Medellín: The Peace of the Pacifiers

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Medellín: The Peace of the Pacifiers

Postby American Dream » Thu Jan 24, 2008 8:30 pm ... pacifiers/

Medellín: The Peace of the Pacifiers
by Forrest Hylton

The ride into Medellín, Colombia, is spectacular, especially at night, when lights sprawl up the western hills about a mile below the mountainsides. There are two ways in from the airport: descending from the southeast via Las Palmas through the city’s greenest, most exclusive and fortified areas (Envigado and El Poblado), or the northeast via Guarne, Zamora, and Playón, the last a peripheral neighborhood in one of the toughest of the city’s 16 wards (comunas).

Downtown is tropical, clean, frenetic, and congested with people, vehicles, and the shattering noise of motorcycle traffic and hydraulic brakes.1 Towering edifices of glass, steel, and cement dominate a skyline surrounded by barrios populares and their dwellings made of concrete brick, wooden planks, and bareque (a mix of clay, manure, and straw). Above them, lush green mountains with rapidly receding tree lines rise steeply above the ever-shifting divide between town and country.

From the west, there is another way into Medellín, no less spectacular, but one that few tourists see, past San Cristóbal, a picturesque corregimiento (rural subdistrict) of white, one-story adobe buildings that serves as a paramilitary checkpoint regulating the flow of people and goods between Medellín, the newly built Tunnel to the West, and the Caribbean lowlands of Urabá. In August 2003, on a nearby ranch on San Cristóbal’s border with Comuna 13, a common grave of 13 people was uncovered. The victims were some of the 70 people “disappeared” from Comuna 13 by paramilitaries who took over the ward following Operación Orión, an incursion of 1,500 soldiers and police, coordinated with paramilitaries and carried out in Comuna 13 in October 2002. Leftist militias were vanquished and radical community activists and leaders were jailed, injured, disappeared, and displaced. Since then, massacres and disappearances have became less common than selective assassinations, which continued throughout the administration of the city’s young “independent” mayor, Sergio Fajardo, elected in October 2003, whose successor and former secretary of government, Alonso Salazar, won municipal elections in October.

Recent news reports and travel pieces in English emphasize that the city is now as marvelous as the paisas—residents of the department of Antioquia and Medellín, its capital city—have long claimed it is. In contrast to the years when it had the highest homicide rate in the world and became synonymous with Pablo Escobar, Medellín today boasts a homicide rate lower than Baltimore’s and Atlanta’s, and the city is a magnet for tourism, the culture industry, business conventions, and large-scale capital investment. In October, Fajardo, speaking the fluent English acquired during doctoral work in math at the University of Wisconsin, lobbied the U.S. trade secretary and congressional representatives for a free trade agreement. He took them up the eastern mountainside via the new cable car system to visit one of his showpiece public works projects, the library-park España—named in honor of King Juan Carlos, who inaugurated it—in Santo Domingo, Comuna 1, until recently one of the city’s most dangerous, insurgent hillside neighborhoods. After looking around the library-park’s two pod-like black structures, which resemble nothing so much as a military research installation, the visiting dignitaries talked to demobilized paramilitaries. One U.S. official called the city’s progress “nothing short of a revolution.”

The previous April, months after Fajardo inaugurated another library-park in Comuna 13, a pair of teenage gunmen killed Judith Vergara Correa on her way to work downtown. Associated with local, regional, and national peace organizations, Vergara, 32, was the president of the community board (Junta de Acción Comunal) in her neighborhood and a candidate of the opposition party (PDA) for the Junta Administradora Local for Comuna 13. She left behind four children, aged 17, 15, 10, and 8. Her murder took place a month and a half after the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office published a report detailing the need for an early warning system to prevent the death of community leaders in the district.

Vergara had publicly denounced extortion and other crimes committed by ostensibly demobilized paramilitaries. Following the demobilization of 867 members of the paramilitary Bloque Cacique Nutibara in November 2003—presided over by Medellín’s “boss of bosses,” Diego Fernando Murillo, alias Don Berna, alias Adolfo Paz—paramilitarism was officially declared “over.” Yet as Amnesty International noted in early 2005, paramilitaries had not so much been demobilized as they had become loosely regulated by the state, more or less legalized, and given a free pass.

Though Fajardo and Salazar, then secretary of government, disputed Amnesty’s conclusions, they admitted that Don Berna continued to manage organized crime from his prison cell after he was “captured” in mid-2005. Under Don Berna, organized crime meshed with right-wing paramiltarism and propertied interests to make Medellín safe for tourists, investors, real estate speculators, urban redevelopment, and, under the right-wing administration of President Álvaro Uribe, even “independent” municipal politics. In his open, nonbinding testimony in July, Don Berna expressed frustration at not having been given the credit he deserved for “pacifying” Medellín. A record 13,000 people, meanwhile, officially claimed to have been victims of his crimes, making Don Berna a leader among paramilitary chieftains. Today, having served his purpose, Don Berna no longer controls narco-paramilitarism in Medellín. But the city remains a graveyard for those fighting to improve the lot of its working-class majority.


Today’s odd mix of paramilitary and “progressive” municipal politics can only be understood in light of the city’s long-term historical and geographical development. Medellín first made its mark on Colombia and the world in the late 19th century, when economic liberalism was hitched to ultramontane Catholic conservatism, as dictated in Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891). On the basis of coffee, banking, and light industry, which expanded dramatically in the first four decades of the 20th century, Medellín set the pattern for Colombia’s national economic development through the 1970s, as it appears to be doing again in the 21st century.

Yet an earlier period, when gold production exploded during the Bourbon Reforms, provides the key to understanding ruling-class and regional formation. Gold mining took off in the second half of the 18th century in the lower Cauca River region, and then after 1780, in highland valleys, which were quickly settled in a widely dispersed network of towns. But it was through long-distance contraband trade in gold and British textiles that upwardly mobile, racially mixed entrepreneurs made room for themselves toward the top of a class hierarchy dominated by criollos.

In the new highland commercial centers of Medellín and Rionegro, black became a synonym for poor, reflecting the coexistence of race mixture and racism (one third of the highland population was composed of slaves). Precisely because race mixture between “white” and “black” was so common in the 19th century (usually the result of informal unions between elite men and working women), these terms could be used to describe classes of “rich” and “poor” after slavery was abolished at mid-century. The language of class in Antioquia reflected the area’s peculiar racial ideology and regional settlement patterns.

Untouched by the Wars of Independence (1810–25), Antioquians became the country’s leading merchant bankers but did not dominate export production, of which there was very little during the first three decades of the republic. That came later, in the last third of the 19th century, when land-hungry paisas fanned out to the south to settle what became known as the “coffee axis,” the center of national economic and cultural development through the 1960s. Rather than controlling land and labor, as they did in much of Antioquia, paisa merchant-bankers controlled commercialization, credit, pricing, and transportation in the coffee axis. In some cases they financed the settlement of new towns and incorporated a class of peasant smallholders into the clientelist networks of the Conservative and, to a lesser degree, the Liberal Party. Coffee smallholders shared with their rulers a sense of racial, cultural, and regional superiority. The church had strong, durable roots and institutional presence in schools and private lives throughout the country, nowhere more so than in Antioquia.

The first textile mills were imported from England at the beginning of the 20th century, but the merchant bankers would not fully transition to industry—food, beverages, cigarettes, chocolate, liquor, and especially textiles—until after World War I. Crucial to understanding the city’s subsequent evolution, however, is the fact that the political culture in factories reproduced, in the urban setting, the vertical, clientelist pattern of class domination set in the coffee municipios.

No independent working-class culture and organization developed in Medellín as it did in cities throughout the country, where trade unions, revolutionary left parties, and followers of radical-popular Liberal leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán grew in strength and numbers during the 1930s and 1940s. The organizational and ideological vigor with which the Catholic Church and Medellín’s business leaders repressed and isolated radicals, and co-opted the factory proletariat, made the city different: Its working class was fragmented and divided by differential access to waged employment in industry. As much as the city’s impressive skyscrapers, boulevards, parks, universities, cinemas, and theaters, this paternalist command over labor may have influenced Life magazine’s 1947 profile of Medellín as a “capitalist paradise.”

