he was wounded on the rooftop," said Col. Oscar Naranjo, who was chief of intelligence for the Colombian National Police at the time. "You have to understand, the anxiety of that team was so high. Escobar was like a trophy at the end of a long hunt. For him to have been taken alive . . . no one wanted to attend that disaster."
Col. Martinez said there was "no point-blank 'coup de grace.' " He indicated that the fatal shot was fired from at least three feet away.
Maj. Aguilar told the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo that he fired the 9mm round into Escobar's ear, but he did not say from what distance.
Steve Murphy, a DEA agent working out of Medellin, was the first American on the scene. He had heard the news at Search Bloc headquarters, and had immediately phoned his boss Joe Toft in Bogota. Toft told him: "You better get your ass out there and bring pictures back."
Murphy grabbed a camera, ran outside and flagged down a police vehicle that was taking Col. Martinez to the killing scene.
They arrived as the colonel's men were setting up barricades. Crowds had begun to form as word spread that Escobar had been killed.
Murphy climbed to the second floor and was directed to look out the window to the rooftop. There he saw Escobar's barefoot body stretched on the orange roof tiles. Men from the raiding party stood around the bloodied corpse, sharing swigs from a bottle of Black Label Scotch.
Murphy shouted and the men posed for his camera, raising their rifles triumphantly. He climbed out to the roof and took more pictures, with more of the men posing around the slain fugitive.
Then Murphy gave the camera to an officer and posed next to Escobar's corpse himself. One of the men took a small knife and carefully scraped off the corner of Escobar's bloodstained mustache for a souvenir. Another man scraped off the other corner, leaving Escobar with a bizarre Hitler-style mustache that would be featured in news reports, a final indignity inflicted upon the fugitive drug boss by his pursuers.
There was a commotion on the street as Escobar's mother and sister arrived. The mother, Hermilda, was a short, slightly stooped woman in her 60s, with gray hair and spectacles. She pushed her way up to a corpse on the grass and saw that it was Limon.
"You fools!" she shouted. "This is not my son! This is not Pablo Escobar! You have killed the wrong man!"
But then the soldiers directed the two women to stand to one side, and from the roof they lowered a stretcher bearing the corpse of her son.
As she left the place, she pulled her mouth tight and betrayed no emotion, and paused only to tell a reporter with a microphone: "At least now he is at rest."
Shortly after Escobar was shot dead, Colombian Police Gen. Octavio Vargas telephoned his good friend Toft, the DEA country chief in Colombia.
"Jo-ay!" Vargas shouted happily into the phone. "We just got him!"
That was just seconds before the call from Murphy. Toft stepped out into the hallway and shouted: "Escobar is dead!"
Then he ran upstairs to tell Ambassador Morris Busby, the man who had directed the American effort in this 15-month manhunt.
Busby was ecstatic. He grabbed a phone and called Washington. He asked to speak with Richard Canas, the National Security Council's drug enforcement chief at the Executive Office Building, across the street from the White House.
Canas took the call and heard Busby say: "We got Escobar."
"Are you sure?" Canas asked.
"Ninety-nine percent," Busby said.
"Not good enough. Have one of our people seen it?"
"Give me a few minutes," Busby said.
It did not take long for Busby to get absolute confirmation: Steve Murphy had turned over Escobar's body and had looked into the lifeless face of the man who had been the most powerful criminal in the world.
Busby called Canas back.
"Got him," he said. "Dead. Got him. Gone forever."
At the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, a party erupted. Champagne bottles popped. Banners were draped that read "P.E.G. DEAD." Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria was finally gone.
Ambassador Busby felt a deep sense of satisfaction. After nearly 20 years of counterterrorism work, he felt this was the most impressive feat he had ever been involved with. They had stuck with the chase for 15 hard, frustrating, bloody months. The effort had involved U.S. military, diplomatic and law enforcement agencies spanning two administrations and two continents.
It had been ugly. Since Escobar's escape from prison in July 1992, 209 people associated with Escobar or the Medellin cartel had been killed. Fifty-two of Escobar's associates had been captured, and another 29 had turned themselves in under a generous government surrender offer.
Busby visited the Presidential Palace that afternoon to personally congratulate President Cesar Gaviria. Extra editions of the Bogota newspapers were already on the street. El Espectador ran an enormous page one headline that read "FINALEMENTE SI CAHO" (FINALLY, HE'S DOWN). Gaviria signed a copy for the ambassador.
The death of Pablo Escobar may have been cause for celebration in official circles in Washington and Bogota, but for many Colombians, especially in Medellin, it was an occasion for grief. Thousands attended Escobar's funeral, following his casket through the streets. They swarmed to get closer, and some mourners opened the casket lid to stroke the dead man's face.
There were chants of "We love you, Pablo!" and "Long Live Pablo Escobar!" There were shouts of anger toward the government, and threats of revenge.
Escobar was their martyr, slain by a government they believed had persecuted him. Even today, it is not unusual to find Escobar's framed photograph in Colombian homes.
