The real story of Pablo Escobar

February 15, 2008 11:20:37 PM PST
Hollywood is finally getting around to telling the story of one of history's richest, most powerful criminals; a drug dealer so bold that he declared war on the government of his own country.

But, a Bay Area lawman knows the real story of Pablo Escobar's life and death without the Hollywood dazzle.

After 24 years in the DEA, special agent Javier Pena jokes that he's a little grayer and a little heavier than the young thirty-something agent who helped track down history's richest, most dangerous drug lord.

"I was an agent in Austin, Texas doing a lot of undercover buys, working a lot of heroine cases. So when I get to Colombia, my boss says you're going to work on Pablo Escobar and the Medellin cartel. And I was like "who is Pablo Escobar," said DEA Special Agent Javier Pena.

This is Pablo Escobar, from one of his first arrests when he specialized in stealing cars and tombstones.

In the seventies he would work for local drug dealers as an enforcer and courier.

But, Escobar had bigger ambitions and ended up using murder and pay-offs as a way of putting rivals out of business, until the eighties when he became the country's king of cocaine.

"It was a very complex drug distribution organization which relied heavily on terrorism, on killing people, on blowing up innocent women and children," said Pena.

It became known as the "Medellin Cartel," and it smuggled tons of cocaine into the U.S. At his peak, Escobar was worth an estimated $4 billion dollars -- enough to crack the Forbes list of the world's ten richest men.

The drug lord used kidnappings, bombings and assassination to get police off his back. His victims are believed to include hundreds of police officers and dozens of judges and prosecutors. He's also blamed for the 1989 murder of popular presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan -- that's when he stepped over the line.

"So the war was on. We started extraditing lots of traffickers," said Pena.

When Colombia began extraditing his colleagues, Escobar declared war, using bombings and kidnappings to intimidate government officials.

Colombia responded by asking for training and intelligence help from the Pentagon and the Justice Department. Pena was the DEA's liaison to a hand-picked national police squad called the "Search Bloc."

It was a dangerous duty, because one of Escobar's great fears was being extradited to the U.S. In fact, he offered to turn himself in to Colombian police on two conditions: one, no extradition, and two he would be housed in a prison of his own design and construction. The government said okay, and Escobar moved in to a prison he named "La Catedral."

"They had their luxurious apartments, they had the best televisions, I remember these giant refrigerators, he had built his own soccer field," said Pena.

But, eventually Escobar's actions came back to haunt him. Former cohorts formed a vigilante group called Los Pepes and began killing dozens of his associates.

Some critics charge they had help from the government.

Fearing Los Pepes would try to get to him, Escobar escaped his prison and began a 16-month game of hide and seek that ended in late 1993 when the search bloc tracked him to this apartment building. A day after his 44th birthday, they killed him in an exchange of gunfire.

Some Colombians were relieved, others were outraged. Colombia-born human rights attorney Roxanna Altholz says that's not hard to understand.

"It is important to recognize that for certain neighborhoods in Medellin, Pablo Escobar was a policeman, he was the judge, he was the executioner, he was the bank, he was a social service provider," said human rights attorney Roxanna Altholz.

Critics believe the government was so determined to get Escobar that it committed or at least tolerated torture and human rights abuses to get information on his whereabouts.

"Pablo's rise to power is a story about the weakness of the Colombian government," said Altholz.

Altholz believes those abuses persist today in the civil war between the government and left wing guerillas.

And the smuggling of cocaine into the U.S. continues today though there is no longer any trafficker with Escobar's stature.

Still, DEA Agent Pena says the effort to win the war on drugs continues as well.

"These people rise up, they'll get the power, they'll get the money, but sooner or later someone is coming to knock on your door," said Pena.