Pablo Escobar made many enemies during his time. Some of them decided to fight back.
Pablo Escobar was one of the world’s most notorious drug lords. Based in Medellin, Colombia, Escobar’s brutal reign over the illegal cocaine industry cost thousands of lives in Colombia alone. His brazen hits on judges, government officials, and police were swift and deadly. He even spent time in an opulent prison, called The Cathedral, that he constructed.
Along the way, Escobar made more than a few enemies. One of these was Fidel Castano, a rival drug lord who was, perhaps, even more brutal than Escobar himself. Castano’s breaking point came when Escobar murdered two prominent members of his cartel, Fernando Galeano, and Gerardo Moncada, as they visited Escobar at The Cathedral. Castano was scheduled to be at that meeting, but he declined to go.
That decision saved his life, and it also turned him into a paramilitary leader.
The government turned a blind eye to Escobar’s activities until the murders of Galeano and Moncada. The drug kingpin killed those men while in his lavish prison. Rather than face the government, Escobar walked out of his prison in July 1992.
Fed up with how Escobar was destroying everything the drug cartels built, Castano took matters into his own hands. He organized Los Pepes, or “Perseguidos por Pablos Escobar,” which translates to People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar.
Los Pepes received funding from the Cali Cartel, the chief rival of Escobar’s organization. The CIA and the U.S. government even helped Los Pepes try to track down Escobar by leaning on Castano’s intelligence-gathering efforts. Castano opened an office in Medellin where people came in and delivered information about Escobar’s activities.
Although fictionalized, the Netflix series Narcos plays into the dynamic of Castano versus Escobar. Los Pepes had guns, bombs, ammunition, and motivation to take down Escobar. Any power vacuum in the Colombian cartels would give people a chance to rise up to the occasion. Leadership in a cartel could be worth billions of dollars.
Los Pepes were more of a terrorist organization than a paramilitary group. As long as Escobar’s interests were stymied or limited, the group didn’t care about collateral damage. Members of Los Pepes frequently took matters into their own hands. In February 1993, the CIA complained that government forces in Colombia were sharing information with Los Pepes. The group, in turn, used that intel to carry out waves of bombings as revenge against Escobar’s own bomb attacks. Because Escobar had contacts in the government, Colombian officials routinely relied on Los Pepes as an extra-legal organization to carry out justice without the morality of following the law.
The campaign of violence almost got to Escobar several times. The closest was a car bomb that nearly killed Escobar’s children. Manuela Escobar, his daughter, suffered from partial deafness due to the blast. The campaign also targeted Escobar’s lawyers, supporters and anyone close to the drug lord.
Eventually, Los Pepes drove Escobar into hiding. He was living in Los Olivos, a middle-class barrio in Medellin, in December 1993 when Colombian intelligence intercepted a phone call from the drug kingpin to his son. Colombian police, as part of the group known as the Search Bloc, arrived at the house where Escobar was living.
Police closed in and Escobar fled. In a scene reminiscent of a Hollywood movie, the drug lord ran across rooftops in Los Olivos. The police simply outnumbered him and his bodyguard, and Escobar couldn’t get away fast enough. Shots to the leg, torso and through the ear felled Colombia’s most notorious drug cartel leader on Dec. 2, 1993.
Two bits of controversy surround Escobar’s death. First is that the police took a photo of men standing over the bloodied corpse as it lay sprawling on a rooftop. Second is that Los Pepes took credit for Escobar’s death.
Whether Los Pepes literally killed Escobar or escalated his downfall after being 16 months out of prison, Escobar’s death marked a turning point for Colombia. The violence finally dissipated, and citizens could finally move on to lives without about brutal tit-for-tat drug wars.