Friday, May 27, 2022

Colombia marks 20 years free from Pablo Escobar

“Those who do not know their past are bound to repeat it,” reads a billboard with a picture of deceased drug trafficker Pablo Escobar in the prison known as “La Catedral,” where he was once held in the municipality of Envigado near the city of Medellín. (Raúl Arboleda/AFP)
“Those who do not know their past are bound to repeat it,” reads a billboard with a picture of deceased drug trafficker Pablo Escobar in the prison known as “La Catedral,” where he was once held in the municipality of Envigado near the city of Medellín. (Raúl Arboleda/AFP)

Many would prefer never to hear his name again, but 20 years after his death, Pablo Escobar is back in the news.

The man who at one time was the world’s most wanted fugitive died during an operation by Colombia’s National Police (PNC) at age 43 in Medellín on Dec. 2, 1993. In 1989, he was considered by Forbes magazine to be the seventh-richest man on the planet, with a fortune that reached US$30 billion.

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The PNC classified the operations conducted against the drug trade in Colombia following Escobar’s death as a “new dawn.”

“These ‘magicians’ believed that with streams of money earned from their criminal activities they could buy people off, threaten and eliminate their adversaries and even obtain political, economic and legal power to the highest degree,” stated the PNC report on the events of Dec. 2, 1993.

Escobar’s son, Juan Pablo, 36, repeatedly has stressed the need to ask for forgiveness from the country and the world for his father’s crimes. Juan Pablo personally reconciled with the sons of politicians Luis Carlos Galán and Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, who lost their lives in murders ordered by Escobar.

The murder of Galán is among Escobar’s most memorable – and despicable – crimes. During his campaign for the 1990 Colombian presidency, Galán promised to relentlessly fight the drug trade.

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After receiving several threats from the Medellín cartel and being saved by authorities from a failed assassination attempt at the University of Antioquia, Galán was killed while making a speech in the municipality of Soacha on Aug. 18, 1989.

Galán, who the polls showed would have won the presidency of Colombia with more than 60% of the vote, died alongside Julio Peñalosa and Santiago Cuervo, the then-candidate’s bodyguards.

The fight against Escobar’s cartel by the then-Minister of Justice Rodrigo Lara during the administration of Belisario Betancur (1982-1986) also ended in death.

Lara was killed on April 30, 1984, at the order of Escobar.

Journalist Guillermo Cano, director of the newspaper El Espectador who defended the media’s ability to cover cartels and corruption, was fatally shot by gunmen in front of the newspaper’s offices on Dec. 17, 1986.

Yet, perhaps one of Escobar’s most heinous terrorist acts occurred on Nov. 27, 1989. Its intended target was politician César Gaviria, who served as the country’s president from 1990 to 1994.

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Escobar, also known as the “Czar of Cocaine,” ordered the detonation of an explosive device inside an Avianca HK 1803 airplane mid-flight to kill Gaviria, who was not on board.

One hundred-seven people lost their lives after the plane exploded and fell to the ground in the municipality of Soacha in the department of Cundinamarca.

Carlos Alzate, who went by the alias “El Arete” and worked with Escobar, confirmed the attack against Gaviria failed due to erroneous information from sources that had infiltrated what was then the Administrative Security Department (DAS).

As a result, the head of the Medellín Cartel ordered the Dec. 6, 1989 attack against the DAS building, using a car loaded with a ton of dynamite, which killed 70 people.

León Darío Posada, a politician, cultural leader and current president of the Alianza Social Independiente political party in the department of Antioquia, recalled the impact of this event in Bogotá, where he was studying.

“I was sleeping in my apartment on the first floor when I suddenly felt a rumble and a strange wave broke the windows,” he said. “Soon afterward, you could hear people screaming. We all went outside. People were very scared and there was a lot of confusion because nobody knew what was going on. Then, we started gathering together. We got a radio and we learned that it was another bomb.”

Civilians, Escobar’s main victims

Escobar paid his hit men $2 million Colombian pesos (more than US$1,034) for every police officer they killed, said Diego García, a patrol officer with the Metropolitan Police of Medellín in the 1990s.

“My mother used to send me so many blessings before I left the house each morning,” he said. “We knew when we were going out, but we didn’t know whether we’d be back. War had been declared and even though we felt very unsafe, it was our duty to look after others and take care of each other.”

García added that in 1990, more than 200 police officers in Medellín lost their lives in just one month following Escobar’s order.

However, the scariest weapon used by the drug lord in his battle with government was the explosion of more than 200 bombs in the busiest areas of the country’s major cities.

When the administration of Virgilio Barco (1986-1990) threatened to reform the country’s Constitution to advance a referendum on the extradition of drug traffickers to the United States, Escobar ordered the simultaneous explosion of three car bombs in Cali and Bogotá.

The terrorist attacks, which occurred on the eve of Mother’s Day in busy commercial areas of Colombia, left 30 people dead and another 200 wounded.

To apply more pressure on the government and prevent his extradition, Escobar ordered the kidnapping of the then-Mayor of Bogotá Andrés Pastrana and the country’s attorney general, Carlos Mauro Hoyos.

Pastrana was rescued by police, and Escobar responded by ordering Hoyos’ execution.

In the late 1970s, Pablo Escobar gave about 1,000 homes to families who had lived in a garbage dump in Medellín in an attempt to boost his popularity among residents. The neighborhood is known as “Pablo Escobar.”

Through the TV series “Escobar, the Master of Evil,” which had the highest rating in the history of Colombia and is now being aired for the second time by the Caracol network, younger generations of Colombians can learn about one of the darkest chapters in the country’s history.

It’s enabled many in the Pablo Escobar neighborhood to learn about his crimes, resident María Urrego said.

“It’s important to remember what happened at that time and hopefully there is room to evaluate these shows … some people are worried about the bad things that can be learned from them, but this type of person would exist with or without a TV program,” Posada said.

*Editor’s Note: On Dec.19, will publish an article by Sylvia Zárate and César Mariño about the success of Colombia’s drug policy following Pablo Escobar’s death in 1993. On Dec.20, will publish an article by Mauricio Berrío about the transformation that Medellín has undergone in recent decades.


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