Blog dedicated to reporting on Mexican drug cartels
on the border line between the US and Mexico

Thursday, November 14, 2019

The Real Narcos: how one high-profile murder sparked the war against Pablo Escobar

Chivis Martinez Borderland Beat TY Gus GQ UK

Javier F. Peña, who hunted Pablo Escobar in Colombia and who was the basis for a major character in Netflix’s series Narcos, recounts the assassination that shook the country to the core – and persuaded both the Colombian and American governments to get serious in the war against the cartels.
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The Eighties saw an explosion of wealth in the United States and Western Europe and with it an explosion of demand for cocaine and other drugs produced in Colombia and transported by boat or by plane into Florida and the US border states. Soon, Colombia’s government found itself fighting a war of attrition against multiple powerful cartels, including Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel. The cocaine trade soon made Escobar one of the richest men on the planet, with sicarios – hitmen – and politicians alike on his payroll and would later inspire the TV series Narcos. Those who opposed him were offered the choice of “plata o plomo” (silver or lead), effectively between accepting a bribe or a bullet and, for a while, it looked like Escobar and his fellow drug barons were untouchable, protected by intimidation and rampant corruption in the police and judiciary. But in an extract from his new book, Manhunters, written with his one-time partner Steve Murphy, ex-DEA agent Javier F Pena (who is himself played by Pedro Pascal in Narcos) details how the killing of one leading Colombian opposition leader, Luis Carlos Galán, was the final straw – the killing that spurred real action against the cartels and the moment that the net began to tighten around Escobar.

After the night of 18 August 1989, Pablo Escobar became my obsession.

Gary Sheridan was my first partner in Colombia. We arrived in Bogotá at the same time. We knew from the get-go that we were there to start kicking some ass in the drug war. A former agent for the Bureau Of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms And Explosives, Gary was slim with a touch of silver hair. He looked distinguished, with a serious air about him. While he could seem aloof at first, he was really a common-sense type of guy.

Gary was with me the night both of our lives changed and the search for Escobar took on its most urgent dimension.

The 18 August 1989 was a Friday and, after a long week at work, we headed to our favourite bar and restaurant. Mr Ribs was a favourite among American expats, local politicians and wealthy Colombians. The restaurant specialised in succulent ribs, grilled steaks, American-style burgers and fries. The beer was always ice-cold and Mr Ribs was packed on the weekends. Gary and I ordered burgers from a pretty waitress with long brown hair and a trim figure. We were just settling in to drink our beers when our waitress approached the table in a state of shock, tears beginning to roll down her cheeks as she interrupted our drinks.
“Galán was murdered a few minutes ago,” she pronounced in a hoarse voice. “We have to close now.” The leading presidential candidate, Luis Carlos Galán Sarmiento, had been gunned down while campaigning in nearby Soacha, a working-class suburb of Bogotá.

It was Galán’s third attempt at the presidency. A senator of the progressive wing of the ruling Liberal Party, he was one of six candidates seeking the party’s presidential nomination for elections slated for May 1990. He ran on an anti-corruption and anti-narco platform and he was pretty much public enemy number one of Escobar and Rodríguez Gacha.

Outside Mr Ribs, Gary and I hurried through chaotic streets as police and military scrambled to set up roadblocks. Bogotá was on lockdown, with army tanks blocking major intersections and police in full riot gear directing the crowds as the country’s president, Virgilio Barco Vargas, immediately took to the airwaves, declaring a state of siege and reestablishing the extradition treaty with the United States. The treaty had been temporarily suspended by the country’s supreme court on a legal technicality in April 1988.

I will never forget that wild night. I walked home, flashing my diplomatic pass to get through police barricades and the crowds of ordinary Colombians who had taken to the streets, some of them openly wailing. At Galán’s funeral a few days later, Barco blamed his killing on the millions of people in Colombia and around the world who consume drugs, thereby sustaining and empowering the country’s cartels.

