Pablo Escobar and the narco-fútbol years

Pablo Escobar and the narco-fútbol years

In 1989, Pablo Escobar was ranked seventh by Forbes Magazine on the World’s Billionaires List. A man with immense power, wealth and a notoriously violent streak, Escobar ran the Medellín drug cartel in Colombia for almost 20 years. Smuggling, bribing and killing his way to the top of the drug lord food chain, it was estimated that he was worth around USD$25bn and he remains one of the most infamous drug baron’s in history.

The son of a farmer and a teacher, Escobar was born in 1949 into one of the most violent periods in Colombian history, the tumultuous La Violencia era. His family came from the lower-middle class and he was relatively comfortable as a child. However, when his father was struggling to afford the farm that supported the family, Pablo and his brother were sent to live with their grandmother in the city of Medellín, the second most populous in Colombia. It was here that Pablo would begin to build his empire.

Despite being well-educated and even studying political science at La Universidad de Antioquia for a short time, Escobar found himself struggling to pay his university fees and dropping out. A penchant for money and his ability as a leader saw him turn to a life of organised crime, bringing together other drug traffickers to form the Medellín cartel in the late 1970s.

The Medellín cartel’s operation quickly became the most successful in the world, as America’s lust for cocaine became Colombia’s gain. Flooding the streets of the US in the 1980s, cocaine was America’s recreational drug of choice throughout the decade. Demand sky-rocketed and Escobar’s profits soared. The drug lord and his associates made billions smuggling cocaine not only into America, but also around the globe. At the height of his power, it was estimated that Escobar and the Medellín cartel controlled around 80 percent of the global cocaine trade and smuggled around 70 tonnes of cocaine to the US every month.

His brother and the cartel’s accountant, Roberto Escobar, claimed the cartel was making so much money that they had to write off 10 percent of their earnings each year due to spoilage such as water damage, rodents or simply misplacing the cash.

Escobar lived the clichéd life of a drug kingpin with parties, luxury mansions, and apartments across the country and even a private zoo, but it was his generosity with his wealth that really captured the hearts and minds of the working class in Colombia. The divide between the rich and the poor was enormous and the privileged members of society tended to consolidate their money and power between themselves.

Pablo became a legend amongst the people of Colombia who likened him to a modern-day Robin Hood. With the billions he made from cocaine, he built housing, schools, churches, parks and football pitches for the impoverished masses of Medellín. He was a man who never forgot his roots, revered by the poor and despised by the rich.

Football played an important role in Colombian life, providing a release from the struggles of poverty. Whole communities would come together to partake in tournaments organised in the slums and forget their worries at home. Many of the country’s most talented footballers were moulded on the pitches of Pablo Escobar.

Escobar himself formed close relationships with some of the best players in Colombia, inviting them to his ranch to play football. He would organise all-star matches at his mansion and bet millions of dollars on the outcome of the game with rival cartel leaders such as Miguel Rodríguez Orejuela of the Cali Cartel.

This was just the start of Escobar’s foray into Colombian football. With an ever-burgeoning flow of illicit cash, he needed a method to legalise his earnings. Football proved to be the perfect vehicle for money laundering. It would be relatively easy to move millions of dollars through a football club, leveraging a number of standard transactions such as player transfers and ticket sales. Ticket sales could be falsified and player transfer fees exacerbated thus legalising an additional one or two million dollars as a club owner saw fit, allowing Escobar to launder millions of dollars through his football teams.

The Colombian began to invest heavily in Medellín side Atlético Nacional whose meteoric rise during the late 1980s was funded almost entirely by his drug money. The massive influx of cash meant that Nacional could hire the best coaches and pay the salaries required to prevent their most talented players from moving abroad.

Coached by Francisco Maturana, Nacional went on to win the Copa Libertadores for the first time in their history in 1989 with a squad brimming with homegrown talent such as René Higuita, Andrés Escobar and Leonel Álvarez. Nacional beat Club Olimpia of Paraguay 5-4 on penalties after a 2-2 draw over two legs. Legendary goalkeeper Higuita scored his own spot kick and saved four penalties in what was a dramatic shootout before Álvarez eventually scored the decisive kick to secure the trophy for Nacional.

The entire Nacional team were then invited to celebrate their historic victory at Escobar’s ranch where they would all receive individual cash bonuses too.