Fast-forward two decades. Most leading cocaine capos, including Pablo Escobar, got their start in the late 1960s as underlings in networks of contraband imports of U.S. manufactured goods run by older contrabandistas. These networks linked Miami and Colón, Panama, to Turbo, Antioquia’s Caribbean port in Urabá, as well as the string of towns in the Antioquian lowlands leading out to it. In keeping with regional tradition, Escobar and his generation were ambitious contraband entrepreneurs: Each had his own labor networks based on kinship and friendship, and collectively, they quickly displaced or killed the old men who had trained them.

Though portrayed as the leader of a “cartel,” Escobar was more mafioso than trafficker. By the mid-1970s, he had established a monopoly on protection, making him the first among equals in a cocaine export consortium that included both a traditional ruling-class family and people of relatively “low birth”—men of mixed racial backgrounds from undistinguished families, i.e., “blacks.” Others were better at exporting cocaine—purchasing coca paste in Bolivia and Peru, flying it to Colombia, and refining it in clandestine laboratories before shipping it to market—but they had to pay Escobar for each kilo they moved. Through Escobar, “blacks” became rich.

The cocaine export business was far more dynamic than traditional manufacturing industries at the height of their expansion in the 1940s and 1950s, and created more jobs in the licit as well as illicit economy. More wealth was redistributed through patronage, clientelism, and corruption in the 1970s than had ever been redistributed during the previous era’s oligarchic model of industrial development, in which each sector was monopolized by one or two family firms. And the generalized economic crisis of the 1970s meant that the new narco-entrepreneurs, with Escobar at the top, could tap into a vast pool of skilled and semi-skilled labor in a city with industrial rhythms and infrastructure. Many people from these working-, middle-, and upper-middle-class layers became part of Escobar’s retinue, earning more than their counterparts in the licit economy.

Unprecedented amounts of illegally obtained cash had to be laundered through front businesses—car dealerships, hotels, auto shops, urban real estate companies, interior decorating and graphic design firms, modeling agencies, retail stores, restaurants, and upscale discotecas—and bogus accounting practices. For these jobs, only well-educated men from decent families (doctores) would do. Colombian banks in Panama, Miami, and Medellín, many of them owned by traffickers through intermediaries, sprang up to meet the new demand for laundering. This helped the shift toward an economic model in which construction, real estate, insurance, and financial services were primary, while industry, excepting cocaine, was secondary. Escobar and company faced little state repression, or even rhetorical sanction, and certainly none who could resist the offer of plata o plomo—silver or lead.

Following the shift away from protected manufacturing toward banking, real estate, and financial services, the narco-entrepreneurs, whose influence radiated out to those above and below them, precluded the emergence of a national-popular bloc, the seeds of which were destroyed by state and semiprivate paramilitary violence, the latter financed with cocaine profits. Under Escobar’s leadership, the upstart mafia carried out a bloodless coup within the region’s ruling class; after Escobar was killed in 1993, the new criminal strata took over the reins of business and society from the old industrial and coffee-exporting families. Yet no one could have imagined the firestorm of urban warfare Escobar would unleash once he was barred from formal politics and subject to extradition to the United States. More than 70,000 people in Medellín, the overwhelming majority of them young men, died from homicide between 1982 and 2002.


The vector of this multiplying murder and mayhem—one that turned the city into a war zone on par with Beirut—was not the cocaine business itself. It was the determination of a reformist wing of the Liberal Party, on the one hand, and the Reagan administration, on the other, to drive Escobar out of politics and extradite him and his business partners to the United States. In 1982, not long before Uribe was appointed mayor of Medellín—by then, the city had become known to traffickers as “the sanctuary”—Escobar became an alternate deputy for one of the Liberal Party’s consummate political bosses (caciques) after being publicly expelled from the “New Liberalism” by two rising young stars within the Liberal Party, Luis Carlos Galán and Rodrigo Lara Bonilla. Through his cacique and an intermediary, Escobar tried to expose Lara Bonilla’s alleged ties to drug money in Congress, but Lara Bonilla retaliated, working to deprive Escobar of parliamentary immunity and to extradite him. In March 1984, Lara Bonilla also oversaw an operation that seized 15 tons of cocaine at the cartel’s Tranquilandia laboratory complex.