More than anything, it was Galán’s assassination that led to the downfall of Pablo Escobar and the Medellín Cartel. I knew the killing had been directed by Escobar and I think all of Colombia knew it too. Barco appealed directly to the United States for help and in the days following the assassination President George HW Bush earmarked $65 million in emergency aid to Colombia to help fight the drug cartels, with the promise of another $250 million in military aid to arrive in the near future. Working from our basement headquarters at the embassy, we intensified our search for Escobar and his cronies as they stepped up their attacks against the government.

In those first few months after Galán’s assassination we brought in 20 additional analysts to help out. Under the new state of siege, we no longer needed any probable cause to go after suspects. As long as there was something suspicious, anything to suggest that a target was a drug trafficker, we wouldn’t hesitate to hit. In the six months after Galán’s assassination, we rounded up 30 suspected drug traffickers and extradited them to the States.

One of the first to be extradited was José Rafael Abello Silva, known by his underworld moniker, Mono Abello. He was a pilot for Escobar and the chief of operations for the cartel on Colombia’s northern coast. It was largely thanks to his capture that we were able to track José Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha – “the Mexican” and one of the country’s most powerful drug lords – two months later. With Abello out of the picture, Rodríguez Gacha was forced out of hiding to handle a shipment of cocaine aboard a ship at the port city of Cartagena. That may have been part of the reason that he came out of hiding, but the real story was that he was scared to death. At the time, he was probably the wealthiest member of the Medellín Cartel, making even more money than Escobar himself. He commanded a small army of mercenaries that he had imported from Israel to work as his bodyguards, but with Abello out of the way in the United States, he might have suddenly felt very vulnerable and exposed.

Known as “the Mexican” for his fondness for the country’s music and food, he was under indictment in the United States on several smuggling charges, but he had also made some unfortunate enemies in Colombia. Everyone from the Cali Cartel to the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or the Revolutionary Armed Forces Of Colombia) guerrillas to the emerald mafia led by Victor Carranza wanted him dead.

In mid-December, the Mexican was suddenly on the run. He boarded a speedboat and tried to escape Colombian police with his son, who had been recently released from a DIJIN (Dirección Central de Policía Judicial e Inteligencia) lockup in Bogotá. Freddy, 17, had been briefly detained on weapons charges. The police eventually threw out his case for lack of evidence and then used him as bait to go after his father. We followed Freddy and he led us to the same area of Cartagena where we had already dispatched our informant, a hitman named Jorge Velásquez, better known by his nickname, El Navegante – the sailor. Navegante was the captain of Rodríguez Gacha’s speedboats and was well-liked and trusted by the drug dealer. We would meet Navegante in clandestine places in Bogotá – usually restaurants or a hotel room – and we had promised him $1 million in cash if he led us to Rodríguez Gacha.

Once Navegante had helped us find Rodríguez Gacha’s exact location near the small resort town of Tolú, CNP colonel Leonardo Gallego dispatched two artillery helicopters and set up roadblocks on rural roads leading to Cartagena to trap the drug lord. With more than three hundred cops under his command, Gallego stopped more than ten of Rodríguez Gacha’s guards. Alerted by the helicopters and the mounting police operation in the area, Rodríguez Gacha fled on the night of 14 December. He took his son and five of his most trusted associates on his speedboat to a cluster of beachfront cabanas, where they spent the night. The next day, at approximately 1:00pm in the afternoon, the sounds of the approaching helicopters forced them to flee. Disguised as farmworkers, Rodríguez Gacha and his son Freddy fled their hiding place in a red truck. Freddy and a group of bodyguards then got out of the truck, ran to a clump of nearby trees and began shooting wildly at the helicopters and lobbing grenades, but they were overwhelmed by firepower. Both Rodríguez Gacha and Freddy died in a barrage of gunfire. Freddy was a bloody mess when they recovered his body. His father was unrecognisable. Rodríguez Gacha’s face was shot off, reduced to a bloody pulp.
Days later, we brought Navegante to the embassy to fill out the paperwork for the $1 million reward, promising him that we would have the cash in a few days. But after about a month of bureaucratic holdups, Navegante began to lose patience. He returned to the embassy to meet Gary and me and we sat in an airless office drinking small, sugary cups of coffee. We told him not to worry, that the cash was on its way and was only delayed because of a lot of government red tape. But Navegante wasn’t buying it. He leaped from his chair and told us to forget the cash as he headed for the door. He was so pissed! In a loud voice, he told us that the Cali Cartel had already given him $1 million for selling out Rodríguez Gacha.

I couldn’t believe what I had just heard and asked him to repeat himself, which he did, and then we simply escorted him out. Gary and I reported the conversation to our bosses and the decision was made not to pay him, as it would have been unethical for us to be effectively employing an admitted cartel member for his cooperation. In essence, we would have been guilty of working with the Cali Cartel in their dirty war against Escobar.

Despite the mess Navegante had made of the reward, we had reason to celebrate. With the death of one of the most important members of the Medellín Cartel, we felt nothing could stop us from bringing the whole enterprise down. Suddenly, a lot of the intelligence that we had gathered from raids started to produce great results.

Manhunters: How We Took Down Pablo Escobar by Steve Murphy and Javier F Peña is out on 12 November.


  1. Did Colombia go through a period of violence after the big cartels began to splinter like in Mexico?

    1. Yes we did and still are they are still fragmenting even other actors like FARC splintered into smaller in my opinion more cohesive groups that tend to operate in collaboration with one another until something sets them off and one erases the other off the map in a spectacular display of violence and brutality only equated in Mexico, Brazil, and the middle east.

      Example : Cali cartel had a break off that was Norte del Valle they then split into Los machos y Los Rastrojos (el cartel de sapos is an amazing portrayal of this)

      - former anti guerilla anti narcotics soldier in Colombian National Army.

    2. @1605 hrs.: Bless you. I can only imagine the kind of visceral shit you saw while serving the citizens of Colombia in the C.N.A.

      Big fan of the Search Bloc and Col. Martinez—those guys got shit DONE.

      Pablo signed his own death warrant when he executed two events:

      - The assassination of Galan.
      - The bombing of Flight 203 (Avianca) in Nov. 89.

      Did he really think he was actually going to beat a federal government with military backing and assistance from the “gringos?”

      “One [Miguel Orejuela] is a businessman. The other [Escobar]...has STRONG emotions.”—Juan Ramon Matta Ballesteros describing the leaders of the Cali and Medellin Cartels to Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo in Netflix’s NARCO: MEXICO. Spot on assessments of both.


  2. Replies
    1. @1021 hrs.: Concur.

      Really liked the background information on one Jorge Velasquez, a.k.a. El Navegante, who figured into the Netflix series, NARCOS, as a key supporting player—excellent acting from Juan Sebastian Calero brought a real life sicario/cartel associate to Life.


  3. Gente Nueva Special Forces have implemented new security measures which will avoid capture of Los Chapitos. A retired CIA Special Operations Group officer along with a Liuetenent colonel of the SAS have been training our Tier 1 operators in advance VIP protection.

    1. Hey sicario 006, is it true 21 CJNG members died in a shootout with Sinaloa Cartel?

  4. So the DEA didn't pay the reward..🤔 do they ever? And later outed the informant their excuse was the informant was working with the Cali cartel.. who the DEA later worked with along with los PEPES the CIA and other top Colombian narcos to kill Escobar.. let that be a lesson. The DEA are dirty double crossing backstabbers. I have heard countless stories like this over the years..

  5. If you become a narco youll only die afraid

  6. Yup.. and the Mexican cartels are making the same mistakes.

  7. Last bit about the us deciding to stiff the snitch for taking money from the other cartel on the grounds of "ethics" just cracks me up


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