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FRONTLINE: The Godfather of Cocaine

Original Air Date: February 14, 1995
Produced by William Cran, Stephanie Tepper
Written and Directed by William Cran


ANNOUNCER: Tonight on FRONTLINE, Pablo Escobar, the richest, most violent criminal in history.

THOMAS CASH, DEA Special Agent in Charge, Miami: Escobar is probably the head of the largest criminal organization the world's ever known. Escobar was to cocaine what Ford was to automobiles.

ANNOUNCER: And more than any other man, he brought cocaine to America. Tonight on FRONTLINE, "The Godfather of Cocaine."

NARRATOR: Thunderstorms roll down from the Andes, but they still come to the cemetery in Medellin. They are retired school teachers, come to honor a man killed by the police in December, 1993. They believe he was the innocent victim of political persecution and police brutality. They come and pray for the man and for his mother.

HERMILDA GAVIRIA DE ESCOBAR, Escobar's Mother: [through interpreter] I think of the ingratitude of people. I think of the brutal persecution that was inflicted on him. He was just a man.

NARRATOR: When the teachers leave, two men with scarred faces appear and knock on the grave for luck. They seek the blessing of El Patron, the boss of the Medellin cocaine cartel, Pablo Escobar.

The story of Pablo Escobar is the story of the modern cocaine industry.

THOMAS CASH, DEA Special Agent in Charge, Miami: Escobar was to cocaine what Ford was to automobiles.

JACK BLUM, Senate Investigator, 1987-89: Compared to Capone and Trafficante and Lansky, this guy was way over them, head and shoulders.

THOMAS CASH: Escobar started the cocaine shipments. He started the international transportation.

RICHARD GREGORIE, Anti-Drug Task Force, 1982-86: He organized the drug industry to--to a point where it was an equal of some of our leading legitimate corporations anywhere in the world.

THOMAS CASH: Escobar is probably the head of the largest criminal organization the world's ever known.

NARRATOR: Few men have ever testified against Escobar and lived. The most important is Max Mermelstein. Today there's a contract on his life and he appears here in disguise.

MAX MERMELSTEIN, Ex-Cocaine Smuggler: I was the only American that ever sat on the council of the Medellin cartel. Living undercover and wearing disguises is necessary. There's still an, in effect, $3 million contract on my head. I'm personally responsible for bringing 56 tons of cocaine into the United States, shipped out $300 million of their profits. I also paid out over $100 million in their expenses here in the United States. And when I decided to cooperate with the government, Escobar wanted me dead.

NARRATOR: In the basement of Colombia's old national police headquarters, a strange museum preserves the memory of Pablo Escobar. Wax dummies illustrate the life of a man once elected to the National Assembly.

But Escobar aimed for the president's palace. For years no government could stop him, no prison could hold him. Before he was killed at age 44, Escobar had amassed a personal fortune of $3 billion. He was perhaps the most successful criminal in history.

But in his home town, the narco-trafficker is still a folk hero. Here Senior Escobar is Robin Hood. Pablo Escobar was born in 1949, the son of a peasant farmer and a local school teacher.

HERMILDA GAVIRIA DE ESCOBAR: [through interpreter] One day, when he was 2 years old, he wandered away from the house. He was very little and I found him next to a tree. He had a little stick and he was playing with a snake and he was saying, "See? I'm not hurting you." I think he was very sweet and he loved animals.

NARRATOR: When Pablo was 2, his mother left her husband on the farm and went to teach in a city school. Escobar grew up in Envigado, a suburb of the city of Medellin. The people of Medellin have a reputation for working hard, making money and getting ahead. Pablo was a happy child who loved soccer. At home the atmosphere was heavily religious.

HERMILDA GAVIRIA DE ESCOBAR: [through interpreter] We have a Christ in the bedroom. It's sad because you can see his blood and it looks real, the bruises and everything the Jews did to him. I taught the children about all that when they were very little. This made him very sad. Once I served lunch and Pablo put a piece of meat in his corn cake. The corn cake is typical of our province. And he went and said, "Poor man. Who made you bleed? Do you want a little meat?" This shows that he was very religious and very kind.

NARRATOR: Escobar was growing up in a violent time in Colombia's violent history. It was a time when 300,000 people were killed.

JACK BLUM: Colombia went through a period called "La Violencia," "the violence," in which two political parties waged war for close to 40 years.

NARRATOR: The legacy of La Violencia is long-simmering guerrilla war. Marxist insurgents control large parts of the country. Almost every day there are clashes with the security forces.

