The Hit Man Nobody Knows

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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."

The most dangerous man in the world checks in at about five-eight, maybe 160 pounds. He receives visitors from inside a cramped glass booth in the bowels of ADX.

At the supermax, prisoners spend an average of 22 hours a day locked down in cells not much larger than the glass booth. Muñoz Mosquera was one of the first inmates shipped to ADX, shortly after it opened in 1994. So far, he's spent a total of nine years in federal prisons. The United States government expects him to be its guest for the rest of his natural life. And nine lives after that.

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.

"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.

"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.

Under intense pressure domestically as well as from the Americans to end the violence, President Gaviria began to tighten a noose around Escobar. With the aid of sophisticated American spying equipment, Colombian forces chipped away at his cash flow and his hiding places. Members of the rival Cali cartel eagerly supplied damaging information, too.

By the summer of 1991, Escobar was willing to deal. He agreed to surrender on a minor drug charge and be sent to La Catedral -- a prison in his hometown, controlled by forces friendly to him -- rather than be shot on sight by stalking teams of police or snipers on the payrolls of rival cartels. The arrangement did little to disrupt his activities; he brought family members and prostitutes to his handsome suite, conducted business by phone, even tortured informants on occasion while his "guards" looked the other way. But the news that Escobar was a prisoner gave the impression that the government had triumphed.

La Quica was back in a Colombian prison in 1991, too. He says the charge had to do with possession of a weapon; other reports state that he was arrested for armed robbery. (One document connected with the offense indicates a pending homicide investigation.) He was still in prison, he notes, when a car bomb killed several government officials at a Colombian bullring, another crime his accusers have tried to blame on him. In April, he escaped again.

That fall, though, he found himself in a predicament from which he could not walk away. One rainy day in September 1991, acting on a tip that La Quica had slipped into the United States undetected, DEA agents staked out a phone booth in Queens. When Muñoz Mosquera showed up, they arrested him at gunpoint.

"I was carrying a fake passport and a fake photo ID," he recalls. "The cops threw me to the ground and took the passport out of my pocket. As soon as they stopped me, they told me my name. They told me, 'You're La Quica.'"

Muñoz Mosquera won't say why he was in the U.S., only that he was "fleeing the Colombian justice system." DEA agents told reporters they believed he would come to America only if he was on a mission of some kind, and they offered a range of possible targets: DEA buildings, suspected informants, even President Gaviria and President George Bush, who were scheduled to attend upcoming events at the United Nations. He'd apparently managed to take in some sightseeing along the way; one of his stops en route to New York had been a motel in California, within walking distance of Disneyland.

He was charged with carrying false identification and giving false information to a federal officer. The typical sentence for those offenses is six months. But prosecutors argued that Muñoz Mosquera was a major player in the most vicious criminal organization on the planet, and they needed time to build a larger case against him. The judge gave him the maximum sentence: six years.

La Quica was stunned. Aside from the little matter of the fake passport, he had committed no crimes in the United States. How could they keep him here? But keep him they did, pending the filing of more serious charges. In the summer of 1992, a grand jury returned an indictment on thirteen counts of murder, drug trafficking, racketeering and terrorism. At the heart of the indictment was a little-known 1986 law that authorized federal prosecution for terrorist acts committed against U.S. citizens abroad. The deaths of two Americans on Flight 203 had placed La Quica's hide under American jurisdiction.

Pablo Escobar was also named in the indictment, although there was little chance he would ever stand trial. Just weeks before, he had walked away from his temporary quarters at La Catedral, thwarting the government's efforts to move him to a "real" prison. He was now the most hunted fugitive in the hemisphere. According to Bowden's Killing Pablo, virtually everyone who was after him -- the Colombian police and military, the vigilante groups, the rival cartels, the covert American operatives -- wanted him dead. Period.

After Muñoz Mosquera's conviction on the fake ID charge, "they sent me to the prison in Marion, Illinois," he recalls. "Then they took me to court again. I was taken to the basement. There were a bunch of DEA agents there. They said that if I helped them find Escobar, they would put me in a good prison where I would be able to have relations with my wife. I would get a reconsideration of sentence. And if I did not help them, they would put me in the electric chair."

Over the next two years, federal prosecutors and the DEA prepared their case against La Quica, assembling the physical evidence and interrogating high-ranking drug informants in American prisons and abroad. By the time the case finally came to trial, in the spring of 1994, the Medellín cartel was in ruins.

Escobar's people had been picked off one by one. Some surrendered. Others were killed by police "while trying to escape" (a common euphemism for an informal execution) or assassinated by vigilantes. In the fall of 1992, lured by the promise of a $143,000 reward, an informant tipped a combined police-and-army unit to the whereabouts of La Quica's brother Tyson, wanted for crimes ranging from the 1990 Mother's Day bombing of shopping centers in Bogotá to the contract murders of more than 250 police officers. According to official reports, the 33-year-old Tyson was killed after he greeted the soldiers with a burst of machine-gun fire. La Quica says his brother had recently been in a car accident and was in bed at the time: "The police came into his house, into his bedroom and shot him."

