From the archives: an interview with Roberto Escobar
Roberto Escobar, the brother of Pablo Escobar – the world’s most famous and perhaps most successful drug smuggler – has found a new niche job for himself. Following a career as chief accountant of the Medellín cartel and a lengthy spell in prison, he is now in the tourism business, welcoming people to his home to reminisce about the good old times . A few years ago, with the help of Fiona McCann, I interviewed him after the publication of his biography, and here is the piece from March 2009. There is no word yet on the effectiveness of his “cure” for Aids.
ROBERTO ESCOBAR HAS THE voice of a man at peace. He answers questions in languid Spanish, down a crackly phone line, with a practised measure. “Nobody told me you were calling, but there’s no problem. It’s my pleasure to be at your service.” Escobar has all the time in the world to discuss his current work – curing Aids. Indeed, he claims to have found a cure, but cannot reveal the details because it is in the process of being patented. “We have found a medicine so that people in this world don’t have to die from that illness,” he says, “and in Colombia we have more than 100 patients totally uncontaminated now, who won’t contaminate any other human being on this planet.”
It is a disarming claim from a man who was once the main accountant for one of the world’s most violent criminal organisations – the drug-smuggling operation controlled by Roberto’s brother, Pablo Escobar. Pablo began his career smuggling contraband. “Maybe it’s something we inherited through the bloodline,” admits Roberto. “My grandfather used to put whiskey in coffins and bring along black-clad women with them, crying, following the coffins up to the mountains, where he’d sell his whiskey.”
At first, the drug-smuggling business was relatively straightforward. Cocaine paste was collected in Peru and driven to Colombia to be processed. Soon, he looked to the lucrative markets in the US and before long, Pablo and the Medellín cartel he controlled had its own fleet of aircraft.
At every level, money lubricated the machine – pilots, air-traffic controllers, police, army generals, senior politicians – and there was no shortage of it. In 1989, Escobar was listed by Forbes as the seventh-richest man in the world with an estimated fortune of $20 billion.
The biggest problem, says Roberto, was not smuggling the product, but storing the cash. “We would spend as much as $2,500 monthly on rubber bands to hold the money together,” he writes. He estimates that they lost 10 per cent a year because the cash would rot in its hiding places.
IN THE EARLY years, Roberto was not involved with the business. He was a national champion and the coach of Colombia’s cycling team, before retiring to set up a bicycle factory. “By the time I had the factory, Pablo had gotten very involved in drug trafficking, and they started to come after our family. The first person they came after was me, even though I had nothing to do with drug trafficking. They took my wife and put her in prison.” This, Roberto insists, is what led to his involvement with drug trafficking.
Pablo Escobar built his empire through ambition, ingenuity and utter ruthlessness, but it was his ambition to be president of Colombia that eventually led to his downfall. “The first mistake my brother made was to get involved in drug trafficking. The second was to get involved in politics,” affirms Roberto. Pablo easily won a seat in the Colombian congress in 1982, handing out suitcases of money at rallies and dropping flyers stapled with cash from aircraft. Roberto is adamant that most politicians were buying votes at this time – Pablo was simply less subtle about it. Publicly, Pablo railed at the corruption and poverty of Colombia, but in private, extradition to the US was his main worry. He once told a meeting of drug traffickers: “I would rather have a grave in Colombia than a jail cell in the US.”
His political career was doomed from the outset. In 1983, justice minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla pressed to have Escobar’s parliamentary immunity from extradition removed. Lara was shot, and as a tribute, the president signed a treaty allowing for the extradition of Colombians.
Escobar declared open war on the government and Medellín’s long-term rival, the Cali cartel, while Pablo, Roberto and their associates took refuge in Panama, Nicaragua, Brazil and Spain. The violence included a siege of the Palace of Justice in 1985 in which a group of Escobar-financed guerillas killed more than 100 people, the assassination of presidential candidates critical of Escobar, and the bombing of a passenger jet.
ROBERTO SAYS THAT he was always at a remove from the violence. “I managed the telephones, the books. I never got involved in terrorism, or killings, and I criticised [PABLO]many times for that.”
There is an odd precision in much of the book’s details: the makes of specific smuggling vehicles, how various characters got their nicknames. But when it comes to attributing responsibility for crimes, Roberto prefers grand generalisations.
Despite the battle ripping the country apart, the drug-smuggling operation was barely affected, and Pablo had opened covert negotiations with the government. In return for an amnesty, he offered to stop smuggling, invest in the country’s infrastructure, and pay off Colombia’s national debt, then in the region of $9 billion.
In the end, Pablo gave himself up, but not before the introduction of a new constitution that banned the extradition of Colombian citizens. The judiciary realised that there was no prison that could realistically hope to hold Escobar, so he built his own, a lavish villa known as La Catedral. Embarrassing rumours of the parties that took place within its walls began to circulate, so the government decided to move Pablo and, convinced that the army would kill him, he fled into the jungle in July 1992. He was pursued by a US-trained task force assembled by the Colombian government.
Throughout this time, Roberto was almost constantly at Pablo’s side. “I compare this life to a football game that is played at 100km per hour,” says Roberto. “When you’re running, it’s a different way of living . . . you don’t see your family, you can’t go to church, the police are behind you, you have to be careful not to open a letter, you have to be careful on the telephone, you can’t visit your mother.”
Pablo was eventually tracked to Medellín and killed on December 2nd, 1993, though Roberto insists that he shot himself – they had a suicide pact should they ever be cornered. On its front page, the New York Times wrote: “Pablo Escobar, who rose from the slums of Colombia to become one of the world’s most murderous and successful cocaine traffickers, was killed in a hail of gunfire . . . The death is not expected to seriously affect cocaine traffic.”
Roberto considers himself protected by divine intervention; he frequently mentions a small priest who warns him in his dreams of danger. Before Pablo’s death, Roberto surrendered in an effort to again open negotiations with the government and on December 18th, 1993 he opened a package that contained a letter bomb, which left his vision critically impaired. “In that moment, I saw our Lord, I saw the angels, and I saw that little priest who goes everywhere with me. I thought I was dead . . . I started to believe more in God, and that yes, there is a second life.”
So if there is a second life, where is Pablo? Did he build enough homes, schools and churches to atone for a life of ruthless violence? “That is something I don’t know,” says Roberto. “If God, our Lord, gives a second life to the people who suffered much in life, to the people who were bad, to the people who were good, I don’t know that part. I can only answer what I have seen, which is that I know there is a second life, because I saw our Lord.” Roberto is again dancing around the issue, or perhaps even he has difficulty separating his brother the legend from his brother the man.
Interview translated by Fiona McCann. Escobar: The Inside Story of Pablo Escobar , The World’s Most Powerful Criminal by Roberto Escobar is published by Hodder Stoughton, £11.99