It was not just Escobar and the Medellín cartel that were pumping money into football clubs; other wealthy and powerful drug lords followed suit. Millonarios had El Mexicano, José Gonzalo Rodríguez, and América de Cali had El Señor, Miguel Rodríguez of the Cali Cartel. Colombian football was booming thanks to the influence of the drug trade and Narco-fútbol was born.

Escobar’s power extended from football to politics and he employed any manner of methods to maintain his incredible influence. The power of the Medellín cartel meant things were simple: you either paid people or killed people, and Escobar had a distinguished record for both.

The list of violent acts that were allegedly carried out on Escobar’s orders is long – from bombings to assassinations. He even blew an entire commercial airliner out of the sky, killing 110 people in an attempt to silence presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán, an outspoken opponent of Colombia’s drug cartels and a strong supporter of the US extradition treaty and a threat to Escobar’s regime.

Galán was eventually murdered by Escobar’s number one assassin, John Jairo Velásquez – also known as Popeye. Popeye was one of the Medellín cartel’s most ruthless and brutal henchmen and claims to have killed around 300 people on the orders of his boss. However, he was only ever convicted of Galán’s murder and served 22 years in prison.

Any opposition to the cartels was met with violence. Nobody was safe. Justice Minister, Rodrigo Bonilla, was assassinated in 1984, shot to death in his car by one of Escobar’s henchman after leading a campaign to oust cartel ownership from Colombian football.

Colombia’s war on drugs gathered pace throughout the 1980s and the violence on the streets became progressively worse as Escobar and the Medellín cartel fought against the US extradition treaty. Even though football had provided glimmers of hope for the Colombian people, there was no escape from the violence and corruption now that the country’s top clubs were controlled by the cartels.

In 1989, referee Alvaro Ortega was murdered after a few controversial decisions led to América de Cali drawing a match against Independiente Medellín. Ortega had been shot to death near his hotel soon after the game by assassins who claimed that their drug baron bosses had lost a lot of money betting on the game. The previous year another referee, Armando Pérez, had been kidnapped for 24 hours and told officials who made “wrong decisions” in important games would be killed.

Escobar had instigated all-out war against the state over the US extradition treaty, which he wanted striking from the Colombian constitution. He founded the pressure group known as Los Extraditables that was responsible for the majority of the violence across the country. The group, formed mostly of Escobar’s fellow drug dealers, declared: “We prefer a tomb in Colombia to a cell in the United States.”

The death toll continued to rise as the violence increased against the government; thousands of Colombians lost their lives and bodies were literally piling up in the streets. The Colombian assembly voted to ban extradition from its new constitution in 1991.

Coincidentally, Escobar surrendered to the authorities that very same day. With extradition no longer a threat, he built his own personal, prison aptly named La Catedral or ‘The Cathedral’. This was essentially his own luxury home, built to his personal specifications with cellular phones, fax machines and radios on site, and guarded by army personnel hand-picked by Escobar himself. It was hardly the stereotypical prison setting. He continued to run his empire from inside La Catedral unabated whilst he awaited trial for his crimes.

As the grip of the authorities tightened, Escobar’s hold over the country was slipping, and in July 1992 he went on the run after attempts were made to move him to another prison.

By December 1993, Escobar had evaded the authorities and the PEPEs (Perseguidos por Pablo Escobar or People persecuted by Pablo Escobar, an organisation of Escobar’s enemies) for around 16 months, moving in and out of various hiding places around Medellín. The long arm of law enforcement was closing in around him.

On December 2 1993, Colombian security forces had tracked Escobar to a large, five-bedroom house in his home city of Medellín. As heavily armed personnel laid siege to the property, Escobar and his bodyguard exited from a window onto the roof of the building in an attempt to evade capture. As both men stumbled over roof tiles, struggling to navigate the tricky terrain, the Colombian forces below opened fire.

The lifeless bodies of both fugitives collapsed, face down onto the roof as they were fatally struck in the legs, torso and head by the hail of gunfire that engulfed their escape route. The manhunt for Pablo Escobar had finally reached its bloody crescendo. Special agent Tom Cash, in charge of Drugs Enforcement Administration (DEA) in Miami, was buoyant at the news: “This is the end of an era, if you look at the violence produced by this man. It will be a long time before anyone takes his place.” Cash wasn’t necessarily correct in his summation.