This was tantamount to a declaration of war. In April 1984 Escobar had Lara Bonilla killed by a young assassin on a motorcycle and then fled to Manuel Noriega’s Panama. Escobar and his associates, who now called themselves “the Extraditable Ones”—the Castaños, Galeanos, Moncadas, Ochoas, and El Mejicano—offered to turn themselves in and dismantle their business if the government refused to implement the extradition treaty signed with the United States. Under pressure from domestic public opinion as well as the U.S. government, the administration of Belisario Betancur declined. In July 1984, the judge investigating Lara Bonilla’s assassination was murdered; the following November, Escobar’s men set off a car bomb outside the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá. As Mike Davis notes, Escobar would soon became the “true empresario of the car bomb in the Western Hemisphere.”2

In its war against Colombia’s numerous incorruptible politicians, civil servants, police, and journalists, the region’s cocaine export mafia turned select groups of young men from Medellín’s comunas, particularly in the northeast (Comunas 1–4), into a private army of snipers and hit men. DEA operatives as far away as Miami lived in fear of them. This “armed wing” of the mafia operated through a series of “business offices” (oficinas), which managed relations between Escobar and gangs like Los Priscos, Los de Rigo, and La Germania in the northeast, “Tyson” and “Kika” Múñoz Mosquera in the northwest, and La Ramada in Bello (an industrial town on the northern border of Medellín). The army and police, in turn, targeted young men in the comunas and Bello for massacre. Continued urban warfare spurred the specialization, concentration, and professionalization of gangs as the cell forms of organized crime in Medellín. A pluralism of violence overtook the city: A 1987 government study concluded that it was impossible to speak of la violencia in Colombia; one now had to consider las violencias, especially in Medellín.

Though Escobar had close ties to the M-19 guerrilla group, his anti-Communist associates—Fidel Castaño, El Negro Galeano, El Mejicano—had opposed the peace process between the government and rural insurgencies initiated by President Belisario Betancur, himself from Antioquia. Following the precedent set in the Middle Magdalena region (where Antioquia, Santander, Cundinamarca, and Boyacá meet the Magdalena River), which had been “cleansed” of Communists, the counterinsurgent bloc of traffickers announced its determination to rid the country of “subversion” by exterminating the UP, a broad left political party founded by the FARC and the PCC in 1985. The peace process unraveled in 1985–86 after the M-19 seized the Palace of Justice, and in Medellín death squads hit factories, universities, and high schools where the insurgencies and the UP recruited most heavily; around the country, some 500 UP militants and candidates—including popular presidential candidate, Jaime Pardo Leal—were murdered. In 1989, when Antioquian governor Antonio Roldán Betancourt publicly condemned massacres carried out by right-wing death squads against UP supporters, Escobar and his associates killed him with a car bomb. They also car-bombed the Bogotá offices of El Espectador—which stubbornly supported extradition after “the Extraditables” assassinated its distinguished editor, Guillermo Cano, in 1986—and assassinated Luis Carlos Galán, Escobar’s bête noire, an unusually popular politician sure to have won the Liberal Party nomination. Galán would likely have reopened negotiations with left insurgents. Prospects for peace receded in the wake of his death, and armed left militias spread throughout Comunas 1 and 2.

A besieged President Barco invited greater U.S. military and DEA involvement in fighting the Extraditable Ones, and U.S. anti-drug aid to the Colombian military and police would jump from $300 million to $700 million between 1989 and 1991. With the Medellín and Cali organizations at war with one another in 1989, a U.S.-trained and -funded elite joint task force of out-of-towners—the Bloque de Búsqueda, or Search Bloc—was formed to hunt Escobar and the young men who worked for him in Medellín. Escobar put a price on the head of each policeman not working for him. Often coordinating with local National Police loyal to Escobar, hired killers from las oficinas eliminated the out-of-towners in rapid succession. In the first 15 days, 30 were killed.

In November 1989, one of Escobar’s lieutenants blew up a passenger plane in mid-flight, killing 110 people, in a botched effort to kill César Gaviria, Galán’s successor in the Liberal Party (and future president). The following month, a truck bomb exploded in front of the headquarters of Colombia’s secret police (DAS)—the largest ever detonated outside the Middle East—creating a crater that demolished 23 city blocks and killed 59 people, injured 1,000, and destroyed more than 1,500 buildings. In return, the Bloque de Búsqueda massacred young people by the hundreds. There were 4,000 homicides that year in Medellín.

