Pablo Escobar, the Colombian drug dealer who was once one of the richest men in the world, was shot dead by police in December 1993.
At the time, he was one of the most wanted men in the world—and he had been on the run from the authorities for over a year.
Elizabeth Zilli, who was then working for the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration), the US anti-drug agency, was one of the people who helped track down and find Escobar in Colombia.
“He was very smart. He intimidated the people who worked for him. You can’t get to his position of power without being very smart,” Zilli told the radio show Witness History from the BBC, in which she told how Colombian police managed, with US help, to reach him.
Pablo Escobar came out of poverty to become one of the richest men in the world. Founder of the Medellín cartel, he made billions in drug trafficking from Colombia to the United States and Europe.
He came out of poverty to become one of the richest men in the world. Founder of the Medellín cartel, he made billions in drug trafficking from Colombia to the United States and Europe.
Colombia had become the largest cocaine producer in the world. It was said that for every person who snorted cocaine in the United States, four out of every five cocaine careers came from the Escobar cartel.
Zilli was part of a US government effort to monitor and stop drug trafficking.
She worked twice on Colombian soil—first in the 1970s and then in the late 1980s, gathering intelligence from informants at drug cartel centers in Medellín, Cali, and Cartagena.
“Each informant had two to three people to track. They came and went with information.”
“I would go out to meet my informants in Barranquilla, in Cartagena. I would go there with money to pay them, and I would interrogate them,” he reveals.
“Nothing is insignificant when you’re gathering intelligence. The smallest detail can be important, anything to do with the person you’re worried about — the clothes you wear, where you’re going to eat, drink, who your friends are,” explains Zilli to the BBC.
When she wasn’t dealing with informants, she was looking for coca and marijuana plantations in the Colombian jungle.
“We made a lot of helicopter flights, looking for coca plantations, marijuana plantations. This had to be done by helicopter. I loved it,” he says.
Pablo Escobar revolutionized the drug supply. He set up so-called megalabs to manufacture cocaine on an industrial scale in Colombia, from where the drug was later transported to the US.
It is estimated that he earned half a billion dollars a week—no wonder that in 1989 he was named the seventh richest man in the world.
The billions of dollars he amassed fueled corruption in the Colombian army, police and government as he bribed the authorities to expand his empire.
According to Zilli, when she returned to serve on Colombian soil in the late 1980s, the situation had changed, as had the crimes committed.
“In the beginning, there was mostly street crime and home invasions. That was pre-Pablo. But after our friend became what he became, it got much worse. It became a state of siege.”
“One night, a bomb exploded in a pizzeria right under my building and practically threw me out of bed,” he recalls.
Escobar used a simple expression to deal with obstacles to his business: plate or pole, which can be translated as “cash or lead”. In other words, if he couldn’t bribe someone, he would kill him.
An estimated 5,000 murders are linked to drug traffickers.
The execution of Luis Carlos Galán, then candidate for the presidency of Colombia, in August 1989, was a watershed.
He had promised to extradite the drug lords to the US if he won the election. And it was this proposal that led to his murder.
In response, the siege of drug trafficking tightened — starting a period of extreme violence in the country.
Drug traffickers even placed bombs in the offices of political parties and threatened to attack judges, businessmen and union leaders.
In 1991, Escobar turned himself in to Colombian authorities — on condition that he would serve time in the country rather than being extradited to the United States.
The negotiation also provided for him to build his own prison, which became known as the cathedral.
It was a luxury ranch in the hills of Medellin—not an ordinary government-run prison.
“It was very comfortable. He had women there and all the material things a man would want: lots of drinking, company and fun,” says Zilli.
The American newspaper The New York Times published at the time that the installation had a water mattress, VCR, bar, refrigerator, 60-inch TV, bathtub and even a fireplace. There was also a gym and a football field.
Escobar would have continued to run his drug empire from within this luxury prison.
But in 1992, he decided that he had spent enough time there.
“When Pablo left, sorry, I shouldn’t say ‘left’, he escaped, the siege really started,” says Zilli.
Then began the hunt for Pablo Escobar — and with it, a series of rumors about his whereabouts.
“First they said he was in Spain. Then he was in Argentina,” she recalls.
“It’s very interesting because they said the same thing about El Chapo Guzmán (Mexican drug dealer). (But) these drug dealers never go away. They want to stay in their comfort zone. El Chapo never left Culiacan (in Mexico). Pablo never left Medellín.”
During the narco-trafficking hunt, the DEA shared the intelligence it received with Colombian authorities.
“Informers told us that he, Pablo, walked through the fields at night, trying to find a place to sleep.”
“He didn’t have easy access to all his money — and it’s amazing how, in the case of drug dealers, his friends go missing. He was having a hard time.”
On December 2, 1993, a police team looking for the drug trafficker got lucky.
“When the Colombian police really started looking for him, it was absolutely fascinating. We were helping them, but they were doing a lot of their own.”
“One thing we helped them with in Medellín was with (Escobar’s) telephone triangulation,” says Zilli.
The technology allowed Colombians to track the drug trafficker, locating where his device was when he made the calls. And this has proven vital for ground agents.
“One day, five of them were in a car, dressed very casually, without uniform, driving through the streets of Medellín, and they received a signal on the device.”
“They looked up at the window, and there was Pablo, on the windowsill, talking (on the phone) with his son.”
Pablo Escobar tried to escape through the roof, where he was shot dead by Colombian police.
“In half an hour, it was all over. There wasn’t much shooting. But Pablo was dead,” says Zilli.
“Our agency boss ran out into the hallway, none of us knew all of this yet, and he said three words: ‘We got him.’ And that’s how we found out.”
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