Photo courtesy of the Famous People website
Culture Spotlight

King of sea and sky: tracing Escobar’s drug routes by the vehicles and tactics he used

Pablo Escobar and the Medellín Cartel ran the most notorious drug smuggling empire of all time. But how exactly did they ship tons of cocaine from Colombia to the US? 
Paul Catiang | Nov 18 2018

Times being what they are, talk of the drug trade is at an all-time high. But we rarely ever get to see what actually goes on. It is a shadowy world of kingpins and big fish, of street operators and small time runners. But in the shadows, some people burn all the more brightly. And none have been as brilliant as Pablo Escobar.

Few drug lords can match the violence and infamy that surrounded Escobar. His is a story of mythic proportions and also of myth. It is a story obscured in rumor, enforced by fear, and silenced by death, all on a near unbelieveable scale. Throughout his career, he shipped tons of cocaine into the United States from Colombia, made anywhere from nine to 30 billion dollars in drug money, and was responsible for the murders of up to 60,000 judges, lawyers, policemen, and civilians. 

Such is Escobar’s notoriety that he’s been depicted in literature, television, and film, with actors like Benicio del Toro, Andrés Parra, and Cliff Curtis taking on the role. More recently, the wildly popular Narcos (now on its 4th season) has attracted a massive following on Netflix, with Wagner Moura portraying an Escobar that can stop people on their tracks with a word and a stare.

But behind the myth, how did the man and his cartel transport what was said to account for 80 percent of the cocaine found in the United States during the late 1970s and early 1980s? How did they evade the increasingly vigilant drug enforcement forces along the way? We trace Escobar’s drug routes by way of the vehicles and tactics he used to smuggle cocaine into the US.

The Piper Super Cub was allegedly the first model used by the cartel. Ansgar Walk

FIRST FLIGHT

The early years of Escobar were tied to small planes. In this case, it was a Piper PA-18 Super Cub. Escobar’s Super Cub was especially sentimental to him. He allegedly used it to fly his first cocaine shipment into the United States in the late 1970s. This factoid is difficult to verify and it makes sense to have a little myth-making surround what’s believed to be his first plane. His love for it is clear enough, though: his Piper Super Cub crowns the entrance arch to Hacienda Nápolés, his infamous 20-square-kilometer estate.

Designed and manufactured by Piper Aircraft, this light utility aircraft began production in 1949, based on the basic rag-and-tube structure—fabric stretched over a steel tube frame—found in an earlier plane, the J-3 Cub. As a two-seater, single-engine monoplane, the Super Cub found use in towing banners, engineless gliders, and crop dusting, along with military applications as training aircraft. For its category, the Super Cub has a fairly powerful engine starting at 150 horsepower. Combined with its high-lift wing, it was well suited for another application: bush flying. It had the ability to take off and land in distances as short as 300 feet, thanks to its flaps, and it could also fly at low altitudes. The Super Cub could also be fitted with floats or skis for taking off or landing on water. It was common to see Super Cubs flying over wilderness, like the African savannah or a South American jungle.

 

FLY BY NIGHT

Some accounts confuse Escobar’s first plane with the Cessna. Compared to the Piper Super Cub, the Cessna is a slightly larger civil utility aircraft manufactured by the Cessna Aircraft Company with more powerful engines (180 to 210 horsepower), and added fuel capacity. Its comparative heft allowed it to fly up to 801 miles or 1,289 kilometers, making it ideal for patrolling borders, recreational flying,  and smuggling drugs.

The Cessna was crucial to Escobar’s drug-running operations. With US contacts Carlos Lehder Rivas and George “El Americano” Jung, whom he met in the mid-1970s, Escobar decided to cut out drug mules by flying in the cocaine himself into the US using single-prop Cessnas. Lehder had connections with the then-nascent Medellín Cartel, while Jung had his Stateside network.