In December 1993, it was Escobar's turn. After months of near-misses, the military had pinpointed his location in Medellín by eavesdropping on his phone calls. The former seventh-richest billionaire was shot and killed while attempting to flee across a rooftop.

Despite Escobar's death, the security at Muñoz Mosquera's trial was hypervigilant. A jailhouse informant claimed La Quica had plotted a prison escape and talked about arranging to have prosecutor Cheryl Pollak's throat slit. Muñoz Mosquera denied it all. Pollak was assigned 24-hour protection, and extra teams of federal marshals guarded the Brooklyn courtroom. A SWAT team waited in the courthouse basement, in case of an attempted escape or terrorist attack.

But the greatest threats to a successful prosecution of La Quica came from three unexpected sources: the Colombian government, the FBI's own crime lab, and the jury.

The first monkey wrench was hurled by Colombian attorney general Gustavo de Greiff. Right before the trial, de Greiff wrote to Judge Sterling Johnson to inform him that Colombia already had a suspect in custody who was considered to be the man responsible for the destruction of Flight 203 and the DAS bombing. An Escobar associate named Carlos Maria Alzate had confessed to both crimes, implicating various co-conspirators who were already dead.

"I felt necessary to inform you...with the intention to avoid the miscarriage of justice in the case you have in your hands," de Greiff wrote. "We have no evidence linking Mr. Muñoz Mosquera to that attack."

Both the DEA and the defense had interviewed Alzate in a Colombian prison. The prosecution team was convinced that his confession had been offered in return for a more lenient sentence on other pending charges; his information didn't match up with what was already known about the bombings. Even if he was involved, they reasoned, that didn't preclude the possibility that Muñoz Mosquera was involved, too. The defense was not as eager to dismiss Alzate, but Judge Johnson refused to postpone the trial, and the confession was never presented as evidence in Muñoz Mosquera's defense.

(For bringing the confession to the judge's attention, Gustavo de Greiff got his own special thanks from the prosecution. At the second trial, two government witnesses accused de Greiff, Colombia's top drug warrior, of being bribed or blackmailed by cartel leaders; Judge Johnson suggested that de Greiff could be an "unindicted co-conspirator." De Greiff denied the accusations. Years later, the Clinton administration would revoke de Greiff's U.S. visa -- he was then Colombia's ambassador to Mexico -- claiming alleged ties to drug traffickers. De Greiff and his supporters maintain that he is the victim of a smear campaign because of his outspoken criticism of America's drug-war policies.)

Still, the fact that Alzate's claims were being taken seriously in Colombia meant that La Quica's prosecutors had to be prepared to discredit them. And that led to the second monkey wrench, courtesy of FBI agent Whitehurst.

Whitehurst had supervised the FBI lab analysis of explosives residues gathered at the crash site. His initial report had identified the presence of high explosives known as RDX and PETN. Alzate claimed that the explosive used had been dynamite. Richard Hahn, the field agent investigating the bombing, asked Whitehurst if his residue analysis could establish that no dynamite had been used, thus discrediting Alzate's story.

Whitehurst replied that he couldn't rule out the possibility of dynamite. Furthermore, he couldn't rule out the possibility that his initial conclusions were erroneous because of contamination problems in the lab. Much to the prosecution's chagrin, he committed this information to writing, and his memorandum would have to be disclosed to the defense.

The tiff was part of an ongoing disagreement between Whitehurst and various field agents over mishandled evidence and distorted testimony in several major FBI cases, including the Oklahoma City and World Trade Center bombings. Procedures in the FBI lab lacked proper oversight, Whitehurst says, and he was under tremendous pressure from less scientifically trained case agents to make his findings fit their theory of the crime.

"All I was doing, as a scientist, was telling them what the data could mean," Whitehurst adds. "I couldn't discount the possibility that somebody used dynamite. But they want the answer they want, and they just want to attach your credentials to it. That's what was going on with the Muñoz Mosquera case."

Yet Whitehurst's doubts about what the physical evidence showed were never presented to the jury at either trial. Muñoz Mosquera says he never understood why his attorney, Richard Jasper, didn't try to use the Alzate confession or Whitehurst's memo, particularly after the first prosecution ended in a mistrial. Jasper couldn't be reached for comment.

In its investigation of the problems in the FBI lab, the Inspector General's Office concluded that Agent Hahn had testified to matters that were "beyond his expertise" at the Avianca trials and that his notions of what constituted expert knowledge of explosives were "incorrect and dangerous." His testimony at the second trial was also incomplete because it failed to acknowledge Whitehurst's dissenting memo, the report added. At the same time, the report blasted that memo as "scientifically flawed" and characterized Whitehurst's conduct in the affair as unprofessional.

