The Medellín Cartel was an organized network of “drug suppliers and smugglers” originating in the city of Medellín, Colombia.
The drug cartel operated in Colombia, Bolivia, Peru, Central America, the United States, as well as Canada and Europe throughout the 1970s and 1980s. It was founded and run by Ochoa Vázquez brothers Jorge Luis, Juan David, and Fabio together with Pablo Escobar.
By 1993, the Colombian government, in collaboration with the Cali cartel, right-wing paramilitary groups, and the United States government, had successfully dismantled the cartel by imprisoning or assassinating its members.
In the late 1970s, the illegal cocaine trade took off and became a major source of profit. By 1982, cocaine surpassed coffee as an export, making up 30% of all Colombian exports. Many members of the new class of wealthy drug barons began purchasing enormous quantities of land, in order to launder their drug money, and to gain social status amongst the traditional Colombian elite. By the late 1980s, drug traffickers were the largest landholders in Colombia and wielded immense political power. They used much of their land for grazing cattle, or left it completely idle as a show of wealth. They also raised private armies to fight off guerrillas who were trying to either redistribute their lands to local peasants, kidnap them, or extort the gramaje money FARC attempted to steal.
At the end of 1981 and the beginning of 1982, members of the Medellín Cartel, the Colombian military, the U.S.-based corporation Texas Petroleum, the Colombian legislature, small industrialists, and wealthy cattle ranchers came together in a series of meetings in Puerto Boyacá, and formed a paramilitary organization known as Muerte a Secuestradores (“Death to Kidnappers”, MAS) to defend their economic interests, to fight against the guerrillas, and to provide protection for local elites from kidnappings and extortion. By 1983, Colombian internal affairs had registered 240 political killings by MAS death squads, mostly community leaders, elected officials, and farmers.
The following year, the Asociación Campesina de Ganaderos y Agricultores del Magdalena Medio (“Association of Middle Magdalena Ranchers and Farmers”, ACDEGAM) was created to handle both the logistics and the public relations of the organization, and to provide a legal front for various paramilitary groups. ACDEGAM worked to promote anti-labor policies, and threatened anyone involved with organizing for labor or peasants’ rights. The threats were backed up by the MAS, which would come in and attack or assassinate anyone who was suspected of being a “subversive”. ACDEGAM also built schools whose stated purpose was the creation of a “patriotic and anti-Communist” educational environment, and built roads, bridges, and health clinics. Paramilitary recruiting, weapons storage, communications, propaganda, and medical services were all run out of ACDEGAM headquarters.
By the mid-1980s ACDEGAM and MAS had experienced significant growth. In 1985, the powerful drug traffickers Pablo Escobar, Jorge Luis Ochoa, and Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha began funneling large amounts of cash into the organization to pay for weaponry, equipment and training. Money for social projects was cut off, and was put towards strengthening the MAS. Modern battle rifles such as the Galil, HK G3, FN FAL, and AKM were purchased from the military and INUNDIL and through drug-funded private sales. The organization had computers and ran a communications center that worked in coordination with the state telecommunications office. They had thirty pilots, and an assortment of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. U.S., Israeli, British military instructors were hired to teach at paramilitary training centers.
During the height of its operations, the cartel brought in more than $60 million per day The total amount of money made by the cartel was in the tens of billions, and very possibly the hundreds of billions of dollars. There were many “groups” during the cartel’s years, usually white Americans, Canadians or Europeans, organized for the sole purpose of transporting shipments of cocaine destined for the United States, Europe and Canada. While many groups were infiltrated and taken down by Federal agents and informers, a few were stumbled upon by authorities, usually due to some small misstep or careless behavior by a group member.
Relations with the Colombian governmentOnce authorities were made aware of “questionable activities”, the group would be put under Federal Drug Task Force surveillance. Evidence would be gathered, compiled and presented to a Grand Jury, resulting in indictments, arrests and prison sentences, for those convicted. The number of Colombian Cartel Leaders actually taken into custody as a result of these operations was very few. Mostly, non-Colombians conspiring with the Cartel were the “fruits” of these indictments.
Most Colombians targeted, as well as those named in such indictments, lived and stayed in Colombia, or fled before indictments were unsealed. However, by 1993 most, if not all, cartel fugitives had been imprisoned or hunted and gunned down by the Colombian National Police trained and assisted by U.S. Delta Force units and the CIA.
While it is broadly believed that the group “Los Pepes” have been instrumental in the assassination of the cartel’s members over the last 17 years, it is still in dispute whether the mantle is just a screen designed to deflect political repercussions from both the Colombian and United States governments involvement in these assassinations.
Fear of extraditionPerhaps the greatest threat posed to the Medellín Cartel and the other traffickers was the implementation of an extradition treaty between the United States and Colombia. It allowed Colombia to extradite any Colombian suspected of drug trafficking to the US and to be put on trial there for their crimes. This was a major problem for the cartel since the drug traffickers had little access to their local power and influence in the US, and a trial there would most likely lead to imprisonment. Among the staunch supporters of the extradition treaty were Colombian Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, Police Officer Jaime Ramírez and numerous Supreme Court Judges.
However, the cartel applied a “bend or break” strategy towards several of these supporters, using bribery, extortion or violence. However, when police efforts began to cause major losses, some of the major drug lords themselves were temporarily pushed out of Colombia, going into hiding while they ordered cartel members to take out key supporters of the extradition treaty.
Rodrigo Lara Bonilla was pushing for more action against the drug cartels.
