High and mighty

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 June, 2009, 12:00am

He was once the accountant for one of the most infamous drug cartels in history. But Roberto Escobar, brother of Pablo Escobar, the most successful cocaine dealer in history, insists his life's purpose now is to develop a cure for Aids.

His interest in the disease is just one of a litany of bizarre disclosures he makes in Escobar, a book that - with the help of writer David Fisher and translator Tito Dominguez - tells the inside story of Pablo and the Medellin drug cartel. At the height of his powers in 1989, Pablo was listed by Forbes magazine as the world's seventh-richest man, with earnings of US$9 billion a year. Back then Roberto kept racehorses.

Speaking in Spanish, with his Miami-based friend and former Medellin cartel operative Dominguez translating, Roberto explains that when his beloved US$3 million Paso Fino - abducted and castrated by rivals - succumbed to equine anaemia, a sickness that closely parallels Aids, he 'began working closely with veterinarians and chemists and became more and more involved'.

When the brothers gave themselves up to Colombian authorities in 1991, they not only built their own luxury prison, La Catedral, complete with jacuzzis, a football pitch, two chefs and a bar stocked with the finest spirits, they also created a laboratory for Roberto's research.

As with many of Roberto's revelations, those concerning the life the brothers led inside La Catedral until their 1992 escape would strain all credibility if so many of them were not on record. But then, the entire Escobar story reads like a surreal rags to riches fable. Or, as Roberto puts it in his book: 'Our lives were like a dream, then we lived in a nightmare.'

Roberto spent 15 years keeping track of Pablo's billions, investing and devising methods of storing the cash. Eventually forced on the run with Pablo, he handed himself over to Colombian authorities for the second time in 1992 and was placed in a maximum-security prison until his release in 2004.

Partially blind and deaf from a letter-bomb delivered to him in custody, Roberto now says: 'I was never charged with any violent acts.' He received a letter from Colombia's prosecutor last year, along with a US$40,000 settlement, in acknowledgment of their error in holding him for so long. Roberto paid dearly for, as he puts it, 'the crime of being Pablo's brother'.

He has also endured the loss of an 18-year-old son, who like so many in Colombia was gunned down by teenaged sicarios, or assassins. He betrays no bitterness and says: 'That's just the way it is in this country. This is just a way of life for us.'

He will admit to a lot of regret and remorse, but his overwhelming compulsion in writing Escobar is to preserve the memory of Pablo's philanthropy and put the record straight about his own, supposedly reluctant, role in 'the business'.

He has collaborated with director Oliver Stone on a forthcoming film about Pablo and says all proceeds from Escobar's sale will go to Aids research. During Pablo's reign, he ordered thousands of murders and was blamed for the assassination of several politicians, the destruction of Colombia's Palace of Justice and the bombing of a passenger jet, but, says Roberto: 'A lot has been said about the violence, but I wanted everybody to see the other side of Pablo, the part of Pablo that has never been spoken about.'

The result is a book that doesn't ignore Pablo's violence but is in some senses removed from it. During the savage war that erupted between the Medellin and Cali cartels in the late 80s and the violent, overlapping feud between Pablo and the government regarding its extradition treaty with the US, thousands of people lost their lives, but Roberto is adamant that 'Pablo did not start the war. The first bomb was against Pablo's wife and kids.'

In the book he hints at the complex swirl of powerful forces that used Pablo's almost mythical status in the late 80s, along with the eventual hunt for him, as a cover to settle feuds and destroy opposition. He also says many murders ascribed to Pablo were ordered by Jose Rodriguez Gacha, a powerful cartel member killed in 1989, but admits the complete truth died along with Pablo when he was gunned down by Colombian and American forces on a Medellin rooftop in 1993.

But for all its brotherly bias, Escobar is a riveting account of the rise and fall of a drug empire and of life with a man remembered as a kind of Robin Hood by Colombia's poor. And while Pablo's complex dual legacy continues to divide opinion, there can be no denying that in death he has become an outsized legend. Each year, thousands of people from all over the globe flock to his grave in a cemetery outside Medellin.

During his life, Pablo used his wealth to build schools and hospitals and even set up a social security system. Many say he cultivated his Robin Hood image as a form of protection, but Roberto views his philanthropic impulse as one of the driving factors of Pablo's complex, vaulting ambition.

What irks Roberto most in conventional accounts of his brother's story is that Pablo is blamed for bringing violence to Colombia and no acknowledgment is made of the complex politics of the country, where government forces, left-wing guerilla armies and right-wing paramilitaries have long been embroiled in one of Latin America's longest-running conflicts.

'Violence has been in Colombia since 1947. It was there before Pablo,' he says. But of all Roberto's revelations in Escobar, perhaps none are more mind-boggling than those describing the ingenious methods they devised to refine and smuggle hundreds of tonnes of cocaine into the US and Europe and the amount of cash that it generated.

For Roberto and his staff of 10, the biggest problem was storing the money. What wasn't laundered in the US financial system was hidden in custom-made caletas, small hiding places in the walls and grounds of houses and apartments all over Colombia and the US. They spent US$2,500 a month on elastic bands to hold notes together and shrugged off annual losses of 10 per cent to rodents and mould.

Politicians, police, even priests were on the payroll. People sold their houses and cars to invest with Pablo and never lost money, insists Roberto, who also observes in his book that many in the legal and business world of today's Spain, for example, made their fortunes with Pablo. 'Just about the whole government and the whole country of Colombia, in one form or another, was involved in the drug business.'

Even now, Roberto says, it is impossible to quantify the amount of cash Pablo's cocaine empire generated, or the numbers of people involved. He believes that mountains of cash remain hidden in caletas across Colombia, New York and Miami, or wherever the cartel did business. But those who once knew the account numbers or the caleta locations are all dead, along with Pablo.

What has not died with Pablo is the cocaine trade, which flourishes as never before. Nor did Pablo's death stem the flow of requests for help from Colombia's poor. In addition to pleas for all kinds of assistance, says Roberto, 'I now receive 50 e-mails a day from those suffering from Aids or HIV.'

Writer's notes

Name: Roberto Escobar

Age: 63

Born: Colombia

Family: separated, three children

Lives: Medellin, Colombia Genre: memoir/biography

Latest book: Escobar (Hodder & Stoughton)

Next project: Aids research

Other works: Mi Hermano Pablo (My Brother Pablo, Oveja Negra, 2008)

Other jobs: electronics engineer and accountant

What the papers say: 'Roberto tells Pablo's story with a cool reserve.' - Kirkus 'There are passages in this biography written by Pablo's brother and chief accountant, Roberto, that are jaw-dropping.' - The Sunday Times 'The literary equivalent of a narcocorrido.' - Los Angeles Times