With David Fisher
By Roberto Escobar
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“I have many scars. Some of them are physical, but many more are scars on my soul. A bomb sent to kill me while I was in a maximum security prison has made me blind, yet now I see the world more clearly than I have ever seen it before. I have lived an incredible adventure. I watched as my brother, Pablo Escobar, became the most successful criminal in history, but also a hero to many of the people of Colombia. My brother was loved and he was feared. Hundreds of thousands of people marched in his funeral procession, and certainly as many people celebrated his death.”
These are the words of Roberto Escobar-the top accountant for the notorious and deadly Medellen Cartel, and brother of Pablo Escobar, the most famous drug lord in history. At the height of his reign, Pablo’s multibillion-dollar operation smuggled tons of cocaine each week into countries all over the world. Roberto and his ten accountants kept track of all the money. Only Pablo and Roberto knew where it was stashed-and what it bought.
And the amounts of money were simply staggering. According to Roberto, it cost $2,500 every month just to purchase the rubber bands needed to wrap the stacks of cash. The biggest problem was finding a place to store it: from secret compartments in walls and beneath swimming pools to banks and warehouses everywhere. There was so much money that Roberto would sometimes write off ten percent as “spoilage,” meaning either rats had chewed up the bills or dampness had ruined the cash.
Roberto writes about the incredible violence of the cartel, but he also writes of the humanitarian side of his brother. Pablo built entire towns, gave away thousands of houses, paid people’s medical expenses, and built schools and hospitals. Yet he was responsible for the horrible deaths of thousands of people.
In short, this is the story of a world of riches almost beyond mortal imagination, and in his own words, Roberto Escobar tells all: building a magnificent zoo at Pablo’s opulent home, the brothers’ many escapes into the jungles of Colombia, devising ingenious methods to smuggle tons of cocaine into the United States, bribing officials with literally millions of dollars-and building a personal army to protect the Escobar family against an array of enemies sworn to kill them.
Few men in history have been more beloved-or despised-than Pablo Escobar. Now, for the first time, his story is told by the man who knew him best: his brother, Roberto.
Due to the sensitive nature of the material disclosed in this book, some names and identifying characteristics have been changed.
Copyright © 2009 by Roberto Escobar and David Fisher
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
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I dedicate this book to God Almighty, as gratitude and to the memory of three extraordinary people: my mother, Hermilda, dedicated to a life of social service as a teacher and a role model citizen in the community; my father, Abel, a good man who showed me the rewards earned by hard work and the values of fighting for what you believe; and finally my brother, Pablo, a good soul with a vision for the future that turned the impossible to possible, who planted in his heart a place for the poor and unprotected—and whose memory today is part of history.
In our world of instant communications it has become relatively simple to become a legend. To be anointed a person has to perform a feat mammoth enough to earn the covers of all the celebrity magazines the same week and dominate twenty-four-hour coverage on cable news for at least several news cycles. One of these nouveau legends can emerge instantly from any field: politics, entertainment, sports, crime, and the bizarre. But in our eat-'em-up media yesterday's legends rapidly become tomorrow's Dancing with the Stars contestants.
But Pablo Escobar became a legend the old-fashioned way: He shot his way to the top of the charts. True legends, like that of Pablo Escobar, grow slowly through time and must be nurtured. The stories told about them have to continue to grow in scope and size until reality is simply too small to contain them. They have to burst beyond the borders of time and place and become famous enough to outlive the contemporary journalism of their life. The world has to come to know them on a first-name basis.
Pablo Escobar has joined the list of celebrity criminals, finding his place on the dark side of history with Blackbeard, Jesse James, and Al Capone. Movies about his life will be made, more in an effort to exploit him than explain him. Pablo Escobar gained infamy as the most successful, most ruthless, and certainly the best known drug trafficker in history, a man who was beloved by the poorest people of Colombia while being despised by the leaders of nations. He has become known as the richest outlaw in history, a man who built neighborhoods while destroying lives, a multibillionaire who was able to evade the armies searching years for him. When I began working on this project I knew very little about Pablo Escobar other than the broad facts that emerged above the clatter: He had become synonymous with Colombian cocaine, which had flooded the United States, and as a result he was listed as one of Forbes magazine's ten richest men in the world.
