TODAY COLOMBIA (Nypost.com) – The white, blood-spattered truck screeched to a halt outside the Hospital Universitario San Vicente de Paul, Medellín’s biggest public clinic.
“Rapido! Rapido!” someone yelled over a cacophony of sirens, honking car horns and more screeching tires.
A band of teenage boy and girl scouts in neatly pressed khaki uniforms swarmed to open the back passenger door.
It was just past midnight on a chilly evening in March 1993, and the passenger had been shot in the head. Blood was soaking his face, dripping down his neck, pooling on the collar of his white polo, the stains spreading down his back and chest.
I had landed in the middle of the world’s most violent drug war, where the city’s public hospital was so overwhelmed with gunshot victims that staff had co-opted children to carry them inside.
With a shortage of orderlies, the hospital administration had gotten the leader of the local troop to let scouts do their community service outside the emergency room. Their macabre shifts were 12 hours long.
I watched horrified as a girl and two boys rushed to lift the man out of the truck. The girl scout, 15, strained under the weight of the body, while the boys grappled with his legs. They heaved him on a stretcher and wheeled him past the hospital’s iron gates, even though everyone knew there was no helping him. He was already dead.
The scouts returned to the entrance, their uniforms drenched in blood.
This was the 40th casualty of the evening, and before dawn, we would see 30 more injured gangsters and innocent bystanders, most of whom rolled out of the bloodsoaked back seats of taxis. Nobody bothered with ambulances in this town; they were booked.
“Welcome to Pablo Escobar’s jamboree,” I scrawled in my notebook, recording a typical Friday night in the world’s cocaine capital.
On The Front Lines
One of the most buzzed-about new shows this fall is Netflix’s “Narcos,” which tells the story of Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. I love the show, especially Brazilian actor Wagner Moura’s portrayal of Escobar as a ruthless criminal trying to cloak his wrongdoing under the mantle of a modern-day Robin Hood. But it brings back disturbing memories of one of my first assignments as a journalist — covering the Medellín cartel and the drug wars of the early 1990s.
I arrived in Medellín as a 26-year-old foreign correspondent for Canada’s Globe and Mail a few months after Pablo Escobar escaped from his posh jail, nicknamed “La Catedral,” in the hills overlooking Colombia’s second largest city. Before the drug lords took it over, Medellín was an important industrial center, a bustling city nestled in a valley in the central part of the Andes.
In 1991, the cocaine kingpin, who controlled 80 percent of the drug’s world production, made a deal with Colombian authorities to avoid extradition to the United States — he would serve five years in a luxurious prison he financed. Escobar had presided over a reign of terror and was behind the murder of a newspaper publisher and a presidential candidate and the kidnapping and deaths of dozens of judges, journalists and community activists.
But when authorities learned that he continued to manage his cocaine empire from his opulent jail, and that he even killed two of his former lieutenants there for shortchanging him, they decided to haul him off to a real jail. Escobar found out through his network of spies and escaped.
Between July 1992, when he fled La Catedral, and March 1993, the Medellín cartel’s assassins killed 100 police officers in Colombia’s cocaine capital.
Meanwhile, a new paramilitary group — drawn from off-duty police and from Escobar’s former lieutenants who rose up after the savage murder of his former cartel colleagues — sought revenge.
The “Pepes” (a Spanish acronym for “people persecuted by Pablo Escobar”) vowed that for every slain cop, they would kill 10 of Escobar’s “sicarios” — the teenage henchmen who lived in the city’s hillside shantytowns. It was war.
City of Death
Battle lines in Medellín were difficult to chronicle. Gang members, paramilitary groups and traffickers all vied for control of the city’s billion-dollar drug trade. This crossfire resulted in 20,000 homicides a year.
In 1992, there were 28,000 killings in the city of 2.5 million people. By comparison, New York City, with its 8 million residents, saw 2,020 murders that year. We call those the bad old days.
I lived in a series of cheap hotels in the center of town, the walls pockmarked with bullet holes and the carpets smelling of stale cigarettes. An armed guard milled around the lobby. The four-star hotels were more secure, but I never wanted to stay in places guarded by nervous soldiers wielding AK-47s and clutching the short leashes of fierce-looking German shepherds; you felt like a bigger target.
