How Pablo Escobar Ran His Drug Empire While In Exile With The Help Of Fidel Castro

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  • The Colombian Administration Turns Against Escobar
  • Pablo Escobar And The General Noriega
  • The Negotiation Deal
  • The Betrayal Of General Noriega
  • Escobar Travels To Nicaragua
  • Pablo Escobar And The Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega
  • Pablo Escobar And Fidel Castro
  • The Return To Colombia

This article is a continuation of the 3 part story: 

Part 1: Pablo Escobar: How A Young Middle Class Boy Became The World’s Most Notorious Drug Lord 

Part 2: Pablo Escobar, The “People’s” Drug Lord: How He Conquered A Nation

Characters In the Story:

  • President Belisario Betancur: Democratic President of Colombia from 1982-1986

  • Omar Torrijos: Democratic elected President of Panama from 1972-1981

  • Manuel Noriega: Panamanian general and CIA agent who became a dictator in Panama in 1983

  • George Bush: Vice- president of the United States from 1981 and 1989, and a close ally of dictator Manuel Noriega

  • Daniel Ortega: Leader of the Sandinista Guerrilla of Nicaragua, and now current President of Nicaragua

  • The Sandinistas: a guerrilla group that overthrew the U.S backed Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979

  • The Contras: U.S backed Nicaraguan rebel groups that were active from 1979 to the 1990s in opposition to the Sandinistas 

  • Jorge Avendano “The Crocodile”: Member of the Medellin Cartel, and a mediator between Pablo Escobar and Fidel Castro 

  • John Jairo Velasquez “Popeye”: Pablo Escobar’s most loyal hitman

The Colombian Administration Turns Against Escobar

In the last story, Pablo had ordered the murder of Minister of Justice Rodrigo Lara Bonilla. This was a gross mistake that spawned widespread indignation. Before that, the violence of Cartels confined itself to the murders of gang members and the police. But the murder of Lara Bonilla was a sign of what Pablo was capable of. Soon investigations revealed that Pablo was behind the murder. The population called for a take down of drug cartels.

The Colombian government reopened Escobar’s criminal cases. In a matter of weeks, Pablo’s U.S visa was revoked while police shut down more than a dozen of his coca labs. Seven airstrips, hundreds of chemical drums and his seven airplanes were expropriated. Sensing future backlashes, Pablo’s allies denied their past affiliations with him. Weeks later, police appeared at the Hacienda Napoles to confiscate the animals in Pablo’s Zoo, which were brought illegally. While all this unfolded, Pablo saw no better alternative than fleeing to Panama.

Panamanian General Manuel Noriega-Image Source: CNN

When Escobar arrived in Panama, all the Medellin Cartel was there: the Ochoa brothers, Carlos Lehder and Jose Rodriguez Gacha. Months earlier, the Cartel had been approached by a Panamanian commander named Manuel Noriega. Through emissaries, Noriega told them that Panama could be a safe station for their drug trade. Noriega offered them protection for a 4 million dollar fee. Escobar agreed to the deal. Noriega was very cunning and had a lot of political connections. 

Pablo Escobar And The General Noriega

Panama was on the verge of a political crisis. Back then, a man named Omar Torrijos had become the President of Panama. Although he graduated from the infamous “School of Las Americas” (a U.S academy for sanguinary dictators), Torrijos believed in democracy and the rights of poor people. He was a stylish man, who drank fine liquor, smoked Havana cigars, and gave thousands of dollars to poor people.

Torrijo’s administration had been moderate, but slightly leftist. Torrijo often said: “You may rest assured that in our negotiations with the U.S. you will always find us standing on our feet, but never on our knees. Never!” Torrijos had signed a treaty with then President Jimmy Carter, in which the U.S would gradually grant Panama control of the Panama Canal. Still, Washington did not trust Torrijos, especially after he said:“I don’t want to go into history; I want to go into the Canal Zone”, revealing his desire of seizing the Panama Canal.

According to U.S interests, Torrijos had to be removed.

General Omar Torrijos and President Jimmy Carter
Panamanian President Omar Torrijos and U.S president Jimmy Carter-Image Source:  Corbisimages

General Manuel Noriega, who was also a CIA agent, was given the order to murder Torrijos. He allegedly placed a bomb in Torrijo’s airplane. Torrijos died inside the plane, in July, 1981. Two years later, CIA agent Manuel Noriega, conspiring in the corridors of power, became the dictator of Panama. U.S President George Bush backed his rule.