In 1991, the new Constitution drafted by President Gaviria’s Constituent Assembly barred the extradition of Colombian nationals to the United States, and Escobar finally “turned himself in” to the prison he had built and staffed with handpicked police and bodyguards. But the war on the streets between the Bloque de Búsqueda and Escobar’s lieutenants and soldiers continued. Some 500 members of the Bloque de Búsqueda were murdered in 1990–91, and in the comunas 20 to 40 young men were killed every weekend. There were 6,595 homicides in 1991, over 1,000 more than in 1990, and 2,500 more than in 1989, and in 1992, the year Escobar escaped, the number dropped to a still astronomical 5,834.

The tide turned decisively against Escobar only in early 1993, after he escaped from prison, once the high technology of the U.S. Army’s top-secret Centra Spike satellite surveillance unit was supplemented by the local knowledge of “Los Pepes,” Escobar’s former associates. The group was founded by the Castaño brothers, Carlos and Fidel, the Ochoas, what remained of the Galeanos, and the Moncadas, including Don Berna, along with a retired military official, “Rodrigo 00,” who had led anti-guerrilla death squads in the countryside with the Castaños.

Unlike Escobar, the Pepes wanted to work for the establishment, and their alliance with it was “informal” in name only. Their “local knowledge” consisted mainly in fighting fire with fire: Using money and intelligence from the Cali cartel, the Pepes’ kidnappers, torturers, killers, arsonists, and car bombers eliminated the infrastructure of Escobar’s organization, the remaining oficinas of criminals and hired killers loyal to him, and businesses and properties owned through intermediaries. They fed intelligence and information to the Bloque de Búsqueda (who also received it from the CIA and Centra Spike), and vice versa. Don Berna met with the Bloque commander in the presence of Delta Force and DEA agents; the latter used Don Berna’s men—who lived down the street—as bodyguards when going on missions off the military base to which they were theoretically confined.

The Pepes had been given not only a license to kill but to massacre in the name of “law and order,” and the carnage was epic. In 1993, homicide remained at 1990 levels: 5,500, and the Pepes were killing as many as six of Escobar’s people per day. Victims would appear in public, with signs around their neck containing messages signed by the Pepes, who took advantage of the climate of fear they had created in order to take over organized crime in the city. Soon after Escobar was murdered in December 1993, several dozen trade unionists were slaughtered throughout the Valle de Aburrá, and the killing of Escobar’s family and former associates continued unabated.

If nothing else, this was a signal that Carlos Castaño, Rodrigo 00, and Don Berna had arrived to stay. The latter’s job was to take care of high finance and investment in the city, as well as to manage gangs of hit men, oficinas, and, not least, politicians, from the local, neighborhood level all the way up to congressional representatives and senators. In the early Clinton years, no one in Washington was remotely concerned about former U.S. allies in Antioquia. With the network of contacts developed during the Pepes period, Don Berna and La Terraza, a gang of gangs based in Manrique (Comuna 3), became the principal conduit through which cocaine from the emergent “cartel” from the northern part of the department of Valle del Cauca—where Don Berna was born—flowed through Urabá toward U.S. consumer markets.

When Uribe was governor of Antioquia from 1995 to 1997, government-financed and supervised civilian militias (Convivirs) proliferated in the city and its rural hinterlands. Thus was paramilitarism first legalized and regulated by the regional state, and while homicide dropped in Medellín, it shot up in the tropical lowlands.3 In this period, under Carlos Castaño’s command, the paramilitaries took over the port of Turbo and Urabá—where homicide rates surpassed records set in Medellín—by cementing an alliance with multinational capital (principally the Chiquita banana company), local landed elites, politicians, and the army, police, and customs agents. This gave paramilitaries a corridor for exporting cocaine and importing arms, making their expansion from Antioquia and Córdoba to the rest of the country materially possible.

The stage was set for the pacification of Medellín. Working with Castaño and his growing narco-paramilitary enterprise, Don Berna would lead one paramilitary bloc, Rodrigo 00 the other. Together, between 1999 and 2003, as Plan Colombia went into effect, they took over the city’s 200 gangs, vanquished its remaining left militias, and “cleaned up” the city center, at which point Don Berna, with the help of state security forces eliminated Rodrigo 00 and his bloc. By the time he demobilized the BCN in November 2003, Don Berna had become the undisputed don of dons in Medellín, accomplishing what Escobar could not: the unification of organized crime with the establishment. When Don Berna was arrested in mid-2005, control of the transport sector allowed him to direct a two-day general strike in protest. Unlike other strikes in Uribe’s Colombia, this one did not meet military or police violence.


