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How Pablo Escobar made his own prison palace

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Evil Genius with Russell Kane delves into the biographies of five polarising figures from the past in order to ask the question, 'Are they Evil or Genius?' In each episode, Russell is joined by a panel of three celebrity guests to interrogate the reputation of a famous figure, including Pablo Escobar. The show airs Mondays at 9pm on Sky HISTORY.

What do you do when the most wanted man in your country also happens to be one of the richest and most powerful people on the planet? For the authorities in Colombia, the answer was this: you cut a deal. One of the strangest and most outlandish deals in the history of criminality.

Pablo Escobar, the billionaire CEO of a vast business empire – albeit one that was illegal and soaked in blood – was given permission to create his own custom-made prison, in a plum position overlooking the city of Medellin. Dubbed the Cathedral, it boasted all the perks and luxuries of a celebrity hideaway, complete with its own football pitch, hot tub, giant doll house and state-of-the-art kitchen. Just the place for a cocaine kingpin to hold court, safe in the knowledge he would never be extradited to the United States.

The willing surrender of the world’s most notorious criminal in 1991 was not exactly the blunt delivery of justice many of Escobar’s victims would have had in mind. It was the result of complex negotiations, with Escobar reasoning that – after years as a fugitive, and in constant danger of being eliminated by his equally vicious rivals – he was better off entering the secure embrace of the authorities. By any conceivable measure, he got the better end of the deal. The authorities may have technically snared the infamous Pablo Escobar, but he would live in security and luxury, safe from enemy cartels, with guards who effectively doubled as his manservants in a complex that was quickly dubbed “Hotel Escobar”. And it wasn’t as if his criminal operations had been shut down. Far from it. Hotel Escobar, as well as being a comfortable place to lounge around and entertain his VIP pals, also became the new headquarters of his business empire – a fact that would eventually embarrass the government into action.

During his short, strange stay in his prison-palace, Escobar was known for his extravagant get-togethers. As his much-feared, ultra-violent lieutenant, Popeye Velasquez, later recalled, they once had the Colombian national football team over for lunch, which was followed by the excited drug lord having a kick about with the players while the prison guards served drinks like waiters. Then there was the occasion of Escobar’s birthday, which saw caviar, salmon and other delicacies brought into the complex – along with the regular gaggles of sex workers and beauty queens to entertain the male revellers.

For Escobar, it was fun while it lasted. But even this brazen kingpin couldn’t get away with this kind of behaviour for long, and things came to a head when he was implicated in the murders of two of his underlings. They were actually killed right there in the Cathedral, over a pay dispute, and it was this kind of unashamed brutality within so-called custody that spurred the government to clamp down on Escobar.

It was decided that he would be transferred from his cushy pad to a conventional holding pen – and this did not go down well with the kingpin and his men. When the chief of prisons and the deputy justice secretary arrived at the Cathedral to effectively apprehend Escobar, the gun-toting minions were far from cowed. The aforementioned Popeye Velasquez waved a sub-machine gun in the officials’ faces, vowing to slaughter them on the spot.

The tense standoff only ended when the Colombian military abruptly burst into the complex to rescue the hostages. Somehow, in the ensuing violence and chaos, Escobar vanished into the countryside. After just over a year in his self-created sanctuary, Escobar was now on the run for good. The fiasco of the Cathedral, “Hotel Escobar”, was over. “We made a huge mistake,” the President of Colombia said, rather understating the situation. “We underestimated the capacity of Escobar for corruption and intimidation.”

Which is something many wouldn’t have thought possible, but either way – Escobar’s life of privilege was over, and he would be gunned down the very next year.

The life of Pablo Escobar

Glamorous folk hero and ruthless killer, Pablo Escobar went from a common car thief to the CEO of one of the world’s biggest criminal empires. This is the story of the king of cocaine.

The budding mobster

Born on 1st December 1949 in the outskirts of Medellin, Colombia, Pablo Escobar later claimed he’d been mired in poverty, in a naked attempt to burnish the legend of the poor kid done good. In fact, the Escobars were solidly upper middle class – his farmer father owned plenty of land, while his mother was a teacher and pillar of the community who founded an elementary school.