Before beginning my long series of interviews with Pablo's surviving brother, Roberto, I did considerable background research, most of which confirmed what I knew and filled in substantial details. The facts of Pablo Escobar's life are the bricks of legend: Born in 1949 during a period of tremendous violence that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Colombians, he grew up in a lower-middle-class working family. By the early 1970s he had become involved in his first serious crimes, and by the late 1970s he had entered the world of drug trafficking. His genius for organizing enabled him to bring together other traffickers to form what became the Medellín cartel. This came at the perfect time, when affluent Americans fell in love with cocaine. It was Pablo Escobar's cartel that supplied America's habit, and even the countless thousands of tons of coke that were successfully smuggled into America weren't enough to satisfy the demand. Pablo revolutionized the drug trade by creating new methods to smuggle massive amounts of drugs into America and then Europe. The business made Pablo and his partners billionaires. Pablo used many millions of his dollars to aid the poorest people of Colombia, building homes, buying food and medicine, paying school tuition, and in so many different ways becoming their hero.
Meanwhile, his greatest fear, the greatest fear of all the traffickers, was that Colombia would enforce its extradition treaty with the United States and they would end up in an American prison.
In 1982 Pablo entered politics and was elected as an alternate to Congress; perhaps to serve the lower classes of his country as he claimed or perhaps to insulate himself from extradition as an elected official. Although Pablo claimed his money had been earned in real estate, in 1983 Minister of Justice Rodrigo Lara Bonilla accused him of being a drug dealer; for the first time the rumors had become public. When Lara Bonilla was killed in April 1984, Pablo was blamed and his political career ended.
For the first time the extraordinary violence for which the Medellín cartel would become known became part of Colombia's daily life; in 1985 almost 1,700 people were murdered in Medellín, a figure that would continue to grow. Pablo and the leaders of the cartel were forced into hiding for the next few years, at times spending months in the jungles, often escaping just minutes ahead of government forces. In November of 1985 rebels launched a massive attack on the Palace of Justice; hundreds of people died, among them justices of the Supreme Court. Pablo was accused of financing the attack in an effort to destroy all the evidence the government had collected against him, which was stored there. This attack on the government truly shocked Colombia, and people all over the world began learning the name Pablo Escobar.
In 1988 the rival Cali cartel also declared war on Medellín by bombing Pablo's houses. The killings throughout Colombia increased; at night the streets of the large cities were deserted. And still the flood of drugs into America continued growing. Pablo and his close associates, including his brother, Roberto, successfully managed to evade the enemies searching the country for them while he led his private army in battle. But one by one other leaders of the cartel were captured or killed.
By 1989 government officials were being killed and bombs were exploding in the big cities of the nation almost on a daily basis. But the civilized world was stunned once again when a commercial airliner, Avianca flight HK 1803, was bombed and all 107 passengers died. Pablo was blamed for this, adding to his growing reputation as one of history's most brutal criminals. A week later the headquarters of DAS, Colombia's FBI, was destroyed by a massive bomb; 89 people died. The Colombian government's war against Pablo Escobar was joined by American Special Ops teams.
Pablo retaliated by targeting police officers, and within a few months more than 250 policemen were killed. In 1991 the government finally outlawed the extradition treaty, and Pablo, Roberto, and a dozen other men surrendered and were housed in a prison that Pablo built and controlled, a prison known as the Cathedral.
In July 1992, the government attempted to invade the prison and capture the prisoners. While officially it was explained that Pablo was to be moved to a more strict prison, he believed this was an attempt to extradite him to America. Before he could be taken, he escaped into the jungles and the inner cities of Colombia, and the killing began once again.
