Longform

The Hit Man Nobody Knows

This much is certain: On the morning of November 27, 1989, Avianca Airlines Flight 203 took off from Bogotá, Colombia, headed for the city of Cali. The Cali run is a journey of a few hundred miles over mountainous terrain, requiring less than an hour in the air.

Flight 203 lasted fewer than six minutes.

According to the black box found in the wreckage, Flight 203 had reached an altitude of 13,000 feet when the first explosion ripped through the cabin. Eyewitnesses on the ground saw fire shooting out of the right side of the plane. A few seconds later, a second explosion blew the plane apart, killing 101 passengers and six crew members. Body parts, luggage and pieces of fuselage scattered across three miles of hillsides, killing another three people on the ground who happened to be in the path of the wreckage.

Nine days after the Avianca blast, a schoolbus packed with a ton of dynamite blew up outside the Bogotá headquarters of the Department of Administrative Security, or DAS, Colombia's equivalent of the FBI. The explosion killed dozens outright -- within a few weeks, the body count soared to more than seventy people -- and injured hundreds more. Many of the victims were children playing in a daycare center in the building.

Among the drug warriors in Colombia and the United States, there was no doubt about who was responsible for the Avianca and DAS bombings. Such grandiose acts of terror bore the stamp of Pablo Escobar, lord of the Medellín cartel, whose struggle to hold onto his vast cocaine empire had plunged his country into a ghastly spiral of extortion, corruption, assassination and mass murder. Only Escobar was ruthless enough to order the wholesale slaughter of innocents just to eliminate a single enemy, a police chief or an informant.

But when it came to figuring out who had actually executed the orders, who had planted the bombs and why, the Colombian and American governments disagreed. They still do.

The American theory, as it developed over the next five years, would focus on one man, Dandenis Muñoz Mosquera. According to intelligence reports, Muñoz Mosquera had started working for Escobar at the age of twelve and made his way through Medellín's legions of killers to the top of the heap. The United States government would link him to the deaths of more than 220 people, including the Avianca and DAS bombings, the murders of dozens of Colombian police officers and judges, and numerous political assassinations.

It was said that Muñoz Mosquera ran an "executioner's camp" in Medellín that transformed poor teenagers into sicarios, professional hit men. A DEA agent described him as the "Al Capone of the drug-murder circuit." There were people who claimed that he had skinned victims alive and even castrated some. At the time of the Avianca bombing, he was 23 years old.

Among Escobar's people, Muñoz Mosquera was known as La Quica, a feminine, innocent-sounding nickname dating back to his childhood resemblance to a favorite great-aunt. But to the DEA he was a monster, a killing machine that must be stopped. And the incineration of Flight 203 had given the U.S. Department of Justice a way to go after him -- not for 200 deaths, but for two.

Carlos Andres Escobí and Astrid del Pilar Gómez were both passengers on the doomed flight. Both happened to be American citizens.


Several months ago, Westword requested an interview with Dandenis Muñoz Mosquera, now serving ten consecutive life sentences on charges of racketeering, conspiracy, drug trafficking and murder stemming from the bombing of Flight 203. Such requests take time to make their way through the screening process of the federal Bureau of Prisons, especially when the prisoner in question is housed at the U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum, also known as ADX, the highest-security prison in the federal system.



Located just outside the town of Florence, ADX has been home to some of the most notorious murderers of our time, including Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef -- and, before his trip to the Indiana death house, Timothy McVeigh. All of them are pikers, if you compare their actions to the horrific crimes attributed to La Quica. Yet few people outside of Colombia have ever heard of Muñoz Mosquera.

But among those who know his reputation, the mere mention of his name commands instant respect. To speak with him required a translator, and the person approached for the job, a young man of Colombian heritage, knew instantly what was being asked of him.

"Is this the guy they call 'La Quica'?" he asked.

He was told yes, that is Muñoz Mosquera's nickname.

"Oh, man," he groaned. "This guy is, like, the most dangerous man in the world."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast