If there was a quantifiable list of “most infamous criminals” Pablo Escobar would be right near the top. Between the mid-1970s and the early 90’s Escobar was probably the most powerful and wealthiest criminal on the entire planet. Founding the Medellin cartel in Colombia in 1976, Escobar was essentially the main supplier of North America’s favoured drug of the era, cocaine, and this amassed him a fortune of truly staggering proportions.
In fact, no one seems to be entirely sure how much money he made from his narcotic business – indeed it seem likely that Escobar may not have been entirely sure himself – but the ballpark estimates seems to be around $80 billion dollars in 2023 money. That’s a lot of nose candy!
Naturally, with this amount of money flying around, Escobar made his fair share of enemies. I mean, the fact that he was an utterly ruthless psychopath also didn’t exactly endear him to some people, but generally the governments of the United States and much of the rest of the world also took a dim view of the burgeoning drug crisis that Escobar was so happily profiting off.
The US began to take a more active stance in trying to deal with Colombia’s number one export, deploying DEA teams and supplying military aid to try to combat Escobar’s production and logistic operations that were pushing tonnes of cocaine into the US every month. But though Escobar was worried about the United States enmity towards him, it generally revolved around concerns that the Colombian government would change their laws to allow his extradition to the US.
To counter this, he employed a combination of bribery and terrorism, murdering anyone who looked to threaten his position, causing Colombia throughout the 1980s to be the murder capital of the planet.
Escobar’s fears of extradition were in fact secondary to another threat to him, one that was far more pressing and far more dangerous as it came from an organization that was a match for him both in ruthless brutality and in financial wealth.
This organisation was the other major cocaine exporter in Colombia, in effect Escobar’s direct competition. And to say that they didn’t get along would be something of an understatement.
Initially they worked together and divided up territories in the US between them. But when you are dealing with men who have strong views on the respect that they believe they are due their position, violent tendencies on enforcing that perception of themselves and an almost unbelievable amount of money involved, well, a falling out was basically inevitable. The spark was apparently the murder of a Medellin associate by a Cali man in New York city over a woman.
Funny the things that bring down empires.
In 1988 war broke out between the two cartels when Cali tried a pre-emptive strike and put a large car bomb near the building where Escobar and his family were staying. The bomb killed two innocent security guards and none of the Escobar family, though his youngest daughter suffered permanent hearing damage.
Escobar reacted about as you’d expect for the planet’s richest and most ruthless criminal, launching a campaign of outright terrorism against the legitimate business interests of the Cali cartel that they used to launder their drug money, though all this largely achieved was the killing and maiming of hundreds of innocent Colombians.
The Cali bosses, understanding that Escobar was the sole target they really needed to worry about, dispatched a seven-man team of assassins to kill their ferocious rival.
You know that trope that movies and TV shows have about would-be assassins being returned to sender dismembered in boxes. Yeah, pretty sure that started with Escobar because that’s what happened.
Obviously, the Cali cartel faced a serious problem. They had began a war…no, a Battle Royale to the death…with someone who would resort to just about any means necessary not just to win, but to see them utterly destroyed.
But when you are an organisation making something in the region of a billion dollars a year in 1988 – possibly more, again no one seems to know for sure – well, you have options. So, the Cali bosses decided to hire in the talent they needed to get the job done.
The first thing they did was recruit one Jorge Salcedo, an engineer who was also a former Colombian army reservist.
But the cartels interest was in Salcedo’s connections to British mercenaries, principally ex-SAS members. These had worked in Colombia before and the Cali cartel had ideas about how they could take out Escobar for them.
Basically, someone had been watching Apocalypse Now too many times.
The idea was that helicopters would be used to swoop onto one of Escobar’s remote rural palaces when he was known to be in residence, tear up the defenders with airborne machine gun fire and then insert a hit team of well-drilled mercenaries that would hunt down and kill Escobar.
Sounds crazy, right?
Except when you have billions of dollars at your disposal and enough impetus to do so, crazy is entirely practical. Because that’s what they did.
A twelve-man strike force was assembled, led by legendary mercenary Peter McAleese, two helicopters and all the necessary weapons and equipment acquired, and the attack launched in May 1989.
But even the best laid plans can go awry and when one of the helicopters crashed because of heavy cloud near the target area the whole thing was called off.