Escobar's grave is still carefully tended. It is framed by flowering bushes, and ornate iron bars support three flowering pots. On the simple gravestone there is a photograph of a mustachioed Pablo in a business suit.
On the day Escobar was killed, Col. Hugo Martinez ran into the hideout and found the drug boss' portable phone. That was his trophy. He used it to phone his superior, Maj. Luis Estupinan, to congratulate him on the kill.
That evening, the men of the Search Bloc in Medellin partied late. Col. Martinez and his son Hugo did not join them. Such overt displays were not the colonel's style. When the men began firing their weapons into the air, the colonel put an end to the party.
The next morning, the colonel, Hugo and some of the other top men in the Search Bloc were honored in Bogota. That evening, back at their home, the colonel's youngest son, Gustavo, age 10, was looking through a sack of Escobar's personal items that the colonel had collected. In the bag was a small loaded handgun. As Gustavo examined it, the gun went off.
The bullet scratched the skin of his belly, but the boy wasn't seriously hurt. The colonel gathered up the items and delivered them that night to police headquarters, as though they were a curse.
Martinez says he still feels haunted by the dead drug boss. He says he derived personal satisfaction from Escobar's death, and he finally got his promotion to general, but he paid a heavy price.
"When I think about Pablo Escobar, I think of him as an episode in my life that completely altered the way I was living," Martinez said in an interview last summer in his home village of Mosquera. "I don't blame him as a person or anything like that. However, being involved in those operations, I abandoned my family and my sons who needed me in what was a crucial time in their lives."
Martinez was accused of accepting money from the Cali cartel and of being involved with the illegal activities of Los Pepes - accusations he denies. He said the allegations were first made by Escobar himself, and spread by the Colombian press.
Martinez was never charged with any crime. For a while, for safety reasons, he considered moving with his wife and family to Argentina. But just as he began to inquire about emigrating there, he read news reports that Pablo Escobar's wife and son had been arrested there. Martinez said he felt sympathy for Escobar's family.
"Just as I was trying to go someplace else for security, so were they," he said. "I hurt to see they are still suffering for something that happened so long ago. They are also trying to escape from all that."
Escobar's wife and children are believed to still own a substantial part of his illicit fortune. They live under assumed names in Buenos Aires, where Maria Victoria and Juan Pablo were charged in 1999 with attempting to illegally launder money. A family lawyer says Juan Pablo works for a computer graphics company, and Manuela, who is still a teenager, is a student.
Not long after Escobar's death, Juan Pablo paid an unexpected visit to the U.S. Embassy in Bogota. He asked to see Busby, who called downstairs to Toft.
"Hey, Joe, Pablo Escobar's son is downstairs. I'm not going to see him, OK?"
Toft agreed to meet with Juan Pablo. He stepped into the room to encounter a soft-looking young man. Toft was impressed with the boy's poise under the circumstances.
"He told me that he and his family were in great danger, and they were appealing for visas to save their lives," Toft remembers.
"What will it take for me to get a visa?" Juan Pablo asked.
"All of the cocaine and cocaine money in the world would not get you a visa," Toft told him.
Juan Pablo did not appear surprised by the answer.
"Are you sure we can do nothing?" he asked again. "Is there anything, anything we could do to earn a visa?"
"Even if you helped put the whole Cali cartel in jail we would not give you a visa," Toft told him.
And Juan Pablo left.
During the celebration at the embassy after Escobar was killed, Toft felt a knot in his stomach. He felt it all the while he was smiling, embracing colleagues, talking to the Colombian press. Toft was troubled by a feeling that somehow, they had sold their souls to the devil.
Even so, he framed a certificate presented by DEA Special Agent Kenny Magee to those directly involved in manhunt. It read, in part: "Because of your selfless dedication and willing sacrifices, the world's most sought after criminal was located and killed. . . ." At the bottom were the signature and thumbprint of Pablo Escobar.
In his briefings in Washington over the previous year, Toft had soft-pedaled evidence of links between his own agency and the vigilantes of Los Pepes. He knew his agents had seen self-confessed Los Pepes leaders at the headquarters of the Search Bloc, the police team funded and guided by the United States.
He knew that certain murders of Escobar associates by Los Pepes came after the victims had been located by U.S. intelligence, and the information had been passed to the Search Bloc. On the one hand, Los Pepes were dismantling Escobar's Medellin cartel and stripping away the layers of protection around him. On the other hand, their brutal methods troubled Toft's conscience.
Now, with Escobar dead, Toft worried that the effort against Escobar had created a monster. It had opened a bridge between the Colombian government, its top politicians and generals, and the rival Cali drug cartel - what the DEA came to call a "super cartel." In the years the Americans had focused on Escobar, Toft feared, the Cali cartel had consolidated its operations, cemented its relationship with the Colombian government, and emerged as a cocaine monopoly.
In 1994, Toft resigned from the DEA.
"I don't know what the lesson of the story is," he said recently. "I hope it's not that the end justifies the means."
Return To Chapters One Through Seventeen