19/06/1991
Surrender, Escape and Death of Pablo Escobar

A helicopter left La Alpujarra Administrative Center to collect Pablo Escobar and take him to the prison of Envigado. Photograph: El Mundo.

After 498 days on the run, and aged 44, Pablo Escobar was assassinated alongside his lieutenant, alias “El Limón”. Photograph: El Mundo.

There are different versions about Pablo Escobar’s death. The official story says that it was the Search Bloc that tracked him down. Photograph: El Mundo.

The surrender of Pablo Escobar seemed to be a sign of the end of the war. One year later, his escape showed how he lied to the authorities. From that moment, he became the target of legal and illegal groups, which after many attempts achieved their goal to track him down.

On June 19, 1991, the boss of the Medellín Cartel, Pablo Escobar Gaviria, turned himself over to the Colombian authorities. A delegation led by Father Rafael García Herreros, who acted as a mediator, went to collect him in a helicopter in Eastern Antioquia.

At 5:11 pm, in front of tens of journalists who hoped to report this news to the whole world, the helicopter landed with Escobar behind the maximum-security prison of Envigado, which years later would become known as La Catedral. Minutes before, the top hitman of the Medellín Cartel, Jhon Jairo Velásquez Vásquez, alias Popeye, had surrendered in an unnamed location, from where he was transferred to the same penitentiary center as Escobar.

Inspector General of Colombia Carlos Gustavo Arrieta, National Director of Criminal Investigations Carlos Eduardo Mejía Escobar and National Human Rights Ombudsman Jaime Córdoba, who had arrived at 9 am, were waiting for them.

Neither Escobar, nor those who voluntarily surrendered to justice beside him, shall receive different treatment to that established in current legislation by virtue of these decrees.” César Gaviria, presidente de Colombia.

What appeared to be the surrender of Pablo Escobar occurred after several weeks of negotiations with the government. This time, unlike the first time that he said he would surrender and did not show up, Escobar kept his word because extradition was banned, as the majority of the delegates of the National Constituent Assembly guaranteed that he would not have to appear in court in the USA.

After the surrender, from Nariño Palace, President César Gaviria Trujillo was optimistic and stated that the government would keep fighting against drug trafficking. He also requested international support for this work and applauded the abolition of the Extradition Treaty.

After this greatly anticipated moment, people believed that never again would there be talk of car bombs, massacres and targeted killings, as the man who had killed tens of politicians, police officers and other innocent people between 1986 and 1991 with his terrorism was now behind bars.

His Operations Center

Months after Escobar’s arrival in La Catedral, the country started to find out about the luxury in which the drug lord of the Medellín Cartel and his lieutenants lived. The place was equipped with water beds, a hot tub, a large-screen television, telescopes, gym equipment, a pool table, a bar and communications lines with outside. It also served as a hiding place for a large amount of weapons, drugs, U.S. dollars and communications equipment.

After an intelligence process, the authorities concluded that Escobar continued to secretly commit crime. In July 1992, he murdered his former partners, Fernando “El Negro” Galeano and Gerardo “Kiko” Moncada, inside the prison. Furthermore, from there, he ordered the killing of 22 people connected to the Medellín Cartel.

With knowledge of this, the Colombian Government increased security measures and replaced the guards with soldiers, because it had proof that some of the guards had allowed Escobar to commit crime and live in luxury.

Finally, on July 21, 1992, two army platoons took control of the maximum-security prison of Envigado with the aim to transfer the prisoners to a jail in Medellín. The same day, Vice Minister of Justice Eduardo Mendoza and General Prison Director Hernando Navas traveled to Medellín to inform the detainees of this decision. As a result, some of the prisoners snatched the guards’ weapons and took two officers hostage.

Moments later, the General Command of the Colombian Army ordered the 4th Brigade to take internal and external control of the place. So a group of 180 men was transferred to the prison. At 3 am on July 22, several soldiers, who arrived from the Tolemaida base, reinforced the security circle.