If you want to know more about this, McAleese wrote about it in his memoir “No Mean Soldier”, which is an interesting read about his career, plus there was a documentary made called “Killing Escobar”, which I’ll admit I haven’t watched but from which I partially pinched the title for this article.
Because now we get to the main affair.
The failure of the helicopter assault meant that the Escobar problem was still a very real threat both to the Cali cartel bosses and indeed their families. But he was also increasingly an existential threat to their business interests.
In contrast to the Cali cartel, which sort to maintain influence in the Colombian government through lavish bribes and favours, Escobar was now waging a terrorist campaign against the state. In November 1989 he was accused of ordering the bombing of Avianca Flight 203, an action that killed 110 people.
And two of the dead were American.
This gave the Bush administration the motivation they needed to push the Colombians harder on agreeing to an extradition treaty so that drug cartel members could be sent to the US for trial and incarceration.
This really upset the Cali bosses. They had taken pains to, if not exactly be nice guys, then at least not rock the boat so hard that the United States would bring down their wrath upon their heads. Pablo Escobar, with his campaign of breathtaking brutality, appeared to be about to do just that.
Indeed, it seems that even Escobar realised he had pushed it too far and in 1991 he concluded a deal with the Colombian government that he would hand himself in and go to jail. The terms were that the government would agree to never extradite him…and that the prison in which Escobar would serve his sentence would be essentially his own; La Catedral in the heart of Medellin.
The whole thing was a farce. Escobar continued to run his drug empire from his lofty and luxurious “prison”, all the while protected not just by his own loyal gunmen but now by the Colombian state itself! Here in his eyrie, he was safe from the United States and from his Cali rivals.
Or at least, I’m sure that’s what he thought.
Because once again someone at Cali HQ had been watching too much TV and had evidently been thoroughly impressed by the impact that aerial bombardment had had in the Gulf War that had just been fought between Iraq and, well, most of the rest of the world.
And while one of the issues that the attempted helicopter assault had had was ensuring that Escobar was at the target location when the attack was launched, now he was “imprisoned” at La Catedral – guaranteed to be there.
So why not just bomb him?
Sounds crazy right?
We’ve been here before, haven’t we?
Salcedo was once again summoned and told about the idea, which he thought was utterly bonkers but, hey, his bosses were the heads of the Cali cartel and not men you said no to so he went about trying to figure out how to make it happen.
His first step was to try to find the ordnance that would be used in the proposed air raid. After all, aerial bombs don’t just grow on trees – unless that is you have essentially unlimited funds at your disposal.
In fact, Salcedo had another advantage. The cartel’s tendrils reached into all sorts of offices all across South and Central America, including defence ministries, and so it was comparatively simple to arrange a meeting with a senior officer of the El Salvadorean Air Force who would sell Salcedo and his Cali masters four Mk.82 500-lb bombs for the sum of $500,000.
El Salvador had been embroiled in a bloody civil war since 1979 and so the country was awash with weapons – including American supplied aerial munitions for fighting the communist insurgents. Four bombs going missing would be easy to write off as having been used in an air raid and so all the cartel had to arrange was picking up the bombs with one of their aircraft.
With that settled Salcedo then set about trying to find an aircraft that could actually use them.
After all, attack jets don’t just grow on trees.
We’ve been here before as well, haven’t we?
To see about getting a suitable aircraft for the attack Salcedo reached out to one David Tomkins, a British arms dealer and mercenary who was his contact in the shadowy world of guns-for-hire and who had been key into putting together the helicopter assault team. Tomkins soon came back that he had found the perfect thing; a private owner in the United States had an A-37 Dragonfly that he wanted to sell.
The A-37 perfectly fit the bill as the aircraft that the Cali cartel could use for the attack on La Catedral. Small, agile and with good visibility for the pilot it was an extremely popular light attack and counter-insurgency aircraft that was widely employed by American allies all over the world, particularly by many air forces in South and Central America – including Colombia. Sourcing a pilot and ground crew for an A-37 should therefore be simple and so Salcedo flew to Florida to meet Tomkins and the owner’s representative to examine the aircraft.
Salcedo, a man who appears to have been extremely careful and conscientious on details – probably a result of his engineering background – made a full inspection of the aircraft. It was in pristine condition…except the muzzles of the six-barrel minigun mounted in the nose. They showed evidence of having been fired.
