His empire was in ruins, his family was under government protection and he was a fugitive. In the end, 44-year-old Pablo Escobar, who rose from petty car thief to become one of Colombia’s most powerful drug lords and one of the world’s richest men, died last week in a deluge of police bullets.
Witnesses caught a glimpse of a fat man fleeing barefoot and shirtless over the rooftop of a suburban home in Medellin, Colombia’s second largest city. They
heard an eruption of gunfire and, moments later, Escobar and a bodyguard lay dead. While thousands of faithful supporters publicly mourned the death of a man who built housing projects and soccer fields for Medellin’s poor, drug-trade rivals privately applauded. The government of Colombia conceded that Escobar’s demise would have
little impact on the cocaine trade. “Drug trafficking in Colombia has not ended,” President César Gaviria told a news conference in Bogotá. “But Colombia’s worst nightmare has been slain.”
At the height of his power during the 1980s, Escobar’s Medellin cartel, and a rival based in the Colombian city of Cali, supplied 80 per cent of the cocaine consumed annually in the United States. New York-based Forbes magazine estimated his personal
worth in 1991 at $3.3 billion. Escobar, a married father of two children, reportedly owned a fleet of aircraft, apartments in Florida and hotels in Colombia and Venezuela, as well as a private zoo stocked with kangaroos, hippopotamuses and camels. But wealth did not protect him from the law. In response, Escobar launched a war against the government of Colombia in 1984 that led to the assassinations of presidential candidates, judges, lawyers and journalists, as well as the deaths of hundreds of ordi-
nary Colombians. Ironically, his reign of terror also led to the destruction of his empire. While he was driven into hiding, his rivals, including the Cali cartel, began to assume a bigger share of the cocaine trade. Said Colombia’s prosecutor general, Gustavo de Greift, of Escobar’s death: “There will be no change in the trade as long as industrialized countries continue to satiate their appetite for drugs.”
In June 1991, Escobar accepted a controversial offer from Gaviria to surrender in exchange for a reduced jail sentence and guarantees that he would not be extradited to the United States. But last year, he and nine of his cronies escaped from their mountaintop luxury prison—mockingly dubbed “Hotel Escobar” by some foreign newspapers because of its comforts—and disappeared. Police finally caught up to Escobar last week by tracing a phone call from the Medellin home where he was hiding.
While Escobar and his associates were high-profile, defiant criminals, their successors in the Cali cartel are far less conspicuous. The organization is allegedly run by two brothers, Miguel and Gilberto Rodriguez, who have avoided direct confrontation with the government. They are believed to prefer bribes and sophisticated intelligence-gathering to keep the police away and to preserve their operation. For that reason, many law enforcement officials regard them as less dangerous, but more insidious than the flamboyant Escobar. With the drug lord’s death, the biggest hope in Colombia last week was that the bloody era of narco-terrorism had finally come to an end.
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