A Former Ally Offers A Profile Of Escobar

Posted: November 26, 2000

After her husband was murdered by his former boss Pablo Escobar, Dolly Moncada began providing valuable information to the Americans who were helping direct and finance the hunt for the fugitive drug lord. Among her suggestions was that the authorities talk to Colombian drug traffickers held in American jails.

Soon after Dolly was debriefed by the DEA in Washington, D.C., in late 1992, an incentive was offered to jailed Colombian drug dealer Carlos Lehder, a former associate of Escobar's. Lehder, seeking a reduced sentence, responded with his own suggestions for closing in on his former ally.

In a letter to the DEA from federal prison in Leavenworth, Kan., where he had been given a new identity under the federal witness protection program, Lehder recommended that the Americans create a Colombian "freedom fighters brigade, controlled by the DEA, and independent of the Colombian politicians, police or army." Lehder wrote that "the rich, the poor, the peasant, the political left, center and right are willing to cooperate" in the effort to bring Escobar down.

Of more immediate use was Lehder's description of Escobar's daily routine while in hiding - how he would move from safe house to safe house, how he would almost certainly stay close to his home base in and around Medellin. He drew a crude map and provided insights into Escobar's habits and preferences:

"Escobar is strictly a ghetto person, not a farm or jungle person. . . . Escobar always tries to keep within distance range for his cellular phone to reach Medellin's phone base. That's approximately 100 miles, so he can call any time.

"Generally, P. Escobar occupies the main house with some of his hit men, radio operator (Big High Frequency radio receiver), cooks, hores [whores] and messengers. For transportation they have jeeps, motorcycles and sometimes a boat. I have never seen him riding a horse. Escobar gets up at 1 or 2 p.m. and goes to sleep at 1 or 2 a.m.

"Fugitive Escobar uses from 15 to 30 security guards, with arms and WT [walkie-talkies]. Two shifts of 12 hours each. Two at the main road entrance, some along the road, the rest around the perimeter of the main house (one mile) and one at his door. . . .

"The main house always has two or three gateway paths which run to the forest and thus toward a second hideout or near a river where a boat is located, or a tent with supplies and radios. Escobar is an obese man, certainly not a muscle man or athlete. He could not run 15 minutes without respiratory trouble. Unfortunately, the military police has never used hunting dogs against him."

Lehder told the agents that any time the lookouts on the far perimeter saw a vehicle approaching or a low-flying airplane or helicopter, they would "scream through those walkie-talkies" and Escobar would immediately flee.

In addition to Dolly Moncada and Lehder, the DEA noted with approval the cooperation of another former Escobar associate with a grudge. Colombian paramilitary leader Fidel Castano was a charismatic assassin who occasionally exported drugs and smuggled diamonds. A onetime friend of Escobar's who had helped him hide during the government's first war against the narcos, Castano turned against Escobar after the murders of Castano's friends, the drug-dealing Moncada and Galeano brothers.

In a dispatch to DEA headquarters on Feb. 22, 1993, DEA agent Javier Pena identified Castano as "a cooperating individual who was once a trusted Pablo Escobar associate." He reported that Castano had actually accompanied the Search Bloc on a raid 10 days earlier, when one of the unit's top officers drowned as the raiding parties crossed the Cauca River. Castano had reportedly made heroic efforts to rescue the man.

In Castano, Lehder and the Moncada and Galeano families, the hunt for Escobar had gained allies willing to play by the bloody rules of Medellin's underworld. The Colombian government and the U.S. Embassy used them throughout the fall and winter of 1992 to gather information about Escobar and his organization.

As early as September, the search effort seemed to be acting on Dolly Moncada's suggestion to go after Escobar's lawyers. On Sept. 26, the Search Bloc raided an estate owned by Escobar's attorney, Santiago Uribe, one of those named by Dolly. The raiders were in the process of ransacking the place when Uribe himself drove up. He was arrested and questioned.

Uribe acknowledged that he was one of Escobar's lawyers but denied knowing his fugitive client's whereabouts. Among Uribe's files the Search Bloc found letters from Escobar and tapes linking him to drug dealing, bribes and murder - including the assassination just days before of Judge Myrian Velez, one of the "faceless" judges in Medellin, who had been appointed, supposedly in secret, to investigate the murder of a crusading newspaper editor. Velez had been preparing to indict Escobar as the "intellectual author" of the murder.

The evidence added to the government's criminal case against Escobar, but by now few in the government - and virtually no one within the Search Bloc - were talking about arresting Escobar and putting him on trial. As a DEA memo pointed out in summarizing the raid against Uribe, the Colombian police officer in charge "relayed a message that they were continuing their search for Escobar and preferred that Escobar not surrender."

As determined as its leadership was, the Search Bloc was still a step or two behind its prey. The team simply could not close the last one hundred yards.

This was the assessment delivered by "Col. Santos," the chief Delta operator assigned to the Search Bloc headquarters in Medellin. After the first blundering raids in 1992, when Escobar and his entourage had driven down one side of a mountain while the Search Bloc lumbered up the other, the unit had blown one good lead after another.

Despite these failures, the Americans were impressed with Col. Hugo Martinez after he took command following Escobar's escape. None of the Americans assigned to the Search Bloc headquarters had been in Colombia during the first war against Escobar, so they didn't realize at first how far back went this war between the colonel and the drug lord.

The colonel knew how the game was played. American soldiers working closely with the Search Bloc knew that when Martinez grabbed somebody associated with Escobar, the man had better start talking fast. If the man did talk, he would end up arrested instead of having his photo added to the growing pile of photographs of bloody corpses in the colonel's desk drawer.

Between October and the end of December 1992, 12 major players in Escobar's empire had been killed by the Search Bloc. Often the photos in the colonel's drawer would show the victim with a bullet wound in the forehead, or through the ear. Each one was reported killed "in gun battles" with the Search Bloc.

Tomorrow: A dispute among the Americans.

Mark Bowden's e-mail address is mbowden@phillynews.com

ABOUT THIS SERIAL This serial is based on interviews with American and Colombian participants involved at all levels in the hunt for Pablo Escobar, and on thousands of classified U.S. and Colombian documents. All scenes and conversations are based on either written accounts or detailed interviews with the participants, conducted in the United States and in Colombia over two years. When a scene is based on the memory of one participant, it is so indicated.

* On the Internet: For a multimedia version of "Killing Pablo," including video, biographies of the key figures in the story, and interactive features, visit www.killingpablo.com

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