The Medellín Cartel was a highly organized and much-feared Colombian drug cartel originating in the city of Medellín, Colombia. The drug cartel operated throughout the 1970s and 1980s in Bolivia, Colombia, Panama, Central America, Peru, and the United States, as well as in Canada and Europe.
At the height of its operations, the Medellín Cartel smuggled tons of cocaine each week into countries all over the world and brought in up to 60 million dollars daily in drug profits. For a time, the Medellín Cartel supplied at least 70% of the United States’ cocaine market.
The following year, the Asociación Campesina de Ganaderos y Agricultores del Magdalena Medio (“Association of Middle Magdalena Ranchers and Farmers”, ACDEGAM) was created to handle both the logistics and the public relations of the organization, and to provide a legal front for various paramilitary groups. ACDEGAM worked to promote anti-labor policies, and threatened anyone involved with organizing for labor or peasants’ rights. The threats were backed up by the MAS, which would attack or assassinate anyone who was suspected of being a “subversive”. ACDEGAM also built schools whose stated purpose was the creation of a “patriotic and anti-Communist” educational environment, and built roads, bridges, and health clinics. Paramilitary recruiting, weapons storage, communications, propaganda, and medical services were all run out of ACDEGAM headquarters.
By the mid-1980s, ACDEGAM and MAS had experienced significant growth. In 1985, the powerful drug traffickers Juan Matta-Ballesteros, Pablo Escobar, Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha, Carlos Lehder, and Jorge Luis Ochoa began funneling large amounts of cash into the organization to pay for equipment, training, and weaponry. Money for social projects was cut off and redirected towards strengthening the MAS. Modern battle rifles, such as the AKM, FN FAL, Galil, and HK G3, were purchased from the military, INDUMIL, and drug-funded private sales. The organization had computers and ran a communications center that worked in coordination with the state telecommunications office. They had 30 pilots, and an assortment of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. British, Israeli, and U.S. military instructors were hired to teach at paramilitary training centers.
Relations with the Colombian government
Once authorities were made aware of “questionable activities”, the group was put under Federal Drug Task Force surveillance. Evidence was gathered, compiled, and presented to a grand jury, resulting in indictments, arrests, and prison sentences for those convicted. However, very few Colombian cartel leaders were actually taken into custody as a result of these operations. Mostly, non-Colombians conspiring with the cartel were the “fruits” of these indictments.
Most Colombians targeted, as well as those named in such indictments, lived and stayed in Colombia, or fled before indictments were unsealed. However, by 1993 most, if not all, cartel fugitives had been either imprisoned, or hunted and gunned down, by the Colombian National Police trained and assisted by specialized military units and the CIA.
The last of Escobar‘s lieutenants to be assassinated was Juan Diego Arcila Henao, who had been released from a Colombian prison in 2002 and hidden in Venezuela to avoid the vengeance of “Los Pepes”. However he was gunned down in his Jeep Cherokee as he exited the parking area of his home in Cumana, Venezuela, in April 2007.
While it is broadly believed that Los Pepes have been instrumental in the assassination of the cartel’s members over the last 17 years, it is still in dispute whether the mantle is just a screen designed to deflect political repercussions from both the Colombian and United States governments’ involvement in these assassinations.
Fear of extradition
Perhaps the greatest threat posed to the Medellín Cartel and the other traffickers was the implementation of an extradition treaty between the United States and Colombia. It allowed Colombia to extradite to the US any Colombian suspected of drug trafficking and to be tried there for their crimes. This was a major problem for the cartel, since the drug traffickers had little access to their local power and influence in the US, and a trial there would most likely lead to imprisonment. Among the staunch supporters of the extradition treaty were Colombian Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara (who was pushing for more action against the drug cartels), Police Officer Jaime Ramírez, and numerous Colombian Supreme Court judges.
However, the cartel applied a “bend or break” strategy towards several of these supporters, using bribery, extortion, or violence. Nevertheless, when police efforts began to cause major losses, some of the major drug lords themselves were temporarily pushed out of Colombia, forcing them into hiding from which they ordered cartel members to take out key supporters of the extradition treaty.
The cartel issued death threats to the Supreme Court Judges, asking them to denounce the Extradition Treaty. The warnings were ignored. This led Escobar and the group he called Los Extraditables (“The Extraditables”) to start a violent campaign to pressure the Colombian government by committing a series of kidnappings, murders, and narco-terrorist actions.
Alleged relation with the M-19
In November 1985, 35 heavily armed members of the M-19 guerrilla group stormed the Colombian Supreme Court in Bogotá, leading to the Palace of Justice siege. Some claimed at the time that the cartel’s influence was behind the M-19’s raid, because of its interest in intimidating the Supreme Court. Others state that the alleged cartel-guerrilla relationship was unlikely to occur at the time because the two organizations had been having several standoffs and confrontations, like the kidnappings by M-19 of drug lord Carlos Lehder and of Nieves Ochoa, the sister of Medellín Cartel founder Juan David Ochoa. These kidnappings led to the creation of the MAS/Muerte a Secuestradores (“Death to Kidnappers”) paramilitary group by the Medellín Cartel. Former guerrilla members have also denied that the cartel had any part in this event. The issue continues to be debated inside Colombia.
