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A History of the Medellin Cartel & Pablo Escobar

April 16, 2010

As a sociology major, the dynamics between Escobar and the people of Medellin, in particular are interesting. While Escobar was responsible for savage violence, intimidation and terror throughout the city and country, he managed to be a hero at the same time to many of the poor. This scenario, where a violent kingpin of some sort has a loyal following from the very people he’s terrorizing, is not an isolated one. We see this dynamic in Venezuela with Cesar Chavez, for example. What is so terrifying to me is that there are people who are so deprived and are so desperate as a result of their circumstances that they are able to bond to “leaders” like Escobar and Chavez. I think the answer is not so much to kill these men or remove them from power, but to address, nonviolently, the legitimate needs of the people who give these men their power in the long run. Poverty is a problem worldwide. And we can’t allow “Robin-Hoods,” like Escobar, to do more for the poor than our governments.

Pablo Escobar (December 1, 1949 – December 2, 1993)
“Don Pablo” former kingpin of Medellin, Colombia

Pablo Escobar was born in 1949, the son of a peasant farmer and a school teacher. When he was two the family moved to Envigado, a suburb of the city of Medellin, Colombia. A young Escobar was growing up in a turbulent time in Colombia’s violent history. His criminal life began as a teenage car thief in the streets of Medellín, Colombia but he would one day become one of the richest men in the world. It has been reported that early in his criminal career he allegedly stole headstones from graveyards and re-sold them in other villages of Antioquia as well as selling them to smugglers from Panama.

As a small-time hustler in Medellin he was always busy trying to make money by running petty street scams, selling contraband cigarettes and fake lottery tickets. By the 1960’s he was working as a small-time dealer but with America’s newfound obsession with coca he eventually moved into the trafficking business and would soon begin building an enormous illegal empire as well as making himself the most powerful man in Colombia.

His reputation grew after a well known Medellín dealer named Fabio Restrepo was murdered in 1975 ostensibly by Escobar, from whom he had purchased 14 kilos. Afterwards, all of Restrepo’s men were informed that they now worked for Pablo Escobar. In May 1976 Escobar and several of his men were arrested after returning to Medellin, Colombia with a heavy load from Ecuador. The arresting officers discovered them in possesion of thirty-nine pounds of white paste. As the case against Pablo was being made he tried to bribe Medellin judges but was unsuccessful. After many months of legal wrangling Pablo had the two arresting officers killed and the case was dropped. It was here that he began his pattern of dealing with the authorities by either bribing them or killing them.

During the 1980s, Escobar became known internationally as the Medellin Cartel gained notoriety. The Medellín Cartel is said to have controlled roughly eighty percent of the shipments that entered into the United States, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic with shipments brought mostly from Peru and Bolivia, as Colombian coca was initially of substandard quality. Escobar’s product reached many other nations, mostly around the Americas, although it is said that his network reached as far as Asia.

Escobar bribed countless Colombian government officials, judges and other politicians, and he often personally executed uncooperative subordinates and had anyone he viewed as a threat assassinated, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of individuals. Corruption and intimidation characterized the Colombian system during Escobar’s heyday. He had an effective, inescapable strategy that was referred to as plata o plomo; Spanish for “silver or lead”, intended to mean “accept a bribe or face assassination.”

Escobar was also responsible for the killing of three Colombian presidential candidates who were all competing in the same election, as well as the bombing of Avianca Flight 203 and a Bogotá security building in 1989 . The Medellín Cartel was also involved in a deadly war with its main rival, the Cali Cartel, for most of its existence.

It has been claimed that Escobar was behind the 1985 storming of the Colombian Supreme Court by left-wing guerrillas from the 19th of April Movement, also known as M-19, which resulted in the murder of half the judges on the court. Some of these claims were included in a late 2006 report by a Truth Commission integrated by three judges of the current Supreme Court. One of the included claims was made by ‘Popeye’, a former Escobar hitman. At the time of the siege, the Supreme Court was studying the constitutionality of Colombia’s extradition treaty with the U.S. Former M-19 leaders that did not participate in the events have denied that Pablo Escobar was behind the assault on the Supreme Court.

At the height of his empire, Escobar was estimated by Forbes magazine to be the seventh-richest man in the world along with his organization the Medellín Cartel controlling most of the world’s illegal market. His organization had fleets of planes, boats, expensive vehicles and a private army. Vast properties and tracts of lands were also controlled by the cartel under Escobar due to the almost limitless influx of cash during this period. In addition to all this it was reported that he purchased two small remote controlled submarines as a way to transport the massive loads of cocaine.

Estimates are that the Medellín Cartel was taking in up to $30 billion annually at its zenith. This created many problems as to how to get the money back to Medellin, Colombia from locations around the world.
In 1990, life for Pablo Escobar and his infamous Medellin Cartel would take a drastic turn when the Colombia government, under pressure from the United States, began to extradite Colombians to the US for prosecution.

With the threat of extradition, Escobar began kidnapping prominent Colombians and killing anyone who supported extradition to the United States. But as pressure mounted he made a deal with Colombian officials and turned himself in only after authorities accepted his deal which would keep him from being extradicted.

He was sent to a prison which was more like a private resort where he continued to run his empire. On July 22, 1992, the Colombian government decided to move him to a higher security prison in order to prevent him from continuing to conduct his illegal activites behind prison walls. But the plan failed and Escobar escaped before authorities had an oppurtunity to apprehend him.

Escobar’s daring escape launched one of the biggest manhunts by the Colombian government with the help of the United States Delta Force, Navy Seals,the CIA, FBI, DEA, vigilante death squads, hired assasins supported by the Cali Cartel, as well as the Colombian military forces. He remained at large for about sixteen months alluding his captors until the authorites traced a telephone called he made from one of his safe houses in Medellin.

On December 2, 1992, at the age of 44, Pablo Escobar was shot and killed in a gun battle on the rooftop of his safe house after escaping through a top floor window.
The death of Pablo Escobar brought down with it the powerful and murderous influence of the Medellini Cartel. It also marked the end of an era where violence and illegal trade were responsible for the constant terror upon the people of Colombia. It has been years since the end of Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel yet Colombia continues to be tarnished by its history.


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