The legend of Pablo Escobar continued to grow. As the world watched, Pablo Escobar successfully evaded thousands of soldiers from Colombia and America, as well as enemies from Cali and other groups organized to capture or kill him, for more than a year. One man against the organized armies of government. To draw him out some of these forces attacked his family, his friends, anyone who had ever been associated with him. In December 1993, as he tried to force the government to allow his family to leave the country, his hiding place was finally discovered. On December 2, one day after his forty-fourth birthday, he died on a rooftop trying to flee those soldiers who had found him.
Basically, that's the story of Pablo Escobar as it has been written. But as I began speaking at great length with his brother, Roberto Escobar, who served as the accountant for Pablo's business, and later spoke with many others who knew him at various times of his life, I discovered a slightly different version of that story, the story told in these pages.
Roberto spoke with me as both a loving brother and a man desperately trying to correct history. The point he emphasized so many times was that the growing legend of Pablo Escobar was used by other groups to service their own needs, from the traffickers of Cali who were ignored while the focus remained on Pablo Escobar, to the various factions within the government who used the shadows that covered the search for him to settle old feuds and destroy growing opposition, and even by those men who once had worked for him and after being arrested provided information that would reduce their own sentences. It was easy for everyone to blame all the violence, all the killings, on Pablo Escobar. Americans certainly came to believe that Pablo Escobar was perhaps the primary source of the flood of cocaine from Colombia, and that killing or capturing him would end the problem. Few Americans knew the names of anyone outside the Medellín cartel. Obviously that has proved not to be true, as the cocaine tide never receded.
At times it was very difficult for Roberto to accept that the little brother he had protected as a child and loved dearly had become the criminal Pablo Escobar. For legal and security reasons there were people that Roberto could not identify by name and details that he could not reveal, so an occasional name has been changed and some details have been blurred to make them less identifiable, but no less accurate.
From others who knew Pablo well and worked for him or with him I heard stories that often differed from the accepted history and revealed a much more complex Pablo Escobar than I'd learned about through my research.
As with every legend, there are numerous competing stories. While it's sometimes impossible to determine which of these stories is true, there can be absolutely no doubt that Pablo Escobar was the mastermind behind the most successful criminal operation in history, as well as the brutal force behind the years of chaos and violence that plagued Colombia. He was the larger than reality figure vilified and loved by the people of his country.
But this is very much a brother's story.
This is the story of my family as I know it to be: More than one and a half centuries ago a woman named Ofelia Gavíria came from Vasco, Spain, to Colombia. She traveled legions of soldiers through the Gulf of Urabá, men intent on taking control of our beautiful lands and precious metals. Ofelia Gavíria was a wealthy woman, a landowner with many Indian slaves, who were well treated. She lived in the town of Murri but often visited nearby towns. But to do so she had to cross several rivers.
Is was a time of danger, and a group of Indians from the forests plotted her death. When she reached a certain bridge she was to be captured and pushed into the river, allowing those Indians to regain control of their native lands. But one of her loyal slaves warned her of this attack. This was a brave woman, and instead of avoiding these attackers, she went to them with sacks of gold. Eventually they came to work for her and adopted the surname Gavíria.
Several years later it was these Indians who found an infant in the forest who had been abandoned by his mother. They brought this child to Ofelia, who adopted him and raised him as her own blood. His name was Braulio Gavíria, who grew to be a handsome man and one day would marry a blue-eyed beauty named Ana Rosa Cobaleda Barreneche, herself from Spain. They had five children, and the last of them was Roberto Gavíria, who was to grow and become the grandfather of myself and my brother, Pablo Escobar, who was to become the most famous criminal in the world.
