Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

For Public Enemy Number One, It's Over

The most wanted man on Earth is dead.


Pablo Escobar, the multibillionaire Colombian drugs baron, hunted for two decades by police, the agents of several governments and his vicious rivals, was finally cornered in a house in the city of Medellin by more than 500 police and soldiers Thursday. After a torrid exchange of gunfire, he was shot, according to news reports from Colombia, as he scrambled across the roof of an adjacent property, unprotected by the army of bodyguards that reputedly cost him over $6 million a year.


So ended the life of the world's Public Enemy Number One. His cocaine wrecked the lives of thousands and the measures he took to protect this lucrative trade were even more deadly. He ordered the murder of three presidential candidates, dozens of judges, journalists and politicians and organized more than a score of bombings that killed and maimed hundreds and destroyed a civil airliner in mid-flight.


These crimes, and the bloody mayhem he traded with rival drug cartels, were what the ruthless Escobar regarded as essential to sustain a drug-running business that, in its mid-80s heyday, was supplying most of the cocaine consumed in the United States.


It brought him a fortune that Forbes magazine once estimated at $3 billion and the way he spent it was reminiscent of the more exotic James Bond villains. He had an air fleet, so much property that he owned 200 apartments in Miami alone, hotels in Colombia and Venezuela and a private zoo on a ranch near Medellin with camels, llamas, hippos and kangaroos. Over the zoo's gateway, he placed a light aircraft, believed to be the one that took his first cargo of cocaine into the United States.


Escobar may have been born the son of a poor farm worker and a school teacher, but there was never much sign that he had inherited an appetite for either hard work or learning. Starting out as a small-time car thief, he had such an intuitive flair for illegality and its accompanying violence that by the late 1970s he had risen to head the Medellin drug cartel, one of the world's most powerful criminal organizations.


Soft-spoken and portly, Escobar was sometimes known as "The Godfather" but the power to intimidate - or kill - even highly placed Colombians meant that he never felt the need for the secretiveness normally associated with his calling. He threw riotous and well-publicized parties, made flamboyant gifts of money to the poor and was even elected to parliament.


But the swaggering public life ended in 1984 when Columbia's justice minister decided to act against the cartel and seized dozens of its aircraft. Escobar responded by having the minister murdered and unleashing a war against his rivals. The fact that he was directing atrocities as a fugitive moving perpetually from place to place did not diminish the fury of the violence. He lived on the run for years, becoming the world's most wanted man. But in June 1991, he accepted an offer from President Cesar Gaviria to surrender in exchange for guarantees of no extradition to the United States and a reduced jail term.


Yet it was not just the sentence that was softened. He and 14 other traffickers were held, if that is the right word, in a prison which included among its corrective facilities a huge color television, stereo equipment, computers, a well-stocked bar and hand-picked guards who served drinks at wild parties.


The jail became known as the "Hotel Escobar" and its most celebrated inmate was widely believed to have continued trading profitably from within its walls.


The Colombian government eventually decided that more conventionally stringent accommodation might be appropriate, but during the transfer in July last year Escobar gave the authorities the slip and went once more into hiding.


It was, however, a different world he was running from now. The government put a price of $6 million on his head and he grew increasingly paranoid about his associates, allegedly having more than 20 of them killed for disloyalty.


There was also a shadowy new group calling itself People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar that sprang up, vowing to liquidate the cocaine baron and his family. In just the first two weeks of its mission of revenge, PEPES killed more than 37 of Escobar's men and bombed and set fire to many of his properties.


But in the end it was neither treachery from within nor vengeance from without that was his undoing. A simple phone call to his family, made to mark his 44th birthday, was picked up by government agents carrying out electronic monitoring and his location - and fate - was fixed. Armed marksmen were soon surrounding the property in sufficient quantities to eliminate any chance of a serious argument.


The man who had brought bloodshed and the agony of drug addiction to two continents finally had nowhere to run.