DIRTY SNOW

The Man Who Brought Down Pablo Escobar

Twenty years ago today, the Colombian drug lord was killed and his cartel destroyed. But as the colonel who pursued Escobar can attest, the war goes on and innocents keep dying.

12.02.15 6:06 PM ET

In April 1990, at the height of his fight against Pablo Escobar and the Medellin drug cartel, Colonel Hugo Martinez was standing in the middle of his family’s apartment, which had just been bombed, when he heard a sudden knock at the door. Martínez was in charge of the Search Bloc, the special Colombian police force organized to bring down Escobar. The knock was strange, Martínez knew, because no one but his family was supposed to know that he was actually there.

Arming himself, Martínez opened the door to discover a former police officer standing before him. The man had a strained look on his face. “I’ve come to you obligated,” the officer said glumly. He then got quickly to the point: “If you’ll let us know about your operations in advance, then 6 million dollars will be deposited into any account of your choosing.”

“Who,” the colonel asked quietly, “sent you here?”

“Pablo Escobar,” was the reply.

The colonel, of course, knew about such offers. Although the sums offered were usually much smaller—and were made to judges, politicians, journalists and police—they all had one thing in common. “Plata o plomo,” they were called in Colombia: “money or lead.” Either you accepted the money or else you would be riddled with lead.

Standing on pieces of shattered glass, with his family in hiding and with the entire Colombian nation terrorized, it didn’t take Colonel Martínez long to make a decision.

“Tell them you never were here,” he told the visitor quietly. And with that, he shut the door.

It was that particular story, and that particular decision that made me want to meet Martínez in Bogotá a few years ago, for a book I was writing. Sure, the story of Pablo Escobar and his rags-to-riches story of a petty thief ultimately becoming one of the wealthiest people in the world was interesting—but what kind of man made a decision like Martínez had? What motivated a man with a wife and children to go up against the most powerful man in Colombia at the time, a decision that had a very good chance of resulting in his death?

“They tried to kill me many times,” Martínez told me, sitting at a friend’s apartment in Bogotá, the city where he retired. Martínez, now 74 years old, is still lean, with dark eyes and dark hair flecked with gray. Although a former general, he is friendly and has no airs.

There was the time, Martínez said, when the cartel paid off a cook to try to poison his food. There was another time the cartel made a police cadet a plata o plomo offer to assassinate him. The cadet, however, changed his mind just as he was about to pull the trigger. There was another time when Martínez was listening to a tap of Escobar’s phone, which Escobar had recently discovered: “Colonel, I’m going to kill you,” Escobar said calmly, knowing that he was being recorded. “I’m going to kill all of your family up to the third generation, and then I will dig up your grandparents and shoot them and bury them again. Do you hear me?”

Through all of these and other attempts, Martínez persevered, until finally, on Dec. 2, 1993, Martínez’s men gunned Escobar down as he fired at police from a rooftop. Not long afterward, the Medellín Cartel was destroyed.

In the Netflix series Narcos, which portrays a fictionalized account of Escobar’s reign, Martínez is rather loosely portrayed by a character named Colonel Horacio Carrillo. No doubt because it is a U.S. production, the two heroes of the series are American DEA agents. Probably for the same reasons, the Colombia that serves as a backdrop is a land of violence, immorality, and death.

In real life, however, it was Colombians who bore the brunt of the battle against Escobar, and it was Colombians who paid the ultimate price. The cartel murdered more than 3,500 Colombian citizens as a consequence of that struggle, including more than a hundred of Martínez’s men. It was those men who risked their lives daily, fending off the forces that were tearing Colombia apart. After Escobar’s demise, those same forces moved to Mexico, where a new set of cartels has been battling to control the seemingly unstoppable flow northward of cocaine. Between 2007 and 2014, more than 160,000 Mexicans have died in the struggle over who controls the distribution of a fine white powder derived from a plant in the Andes so that certain citizens in the U.S. can enjoy a recreational drug.

“I did my duty,” Martínez told me, as we shook hands at the end of a series of interviews. “If I didn’t do it—then I would have simply been passing that duty on to someone else.”

In the meantime, 22 years after Escobar’s death, more than twice the amount of cocaine arrives in the U.S. each year than it did during the height of Pablo Escobar’s reign. The real question is how many more people will have to lose their lives so that some American citizens can continue using an illegal drug?

Kim MacQuarrie is the author of Life and Death in the Andes: On the Trail of Bandits, Heroes, and Revolutionaries. His previous book, The Last Days of the Incas, is in development at the FX Channel and is being made into a 13-part series.