The Hit Man Nobody Knows

The government says he killed more people than Tim McVeigh. He lives in a cell a hundred miles from Denver. So how come you've never heard of La Quica?

La Quica does not care much for his ADX accommodations. The small booth is just one of the many indignities he must bear. His lawyer does not answer his letters. The world has forgotten him. And the Americans plan to keep him in a little box until he rots -- a harsher fate, surely, than the painless exit awaiting Timothy McVeigh.

"When I first went to prison," he says, "I had a boy who was three and a girl who was four. I can never see them. They are now teenagers. I would give my life for liberty."

Liberty? For the worst mass murderer in any American prison? Ah, he says, but he is not the man the Americans say he is. He did not do these things.

Talk to the hand: La Quica was a fugitive from Colombian justice when DEA agents arrested him in New York in 1991.
Brett Amole
Talk to the hand: La Quica was a fugitive from Colombian justice when DEA agents arrested him in New York in 1991.

"I was accused in this country, not my own," he says. "They put fake witnesses on the stand, people I had never seen. And these people testified that I had committed this terrible crime...I had never seen these people before in my life."

Of course, he adds, many criminals say they are innocent. But his story is the truth, he insists. It's also more complicated than most, since it involves the often-strained relationship between the governments of Colombia and the U.S. over the escalating drug war, conflicting theories about motives and suspects, and the American obsession with bringing down Escobar and the people around him at all costs -- a resolve that led to the groundbreaking federal prosecution of La Quica for a crime that occurred in another country, thousands of miles away.

If he is guilty, he argues, why did his own government never prosecute him? Colombia has never charged him with many of the crimes he's been accused of by the American prosecutors, including the Avianca bombing, the DAS bombing, the 1989 murder of presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán and several other assassinations. He has letters from various Colombian officials that suggest he is not even considered a suspect in these conspiracies, for which various other Escobar associates have been convicted or are still being pursued. (Just last month, Colombian prosecutors issued an arrest warrant for a fugitive named Eugenio León García Jaramillo, for his alleged involvement in the DAS and Avianca cases.) La Quica also has documents that indicate he was in prison at the time some of these killings took place.

"I was never in prison for terrorism. I was never in prison for killing anybody," he says. "The Americans just wanted to use me to get to Escobar. My country had the jurisdiction; they made a lot of investigations. You think if I was guilty of blowing up that airplane, they wouldn't want to prosecute me? The same thing with the DAS bombing. Many people died. I was never accused of it there -- just in this country."

He speaks quickly, in a flat, emotionless whisper. His arguments seem sensible -- and they would be, perhaps, if he was talking about any place but Colombia. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Colombia's justice system was on the brink of collapse. Police and judges assigned to battle the cartels had three choices: a bribe, a bullet, or early retirement. The prisons were less secure than the average American high school; much to the embarrassment of the national police, Escobar continued to run his operation from lavish prison digs for thirteen months, then simply walked away before the government could transfer him to a less cozy penitentiary. Muñoz Mosquera escaped from Colombian prisons twice, in 1988 and 1991; the first time, he was accompanied by his older brother Brance, who later became Escobar's chief of security.

Still, Muñoz Mosquera has found support for his claims in unlikely places. In April 1994, on the eve of his first trial for the Avianca bombing, the federal judge overseeing the case received an urgent letter from Colombia's attorney general informing him that Colombian prosecutors had no evidence linking Muñoz Mosquera to the attack and that another man had already confessed to the crime. The trial lasted two months and ended with the jury deadlocked after more than a week of deliberation. Five months later, after a second lengthy trial, La Quica was found guilty on all thirteen counts.

The case still troubles former FBI agent Fred Whitehurst, a bomb expert who maintains that the testimony concerning the explosives used in the Avianca bombing was terribly flawed. Whitehurst wasn't directly involved in building the prosecution, but his whistleblowing protests in the Muñoz Mosquera case and several other high-profile federal cases eventually triggered a wide-ranging investigation by the Justice Department's Inspector General into allegations of tainted evidence and coverups in the FBI crime laboratory.

"The government was in kind of a pickle," Whitehurst says now. "Muñoz Mosquera had already notched his gun 53 times with the deaths of Colombian policemen. He was an internationally known assassin. That was what we were being told, okay? So how are you going to put him back on the street? They had to come up with some damned excuse."

For Whitehurst, the key issue isn't whether Muñoz Mosquera is guilty or simply a convenient fall guy for Escobar. The larger question is whether the United States broke the rules to convict him, as it has done in many other arenas of the drug war. As detailed in Mark Bowden's new book Killing Pablo, based on his series in the Philadelphia Inquirer last fall, the war on the Medellín cartel led to a number of questionable actions by American military and intelligence officials, including an uneasy alliance with paramilitary and vigilante groups within Colombia. Whitehurst says the same philosophy of "ends justifying means" haunts the Muñoz Mosquera case.

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