Whilst Pablo Escobar’s death was the rubber stamp required to put an end to the Medellín cartel, it did not stop the violence or the influence of the drug trade over Colombian politics, economics or football. Killing Escobar might have been a victory for the authorities but the order that his criminality brought soon vanished.

Colombia’s golden generation managed to flourish on the field despite the unrest throughout the country. Carlos Valderrama, Faustino Asprilla, Freddy Rincón and company were firing the Colombian national team up to fourth in the FIFA World Rankings and to qualification for the World Cup in 1994, ironically hosted by the USA.

The positivity nurtured by Colombia was compounded by the historic 5-0 victory against rivals Argentina in the final qualification game, with Asprilla and Rincón each netting a brace. Colombia’s footballers had provided momentary respite from the violence that still engulfed Colombia even after Escobar’s death.

The great Pelé had even tipped the Colombians, lead by former Nacional coach Francisco Maturana, to win the tournament in 1994. Things didn’t pan out as the nation had hoped for, however. A surprising 3-1 loss to Romania in the opening match plunged the team into a psychological rut. No matter what the Colombians tried they couldn’t find the back of the net and Florin Răducioiu and Gheorghe Hagi punished them as a result.

Colombian journalist and politician, César Mauricio Velásquez explained the impact of that opening day loss: “That marked the beginning of a psychological crisis for which the team wasn’t prepared.  Many gamblers lost big money and there appeared a sort of ‘dark hand’ that was very upset with the team’s performance.”

The ‘dark hand’ in question had tainted the team’s preparations for the infamous game at the Rose Bowl against the USA. It manifested itself in sinister fashion as a message appeared on the TV screens in the player’s hotel rooms proclaiming that if midfielder Gabriel Barrabas Gómez played in the second match then all the players would be killed.

The long hand of the cartels could manipulate whatever and whoever they pleased and they were slowly extinguishing the light of hope football had provided. Gómez retired from football after Maturana pulled him from the team: “I decided to retire from football. I knew it was about regional rivalries back home. Club team owners wanted their players to be seen so that their values would increase. Since Maturana wasn’t starting their players, they sabotaged their own national team.”

The tension mounted as the game against the USA approached and the entire squad went into the match with the hand of the grim reaper on their shoulder. Crippled by fear, Maturana’s side were a shadow of the Colombia team who had qualified so convincingly for the tournament.

The final blow landed hardest on captain and Escobar’s namesake, Andrés, who was unfortunate enough to score the infamous own-goal which gave the USA the victory. As Andrés stretched to cut out a low cross into the Colombian box, he failed to make a strong enough connection and Óscar Córdoba was left helpless as the ball rolled into the back of his net.

Colombia was eliminated from the tournament finishing bottom of Group A despite a 2-0 win over Switzerland in their final game. The squad returned home on 26 June 1994 and only a week later, Andrés was gunned down in his car outside a nightclub in Medellín. He had been shot twelve times at close range with witnesses reporting the killers shouted “Goal! Goal! Goal!” with every shot they fired into the helpless 27-year-old.

Rumours circulated around Andrés’ death; it was widely speculated that he was killed as punishment for his own-goal and the severe losses of Colombia’s betting syndicates. The Gallón brothers were identified as being at the scene but it was their bodyguard, Humberto Muñoz, who was convicted of Andrés’ murder. He served 11 years of a 43-year sentence and continually changed his story.

The conspiracy theories were rife; the Gallón brothers had allegedly paid $3m to Carlos Castaño, another member of Colombia’s criminal underworld who, it was claimed could solve any problem for the right price. The Gallón brothers were never charged for Andrés’ murder.

“People on the street said that if Pablo Escobar was still alive, Andrés Escobar would not have been killed,” said Colombia midfielder, Chicho Serna. The truth would never be known. Pablo Escobar had incredible influence over Colombia during his time at the top. He kept Colombia’s cartels in place, brought some economic prosperity to the country and gave generously to the poor.

A devil and a saint, his influence is debated to this day. His brother, Roberto, summed Pablo up perfectly: “Pablo Escobar was an extraordinarily simply man: Brilliant and kind-hearted, passionate and violent. He was a man of both poetry and guns. To many people he was a saint, to others he was a monster.”

Only one thing is certain, however: Pablo was a victim of the monster he had created, as was Andrés and many thousands of Colombians. Narco-fútbol died with the two Escobars.

By Jamie Allen @plymkrprss

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