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The Escobar family takes flight and Pablo threatens to bomb BogotaView Track
April 11, 2005 - 1:32am — Anthony
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service
The Philadelphia Inquirer
November 12, 2000, Sunday
The Escobar family takes flight and Pablo threatens to bomb Bogota
By Mark Bowden
By November of 1993, Gustavo de Grieff was becoming a problem.
He was the Fiscal General, Colombia's top federal prosecutor, and he was now working in open defiance of Presidente Cesar Gaviria on the matter of Pablo Escobar. De Grieff had told Gaviria that he disagreed with effectively holding the Escobar family hostage. As an elected official _ an "independent entity," he called himself _ he had decided to help the family leave Colombia in order to complete his deal for the fugitive's surrender.
When word spread that the family was looking for a haven in Canada, Colombian Defense Minister Raphael Pardo contacted the Canadian ambassador, only to learn that de Grieff already had called to request that the Canadian government allow the family to enter. The Colombian government was now split on the matter, so U.S. Ambassador Busby threw his support behind Gaviria, contacting the various governments himself and winning assurances that the Escobars would be turned away.
During these negotiations, de Grieff suddenly informed the U.S. Embassy that Escobar had escaped to Haiti. The Fiscal said that a reliable informant had told his office that the drug boss had landed safely in Haiti on Nov. 25 and provided specific details about his status on that island. According to the source, Escobar was now under the protection of a Haitian death squad called "Night Services," which was unofficially attached to the Haitian police.
The hunt for Escobar appeared to be coming apart. News reports leaked out that he had managed to escape Colombia. The embassy traced de Grieff's sources to Miami _ an imprisoned cocaine dealer connected with the Cali cartel named Luis "Lucho" Sanatacruz and two men with the code names "Navigante" and "Hector." DEA agents were dispatched to debrief the men personally. The Haitian death squad leader supposedly protecting Escobar was a man named Joel Deeb.
"We are analyzing the developing situation for clues to the potential motivation of someone like Joel Deeb in providing Pablo Escobar with sanctuary," read a secret State Department cable written that weekend.
The cable said that while Deeb was believed to be linked to Escobar's Medellin cartel, he also was reported to have invested in a casino in Haiti with a Cali trafficker. The cable speculated that the Cali cartel was "playing more than a spectator's role in the Escobar family odyssey."
While the embassy tried to verify Escobar's presence in Haiti, the cable concluded, the Search Bloc was continuing to operate in Medellin under the assumption that Escobar remained in the area.
In light of what happened over the next two days, the Haiti tip appears to have been an effort to distract the authorities and create enough confusion to help slip the Escobar family out of Colombia. The day after "Hector" "confirmed" to de Grieff that Escobar was in Haiti, Centra Spike picked up Escobar on a phone in Medellin. If Escobar had been planning to lay low in order for the Haiti ploy to work, events soon conspired to flush him back out on the airwaves.
DEA Special Agent Kenny Magee was friendly with the security chief for American Airlines at the El Dorado Airport in Bogota, so he was selected to follow the Escobar family. A blue-eyed former Michigan cop who had come to Bogota four years earlier, Magee had flunked Spanish in his senior year of high school. (He told his teacher, "I'm never going to need Spanish." She said, "You never know.")
Magee showed up at airport on Saturday, Nov. 27, with two plain-clothed Colombian National Police colonels, and with DEA agents Steve Murphy and Javier Pena. Magee had purchased tickets on two early evening flights booked by the Escobars, one to London and the other to Frankfurt.
The planes were leaving within ten minutes of each other. The agents didn't know which one the family would take, so they pocketed their boarding passes and waited for them to show up.
It wasn't hard spotting them. The family's plans had evidently leaked to more than just the national police and the U.S. Embassy. When their private plane from Medellin landed in Bogota early in the afternoon, they found about three dozen reporters waiting inside the terminal.
The small plane stayed out on the tarmac and all of its passengers except the Escobars were let off. Members of the Fiscalia bodyguard detail carried the Escobar's luggage to a waiting Avianca Airlines bus, followed by a force of more than 20 heavily armed men escorting Escobar's wife, Maria Victoria, daughter Manuela, son Juan Pablo and his chubby 21-year-old Mexican girlfriend, Doria Ochoa.
The family members held jackets over their heads to avoid being photographed. They boarded the bus and were driven to a remote entrance to the airport where they could wait out in private the six hours until their overseas flight.
Five minutes before the Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt was scheduled to depart, the family members emerged surrounded by bodyguards and were hustled through the main terminal. All but Juan Pablo held jackets over their heads. Pablo's son shouted threats at the mob of reporters pushing around them, and then disappeared down the jet way.
Magee and the Colombian policemen followed, taking seats in business class.
It was the first time Magee had seen the family. Maria Victoria was a short, fat woman with glasses, very conservatively and stylishly dressed. Nine-year-old Manuela was tiny and cute, and clung to her mother. Round-faced Juan Pablo stood 6 feet tall at age 16, a round-shouldered, portly boy. He and his girlfriend sat together, apart from his mother and sister.
Magee was wearing blue jeans and a long-sleeved shirt and carried a shoulder bag with a camera built into the bottom. He began snapping pictures of the family surreptitiously. An enterprising journalist had a seat next to Juan Pablo, trying to interview him with what appeared to be little success.
It was a nine-hour flight through Saturday night and into Sunday morning, and the family slept through much of it. Juan Pablo slumped deep into his seat and put his head back, alternately dozing and staring at the ceiling.
His girlfriend slept with her head on his shoulder. In two other seats, Manuela slept curled against her mother. Maria Victoria spoke only with her daughter, and always in whispers.
When the plane landed in Caracas at midday Sunday, there was so much security out on the runway that it looked to Magee like a head of state was arriving. It was the same in Frankfurt, hours later.
Unknown to the family, just an hour after their flight had left Bogota, a spokesman for the German Interior Minister had released a statement to the press announcing that the Escobars would not be allowed to enter Germany.
Soon afterwards, an angry Pablo Escobar was on the phone, blowing his Haiti cover story. He called the Presidential Palace in Bogota. "This is Pablo Escobar. I need to talk to the presidente," he told the operator at the palace.
"Okay, hold on, let me locate him," the operator said, and immediately patched the call to the national police. After a delay, a police officer posing as a palace operator came on the line and said, "We can't get in touch with the presidente right now. Please call back at another time."
The police officer had sized it up as a joke, and hung up. The phone rang again.
"This is Pablo Escobar. It is necessary that I talk to the presidente. My family is flying to Germany at this time. I need to talk to him right now."
"We get a lot of crank calls here," the officer said. "We need to somehow verify that it is really you. It's going to take me a few minutes to track down the presidente, so please wait a few more minutes and then call back."
With that, the officer informed his superiors that Pablo Escobar was making calls to the palace. Presidente Gaviria was notified; he said he would not speak with Escobar on the phone. When Pablo called back a third time, the Search Bloc was waiting, and the call surfaced on the electronic web.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Escobar, we have been unable to locate the presidente."
Escobar went beserk. He swore at the officer on the phone and said he would detonate a bus filled with dynamite in front of the palace and set off bombs all over Bogota. He would bomb the German embassy and begin killing Germans if his family was not allowed to enter that country. Minutes later he made similar threats on the phone to the German embassy and the Lufthansa office in Bogota.
No one had been able to get a precise fix on his location, but he was without a doubt still in Medellin.
NEXT: Escobar confronts vigilantes when he finds his family unprotected.
(c) 2000, The Philadelphia Inquirer.
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