Surviving ‘Pablo’

Enrique Parejo
Former Colombian Minister of Justice Enrique Parejo.

They had been trailing him for weeks. They knew his daily routine. When he drove to the Colombian Embassy in Budapest or when he took the bus. The morning of January 13, 1987 was an unusually cold one for Hungary’s capital. It was 22 degrees below zero and a blizzard was fallen. The then Colombian Ambassador to Hungary, Enrique Parejo González, stepped out of his house in the hills above the capital and examined his car. The road was too covered in ice, so best walk to the bus stop. It would be a brisk walk and one that changed his life forever.

Barely down the hill, he saw a man approaching. He stopped when he heard his name called. “You, Enrique Parejo?” shouted the stranger. “Yes” replied the diplomat. Within a fraction of a second a pistol was pulled and the first shot fired. Parejo fell to the ground. The bullet entered his neck and was logged in his spine. Parejo hadn’t lost consciousness. He remembers seeing the cold-blooded assassin at a close range, standing over him and firing more bullets. Then a bullet through the mouth, several through his cheek, his arms. The last bullet was aimed directly at his forehead. When the gun barrel was emptied the killer from the Medellín cartel fled, convinced he had killed the ex-Minister of Justice and the man who had signed Pablo Escobar’s arrest warrant. “Pablo Escobar governed Colombia,” cites Parejo, as he reflects on the man who terrorized Colombia and almost took away his life that winter morning.

Having replaced the brilliant 38 year-old lawyer, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla (1946-1984), in the Ministry of Justice after Lara was gunned down by Escobar’s killers when driving in his car in Bogotá, Enrique Parejo Gonzalez had to be sent out of the country to protect his life when death threats became a daily occurence. Thinking that a few years in a Soviet-bloc country would keep him out of harm’s way, president Virgilio Barco Vargas (1986-1990) was seeing how the state was disintegrating with relentless attacks by the Medellin cartel against politicians, judges, magistrates, police officers and anyone who crossed his path. Then the unthinkable: another Minister of Justice in critical condition. “One could not criticize Escobar,” recalls Parejo.

A life spent fighting for justice

Born in 1930 in the coastal town of Cienaga (Magdalena), Parejo rose through politics after studying law at the Universidad Nacional, from which he graduated in 1959. That same year, he became Secretary in the Colombian Embassy in Rome and continued his specialization in criminal law. In 1964, he returned to Colombia and joined the state’s educational service, SENA, where he worked for 10 years while lecturing on legal issues at his alma mater.

During the 1970’s a charismatic statesman and journalist, Luis Carlos Galan, began to denounce the existence of dangerous drug traffickers in his country. As an outspoken critic of corruption and clientelism, Luis Carlos Galan, quickly gathered political momentum and was widely regarded as the man who would change the political destiny of Colombia.

With a newly-founded party, Nuevo Liberalismo, Enrique Parejo and Luis Carlos Galan became friends and shared the same values when it came to confronting the criminal organizations that were taking root in Medellín; Colombia’s second largest city. Cocaine was corrupting Colombian society and quickly threatening the stability of the continent’s oldest democracy. Parejo, Galan and Lara were the standard bearers of a new style of politics: ambitious, willing to reach out to the masses, put their lives on the line for their ideals and determined to tackle issues social injustice and poverty. Galan would be President – Parejo and Lara – ministers of the circle of trust.

The loss of a colleague

But it ended tragically for Galan and the aspirations of millions of Colombians. On the night of August 18, 1989, Luis Carlos Galan was on the threshold of clinching the Presidency of Colombia. With unparalleled popular support, the candidate of Nuevo Liberalismo met his obligations to speak at a rally on the outskirts of Bogotá. As he addressed a large crowd from a wooden stage in a public square of Soacha, shots burst through the rain and Galan was killed. The death of Galan by Los Extraditables (The Extraditables) was even greater proof of the high level of violence striking Colombia. “Galan was killed by Pablo Escobar,” states Parejo, “but with certain implicit and explicit complicity of the dominant political classes.”

Enrique Parejo
“Pablo Escobar governed Colombia,” claims Parejo, who places much of the blame on weak or corrupt politicians during the peak of Escobar’s power.

Luis Carlos Galan ignored pleas from close friends not to go to Soacha that fateful night. He called the then director of the state’s security agency DAS, Miguel Maza Marquez, and was given assurance that all guarantees were in place to protect his life. According to Parejo, when Galan arrived “no measures had been taken to restrict access of people tied to the drugs cartels from entering the area. They didn’t clear the area beneath the stage where Galan was going to speak, which is elemental. The assassins were under the stage. There was no DAS agent or member of the National Police who could have prevented the assassin from firing on Galan at close range.”

“I’ve been very critical of our ruling political classes,” states this statesman who has lived through the darkest days in Colombia’s recent history. From the machine-gunning of friend Guillermo Cano – director of El Espectador newspaper – to the shooting of Lara Bonilla, the assassination of collegue Enrique Low Murtra (the Minister of Justice who replaced Parejo) to the bombing of an Avianca Airliner by the Medellin cartel and so many senseless acts of terror against civilians, Parejo’s resolve and determination to fight the cartels and enforce extradition with the United States was incorruptable. But Parejo’s legacy in confronting Escobar seems absent  in a the television series by Caracol, on the life of the drug baron, titled “Escobar: Patrón del Mal” (Escobar: Patron of Evil).

Still too soon?