The first shipment by air occurred in 1977,  with a Cessna stuffed with 250 kilograms of cocaine. The haul was worth USD 15 million. Escobar ensured the supply and processing of the drug, while Lehder and Jung took care of the smuggling. In 1978, the two would spend most weekends flying from the Bahamas to Escobar’s Colombian ranch to pick up 300 to 500 kilos of cocaine, fly the product back to the Bahamas, where it would be moved into the United States.

Escobar used his Learjet as a means of to transport his cash. imgur.com

One of the most ingenious drug labs was found in a farm near the Venezuelan border, described by Escobar’s brother Roberto in his book, The Accountant’s Story. This lab employed around 200 people who lived in houses built on small wheels. When a plane radioed that it was arriving, the houses would be rolled back to reveal a landing strip hidden underneath. Once the plane took off for its return flight, the houses would be rolled  in place again.

The lab and others like it produced around 5,000 kilograms of cocaine each week. Escobar spent around USD 2,000 to process each kilo of coke. He would sell this to Lehder and Jung for USD 22,000. In turn, the two smugglers would unload the drug to mid-level dealers for USD 60,000 wholesale. For every 400-kilo load, Escobar earned USD 8 million, while Lehder and Jung received USD 5 million. Later, the smuggling end of the operation would be entrusted to hired pilots who were paid USD 400,000 for each run.

 

SEX AND DRUGS, CAT AND MOUSE

In the late 1970s, Escobar and Co. moved to secure the business by funding contract killings to get rid of their rivals, a decision that would ignite the Cocaine Wars of 1978 to 1981. This was also about the time Escobar and his cohorts opened a new drug route to the US via the Caribbean. Lehder bought Norman’s Cay, an island in the Bahamas that was five miles long. Planes from Colombia would stop over at this island before taking their final leg to Miami. Personally, Lehder remade Norman’s Cay into his party island.

Crime author Ron Chepesiuk describes Lehder’s hedonism in his biography, Crazy Charlie. In addition to the 3,300-foot airstrip and the refrigerated warehouses for the cocaine shipments, Norman’s Cay also boasted of a hotel, a restaurant, residences, and a marina, all to house Lehder’s party guests for as long as he enjoyed their company. With some well-placed bribes among Bahamanian authorities, Lehder was free to surround himself with 40 armed German bodyguards to drive away unwelcome boats and to let his guests indulge in as much sex and drugs as their appetites dictated.

The Drug Enforcement Agency got wind of the Cessnas plying the routes into Miami, but Escobar and friends were old hands at the cat-and-mouse game. Speedboats would wait out in international waters for low-flying planes to parachute their cocaine cargo into the water or for freighters to drop a shipment when speedboats sidled up to them. Lenny Flank, writing for The Daily Kos, says miniature submarines were also employed to evade the US Coast Guard. Despite the DEA’s vigilance, Escobar was shipping up to two tons of cocaine into Florida each week, earning him USD 5 billion in profit.

Escobar used multiple aircraft to transport tons of cocaine, including the Douglas DC-6 cargo plane. flickr.com

HEAVY LIFTING

The smuggling peaked in 1982, with the addition of vintage DC-3, DC-4, and DC-6 cargo planes to the fleet, and the Medellín Cartel was well established. There’s a certain absurdity at the thought of military cargo planes flying at speeds from 370 to 507 kilometers per hour transporting 80 to 145 tons of cocaine across the US border. Escobar continued to beef up his fleet, buying 13 Boeing 727s from a bankrupt airline, removing the seats, and equipping each of them to carry 11 tons of cocaine.

By 1983, Lehder had to give up Norman’s Cay, but the Medellín Cartel rerouted their drugs through Panama with the help of dictator Manuel Noriega. From Panama, the drugs were smuggled by land across the US border, with shipments increased to 145 tons. With more coke flooding the market, wholesale prices plummeted—from USD 60,000 per kilo to USD 16,000—but the money just kept flooding in. In 1983 and 1984, the cartel made USD 3 billion and USD 2.3 billion, respectively.

