The Rise and Fall of Pablo Escobar

A short history of Colombia's most notorious drugs baron
The Rise and Fall of Pablo Escobar

Pablo Escobar was the most notorious figure of one the darker periods of Colombia’s recent political history. Though he started out as a petty thief and small time dealer in the city of Envigado, just outside Medellin, he later was to become one of the world’s richest men thanks to his involvement in the cocaine trade. His dual weapons, of large-scale violence and bribery, allowed Escobar to co-opt much of the Colombian state, and bring it to the brink of collapse.

Early Days in the Cocaine Trade

Escobar first became involved in the illegal drugs trade in the late 1970s. In this period, cocaine was rapidly becoming fashionable in the United States, leading to an exponential increase in demand for the drug. However, as the cocaine trade was still comparatively new and had yet to cause much violence in the US, combating the smugglers was still not a high priority task for that country’s law enforcement. The combination of skyrocketing demand for cocaine in the context of limited risks of shipment seizures for drugs barons meant the trade quickly became a highly lucrative one.

Spying an opportunity to make substantial sums from cocaine exports, Escobar allied with a few other criminal associates to form the Medellin Cartel. The group rapidly gained control of the entire distribution chain for cocaine, smuggling tonnes of the drug each week to the US and other international destinations. At its height, the cartel was estimated to be supplying as much as 90% of the cocaine entering the United States, and to be earning around USD60m a day.

At its height, the Medellin cartel earned around USD60m a day

Much of the revenue went on paying bribes to politicians, journalists and a host of law enforcement and military officials. However, the group also spent heavily on acquiring all the trappings you would associate with international drug dealers: luxury goods, helicopters, houses, expensive cars and a succession of women.

Political Career

Escobar, a ruthlessly ambitious man with aspirations of holding public office, also began to spend a proportion of his income on populist initiatives, financing a series of public works in the poorer neighborhoods of Medellin and Envigado. These included 50 football pitches, housing for low income families, hospitals and schools. Such works won him the support of many of the city’s less affluent groups; many of whom still admire him today as a ‘Colombian Robin Hood’.

Public works won Escobar the support of Medellin's poor, who viewed him as a ‘Colombian Robin Hood’

Much of this expenditure was concentrated around the time of Escobar’s campaign for a seat in Colombia’s lower house of Congress, which he obtained in 1982. The move ultimately proved to be a strategic error in that it brought the formerly little known Escobar into the public spotlight and encouraged journalists from Colombian newspaper El Espectador to investigate the source of his wealth.

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After the press exposed Escobar’s links to the drugs trade, the political establishment was forced into action. The cause was taken up by the then Justice Minister, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, who publicly denounced Escobar’s criminal background in Colombia’s Congress. An investigation into Escobar began, which eventually culminated in the drugs baron having his congressional seat revoked. The US also began to stand up and take notice of Escobar at this stage, opting to withdraw the visa it had previously granted to him. At a stroke, Escobar’s dreams of political office and of public respectability had been fundamentally undermined.

Escobar's Terror Campaign

In revenge for his expulsion from Congress in 1984, Escobar ordered the assassination of Justice Minister Lara, which was carried out by the Cartel’s hitmen in April. The murder of Lara prompted the Colombian state into its first serious backlash against the Medellin cartel, with President Belisario Betancur ordering police to capture the group’s leading members. Escobar and his associates responded by placing and detonating a number of car bombs in the capital and Medellin, and by carrying out further assassinations of prominent public officials.

One of the more dramatic attacks of this period in which Escobar was believed involved was an attack by the M-19 insurgent group on the Palace of Justice in central Bogota. Escobar was alleged to have funded the operation, which all but destroyed the building and led to the deaths of numerous government workers, in a cynical attempt to destroy files on the Medellin Cartel held by Colombian law enforcement. Betancur’s decision to sign new extradition legislation also saw retaliation by Escobar in the form of the kidnapping of several senior judicial and political figures, including Andres Pastrana (who later became Colombia’s president).