However, Noriega was a calculating man. Following his greed, he neither trusted nor favored any side. As long as he made money, Noriega made deals with everyone, the CIA, Escobar, the U.S government, etc.

Escobar had agreed to Noriega’s business deal, giving him two million dollars before Noriega rose to power. But when Escobar told Noriega that he would make Panama his center of operations, Noriega disliked the plan. The agreement was to make Panama a transportation point but not an operations center. Nevertheless, Pablo didn’t mind what Noriega thought.

Although Escobar enjoyed a comfortable haven in Panama, he refused to stay. He wanted to return to Colombia.

The Negotiation Deal

Pablo sought a way to negotiate his return. Eight months after fleeing Colombia, Escobar met with former Colombian president Alfonso Lopez and former Minister of Justice Alberto Santofimio. Pablo delivered them a message for Colombian president Betancur, with the intention of making a deal. President Betancur sent his attorney general to Panama. The attorney general received a six page proposal written by Escobar.

In the proposal, Escobar claimed to control eighty percent of Colombian drug operations, managing a team of one hundred drug lords. Escobar would shut down his drug trade and give away all the billions made to the Colombian government.

Escobar wanted three conditions in return: that the Government let him return to Colombia, forbid his extradition to the U.S and allow him to keep his fortune. The offer was generous since Pablo would also cooperate with coca farmers to substitute their crops. Pablo was confident the authorities would accept the deal. Unfortunately for Pablo, the murder of Minister Lara Bonilla was still in the public’s mind. President Betancur was criticized for trying to make deals with narcos. The negotiations were canceled.

Escobar turned very angry. He felt insulted and betrayed by Colombians, his people, the ones whose unconditional loyalty he had confided upon. From then on, Escobar would lose his mind, discard all compassion and display an insatiable thirst for revenge.

The Betrayal Of General Noriega

Vice president Bush and Manuel Noriega-Image Source: Theguardian

By then Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega had planned to get rid of Escobar. As mentioned earlier, Noriega didn’t believe in anybody. He had recently held a meeting with vice-president George Bush, in order to make Panama a conduit for US money and weapons for the Contras, a U.S backed army fighting against the Sandinistas, a leftist guerrilla in Nicaragua.

Noriega felt that his alliance with Escobar would create trouble. Knowing the locations of Escobar’s processing labs, Noriega shut them down. An enraged Escobar called Noriega and threatened to kill him. According to one version, Noriega was afraid of Pablo’s threats and returned part of the money.

Escobar opted to escape to Nicaragua.

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Escobar Travels To Nicaragua

Contra Rebels in Nicaragua-Image Source: NPR

When Pablo arrived to Nicaragua, the country was in a state of turmoil. In 1979, the Sandinistas, a Marxist guerrilla, had overthrown the U.S backed dictator Anastasio Somoza. The Sandinistas organized a Junta of National Reconstruction which, from 1979 to 1990, prosecuted everyone affiliated with the fallen dictatorship. During this process, the Sandinistas held violent confrontations with the CIA proxy army “the Contras”, whose objective was to reinstate U.S control. The Sandinista leader (and now Nicaraguan president) Daniel Ortega supervised all political operations during that era.

Escobar settled in the city of Managua, and kept directing his drug trade operations. Pablo enjoyed such degree of freedom, that it was obvious he had forged close ties with Ortega. In addition, pictures of Pablo and his associate Rodriguez Gacha were taken in the Managua airport. The photographs were captured while they oversaw a cocaine shipment bound to Miami.

The pictures caused an uproar in Washington. U.S officials pointed that the ‘Sandinistas’ were being funded by drug money. At the time, US foreign policy was focused in fighting communism. But once the link between Communism and Narco trafficking was uncovered, anti-drug operations became a priority. Since then, the U.S branded Escobar as an international threat, depicting him as an instrumental figure in undermining U.S power.

Pablo Escobar And The Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega

President of Nicaragua Daniel Ortega-Image Source: lapatilla

There is no proof that Escobar and President Ortega were allies. But everything seems to indicate so. John Jairo Velasquez “Popeye”, Escobar’s most loyal hitman, declared that Pablo and Ortega were close friends. Ortega gave Escobar a huge house near the Southern highway in Managua. Sandinista soldiers monitored the area, guarding Escobar’s safety.