As a Canadian, I was a threat to no one. Drug traffickers simply didn’t care about how their violent deeds played out in a place like Winnipeg. As a result, I had better access than my US or even Colombian colleagues, many of whom lived with constant death threats. Still, I kept a low profile. I rarely went out late at night. After filing stories, I headed with a small group of journalists to the hotel bar, where we downed Cuba libres.
Most of my reporting time was spent in the shantytowns, or comunas, where violence was out of control — where signposts designated the site of the latest bloodbath.
When I arrived at Villatina and asked for the local priest’s home, the answer didn’t surprise me.
“You go up this hill a ways and make a left at where last week’s massacre took place.”
I took up smoking in Medellín. Smoke covered up the smell of rotting corpses, and a pack of Marlboros served as a kind of passport into the worst areas of the city.
It cost me only a few cigarettes to get by a phalanx of teen gang members at the entrance of Villatina.
Villatina became notorious in 1992 after the murder of a group of schoolkids. They were victims of the war on Escobar — nine children and one young adult gunned down by off-duty police. All were members of a Protestant youth group. The assassins had mistaken them for gang members.
The 12 masked cops who participated in the killings briefly debated sparing the youngest, an 8-year-old whose leg was in a cast. But Johana Mazo Ramirez would be the last one shot, a witness said.
At Villatina, I trudged to the massacre site, notebook in hand, before meeting with a group of sicarios, marveling that the local vernacular borrowed a term from ancient Rome — “sicario” is Latin for “dagger wielder” — to describe their work as hit men for Escobar.
They had spent their lives in wretched poverty in the comunas and saw Escobar as a savior. He had built them a soccer stadium, armed them and even presided at their family celebrations. The sicarios weren’t hard to talk to, especially if you got them on the subject of Escobar’s good works.
One of them — a 17-year-old who had murdered more than two dozen people for “Don Pablo” — showed me his silver Virgin Mary medallion and told me his dream was to buy his mother a refrigerator.
“You have only one mother, but any son of a bitch can be a father,” he said.
After more than a year of covering the city, I had good sources among the police and sicarios. It was the drug traffickers I avoided — sinister in their mirrored Ray-Bans and pressed bluejeans, speeding through the city’s hilly neighborhoods in their souped-up Toyota Land Cruisers and Mitsubishi Monteros.
I was once bold enough to ask Fabio Ochoa Restrepo, father of Medellín cartel members Jorge Luis, Fabio Jr. and Juan David, where his wealth came from. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Ochoa brothers shipped thousands of tons of cocaine to the United States, helping Escobar turn the cartel into the most powerful drug-trafficking organization in the world. Jorge Luis Ochoa was regularly featured on Forbes magazine’s list of world billionaires. Now the three sons all languished in a Medellín jail.
“You journalists are all alike,” the 70-year-old patriarch spat, sitting on a red velvet banquette of the steakhouse he owned. “You think I’m nothing more than a mafioso.”
It’s true that “Don Fabio,” as he was known, bred champion Colombian walking horses, but where did the money come from to create his $25 million equine empire? I naively insisted he answer my question and boldly reminded him that he didn’t begin to acquire horses until after his sons hooked up with Escobar.
He seemed genuinely offended. “I made my money honestly,” he said, before he signaled to his bodyguards to throw me out.
A Bloody Legacy
Escobar was gunned down by Colombian police and US DEA agents a day after his 44th birthday in December 1993. They traced a cellphone call to his young son and shot the kingpin several times on the roof of a safe house in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in Medellín.
For my editors in Toronto, the story was over. They didn’t even see the need to cover Escobar’s funeral. I knew they were wrong. There were too many guns and too many disaffected young men who had spent their adolescence killing Don Pablo’s enemies. The violence, I knew, would continue, and it would probably get worse.
Less than a year later, when I was in Haiti covering the US invasion, I caught a TV news clip of police at a nightclub surrounding the body of Colombian soccer star Andres Escobar (no relation to Pablo). The dateline was Medellín, so I stopped to watch. About a week earlier, Andres mistakenly deflected a ball into his own net during a game, causing the Colombians to lose to the United States and get eliminated from the 1994 World Cup.
When he returned home, Andres Escobar was gunned down. Before they shot him six times, the sicarios made sure he knew why he was about to die.
They said he had brought dishonor to his hometown.