The cartel issued death threats to the Supreme Court Judges, asking them to denounce the Extradition Treaty. The warnings were ignored. In November 1985, 35 heavily armed members of the M-19 guerilla group stormed the Colombian Supreme Court in Bogotá, leading to the Palace of Justice siege. The army and the police attempted to rescue the hostages, but the operation ended tragically with many of the hostages killed in the crossfire and heavy casualties. Some claimed at the time that the Cartel’s influence was behind the M-19′s raid, because of its interest in intimidating the Supreme Court. The issue continues to be debated inside Colombia.
The cartel and terrorismOn August 18, 1989, the cartel murdered leading presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán, and declared “total and absolute war” against the Colombian government, seeking to stop potential extradition of its members. The strategy consisted of terrorizing the civilian population and cornering the government. The cartel conducted hundreds of terrorist attacks against civilian and governmental targets. However, the cartel had already started a campaign of assassinations of key political figures, as far back as 1984. The following is a list of the most notable incidents involving the Medellín cartel:
May 30, 1989: Attempted assassination of Miguel Maza Marquez, director of the Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad (DAS) in Bogotá. Car bomb. 4 dead, 37 injured.
September 2, 1989: Car bomb against major newspaper El Espectador in Bogotá. 84 wounded. Guillermo Cano Isaza, director of the newspaper had been killed on Escobar’s orders on December 17, 1986.
October 16, 1989: Car bomb against newspaper Vanguardia Liberal, in Bucaramanga. Four killed.
November 27, 1989: The cartel bombs Avianca Flight 203 during flight over Bogotá while attempting to kill presidential candidate César Gaviria Trujillo, who had not boarded the plane. 110 are killed.
December 6, 1989: DAS headquarters in downtown Bogotá is bombed with over 1,100 pounds of explosives during the morning rush. The attack kills over 50, injures more than 600, and levels several city blocks, destroying more than 300 commercial properties.
May 13, 1990: Two bombs detonate separately at the Quirigua and Niza shopping malls during Mother’s Day in Bogotá, killing 14 and wounding over 100.
February 16, 1991: The cartel detonates a 440-pound car bomb outside La Macarena, a Bullring in Medellín, killing 22.
January 30, 1993: A car bomb in downtown Bogotá kills 20. The bomb was set off in a high-rise area, and most of the dead were in higher floors as the explosive wave traveled up the buildings.
April 15, 1993: A car bomb kills 15 and injures over 100 outside the Centro 93 shopping mall in northern Bogotá.
As a means of intimidation, the cartel conducted several hundred assassinations throughout the country. Escobar and his associates made it clear that whoever stood against them would risk being killed along with his/her families. Some estimates put the total around 3,500 killed during the height of the cartel, including over 500 police officers in Medellín, but the entire list is impossible to assemble, due to the limitation of the judiciary power in Colombia. The following is a brief list of the most notorious assassinations conducted by the cartel:
Luis Vasco and Gilberto Hernandez, two DAS agents who had arrested Pablo Escobar in 1976. One of the earliest assassinations of authority figures by the cartel.
Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, Minister of Justice, killed on a Bogotá highway on April 30, 1984 when two gunmen riding a motorcycle approached his vehicle in traffic and opened fire.
Tulio Manuel Castro Gil, Superior Judge, killed by motorcycle gunmen in July 1985 shortly after indicting Escobar.
Hernando Baquero Borda, Supreme Court Justice, killed by gunmen in Bogotá on July 31, 1986.
Jaime Ramírez, Police Colonel and head of the anti-narcotics unit of the National Police of Colombia. Killed on a Medellín highway in November 1986 when assassins in a red Renault pulled up beside his white Toyota minivan and opened fire. Ramírez was killed instantly; his wife and two sons were wounded.
Guillermo Cano Isaza, director of El Espectador, killed on December 1986 in Bogotá by gunmen riding a motorcycle.
Jaime Pardo Leal, presidential candidate and head of the Patriotic Union party, killed by a gunman on October, 1987.
Carlos Mauro Hoyos, Attorney General, killed by gunmen in Medellín on January 1988.
Antonio Roldan Betancur, governor of Antioquia, killed by a car bomb in July 1989.
Valdemar Franklin Quintero, Commander of the Antioquia police, killed by gunmen in Medellín in August 1989.
Luis Carlos Galán, presidential candidate, killed by gunmen during a rally in Soacha in August 1989. The assassination was carried out on the same day the commander of the Antioquia police was gunned down by the cartel.
Carlos Ernesto Valencia, Superior Judge, killed by gunmen shortly after indicting Escobar on the death of Guillermo Cano, in August 1989.
Jorge Enrique Pulido, journalist, director of Jorge Enrique Pulido TV, killed by gunmen in Bogotá in November 1989.
Diana Turbay, journalist, chief editor of the Hoy por Hoy magazine, killed during a rescue attempt in January 1991.
Enrique Low Murtra, Minister of Justice, killed by gunmen in downtown Bogotá on May 1991.
Myriam Rocio Velez, Superior Judge, killed by gunmen shortly before she was to sentence Escobar on the assassination of Galan, in September 1992.
End of the cartel
The cartel’s violence earned it the enmity of the Colombian and U.S. governments in addition to that of its rival Cali Cartel.
Many members of the cartel, including Pablo Escobar, were hunted and killed by a National Police of Colombia force, the Search Bloc, which had been trained and assisted by both the U.S. Delta Force as well as the CIA. Escobar’s cartel associates were also targeted by the Los Pepes vigilante group.
DEA Agents considered that their four-pronged ‘Kingpin Strategy’, specifically targeting senior cartel figures, was a major contributing factor to the collapse of the organization