Almost two decades after the death of Escobar on December 21993, many Colombians still cringe and disgust at the mention of his name. Responsible for the death of 4,000 and worth billions at the end of his life, the new series is based on Alonso Salazar’s book “The Parable of Pablo” and former Mayor of Medellín  (2008 – 2011).

Beamed into bedrooms across Colombia, Enrique Parejo is trying to catch each episode of the life of the man who tried to destroy his own by sending a sicario  (hired killers of Escobar) across the Iron Curtain. “One cannot present him – Escobar – as an icon of our society. The business he ran was crime. This cannot be an example to any society.”

Escobar’s criminal empire extended from the foothills and slums of Medellin to every street corner in the world where cocaine was sold. By acting as a great benefactor to the some of the most poor in his hometown he built low-income housing projects and a well-lit football stadium in Enviagdo. For Parejo, this outward manifestation was a means by which Pablo could create the “human shield” to protect him from the authorities.

Wanted Dead or Alive – as a full-page advertisement ran in the New York Times back in 1991 – the presidency of Cesar Gaviria (1990 – 1994) saw the construction of a large prison complex called El Catedral (The Cathedral) to house one inmate. Built overlooking the capital of Antioquia, Pablo Escobar, on June 19, 1991 decided “to submit” to Colombian justice under a government decree which allowed drug traffickers to receive reduced sentences and be spared extradition if they confessed to crimes. For Parejo, the decree of “Submitting to Justice” was just one of “many shameful acts” committed by his country. “As the owner of many Colombian lives, Escobar never submitted to justice. On the contrary, he brought the state to its knees with the immense power he had. He was the owner of many lives in Colombia who met their end due to the lack of an appropriate response of the Colombian state.”

Colombia’s darkest era

Parejo regrets the fact that during the Gaviria years, many of the state’s security forces – Military and National Police caved in to Escobar and let themselves be bought by “blood-stained” money. Many important sectors of Colombia “were allies of Escobar,” claims Parejo. The National Police submitted to Pablo Escobar Gaviria. And the state’s secret service. That’s the bitter reality that has existed in Colombia during the last decades.”

Pablo Escobar
A Canal Caracol series on the life of Escobar was critically and popularly successful, but many criticized the depiction of a criminal they blame for nearly collapsing the Colombian state.

Life in The Cathedral didn’t stop the cocaine trade for the Medellín cartel. Instead, Escobar continued on with business as usual, running a crime syndicate from a prison which quickly became decorated with gaudy furniture and the amenities of a luxury resort known as the “Envigado five-star hotel.” A fax machine, computer, the first cell phones in the country, maintained Escobar connected to his fellow drug barons; who frequently turned up for weekend visits.

A staunch critic of Gaviria’s soft approach to dealing with organized crime, Parejo is unwavering in his position that the state has a moral and legal duty to fight crime without worrying about the consequences. “I know this history. I suffered it. For me, Gaviria’s policies were an act of cowardice.” The former minister hopes the television series isn’t interpreted by a younger generation “as an apology to Escobar” given the excellent casting of Andres Parra as ‘the capo’ and the fact that many of the outlaws seem to come across as almost endearing.

And the series’ creators are hardly removed from the important national figures who endured the bloodshed of the decades. Camilo Cano is the son of publisher Guillermo Cano, and Juana Uribe is the niece of slain politician Luis Carlos Galan. Cano and Uribe have opened a debate as to how Colombians should deal with their past, and if – after a quarter of a century – the country itself has been able to shed its narco image. The Colombia of “Don Pablo” and the Colombia of “Pablo Escobar” at times seem mired in the same vicious circle of corruption and crime. Yet, undoubtedly, the country has changed. The opening of the economy with president Gaviria’s “apertura economica” led to the introduction of new foreign goods into this protectionist state. Juan Manuel Santos recently signed a Free Trade Agreement with the U.S., another important development in the state’s macro-economic policy, of which Parejo is highly critical.

Picking up the pieces

After recovering from the attack in Budapest, Parejo, became Ambassador to the Czechoslovakia, then Switzerland. While in Basel, Gaviria took office and Parejo resigned from what was considered the best overseas posting. “ I couldn’t shake the conscience of my country,” he says. President Gaviria’s neo-liberal vision for the country clashed with that of Parejo’s and within a year of “leaving” his maximum-security prison, Pablo Escobar, met his own bloody end on a roof top in Medellin. A brutal chapter in Colombian history had come to an end. The euphoria at Escobar’s death was so generalized that one newspaper, La Prensa, opened its front page with the second line of the national anthem: ‘!Oh, Júbilo Inmortal! (Oh, Immortal Joy!)

Parejo’s gunman slipped into obscurity. Although the Parejo suspects that he was an Argentine by the name of Carlos Gomez Gomez, Escobar had failed to silence a man who continues to speak out against injustice and human rights abuses committed by the military and police. He remains vociferous and immensely critical of many of the governments which followed Gaviria, especially the last eight years of president Alvro Uribe Velez. “A man like Uribe also has his responsibility in the increase of violence. He, who lectures on morality, the respect for the rights of the state, the fight against crime.”

For Parejo, the biggest problem facing Colombia continues to be corruption because it debilitates the state to its very core. And is the means by which corruption infiltrates the highest offices in the land. This too did not end with Escobar. Drugs continue to buy political favours, help appoint corrupt legislators, finance the cartels operating across the country. From a narco-guerilla to narco-paramilitaries that allied themselves with the state, Parejo, seems determined to speak out. He also hopes that a generation of Colombians will remember Escobar – not as television series – but a man who tried to extinguish a nation. At age 82, he can consider himself “ fortunate” to have survived Pablo.


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