Origin of the Medellín Cartel

Pablo Escobar was the boss of the Medellín Cartel. He controlled international drug trafficking and ordered tens of narcoterrorism attacks.
Photograph: El Mundo

From the end of the seventies until the beginning of the nineties, the Medellín Cartel, an illegal group that produced and distributed cocaine, committed tens of narcoterrorism attacks, which had painful consequences in Colombian society.

The Cartel Is Born

In 1977, using the same routes that were used for trafficking marihuana during the so-called bonanza marimbera around the end of the sixties, the brothers from Antioquia, Jorge Luis, David and Fabio Ochoa, formed a group to traffic cocaine to the USA and meet the growing demand for this narcotic.

The same year, Pablo Escobar, who started his criminal history robbing cars and smuggling cigarettes, joined this business. He and his cousin, Gustavo Gaviria, were responsible for collecting the coca paste in Ecuador, which arrived from Bolivia and Peru, to process in Colombia.

In 1976, Pablo Escobar and his cousin, Gustavo Gaviria, were incarcerated for transporting 39 kg of cocaine in a tire of their car.

At the end of this decade, Escobar and the Ochoa brothers joined forces to increase their production capacity. As well as managing the laboratories and selling cocaine to the distributors, they controlled sales in the USA, where the profits could be up to six times higher than in Colombia. They quickly monopolized the drug trade in Florida, Nueva York, Chicago and Los Angeles.Then Carlos Lehder joined, who purchased an island in the Bahamas called Norman’s Cay to load the airplanes and increase the volume of the dispatches. In the eighties, Escobar had created what would become known as “the Office”. People went there not only to buy but also to sell cocaine and make the best profits.

With his experience of controlling drug dealing in Bogotá, Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha joined. In a short time, this illegal business achieved huge dimensions. Consequently, the U.S. authorities started to call this group the Medellín Cartel in 1982.

The Power of Money

The cartel members started to show off their great wealth from drug trafficking. Some used it to make a career in politics. In 1982, Escobar joined the Chamber of Representatives and Carlos Lehder created the National Latin Movement. Both wanted to become more famous and influential in order to avoid extradition to the USA for drug trafficking crimes.

Additionally, Escobar and Rodríguez Gacha started to give away soccer fields and churches, and even a whole neighborhood to the people living by the landfill of Medellín.

However, the origin of this money did not go unnoticed and it caught the attention of some sectors of Colombian society. Minister of Justice Rodrigo Lara Bonilla denounced the entry of drug trafficking money to soccer teams, companies and politics.

In addition to the accusations, the Colombian and U.S. authorities started to purse them. Police Colonel Jaime Ramírez, who became Lara Bonilla’s main ally, managed to shut down Tranquilandia, the world’s largest cocaine factory.

Tranquilandia had an area of 500 hectares, six runways and 19 laboratories where they produced 3,500 kg of cocaine a week.

In retaliation for this, the Medellín Cartel ordered the assassination of Lara Bonilla and Ramírez Gómez. In their struggle to bring down the institutions, judges, police officers, magistrates, journalists and other public figures who dared to make public the cartel members’ connections to crime were killed.

With the slogan “We prefer to be in the grave in Colombia than in a jail cell in the United States”, on November 6, 1986, the members of the Medellín Cartel, together with drug traffickers from other parts of the country, joined forces under the name The Extraditables. In a short lapse of time, they committed tens of terrorist attacks to pressure the government and prevent the extradition of drug traffickers to the USA.

The End of the Cartel

In the history of the Medellín Cartel, Lehder was the only extradited drug trafficker. On February 18, 1987, he was arrested in Eastern Antioquia and sent to the United States hours later. The Ochoa brothers were subject to justice between December 1990 and February 1991, and they obtained benefits that meant they did not have to spend many years in prison.

This organization disappeared with the death of Gacha in 1989 and of Escobar in 1993, as well as the death of most of their partners. Fabio Ochoa continued to commit crime and was extradited for drug trafficking in 2001. He is still in prison in the USA.


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