JACK BLUM: I don't think I've ever been in a place where so many people are so heavily armed and so quick to show you that they're heavily armed.

NARRATOR: In Colombia, rich children don't brag about a parent's car, but the number of their bodyguards.

JACK BLUM: The sense of menace and fear one has is being in a country that has one of the world's highest, if not the highest, murder rate. This is a country with a history of violence, where people are armed, where there's an expectation of a short and brutal life.

NARRATOR: In Medellin there's a shrine where paid killers come to light a candle before going to work. In a city of two million people, there are four murders a day. And this is where Escobar grew up.

As a teenager, Escobar was expelled from school and drifted into petty crime. Police have few details about his early career.

Gen. LUIS ERNESTO GILIBERT, Medellin Police Chief: [through interpreter] There are all kinds of stories about Pablo Escobar. The most common is that he started out by stealing tombstones. At that time, it was easy to make money from tombstones.

NARRATOR: It was a simple scam. Escobar stole tombstones from local cemeteries. After shaving off the epitaphs, he sold them as new. His first recorded arrest was in 1974 when he was suspected of stealing a red Renault.

MAX MERMELSTEIN: In a number of the conversations that I've had with Pablo, he'd go back into his early days as to when he was stealing cars for a living and, from stealing cars, how he graduated into taking contracts to killing people. He started killing people in his late teens--18, 19, somewhere in that vicinity. It was on contract. It was for salary. It wasn't because of meanness or anything like that, at the time.

NARRATOR: It was his elder cousin, Gustavo Gaviria, seen here in his trademark flat hat, who introduced Escobar to drug smuggling.

MAX MERMELSTEIN: The people of Medellin grew up in the smuggling business--coffee, electric domestic items, whatever had to be brought in and out of the country. Smuggling was their livelihood, growing up through the years. Cocaine became fashionable and they picked up on it right away.

NARRATOR: In the U.S., law enforcement was still concentrating on marijuana and heroin.

LEWIS TAMBS, U.S. Ambassador to Colombia, 1983-85: Nixon had his war on drugs. Ford did. Mr. Carter did. But it tended to focus so much on Mexico.

NARRATOR: By focusing on marijuana and heroin from Mexico, the Drug Enforcement Administration created a gap in the market for cocaine from Colombia.

LEWIS TAMBS: Colombia did not solicit the nefarious distinction of being the drug capital of the western hemisphere. It came about by a combination of rather curious circumstances, in the sense that, first of all, there's the Mexicans who were very, very successful in the mid-1970s against both marijuana and Mexican brown heroin. And the drug traffickers, you know, began to look for someplace else and they wanted a nation which, first off, was in relatively close flying distance to the United States. So it all came together in Colombia.

NARRATOR: Escobar got his start driving coca paste from the Andean mountains to the laboratories in Medellin. He used to race his cousin to get there first. The winner pocketed all the proceeds. He was caught once with 39 kilos of cocaine, but the charges were dropped on a technicality, so at the age of 26, Pablo Escobar made the transition from courier to smuggler.

With the street value of cocaine worth $35,000 a kilo, a small plane could make big money. Escobar's flight coordinator was to be Max Mermelstein.

MAX MERMELSTEIN: In '75, '76, '77, it was just in its infancy. Within a matter of a few flights, a man was a multi-millionaire and the moneys were invested. Land was purchased.

NARRATOR: Before he was 30, he bought Hacienda Napoles for a reported $63 million. He owned his own helicopter and a private zoo and thousands of acres.

He hired a professional cameraman to shoot his home movies. He and his men posed in front of his proudest possession, a car that had once belonged to the gangster Al Capone. He saw himself as a future Al Capone. Alcohol was once illegal, just like cocaine today.

In less than five years, he had gone from car thief to multi-millionaire. But as a drug smuggler, Escobar still had a long way to go.

RICHARD GREGORIE: In the late '70s, there was a group of independent cowboys dealing in narcotics. By that, I mean that they were getting their own dope. They were processing it by themselves, transporting it and trying to find buyers here in the U.S.

MAX MERMELSTEIN: After Pablo did his own first flight into the United States, in order to brag about it and show everybody how big a man Pablo was, he actually decommissioned the plane and had it mounted above the entryway to his farm so everybody in the world can see that Pablo Escobar is flying cocaine into the United States.

NARRATOR: American drug pilots who landed at Escobar's hacienda were impressed by the grip he kept on his people and his organization.