ROBERTO ESCOBAR, 2008
IN THE MONTH OF OCTOBER 2006 MY BELOVED MOTHER, Hermilda Gavíria, died. As she wished, she was to be buried next to my brother, the infamous Pablo Escobar Gavíria. The government of our country, Colombia, decided to use this opportunity to take a DNA sample from the body of my brother. The purpose was to prove to the world that the body in this grave was truly that of Pablo Escobar, the man who had risen from the streets to become the most powerful, the most beloved, and the man most despised by the ruling classes of Colombia. There were many people who believed my brother had not truly been killed on a Medellín rooftop by combined forces from America and Colombia in December 1993, but that another body had been substituted and Pablo lived free. Many others had claimed to be his children or a relative and so were entitled to some of the billions of dollars he had earned and hidden. This DNA sample would settle all of these claims.
Here Lies the King once had been inscribed on his tombstone, but the government had ordered it brushed away. Since his death the cemetery Monte Sacro has become a popular place for tourists. Countless thousands have come from around the world to have their picture taken at the grave of the legendary outlaw Pablo Escobar. Others have come to pray, light candles for his soul, leave written notes for him, or knock on the gravestone for good luck. And some have come to cry. But on the day of my mother's funeral only my family and witnesses from the government and military were there. And when Pablo's grave was opened they were shocked. A large tree had wrapped its roots around the coffin; it was as if long arms from the ground were clutching it tightly. As if it was being claimed.
I think about my brother every day. Pablo Escobar was an extraordinarily simple man: He was brilliant and kindhearted, passionate and violent. He was a man of both poetry and guns. To many people he was a saint, to others he was a monster. I think about him as a young child, lying next to me as we hid beneath our bed while the guerrillas came during the night to kill us all. I think about the drug organization he built and ruled, a business that stretched throughout much of the world and made him one of the richest men on earth. I think about the good things he did with that money for so many people, the neighborhoods he built, the many thousands of people he fed and educated. And, less often, I think about the terrible things for which he was responsible, the killings and the bombings, the deaths of the innocents as well as his enemies and the days of terror that shocked nations. I think about the sweet days and nights we spent with our families and our friends in the spectacular home he built called Napoles, Napoles with its animals and rare birds collected from around the world where even today a herd of rhinoceros runs free, and I think about the hard times we spent together living in the prison he built on a mountaintop and the many escapes into the jungle we made together as the army and the police searched desperately for us. At times our lives were like a dream, and then we lived in a nightmare.
I've never been a man of great emotions. I accept life in all its colors, I accept it all. Once I was a champion bicycle racer, and then a coach of our national team. I was a successful businessman who employed a hundred workers making bicycles and I owned five stores. It was then my brother asked me to handle the money he was earning from his business. For me, that's how it began. I have a lot of scars from those years, both on my body and my soul. And now I'm almost totally blind, the result of an attempt to kill me while I was in prison by sending me a letter bomb, and I live quietly on a ranch.
My brother will live forever in the history books, and in legend and lore. The greatest criminal in history, they call him. Forbes magazine listed him as the seventh richest man in the world, but even they had no concept of his true wealth. Each year we lost 10 percent of our earnings due to water damage, eaten by rodents, or simply misplaced. Robin Hood, the peasants of Colombia called him for the gifts he gave them.
Pablo controlled governments of other countries and set up a social security system for the poor of Colombia, he built submarines to transport cocaine, and he raised an army that waged war against the state and the other cartels. But some of the claims made against him are false. I don't excuse my brother for the terrible violence, but the truth is that he was not responsible for many of the crimes for which he has been blamed.
I was by his side much of the time, but not always. Many of the stories of his life I know to be true because I was with him, while others were told to me. The complete truth died on the rooftop with Pablo. But as I know it, this is the story of Pablo Escobar and the Medellín drug cartel.
There are many people who believe that it was Pablo who brought the terrible violence and death to Colombia but that isn't true. My brother and I were born into a civil war between the Conservatives and the Liberals, a period known in Colombia as La Violencia. In the decade ending in the mid-1950s peasant guerrilla armies murdered as many as 300,000 innocent people, countless thousands of them hacked to death with machetes. No one in Colombia was safe from these killers. Those murders were particularly hideous. Bodies were sliced apart and decapitated, throats were slit and tongues were ripped out and laid on the victim's chest, and in what became known as the Corte Florero, the Flower Vase Cut, limbs were cut off and then stuck back into the body like a macabre arrangement of flowers.
