By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
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By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
"Are we losing the drug war so badly that people have decided the law doesn't work in this circumstance?" he asks. "We're at war, but we're trying to use the mechanisms of justice. What happens at the end of the fight, when you've blown away your justice system?"
In 1989, Forbes magazine pegged Pablo Escobar as the seventh-richest man in the world, with an estimated wealth of $3 billion. It was one of the bloodiest fortunes of modern times, a portfolio accumulated through murder and America's boundless appetite for cocaine.
Despite his lingering image as the Robin Hood of the Medellín slums, using driblets of drug money to fund housing projects and soccer fields, there was nothing terribly romantic -- or subtle -- about Escobar's business. He consolidated his control of the worldwide cocaine trade by wiping out rivals and purging his own ranks of anyone suspected of holding back profits. Then he declared war on the government, putting hefty bounties on police officials, magistrates who signed arrest warrants, even intransigent Supreme Court justices. By the late 1980s, his cartel had become a kind of shadow government itself, forcing Colombia to rescind its extradition laws so that he and his captains could remain out of reach of any foreign power. The same year he made the Forbes list, the year of the Avianca and DAS bombings, his organization was blamed for the assassination of three of the five candidates running for president.
At the core of Escobar's marketing strategy were the sicarios, the career killers recruited from the streets of Medellín. They reportedly numbered in the thousands; many had started in their teens or even earlier, shooting cops or rival dealers from the back of speeding motorcycles for modest pay. They sent an unmistakable message to the highest levels of Colombian society: Life is cheap, cheaper than cocaine, so don't mess with Pablo.
Muñoz Mosquera denies he was ever a member of the sicarios, much less one of their leaders. Born in Medellín, with a policeman for a father and an evangelist mother, he says he "studied all the way through grammar school" and went into the army as a teenager. "When I left the military in 1986, that's when I started having trouble with the justice system," he says. "I was in jail three or four times because of theft."
At his trial, though, prosecutors presented an entirely different picture of La Quica. They placed him in a criminal conspiracy dating back to 1978, when he was twelve years old. They said he rose in the cartel with the aid of his brother Brance, also known as "Tyson" because of his resemblance to the boxer; Tyson had known Escobar since childhood and had reportedly drawn others in his family into the drug trade.
Witnesses claimed to have seen La Quica in the late 1980s among Escobar's bodyguards at the drug lord's headquarters, an 8,000-acre ranch outside Medellín. They claimed that La Quica appeared to be intimately involved with the planning of various tortures and murders. He had a way with explosives, one said, and a talent for organization, requiring sicarios to notify him in advance of their intended targets and to bring a newspaper clipping to confirm the kill.
Muñoz Mosquera disputes this, of course. Yes, he says, Tyson worked for Escobar. Yes, several of his brothers died violently, at least three at the hands of police officers. But he, La Quica, was only a small-time motorcycle thief. The witnesses are lying. He does not know them. They could not have seen him in 1988, as one claimed, because he was in prison for auto theft at the time. Yes, he did escape that prison, along with Tyson, but not in a helicopter, as the newspapers claim. Someone else left that prison in a helicopter.
Whatever his true role in the cartel, his name did not surface in connection with the Avianca bombing until years after the event. Speculation in Colombia at the time pointed to Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha, also known as "The Mexican," one of Escobar's most feared associates, who was killed by police a few weeks later. Other alleged co-conspirators included Tyson, but his little brother was not mentioned. According to some reports, the bomb had been carried on board in a briefcase by a dupe -- a suizo -- who'd been instructed to turn a knob on a "radio" in the case shortly after takeoff. The intended target may have been one of the remaining presidential candidates, César Gaviria, who was not on the plane and went on to be elected. An alternate theory of the crime, presented at La Quica's trials, is that the bomb was meant for two informants who were on the flight.
The Avianca disaster and the attack on the DAS headquarters a few days later -- an overkill attempt to eliminate General Miguel Maza, head of state security, who emerged unscathed -- provided dramatic evidence that Escobar was no longer a regional or even a national problem. His organization had become an international terrorist threat. The cartel was suspected in a rocket attack on the United States embassy in Bogotá, and men working for Escobar had been arrested in Miami while shopping for anti-aircraft missiles. For American as well as Colombian officials, Escobar had become Public Enemy Number One.