The prosecutors' response to the Inspector General's report took issue with many of its conclusions. Their chief argument was that the type of explosive used was irrelevant; the government's case had relied much more strongly on twenty "cooperating witnesses," mostly former Escobar associates turned informants, who had tied Muñoz Mosquera to the cartel and the bombing.

The first time around, two jurors were curiously unmoved by the testimony of those witnesses. They believed La Quica was being scapegoated, and no amount of haranguing by their fellow jurors could change their minds. At the second trial, prosecutors Pollak and Beth Wilkinson had an even stronger lineup of snitches and a more cooperative panel.

Some of the most damning testimony came from Carlos Botero, a former major trafficker in Escobar's employ who claimed to have gone on bombing runs with Muñoz Mosquera. (One such trip, he said, involved an aborted attempt to kill the senior George Bush by firing a rocket at Air Force One.) Escobar told him La Quica had done the Avianca job, Botero testified, and Muñoz Mosquera himself had once boasted about "blowing up an airplane to kill two sons-of-bitches informants."

Muñoz Mosquera listened through headphones but showed no sign of recognizing the cooperating witnesses. He did not know them, he insisted. He was not the man they were talking about.

The jury thought he was. They found him guilty on all thirteen counts on December 19, 1994. It was the first successful federal prosecution of a terrorist for killing Americans on foreign soil, the first federal conviction for an airline bombing.

Judge Johnson seemed disappointed that Pollak and Wilkinson hadn't sought to make it a capital case. Before passing sentence, he told the defendant: "Not only are you an evil man, the things that you did, you enjoyed. These things cry out for the death penalty."

La Quica had a short speech prepared in Spanish: "I'd just like to say that God and the government know I'm innocent. Thank you very much, and God bless you."

Judge Johnson gave him ten life sentences. Plus 45 years.

In 1995, Attorney General Janet Reno presented the Exceptional Service award, the Justice Department's highest honor, to prosecutors Pollak and Wilkinson and lead DEA agent Sam Trotman for their efforts in the Muñoz Mosquera case.

Pollak is now a federal magistrate judge. Wilkinson went on to play a principal role in the prosecutions of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols and is now in private practice. Neither one responded to requests for comment about Muñoz Mosquera. Agent Trotman declined comment, too, saying that he needed to obtain clearance from his superiors.

Fred Whitehurst is now the director of the Forensic Justice Project, a nonprofit watchdog group that investigates crime-lab blunders. In 1997, on the day the Inspector General's report on the FBI lab came out, "I was put on administrative leave and kicked out of the building," he says. "A year later I settled a lawsuit with the FBI. It was just like I'd retired at 57. I thought it was a retirement, anyway -- until I walked out and realized they'd snookered the paperwork and put it out as a resignation."

According to Whitehurst, problems at the FBI lab continue. "[Retiring director] Louis Freeh turned the FBI from a billion-dollar-a-year enterprise to a three-billion-dollar-a-year enterprise, but none of that money was set aside for oversight," he says. "I worked the highest-profile cases the bureau had when I was there, and I tell you, the pressure to come up with the 'right' results was phenomenal. You get to a point where you have to establish your own morality."

Smashing the Medellín and Cali cartels is considered one of the great successes of the drug war, yet the cartels' demise failed to arrest the flow of drugs and violence in Colombia. It merely changed the shape of the business. Now the drug trade is controlled by smaller, more elusive groups with intimate ties to Marxist guerrillas or right-wing paramilitary movements. Some of these players were boosted into prominence by their vigilante efforts -- aided by American training and equipment -- in the crusade against Escobar.

"Colombia is reaping the whirlwind," says Bruce Bagley, a professor of international studies at the University of Miami who writes frequently on narco-politics. "There are benefits, certainly, to dismantling two of the largest criminal organizations ever seen on the face of the earth. But what we didn't anticipate were the unintended consequences of leaving a vacuum. Rather than the traditional cartels, we have the chaos that is now Colombia. The guerrillas and the paramilitaries are all fed by drug money."

Dandenis Muñoz Mosquera sits in a glass booth at ADX, serving ten lifetimes for crimes that officials in his own country say were committed by others. It's as if France had convicted John Doe Number Two, a terrorist the FBI says does not exist, for killing a Frenchman in the Oklahoma City bombing.

La Quica still can't believe it. He has documents. He has alibis. Nobody will listen to him. "They didn't care that I hadn't committed any crimes," he says. "They just wanted to use me...It's only in this country that they put those charges against me, because they thought I could lead them to Escobar...These other people confessed. The Colombian government made an investigation and determined those confessions were correct."

He is trapped in the lens of the drug war, which magnifies certain details and obliterates others. Gaze through one end of the tube and you see one of the great monsters of our age, a bomber of airplanes and daycare centers, a contract killer with the indiscriminate cruelty of a deranged child.

Look through the other end and you see a little man in a box, still talking, still searching for an exit.

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