A new effort by the Cartel to negotiate their surrender, in exchange for a government commitment that they would not be extradited, had failed by the late 1980s. America’s war on drugs had escalated during this decade, meaning that Colombia’s senior officials could no longer reach a negotiated deal with the Cartel without risking the ire of its ally to the north. With the end of dialogue between the Colombian state and Escobar, came a new round of Cartel violence against senior police, judicial and political officials. This culminated in the assassination of the popular presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán in 1989.

The murder outraged Colombians, turning new sections of the population against the drugs barons

Galán was leader of the Liberal Party and had long held a principled stance against drug trafficking organisations. He was much loved in the country and was widely tipped to be Colombia’s next president. His murder outraged Colombian society, turned new sections of the population against the drugs barons, and led authorities to redouble their efforts to capture Cartel leaders. The government responded to the murder by forming a new elite force with the sole purpose of tracking down, capturing or killing Escobar and his associates. The US provided extensive new financial and military assistance to support the initiative.

War on the State

This was the beginning of an outright war between the state and the Cartel, which was last until 1991. Escobar’s attacks in this period dramatically escalated and became much more indiscriminate. In the space of less than three months in late 1989 there were over 100 bomb attacks on government buildings and public spaces in all of Colombia’s major cities.

Two such incidents were particularly horrifying. In an effort to kill presidential candidate Cesar Gaviria, Galán’s successor, Escobar’s henchmen detonated a bomb on an airplane in which they believed he was travelling. The attack left 107 civilians dead (but not Gaviria who was not on the plane at the time). Just over a week later, the group placed a powerful bomb outside the offices of the domestic security and intelligence agency, DAS, in an effort to kill its director, Miguel Alfredo Maza Márquez. 63 people died and 500 were injured in the attack, though Maza Marquez survived.

Executions of public officials and numerous terrorist attacks continued, with the exceptions of brief, periodic truces as the government tried to negotiate Escobar’s surrender. During this period, the Cartel leader first offered the infamous ‘reward’ money of up to USD 2,000 for each policeman killed by any member of the population.

Extradition was one of the largest stumbling blocks to the surrender of Medellin Cartel members

One of the largest stumbling blocks to the surrender of leading members of the Medellin Cartel in the late 1980s was the issue of extradition. The mafiosos knew that if they were imprisoned in Colombia they would not struggle to secure highly preferential treatment, but that this would undoubtedly not be the case if they were sent to the United States.

The strength of their objections to extradition was summarized in the following slogan, which the Cartel coined: “Better a tomb in Colombia than a jail cell in the United States”. By 1990, the government had grown weary of the continued violence of the drug groups, and thus conceded to their demands not to be extradited.

That year, the government of Cesar Gaviria (1990 – 1994) offered reduced prison sentences, to be served in Colombia, for those Cartel bosses which handed themselves in voluntarily. Some of Escobar’s closest associates began to take advantage of this offer from late 1990, generally with the blessing of the Cartel leader.


Escobar himself continued to pressure the government for a better deal, making particular use of selective kidnappings of political officials and their relatives to achieve this goal. The tactic ultimately proved successful, as authorities ultimately agreed that Escobar would serve a dramatically reduced prison term at a facility, located in his home town, which was designed and built by Escobar himself. In June 1991, the drugs boss entered his new prison, known as “La Catedral”.

While parts of La Catedral were initially decorated to look like a fairly conventional detention facility, it gradually became clear that it was far from it. The drugs boss was housed along with all of his closest criminal associates and these individuals rapidly took advantage of the situation to secure themselves significantly better conditions than those normally available to prisoners.

Cartel members filled their 'prison' with widescreen TVs, Jacuzzis, pool tables and bars

All of the prison guards at La Catedral were on Escobar’s payroll, allowing him to take extreme liberties with his ‘imprisonment’. Cartel members rapidly filled the building with luxury goods such as widescreen TVs, Jacuzzis, pool tables and bars. Guards also allowed him to receive unlimited visitors and even, on occasion, to leave the prison to enjoy himself on the outside. More than a prison, La Catedral came to resemble a holiday camp for the partying narcos that were detained there.