Illustration by Jovan De Ocampo

There was too much cash to launder, said Roberto Escobar. The cartel and its small army of accountants had to store the paper bills in bins in their members’ houses, in the holds of ships, secret compartments under swimming pools, in the walls of houses. They spent USD 2,500 on rubber bands to keep the wads together. When they lost USD 5 million by placing the cash on the wrong ship—Escobar merely shrugged and said, “You win some, you lose some.” Around USD 500 million each year rotted away or was eaten by rats.

 

SMUGGLING CASH IN STYLE

In the mid-1980s, Escobar bought a Learjet to smuggle cash out of the United States. Designed by the Swiss American Aviation Corporation as a luxury private aircraft, adapting the design of a 1950s ground-attack fighter aircraft, the FFA P-16 was equipped with ducted fan turboshaft engines. The jet could fly a maximum of six passengers at subsonic speeds up to Mach 0.86 and can cruise at 774 kilometers per hour.

Agile and inconspicuous, Cessnas plied the drug routes from Colombia to Miami, and were a crucial part of Escobar’s operations. Adrian Pingstone

For decades, the Learjet was a status symbol among the rich and powerful, a sign that they could travel pretty much wherever and whenever they pleased. For Escobar, the jet was merely a means to transport all the cash he was making.

 

UNDER THE SEA

Very little is known about the two remote-controlled submarines Escobar used near the end of his life. All that’s said is that they were acquired from the Russian Navy and were capable of carrying a ton of cocaine each. These narco-subs have since evolved to carry bigger payloads. Just like the  subs Escobar owned, the new models aren’t completely submerged. Instead, these semi-submersibles travel just below the water’s surface, usually with the cockpit and exhaust pipe poking up from the waves. This allowed the subs to glide through the water and leave a barely noticeable wake behind them. Narco-subs are generally made of wood and fiberglass and, with their low profile in the water, are hard to find via radar. Today, the capacity of these semi-subs has been re-jiggered, allowing it to carry around seven tons of cocaine.

Illustration by Jovan de Ocampo

VIOLENT END

Escobar, however, did not live to see his merchandise transported underwater. While the  Medellín Cartel was, in most ways, a success, like all empires, it was bound to meet its end.

At the height of his power, Escobar commanded the attention of the world. For seven straight years, he appeared in the Forbes world billionaire list, and he was both condemned and lionized for it. In 1989, Forbes estimated his fortune to be around USD 24 billion—making him the seventh wealthiest man in the world.

Hacienda Nápolés, his fortress and residence, sprawled across  2,226 hectares with a Spanish colonial mansion, six swimming pools, stables for racehorses, gardens, orchards, 14 artificial lakes, and a zoo with over 2,000 species not native to South America. The place also included a racetrack for motor-carts, a soccer arena, and a bullring.

The wreckage of a plane that crashed in Norman’s Cay’s shallow waters. Mike Scalora

But with this increase in power came an increase in its abuses: bribes, contract killings, bombings, and threats. His famous slogan “Plata o plomo?” (silver or lead?) was a demand for allegiance. And there was no choosing the other side when it came to Escobar. All of his excesses built up to a vigilante movement called the PEPEs—Perseguidos por Pablo Escobar, or Those Persecuted by Pablo Escobar. The PEPEs began hitting back, killing hundreds of Escobar’s men in coordinated attacks. It is said that the PEPEs coordinated with the Colombian government in an attempt to bring Escobar down.

On December 2, 1993, after a months-long campaign that involved an American-Colombian team of  investigators, drug enforcement agents, gunmen, and police, Escobar was tracked down to a block in Medellín. Escobar began to run, engaging in a firefight with the authorities while trying to escape between adjoining houses. But the drug lord was shot three times before he could get away. And it was these three shots that finally ended the rule of the king of cocaine.

 

This story first appeared in Vault Magazine Issue 23 2016.