Salcedo knew damn well that there was no way an aircraft in civilian hands would be allowed to retain its integral gun in a working state and so made his excuses and left…and got on the first plane he could out of the United States.
He was quite correct. The whole deal was a sting set up by the US authorities who had apparently caught wind of the affair from Tomkins enquiries.
Salcedo also tipped Tomkins off on his suspicions and he too was able to get away…for a period anyway. Tomkins had paid $25,000 up front for the deal and in 2003 was arrested in the US for attempting to break the country’s export laws on prohibited military equipment, for which he would serve 33 months in prison.
But that was in the future and back in 1991 Salcedo still had the problem of where to source an aircraft. He was also engaged in gathering intelligence on the target, principally the most likely location in the compound that Escobar would be. After all, this was not going to be the sort of affair his bosses no doubt imagined – a Strike Eagle dropping a laser guided bomb through Escobar’s bedroom window.
Four 500-lb bombs is a lot of boom but the attack would be imprecise and thus hitting the part of the compound that Escobar was going to be in was paramount to success.
Because remember, the proposed attack was literally an attack on the Colombian government. La Catedral might be Escobar’s personal abode and something of a bad joke, but it was in literal terms a Colombian state facility. Hitting it, and the inevitable fallout, could only really justified if Escobar was killed.
Then there was more bad news. In January 1992 the Salvadorean Civil War concluded in a peace deal. This would see the military finally come under civilian control and oversight after decades of doing their own thing, plus it would also mean that four missing bombs would get noticed.
Suddenly, the door was closing on availability and so Salcedo now had to scramble to collect the ordnance as quickly as possible.
The plan, put into action at speed, was for Salcedo and the Cali cartel’s local guys to take delivery of the four bombs and then fly them out from a remote airstrip. The collection took place without any hitches, with the bombs painted yellow to appear less military in nature and then taken to the pickup point.
So far, so good.
The problems began when the cartel’s aircraft arrived. Instead of a Cessna Grand Caravan that Salcedo had been expecting, the cartel sent a King Air 200. Though these were popular as smuggling aircraft, it is a much smaller and far more difficult aircraft to load, especially as the cargo wasn’t bales of cocaine, it was five-foot long steel objects which weighed nearly a quarter of a tonne each.
The plan had been to get the bombs loaded in five minutes so as to minimise the amount of attention that the shipment received. After all, though the local villagers were used to ignoring aircraft flying in and leaving quickly, they would start paying attention if a plane sat on the strip for a long period with a bunch of guys struggling to load it.
Which is what happened.
After battling to load the aircraft – with an increasingly large crowd of curious locals gathering to watch – the cartel crew managed to get three of the bombs aboard. The pilots, alarmed at the way the heavy objects were stacked already in the tiny cabin space, decided enough was enough and left, leaving Salcedo standing on the strip with a bomb just lying around.
Salcedo, quite wisely, got the hell out of El Salvador because it soon became apparent that the clandestine operation was already known of to various authorities. The Salvadoran colonel was picked up in short order, the abandoned bomb recovered and the whole plot rapidly reported in the international press, with the story identifying Salcedo himself as the Cali cartel’s man-with-the-plan.
Though the cartel managed to get their three bombs there was now no chance of them getting hold of a jet to launch the attack. But in fact, it soon became irrelevant anyway.
Escobar absconded from his imprisonment in July 1992 and with the whole of the Colombian law enforcement and military after him, as well as the Cali cartel killing off or subverting his associates at any opportunity they got, his grip on his Medellin cartel began to slip. He was eventually killed by police in December 1993.
This should’ve left the field open for Cali to be undisputed masters of the cocaine trade, but their days too were numbered. The US authorities got more efficient at seizing shipments but perhaps more crucially they acquired a spy at the very heart of the Cali cartels affairs – Jorge Salcedo.
Sickened by the increasing paranoia and violence that the Cali leaders were employing, often murdering their people on vague suspicion, Salcedo became a source for the DEA, allowing them to finally bring down the cartel. He and his family remain in the Witness Protection Program to this day.
And that concludes the truly mental story of how the Cali cartel planned to launch an airstrike against Pablo Escobar; a saga of when imagination, psychopathy and vast wealth come crashing together.