Housing Escobar together with his criminal associates and allowing him to receive frequent visitors also enabled the Cartel boss to carry on running his drugs empire from his prison. While it was now up to Escobar’s associates on the outside to manage the day-to-day activities of the drugs’ trade there was no doubt who was in charge. The new ‘bosses’ of the cocaine business still essentially took orders from Escobar and had to pay him huge monthly sums in tribute.

However, as time went on, Escobar became increasingly paranoid about his allies on the outside, fearing that they were conspiring against him to steal profits from drugs sales. In a radical move in mid-1992, Escobar called two of his most long-standing lieutenants into La Catedral and had them killed.


News of the murders spread quickly, bringing with it greater political and media attention on the capo’s lax prison conditions at La Catedral. As details of the repeated and wholesale breaches of Escobar’s surrender agreement emerged, the government decided it needed to take action. In July 1992, the head of Colombia’s prison service traveled, together with the then vice justice minister, Medellin to inform Escobar that he and his associates were to be transferred to another facility.

However, Escobar feared that this supposed transfer was just the first step on the way to his extradition to the United States and thus refused to comply. Instead, he held the two officials captive inside the prison and sought to use the detainees as a bargaining chip with the government. President Gaviria’s response was to mount a military operation to storm La Catedral, free the hostages and end Escobar’s reign of terror. The operation was bungled, however, and in the ensuing confusion, the head of the Cartel managed to escape.

Cartel members began to fear they would become the next target of Escobar's violent paranoia

Once on the outside, Escobar tried to resume his war with the state, but his situation was now much changed. The murder of two such close associates at La Catedral had driven a wedge between Escobar and other Cartel members, who feared they would become the next target of his violent paranoia.

Former allies of Escobar now split from him and instead formed a tacit alliance with parts of the Cali Cartel and paramilitary leaders to track down this high profile fugitive. Together, they formed a loose organisation known as Los Pepes (short for ‘Those Persecuted by Pablo Escobar’) which unleashed a barrage of violent attacks on the drug trafficker’s associates and properties. At the same time, the Colombian state formed the Bloque de Busqueda, or Search Group, an elite squad of US supported officials whose sole purpose was to track Escobar down.

By making use of his extensive network of criminal contacts and safe houses located throughout Medellin and Envigado, Escobar was able to evade capture for more than year. During this time, Escobar increasingly cut a solitary figure as a number of close allies were lost; either killed or captured by authorities and Los Pepes.


As his criminal empire disintegrated, so too did the grip he had held over Colombia’s political and security establishment. With the tables turning, public officials felt more confident about rejecting Escobar’s demands without fear of retribution. Isolated from much of his money, from his family and his power, Escobar became reduced to hiding out in low key properties in Medellin. With the Search Group constantly seeking to monitor all of his electronic communications, the fleeing Cartel leader was barely able to communicate with the outside world.

As his criminal empire disintegrated, so too did the grip he held over the establishment

On 1 December 1993, Escobar ignored the risks and made a series of phone calls to his family. The Search Group intercepted the call, tracked down his location to a hideout in Medellin and deployed a unit to go and storm the house. Escobar was still on the phone to his family as the police arrived. His last known words to his son were “I’ve gotta go now, something strange is going on here”. As authorities entered the house, Escobar grabbed a weapon and scrambled up onto the roof of the house in an effort to flee. There he was shot in the heart and died.

So ended the life of Colombia’s most dangerous criminal.

Further Information

If you'd like to know more about the rise and fall of Escobar, here's a couple of additional sources you might want to try (click on the images for more info):

Mark Bowden's highly readable bestseller, Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World's Greatest Outlaw, recounts the life of the drugs baron and of the US and Colombian special forces convened to stop him.

This excellent Colombian telenovela, entitled Pablo Escobar: Patron Del Malshowcases the life and crimes of Escobar in epic detail, over some 76 thrilling episodes. This series blazed the trail for where the inferior Netflix version, Narcos, followed. The series is in Spanish, but the DVD in the link also has English subtitles.

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