I will never forget the night the guerrillas came to our house in the town of Titiribu. Our father was a cattle rancher and Pablo and I were born on a cattle ranch that he had inherited from his father near the town of Río Negro, the Black River. We owned as many as eight hundred head of cattle. Our father was about work, hard work, and that was what was expected of us. It was our job to help with the cows. One of those cows, I remember, gave milk from its tail, or so we believed. Actually, an employee would wet down the tail with milk when we weren't looking, then when we came close he would shake it vigorously and spray us with milk. So for a time we believed this magic cow truly gave milk through its tail. Our father loved working on his farm, and our family would have stayed there if the herd had not been diseased. The cows caught a fever and more than five hundred of them died. Eventually my father had to declare bankruptcy and we lost the farm, we lost everything we owned.
My mother was a teacher, a role she loved equal to my father's love of farming, and we moved to Titiribu, where she was hired to teach. She would work in the school all week, and on weekends she would teach the children of poverty to read and write for free. While my father was a man of simple tastes, my mother was beautiful and elegant. She was blue-eyed and blond and had a very white complexion, and even with almost nothing to spend on herself she would always carry herself with great pride. The small wooden house in which we lived had one bedroom, which my brother, a sister, and I shared with our parents. We had two mattresses and one of them would be laid on the floor and the children would sleep on it. We barely had enough for food and Pablo and I would have to walk almost four hours each day to get to school. We left our house at four o'clock in the morning to be there at the beginning of class. Like so many others of Colombia, we were poor people. Our mother had to sew our school uniforms and often we wore old and torn clothes. Once, to her shame, Pablo was sent home from school because he had no shoes. Her teacher's pay had been spent, so she went to the plaza and took a pair of shoes for him, although when she had her salary she returned and paid for them. In Colombia, poor people have always tried to help each other. But our poverty made an impression on our lives that neither my brother nor I ever forgot.
When I was ten years old—Pablo was seven—I was given my first bicycle. It was a used bicycle that my mother paid for in many payments—and I would ride Pablo and myself to school. Our four-hour trip could be done in an hour. Each day I would challenge myself to get there a little faster; I began to race my friend Roberto Sánchez to school and it was then my love of racing bicycles was born.
It was that same year when the Chusmeros, the Mobs, came during the evening to kill us. The area in which we lived was the home of mostly liberals, and the guerrillas believed we shared those beliefs. That wasn't true, my parents had no politics. They wanted only to be left alone to raise their children. They had been warned to leave town or we would be cut into pieces, but there was nowhere safe for us to go. The most we could do was lock our doors at night. We were defenseless, our only weapon was our prayers.
They came to our town in the middle of the night, dragging people out of their houses and killing them. When they reached our house they started banging on the doors with their machetes and screaming that they were going to kill us. My mother was crying and praying to the Baby Jesus of Atocha. She took one of the mattresses and put it under the bed, then told us to lie there silently and covered us with blankets. I heard my father saying, "They're going to kill us, but we can save the kids." I held on to Pablo and our sister, Gloria, telling them not to cry, that we would be all right. I remember giving Pablo a baby bottle to calm him down. The door was very strong and the attackers failed to break through it, so they sprayed it with gasoline and set it on fire.
Our lives were saved by the army. When the soldiers knocked on our door and told us we were safe my mother didn't believe them, even though she eventually opened the door for them. They took all the survivors of the town to the schoolhouse. Our road was illuminated by our burning house. In that strange light I saw bodies lying in the gutters and hanging from the lampposts. The Chusmeros had poured gasoline on the bodies and set them on fire, and I will remember forever the smell of burning flesh. I carried Pablo. Pablo held on to me so tightly, as if he would never let go. We had left his baby bottle in the house and he was crying for it. I wanted to go back but my parents would not allow it.