Daniel Ortega provided Escobar with warehouses and radio equipment. He gave Pablo free license to use the Managua airport and a few cargo planes. “Ortega was a man of his word”, Popeye said, “not like that miserable dog of Noriega” who was “very despicable.” Popeye still regards Ortega as a “Narco-president”. He said the power Ortega had was only due to narco-trafficking.

Not everything went smooth for Escobar, though. One morning, Sandinistas appeared at his house. They asked Pablo fifty million dollars “to help the communist cause.” Pablo, aware that such request was coming, was stupefied. He expected to donate some money, but not such big amount. That night, Escobar told one of his lovers: “I was staring at those ugly soldiers, telling them that nobody has fifty million dollars within easy reach. Can you believe it? This is what those miserables wanted! Do these fucking communists think that money grows on trees?”

As the days passed, Pablo grew anxious. According to Popeye, life in Managua was depressing. Nicaragua was a poor country and it lacked all the amenities Pablo sought. Escobar missed Colombia more than ever. In Medellin, he was often surrounded by young Colombian beauties. Pablo now kept complaining of how “fat, short and ugly” Nicaraguan girls were.

Pablo Escobar And Fidel Castro

The world’ greatest businessmen never rest after gaining success. On the contrary, they refuse to rest on their laurels and work even harder. Pablo Escobar belonged to this breed. He was always scheming new ways of expanding his network. If one of his trading routes was eliminated, Pablo had two more routes as a backup.

While in Nicaragua, Pablo thought it convenient to approach Fidel Castro. Cuba was a strategic trading point, since it had severed its ties to the U.S. Also, Cuba was close to Miami, one of the cartel’s biggest markets. One of Pablo’s connections in Miami was a drug lord named Jorge Avendano “The Crocodile”. The Crocodile had partied along the flamboyant Ochoa brothers at their wild Miami orgies. The Ochoas had mingled with the crème de la crème of Miami and knew some influential Cuban-Americans. This is how, through a third party, they were able to reach Fidel Castro.

Pablo Escobar, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Fidel Castro-Image Source: revistabula

Pablo ordered The Crocodile to relay a business proposition to Fidel. Fidel, busy with his own work, delegated the job to his brother Raul. It was through the intervention of Raul, that Escobar made a deal with Fidel. The Crocodile traveled to Havana to seal the agreement.

The Drug cargo would sail in various ships from the Buenaventura port in Colombia. The ships would reach Mexico ports and the cargo (approx 26,455 pounds per shipment) would be transported to a Mexican airport. Mexican planes would fly to Cuba and unload the cargo in the island’s coasts. Fidel assigned two of his closest associates for the job: Cuban general Arnaldo Ochoa and colonel Tony La Guardia.

As part of the deal, Cuban soldiers would take the cocaine in small boats to Miami. The cargo would be delivered to one of Pablo’s drug lords, a man known as “Mugre” (The Dirt). Mugre hid the cocaine in the mansions of the Ochoas, in the luxurious neighborhoods of Kendall, Boca Raton and Cayo Hueso. Fidel Castro made around 3,000 dollars for every cocaine pound Cuba delivered. Jorge Avendano stayed in Cuba to make the payments.

Pablo Escobar said that it had been a pleasure to work with Castro. Due to Castro’s great work ethic, Escobar made lots of money. Fidel Castro and Escobar had never seen each other. But they regularly wrote letters which were delivered by “special emissaries”. The Colombian Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez was one of them. Garcia Marquez and Fidel Castro had a close friendship. In one occasion, Escobar sent Popeye to Mexico (where the writer lived) so that he could give Garcia Marquez a letter for Fidel Castro.

Pablo Escobar Returns To Colombia 

Pablo Escobar could have easily remained in Nicaragua. But he could not be away from Colombia any longer. There were signs that his absence was undermining his control in Colombia. Some narco lords were stepping out of their boundaries trying to gain more power. After hearing the news that his father, Abel Escobar, had been kidnapped, Pablo knew that his evil reputation had diminished. Escobar then hired some gunmen who, for more than two weeks, killed anyone directly or indirectly involved with the kidnapping.

Soon, the kidnappers gave in and they let Pablo’s father go unharmed.

In the last months of 1984, Pablo returned to Colombia. This time, he swore that he would never abandon his homeland again. He said: “I’d rather be in a grave in Colombia than in prison in the United States.”


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