Young Pablo certainly wasn’t a chip off the old block. Impatient for money and glory, he fell into illicit activities in his teens – although the oft-told tale that he got his start stealing cemetery headstones and selling them on is likely apocryphal.

He started to make money from stripping down stolen cars and demanding ransoms from the families of kidnap victims, the burgeoning crook already showed a zeal for casual violence. He also developed a taste for marijuana. Despite becoming one of the figures responsible for popularising cocaine in nightclubs, Wall Street hangouts and high society living rooms, Escobar didn’t have a taste for the white powder himself and was instead a lifelong pothead.

Establishing an empire

The rising popularity of cocaine in the 1970s presented a golden opportunity for the enterprising young Pablo Escobar. After all, he’d already utilised well-established routes for smuggling marijuana into North America, and these could be swiftly repurposed into secret channels for distributing cocaine. All kinds of techniques were used to transport the white powder, from packing it inside television sets to having couriers swallow condoms of the stuff.

To maximise profits and influence in Colombia and beyond, Escobar made alliances with other drug traffickers, creating the soon-to-be-notorious Medellin Cartel. In its heyday, it was responsible for around 80% of all cocaine in the United States – a near-monopoly which yielded staggering profits.

Escobar maintained his status and security by presenting government and law enforcement officials with a simple deal: ‘plata o plomo’ (‘silver or lead’). In other words, accept a bribe or get pumped full of bullets.

Escobar the politician

The well-oiled machine of the Medellin Cartel made Escobar so unfathomably rich that he made the Forbes billionaires list seven years in a row. Among his numerous properties was the immense Hacienda Nápoles, resplendent with swimming pools, artificial lakes, bike trails and a private zoo populated by rhinos, lions and hippos. Crowning the gateway to the estate was the light airplane which had made the first drug shipments for Escobar’s empire.

Escobar also invested untold millions in Medellin’s impoverished neighbourhoods, building housing complexes, sports grounds and schools. Such philanthropic gestures made many see him as a modern-day Robin Hood, and helped propel him to success in another, unlikely sphere: politics.

Having already bought influence with politicians, Escobar became a member of Medellin’s city council in 1978 and was elected to a position in Colombia’s Chamber of Representatives in 1982. This not only satisfied Escobar’s ego but also granted him judicial immunity, meaning he was effectively beyond the reach of Colombian law.

It also allowed him to lobby against Colombia having extradition agreements with the United States. The prospect of being prosecuted by an American court, where his influence wouldn’t be felt, was the one thing Escobar truly feared.

Pablo’s prison palace

Escobar also faced opposition from fellow politicians who called him out as the underworld kingpin he was. One such nemesis, Minister of Justice Rodrigo Bonilla, was assassinated on Escobar’s orders in 1984 – a shocking act which galvanised the Colombian government to crack down on the drug traffickers and forge an extradition arrangement with the US.

More bloodshed ensued, with one of Escobar’s most egregious acts being the 1989 bombing of a passenger plane in a failed political assassination which claimed the lives of 107 people. Things soon became untenable for the kingpin, who – desperate to avoid being extradited to the US – negotiated a surrender to the Colombian authorities in 1991.

In perhaps the most audacious move by any criminal ever, Escobar insisted his prison term be served in a custom-made fortress. Boasting its own football pitch and jacuzzi, it became known as La Catedral and Hotel Escobar. Here, he continued to run his empire while bringing in gourmet food and sex workers and throwing hedonistic parties.

But, despite the outward show of exuberant success, time was running out for the kingpin.

Killing Pablo Escobar

Finally fed up with Escobar’s exploits in his prison palace, the authorities decided to move him to a real jail. This prompted Escobar to go on the run, but this fugitive era was short-lived, culminating in a standoff at a house in Medellin.

On 1st December 1993, Escobar celebrated his 44th birthday at the hideout, eating cake, getting stoned and making a fateful phone call to relatives. Authorities were able to trace the call and dispatch a small army of armed police to the location the very next day.

Caught completely unawares, Escobar grabbed his guns and made a break for the roof, where his violent life met a violent end in a short shootout.

It may have been an ugly and bloody denouement for a brutal mass murderer, but Escobar’s funeral drew tens of thousands of mourners who still regarded him as their Robin Hood. It’s a reputation that, for many, persists to this day.