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How does a drug lord become the 7th richest person in the world?

In a complete departure from the usual headline sessions at SuperReturn, two former DEA agents told us about their efforts to bring down the world's most notorious drug dealer.

Made famous in recent years by the Netflix series Narcos, DEA Special Agents Javier Peña and Steve Murphy were in Berlin to entertain a packed audience with a tale about the rise and fall of Colombian drug lord, Pablo Escobar.

There were much worse places to be than Berlin, joked Murphy.

Such as Medellín, Colombia, circa 1988.

With the Netflix series an outstanding hit, this, they said, was the true story of what really happened.

The violence is all true

Warning us that their presentation contained some graphic images, the two explained that it was important to realise that the level of violence depicted in the programme was true.

Whilst the programme-makers had taken plenty of artistic license in other areas, including, apparently, giving Peña a far more flamboyant sex life, the violence wasn't "Hollywoodised".

"The threat of violence was so high that we used to drive around with our guns on our chests for easy access," explained Steve.

By 1988, Pablo Escobar was at the helm of the biggest drug trafficking ring in the world – the Medellín cartel. His connections spanned South and Central America, the Caribbean, the US and Europe.

At the height of its work the cartel was producing 20-30 tonnes of cocaine a day, and smuggling it all over the world.

"There's only one thing that limits you when it comes to smuggling something, and that's your imagination," said Steve, explaining that the cartel's methods included stuffing Coca Cola cans and melons, as well as using drug mules who would swallow condoms filled with the powder.

"How desperate do you have to be to do that?" asked Steve. "They probably got promised $10,000, but were killed before they got on the plane home to save Escobar the money."

Each kilo represented an initial investment of around $5,000, and would sell for as much as $120,000. Forbes once estimated that he was the 7th richest person in the world, having amassed between $8 and $30 billion dollars.

"That's a lot of money," said Steve by way of understatement.

The cartel

"By 1988 bodies were piling up all over south Florida," says Steve. "Colombians killing other Colombians, instigated by the Medellín cartel."

The cartel's organisational structure combined underground cocaine labs, loyal commanders, and a personal militia that was armed to the teeth. Poor, young Colombian men were lining up to join Escobar's army, said Steve, which summarily dispatched police offers for $100 a-piece.

"At one point Escobar had between 300 and 500 assassins working for him," explains Javier. "We arrested a 14-year old kid, a member of his personal army, who said that he would die for Escobar. This kid had already killed 10 police officers. Talk about leadership skills."

Escobar not only ordered his opponents killed, but tortured as well, and displayed the ruined bodies for all to see, particularly anyone accused of informing on him.

Peña and Murphy, in case you are wondering, had a $300,000 bounty on their head at one point.

The extradition – and war with the Colombian government

When the Colombian government agreed to an extradition treaty with the Americans, Escobar began an all out war against it. Being extradited was what he was most afraid of; without his connections and bribed officials he could have no influence over his prison life, unlike in Colombia.

"We started raiding anyone to do with Escobar," explains Javier. "We were able to extradite 30 of his top traffickers to the US. Escobar was so incensed that he called up the President of Colombia and declared war."

Car bombings and kidnappings became commonplace. "Ten to 15 car bombs on a daily basis" explains Javier. "In shopping centres, in bookstores where kids where getting their books. Police officers, judges, civil servants, even presidential candidates were all in the firing line, basically anyone who supported the extradition treaty."

And the violence intensified. A bomb on a plane killed 120 people, another bomb blew up the equivalent of the Colombian FBI building, killing 150. Both had targeted high profile civil servants.

"He wanted body count," says Javier.

At the car bomb sites Escobar would drop leaflets saying: "Better a grave in Colombia than a cell in the United States."

"It was a very hard time, everyone wanted it to stop," says Javier. "Between 10,000 and 15,000 people were killed by Escobar in total.

The Robin Hood myth

Escobar was no Robin Hood, stated the agents.

Whilst it was true that he might have helped his local community by supporting sports progammes and the like, it was a calculated effort in order to continue to be able run his empire with as little interference as possible. That's not forgetting that he was also tearing the country to pieces.

"Robin Hood didn't plant a bomb on airplane, didn't assassinate presidential candidates," they said.

Then came surrender.

The surrender

Tiring of the war against the government, and knowing that local opinion was turning against him, Escobar turned himself into the Colombian government and said he would stop the war.

But entirely on his own terms. He agreed to plead guilty to one charge and receive a five-year sentence. In return, he demanded that he build his own "prison", with his own guards and his own inmates, and with a rule that no one was allowed to visit. The Colombian Government agreed, so ecstatic that the "war" had come to an end.

"At that point," says Javier, "We had lost."

A year later he walked out, after the DEA gave the Colombian government evidence that he had killed two of his closest associates. The government planned to move him to another prison, and it was at that point that Escobar fled.

What followed was an 18-month hunt to find him, a coordinated effort between the agents, the military, and the local police force.

Using tip offs, informants and sheer luck, they figured out that Escobar was still in the area. He was eventually found after an exhaustive process of tracking down a phone signal – there was no mobile technology in those days, the agents reminded us.

Escobar was shot dead by police as he attempted to escape across the rooftops of the building he had sought refuge in.

"The way he dies in the end is real," says Pena, referring to the TV programme. "It goes to show, this was a billionaire, but look at the way he died – splayed out on a rooftop riddled with bullets and covered in blood."

The real heroes were the Colombia national police, who, the pair say, helped keep them alive.

It was a victory, but only of sorts. The agents both moved back to the United States, but another cartel took Escobar's place, and the US' endless war against the influx of cocaine continued.

"Ninety-nine point nine per cent of Colombians are great, hard working, innocent people," states Steve. "It's the less than 1% that are bad."

"Go and visit," he urged us. "It's a beautiful country."

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