So the killing in Colombia had started long before my brother. Colombia has always been a country of violence. It was part of our heritage.
A year after the attack my parents sent Pablo and me to live with our grandmother in the safety of the city of Medellín. Medellín was the most beautiful place I had ever seen. It is known as "the City of Everlasting Spring." And its climate was perfect, between 70 and 80 degrees throughout the year. Our grandmother had a large house, and part of it was used as a factory for her business of bottling sauces and spices, which she sold to the supermarkets.
At first the city frightened us. Medellín also is the second most populous city in Colombia. We were children of the country and knew nothing of city life. It was a big shock. We had never seen so many cars before, so many people always in a hurry. Our grandmother was a loving woman, but very stern. Each morning she would make us get up very early and go to church. I remember one morning after the first week she got sick and told me to take Pablo by myself to church: "You have to pray to God and come back." Coming out of the church I got confused and we were lost in the city. I didn't know my grandmother's address or her phone number. We walked many blocks looking for anything familiar, and then returned to the church to start again. I kept Pablo calm but inside I was scared. My prayers were not being answered. It was six in the evening before we finally found my grandmother's house.
That was the way our lives began in Medellín. Back in those early days it was impossible to believe that one day Pablo would rule the city and make it known throughout the world as the home of the Medellín drug cartel. Our mother and father eventually moved to Medellín to be with us, but my father would never be comfortable there. He returned to the country and found work on other people's farms. We would visit him, but we no longer belonged to the country. Medellín had become our city and eventually we would know every street, every alley. And eventually Pablo would die there.
It was on the streets of Medellín that we were formed. We were typical kids from the lower economic level. We built wooden carts from scrap wood and raced down hills. We stuck gum in the doorbells of our neighbors so they would ring continuously, then ran away. We would battle with eggs. We would make our own soccer balls by wrapping old clothes into a ball and putting them inside plastic bags. Pablo was always one of the youngest among us, but even then he was a natural leader. Sometimes, for example, when we were playing soccer in the street the police would come and take away our ball, and make us get out of the street. We weren't doing anything bad, we were kids playing. But Pablo had the idea that the next time the police came we should throw stones at their patrol car. And that's what happened.
Unfortunately, we cracked a window of the police car. We ran, but several of us—including myself and Pablo—were caught and taken to the police station. To scare us, the captain told us he was going to lock us in jail the whole day. Among us only Pablo spoke back to him. "We didn't do anything bad," he said. "We're tired of these guys taking our ball. Please, we'll pay you back." He was just a little kid, the smallest of us all, but he had no fear of talking directly to the commander.
Many of the friends we made as children would end up in the business with us, among them Jorge Ochoa, who with his brothers built his own organization, and Luis Carlos Maya, Mayín, we called him, who was very small and very thin. El Mugre, which means "dirt," which was the right name for him. Vaca, the cow, my closest friend, was tall and blond and had intense blue eyes and was the one of us the girls liked the most. When I was bicycle racing Vaca was my strongest supporter; before a race he would steal chickens from the local market and bring the chicken and some oranges to my house because he wanted me to be healthy for the competition. Our very close cousin Gustavo de Jesús Gavíria was the one who eventually started Pablo in the business and became his closest associate. Gustavo's father was a musician who was well known for his serenades, so Gustavo learned to play the guitar and sing so well that when he was eleven years old he won a talent competition on a popular radio station.
For some time I lived with Gustavo and his family. We would ride our bicycles together and one day as we reached a hill we grabbed on to the back of a bus to be pulled up. The driver had a different idea and after gaining speed he put on his brakes—Gustavo and I lost control and we went sailing through an open door into a house. We broke two vases and the lady called the police. But my grandmother paid for the damage and we went laughing into the streets.
- On Sale
- Feb 25, 2009
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Grand Central Publishing