In the early hours of the morning, there was a confrontation, which took the life of a sergeant and injured several people. In the crossfire, the Vice Minister of Justice and General Director of Prisons were rescued alive. In the middle of this chaos, the soldiers lost track of Escobar and nine of his lieutenants.

He Left No Trace

The prisoners escaped through one of the fences that separated the place from outside. According to alias Popeye, “Pablo Escobar Gaviria managed the prison’s electric fence. This fence was protected with some bricks and there were four bricks attached with plaster. Only the boss and I knew. The guards were Pablo Escobar’s crooks dressed as guards. That was the innermost security ring. We escaped because we knew the area.”

The day after the escape, Escobar sent a communication to some radio stations in which he stated he was willing to submit himself to justice again if they let him stay at the Envigado prison and United Nations military forces guarded the jail.

The End Was Near

The killing of his partners “Kiko” Moncada and “El Negro” Galeano, the escape from La Catedral and the subsequent formation of the Pepes (Persecuted by Escobar) meant the end of Escobar. The drug lord, after becoming a fugitive and having all of the military forces after him, was also being tracked by the Pepes group, comprised of the enemies he had acquired over an eight-year war.

The Official Version

From any perspective, the death of Pablo Escobar was a military success. Many versions have been created about this event. The official and most remembered one is from the Colombian Police’s Search Bloc.

Colombians found out from the media that after one year and four months of intelligence work, an operation by a command of 20 men of the Police Search Bloc tracked down Escobar in a house in Los Olivos neighborhood in the sector of Estadios, Medellín. After several men burst into the house, the drug lord tried to escape on the roof, but he was hit three times by agents of the Central Directorate of the Judicial Police and Intelligence. The projectiles immediately killed him.

A Colonel was Responsible

However, the retired colonel Hugo Aguilar, who had been imprisoned for his connections to the paramilitaries and had been accused of unjust enrichment and money laundering, in a conversation with El Espectador in 2013, assured that he and Colonel Danilo González decided to take on Escobar themselves and both founded the Pepes group.

Furthermore, he affirms that Escobar’s was tracked down thanks to the Thompson radio systems that the DEA gave to the police. According to his statements, he was in charge of shooting Escobar first in the back and later, a lieutenant with an R-15 firearm shot him with a bullet that went through his ear.

A Paramilitary Hit

Former paramilitary José Antonio Hernández Villamizar, alias John, in a statement to the Justice and Peace Unit in 2011, said that it was the Pepes who tracked down and killed Pablo Escobar and not the Search Bloc. He says that Carlos Castaño entered the house in Los Olivos neighborhood and with ‘Z-A’, ‘Móvil 9’ and ‘18’, shot down Escobar. Moments later, they handed over the corpse to Colonel Hugo Aguilar, member of the Search Bloc, on the roof of the house.

Avenging Tradition

Alias “Don Berna”, hitman of “Negro” Galeano, says in his book Así matamos al patrón / La cacería de Pablo Escobar (How We Killed the Boss / The Hunt for Pablo Escobar), that his brother, Rodolfo Murillo Bejarano, was the perpetrator. He describes how with members of the Search Bloc, his brother entered the home where Escobar was, and on the second floor, when Escobar was running along the roof, he shot him in the head with his M-16 caliber 5.56 firearm.

They Did Not Kill Him

The people closest to him and especially his son, Juan Pablo Escobar, and younger sister, Alba Marina Escobar Gaviria, state that the drug lord was very clear that in the case of capture, he would end his own life first with the pistol that he always carried. “He told me many times that he had 15 bullets in his pistol: 14 for his enemies and one for him,” said Pablo’s son.

After his death, Escobar became a myth. Many tourists came to Medellín and Colombia in search of his footprints. However, Escobar is not the hero of the story, but the complete opposite. He is the antihero who put the whole country under siege, ignoring the pain of many families who lost their loved ones in an uncontrolled and disproportionate war. Additionally, personal, family and social projects cut short by a logic in which values and ethics were sacrificed add to the lives lost in the drug trafficking war.

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