As a means of intimidation, the cartel conducted hundreds of assassinations throughout the country. Escobar and his associates made it clear that whoever stood against them would risk being killed along with their families. Some estimates put the total around 3,500 killed during the height of the cartel’s reign, including over 500 police officers in Medellín, but the entire list is impossible to assemble, due to the limitation of the judiciary power in Colombia. The following is a brief list of the most notorious assassinations conducted by the cartel:
- Luis Vasco and Gilberto Hernandez, two DAS agents who had arrested Pablo Escobar in 1976. Among the earliest assassinations of authority figures by the cartel.
- Rodrigo Lara, Minister of Justice, killed on a Bogotá highway on April 30, 1984, when two gunmen riding a motorcycle approached his vehicle in traffic and opened fire.
- Tulio Manuel Castro Gil, Superior Judge, killed by motorcycle gunmen in July 1985, shortly after indicting Escobar.
- Enrique Camarena, DEA agent, February 9, 1985, killed in Guadalajara, Mexico. Tortured and murdered on orders of members of the Guadalajara Cartel and Juan Matta-Ballesteros, a drug lord of the Medellin Cartel.
- Hernando Baquero Borda, Supreme Court Justice, killed by gunmen in Bogotá on July 31, 1986.
- Jaime Ramírez, Police Colonel and head of the anti-narcotics unit of the National Police of Colombia. Killed on a Medellín highway in November 1986 when assassins in a red Renault pulled up beside his white Toyota minivan and opened fire. Ramírez was killed instantly; his wife and two sons were wounded.
- Guillermo Cano Isaza, director of El Espectador, killed in December 1986 in Bogotá by gunmen riding a motorcycle.
- Jaime Pardo Leal, presidential candidate and head of the Patriotic Union party, killed by a gunman in October 1987.
- Carlos Mauro Hoyos, Attorney General, kidnapped then killed by gunmen in Medellín in January 1988.
- Antonio Roldan Betancur, governor of Antioquia, killed by a car bomb in July 1989.
- Waldemar Franklin Quintero, Commander of the Antioquia police, killed by gunmen in Medellín in August 1989.
- Luis Carlos Galán, presidential candidate, killed by gunmen during a rally in Soacha in August 1989. The assassination was carried out on the same day the commander of the Antioquia police was gunned down by the cartel.
- Carlos Ernesto Valencia, Superior Judge, killed by gunmen shortly after indicting Escobar on the death of Guillermo Cano, in August 1989.
- Jorge Enrique Pulido, journalist, director of Jorge Enrique Pulido TV, killed by gunmen in Bogotá in November 1989.
- Diana Turbay, journalist, chief editor of the Hoy por Hoy magazine, killed during a rescue attempt in January 1991.
- Enrique Low Murtra, Minister of Justice, killed by gunmen in downtown Bogotá in May 1991.
- Myriam Rocio Velez, Superior Judge, killed by gunmen shortly before she was to sentence Escobar on the assassination of Galán, in September 1992.
With the assassination of Juan Diego Arcila Henao in 2007, most if not all of Escobar‘s lieutenants who were not in prison had been killed by the Colombian National Police Search Bloc(trained and assisted by U.S. Delta Force and CIA operatives), or by the Los Pepes vigilantes.
DEA agents considered that their four-pronged “Kingpin Strategy”, specifically targeting senior cartel figures, was a major contributing factor to the collapse of the organization.
La Oficina de Envigado is believed to be a partial successor to the Medellín organization. It was founded by Don Berna as an enforcement wing for the Medellín Cartel. When Don Berna fell out with Escobar, La Oficina caused Escobar‘s rivals to oust Escobar. The organization then inherited the Medellín turf and its criminal connections in the US, Mexico, and the UK, and began to affiliate with the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, organizing drug trafficking operations on their behalf.
In popular culture
The cartel is either featured or referenced in numerous works of popular culture.
- Blow: 2001 film about drug smuggler George Jung and the Medellín Cartel
- The cartel is referenced in the film Sicario (2015).
- Narcos is a Netflix original television series (2015–) that chronicles the life of Pablo Escobar and the rise of the Medellín Cartel.
- Cocaine Cowboys and Cocaine Cowboys 2: documentary series about the Miami Drug War and Griselda Blanco
- American Desperado: a book by journalist Evan Wright and former Medellín Cartel trafficker Jon Roberts
- The Two Escobars: an ESPN 30 for 30 film details the link between the Medellín Cartel and the rise of Colombian football
- American Made: 2017 film about drug smuggler Barry Seal and the Medellín Cartel
メデジン・カルテル（スペイン語: Cártel de Medellín）は、コロンビアの犯罪組織。パブロ・エスコバルによりコロンビアのメデジンに創立された、麻薬密売者の組織化されたネットワークで、主に1970年代及び1980年代を通して活動した。