Having sensational amounts of money doesn’t usually equate to living an action-packed life. Look at Forbes‘s annual “The World’s Billionaires” list and you’ll find magnates who work in software development and hedge fund management, in telecommunications and retail apparel. Comic-book billionaires like Iron Man and Lex Luthor are supposed to only exist in fiction.
So it’s surreal imagining one of the world’s wealthiest people cut down by a hail of gunfire on a terracotta rooftop in South America. But in December 1993, that’s exactly what happened to Colombian cocaine baron Pablo Escobar.
A&E Real Crime looks back on Escobar’s rise to power and prosperity, and investigates who fired the bullet that took his life.
Who Was Pablo Escobar, and How Did He Become So Powerful?
Born in 1949 to a lower middle-class family in northwestern Colombia, Escobar came of age in Medellín—Colombia’s second-largest city. In the 1970s he helped found the Medellín Cartel, a sophisticated drug-trafficking operation that, at the height of operations, was responsible for 80 percent of the cocaine sold in the United States.
The cartel’s rise to power wasn’t happenstance, says Bruce Bagley, a professor of International Studies at the University of Miami who specializes in U.S.-Latin American drug trafficking. Rather, it was the result of several factors, starting with Medellín itself.
“Western Colombia and Medellín was the principle commercial center of Colombia. It was the cradle of Colombian entrepreneurship,” Bagley says. “That does not mean only legal activity.”
In entrepreneurial fashion, Escobar’s cartel focused on creating reliable supply lines to meet the American demand: They operated an air fleet between Peru, where much of their coca was cultivated, and Colombia, where their laboratories processed the plant into paste. They also bought a private island in the Bahamas, where they ran speedboats full of the finished product into South Florida.
Business boomed, and with it came the attention of the Colombian government. To deal with the heat, Escobar’s cartel adopted a “silver or lead” policy: politicians and law enforcement agents could choose between receiving a bribe (silver) or a gunshot (lead).
“They were quite ruthless,” says Bagley. “They’d go after you, they’d go after your family, they’d go after your grandmother, your extended family… that kind of brutality was just their management style.”
Who Wanted Pablo Escobar Dead?
Make a lot of money and you’re bound to make some enemies too. Same is true if you kill a lot of people. Escobar’s high-profile violence would serve as his undoing.
Within Colombia, the federal government—namely the National Police—was Escobar’s most outspoken antagonist. The police dedicated an entire division to Escobar’s capture and killing: the Bloque de Búsqueda (Search Bloc), which received military training.
The Cali Cartel—the Medellín Cartel’s principal rival in the cocaine trade—also sought to bring Escobar down, as did Los Pepes, a group of Colombians who had been affected by Escobar’s violent reign and wanted revenge.
Bagley says that on some parts of Colombia’s highway system, “They put up billboards saying, ‘Don’t Dump Bodies Here’ because they were dumping so many.”
And then there was the United States government, notably the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which assisted the Search Bloc on their mission to find the cocaine kingpin. On December 2, 1993, they located him.
How Did Pablo Escobar Die?
Escobar died via a gunshot wound to his head alongside a bodyguard on a Medellín rooftop while trying to flee from a hideout. It was the end of a manhunt that had started when Escobar escaped from La Catedral, a custom-built luxury prison, in July 1992.
To this day, it’s unclear which of Escobar’s enemies fired the fatal shot. The official story credits the Search Bloc—members of the special division even posed with Escobar’s corpse as proof of their work.
But others—like Escobar’s son, Sebastian Marroquin (who changed his name from Juan Pablo Escobar)—claims the world’s wealthiest drug dealer committed suicide when cornered. In an exclusive interview with the Sun Online in November 2016, Marroquin said, “I have the absolute certainty that my father committed suicide…Coroners who did the autopsy were threatened and forced to change the official record.”
Bagley calls the suicide claim “complete mythology,” adding that Marroquin wasn’t there, and so he is speculating, the same as anyone else might.
“I was told by very reliable sources that it was actually the DEA that killed him,” Bagley says. “They then said to the Colombian military: you guys take the credit, we don’t need it or it want it.”
Escobar was buried at Cemetario Jardins Montesacro in Itagüí, a small city in Greater Medellín. According to police estimates, over 20,000 mourners attended the funeral.
Bagley says the mass mourning is proof of Escobar’s generosity… but that doesn’t nullify the havoc he wreaked.
“He built soccer fields, funded local chapels in poor barrios… many people benefited from his largesse. Many people felt like Pablo Escobar had improved their lives… and that doesn’t contradict in any way that he was a kiss of death to anyone who showed an inkling of not following his orders.”