Monday 23 July 2018

King of Cocaine who left legacy of death and terror

The US agents who helped bring down Pablo Escobar describe the war against drug cartels to Paul Williams

Mission: Steve Murphy and Javier Pena led the hunt for drug baron Pablo Escobar before his death in 1993. Photo: Rob Latour/REX/Shutterstock
Mission: Steve Murphy and Javier Pena led the hunt for drug baron Pablo Escobar before his death in 1993. Photo: Rob Latour/REX/Shutterstock

Paul Williams

Pablo Escobar - once the world's most powerful and richest narco kingpin - had a no-nonsense approach to business which was encapsulated in the phrase ''Plata O Plomo''.

''Plata'' refers to silver coins, while ''Plomo'' is lead.

Pablo Escobar.
Pablo Escobar.

So, whenever the King of Cocaine personally uttered those words to someone, or they were conveyed via a loyal emissary, it meant the recipient had a stark choice: either take the money and do his bidding; or refuse and end up dead.

It was the non-fiction equivalent of the proposition extended by the fictional Godfather, Don Corleone, when he made an offer that could not be refused.

During his terrifying reign as the most successful drug trafficker in history, the poor farmer's son from Colombia's Medellin region defied the imaginings of even the most prolific fiction writers.

Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria proved the contention that the truth is often stranger - and in this case much more terrifying - than fiction.

The King of Cocaine eclipsed every godfather in history as the most powerful in the world and, unlike any criminal before or since, was so immensely powerful that he even extended the non-negotiable offer of ''Plata O Plomo'' to his country.

Escobar waged war against his own state, launching bomb attacks on the government and even blew up a passenger aircraft killing more than 150 people. Controlling up to 80pc of the world's cocaine supply, he used his vast wealth - about €40bn in today's values - to corrupt inestimable numbers of Colombian cops, politicians, judges and government officials who had taken the easier option of ''Plata''.

And with regard to the ''Plomo'' option, there are varying estimates that the world's original narco-terrorist was responsible for between 15,000 and 50,000 murders.

Retired DEA agent Steve Murphy puts in perspective the power Escobar wielded: "In the United States, the Mafia makes witnesses disappear so they can't testify in court. In Colombia, Pablo Escobar made the whole court disappear."

And Steve Murphy is an irreproachable witness: it was Murphy and his partner, Javier Pena, who played a pivotal role in the downfall of the narco despot and the destruction of the notorious Medellin cartel.

The two undercover cops were dispatched to head up the hunt for Pablo in 1991 when the US Government sought his extradition for drug trafficking.

It was one of the most dangerous jobs ever undertaken by law enforcement officers anywhere in the world.

Pablo accelerated his ''Plata O Plomo'' efforts and waged a terrorist war against the government of Colombia to extract an amnesty and a no-extradition clause with the Americans. But Murphy and Pena were never offered the option between ''Plata'' and ''Plomo'': he placed a bounty on the heads of his sworn enemies.

Javier Pena shrugged off the danger they faced in their 18-month hunt for Escobar which ended on December 2, 1993 when the Colombian National Police shot him dead.

"The real danger was more about being in the wrong place at the wrong time so you had to be constantly vigilant. The guy even had bounties on the heads of police officers, he had bounties on Steve and me," he says.

The daring exploits of the special agents are immortalised in Narcos, the superb Netflix drama, which charts Escobar's rise and fall, mostly as seen through their eyes.

And next year they are coming to Ireland to speak about their hunt for him and their work as consultants on one of the most popular shows in the world.

But when they spoke to the Sunday Independent recently the real-life law enforcement heroes made a surprising revelation about the accuracy of their Hollywood portrayal: the actual violence was scaled down considerably.

"A lot of Hollywood was added in to make it (Narcos) exciting but while the chronology and timeline of events is very accurate, the violence (in real-life) was much worse than what you see in the Narcos series," Steve Murphy revealed.

"If you got too far into the truth you probably wouldn't get as many viewers and it would turn a lot of people off."

Javier Pena describes how the bodies piled up across Colombia as Escobar's sicarios - or assassins - protected his empire from all threats.

Says Pena: "In real life it was a lot worse. He had about 500 sicarios working for him. These were all young thugs who wanted to kill for Pablo Escobar and they did it, they obeyed orders and were loyal to Pablo Escobar.

"In the beginning Pablo helped them out: he gave them houses, money and food, so their loyalty was to Pablo and no one else. In terms of body count it is accepted that he was responsible for up to 15,000 but on his own admission one of his sicarios called Popeye, claimed it was as high as 50,000. In essence, we had never seen car bombs being used by organised crime until he started and he killed thousands of innocent people: there was a bomb on an airplane; a bomb under a building where people were working, he earned the label of being the world's first narco terrorist."

According to Steve Murphy, Escobar's policy of ''Plata O Plomo'' infected every aspect of the Colombian nation.

"It was extensive and it was all-reaching," he recalls. "It infiltrated every facet of the government but that is not to say that the entire government was corrupt because they certainly were not.

"But there was so much being offered and money tends to corrupt because it exacerbates the greed factor in people."

So how did ''Plata O Plomo'' actually work?

"His representatives would go to a judge and ask for him to dismiss charges against an associate. An honourable judge would tell them to get out of his office but then they would produce a case with $50,000 and say Mr Escobar would like you to have this.

"The judge would refuse and tell them to get out. Then they produced pictures of his wife coming out of their house; his children at school or maybe the judge's mother and father out for a Sunday drive. That was how 'Plata O Plomo' worked: he either accepted the money and did what Pablo wanted or his entire family, including his children, would be wiped out."

The rise and fall of Escobar is a paradigm for the dynamics of organised crime everywhere: as long as there is demand for their product there will always be Pablos to supply it.

"The Medellin Cartel was the first international cocaine organisation to be completely dismantled and destroyed but when they were taken out, the Cali Cartel stepped up. When we took them out it was the North Valley Group.

"It all comes back to the basic law of economics, supply versus demand. As long as there is demand, there are people who will do anything necessary to supply it."

Murphy and Pena will bring their show: Narcos: Capturing Pablo to the Cork Opera House and Dublin's Olympia Theatre next May. You can hear a live interview with the DEA agents tomorrow morning on the Newstalk Breakfast Show

Sunday Independent

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