Today, real estate speculators, bankers, and mortgage lenders, working with the regional government, have fueled a construction and housing boom that would be impossible except for massive infusions of cocaine capital; apartment towers have sprouted like mushrooms in middle-class neighborhoods of low-density, single-family homes. The metropolitan area is full of newly built luxury housing, casinos, malls, and shopping centers, where new modes of surveillance and private security are essayed. Conspicuous consumption—much of it debt-financed, as in the United States—has become a pastime for the middle class, commodity fetishism a virtue. Antioquia is touted by civic boosters as nothing less than the “Best Corner of the Americas.” Nowhere is President Uribe more popular than in Medellín.

If neoliberalism represents a restoration of ruling-class power, in Medellín it has been infinitely bloodier, and more tinged by a Cold War history of counterinsurgency, than elsewhere in the hemisphere.4 Unable to continue converting their power into official political representation, narco-paramilitary bosses like Don Berna have seen their power wane since the “para-gate” scandal began in late 2006, but narco-paramilitarism continues to invisibly rule Medellín, and much of Colombia. It is a form of neoliberalism in extremis, in which private economic-political power supplants the state in the form of a parastate, one that performs state functions but is not subject to democratic accountability. Paramilitary organization depends largely on unquestioning loyalty and obedience, and is not responsive to its foot soldiers, much less the citizenry of barrios populares. Organized along mafia lines, the parastate has led to the deepening of neoliberalism through political terror, extra-economic coercion, and rent extraction backed by threats, intimidation, and violence. The popular economy of the slums has been incorporated into paramilitary rackets—protection, drugs and guns, public works, transportation, labor, licit commerce, rental housing—while the city center has been made safe for banking and financial services, tourism, “culture,” business conferences, real estate speculation, and local as well as foreign capital investment. Private security firms, many of them paramilitary-owned, guard downtown.

In her life and political work, Judith Vergara represented the new face of radical-popular movements for justice, equality, and peace with deep roots in Colombian history. Right-wing narco-paramilitaries have inflicted terrible bloodshed to sever those roots so that popular democratic expressions cannot interfere with the dictates of capital investment, which rests on state-sanctioned impunity. As Vergara’s murder demonstrates, paramilitaries exercise power of life and death, guaranteed by impunity, over people who live in peripheral neighborhoods they control. That private power, fused with the repressive forces within the police, military, and intelligence agencies, sets the parameters of local politics, excluding radical-popular expressions through massacres, intimidation, disappearance, and selective assassination.

Public-private violence disorders the lives of the slum proletariat, creating the demand for “order” and “security” that is then satisfied by greater recourse to violence, which generates further disorder, especially in the lives of women and children. This type of violence therefore shatters the family structures of radical activists in order to allow freedom for privatized consumption and private property, but not for the people represented by Vergara. In Medellín, a “thin citizenship” modeled on an individualistic, U.S.-style consumerism has replaced earlier, more radical demands for collective social rights and citizenship. Vergara’s murder symbolizes the transition.

Regional state investment, we note, arrives only in the wake of military-paramilitary operations. The new order, with its progressive, democratic facade, is anti-democratic to the core, and not only accepts appalling levels of inequality, but blankets the entire issue in silence. Although Don Berna no longer runs organized crime in Medellín, and may yet negotiate a deal with the U.S. government that includes his extradition and the repatriation of his family, neither his gradual departure from the local scene nor the Fajardo-Salazar demobilization program has ended narco-paramilitarism. One can only hope that Medellín’s homicide rate continues to drop, but intensified competition for control of narcotics exports, organized crime, and urban neighborhoods, especially on the city’s periphery, could lead to yet another round of warfare. As the murder of Vergara illustrates, Medellín’s peace is partial, and the new order is highly unstable, despite its superficial legitimacy.

Forrest Hylton, a Ph.D. candidate at New York University, is writing a
dissertation on indigenous movements for self-government in late-19th-century Bolivia. He is the author of Evil Hour in Colombia (Verso, 2006) and, with Sinclair Thomson, Revolutionary Horizons: Bolivian Politics Past and Present (Verso, 2007). This article is from the January/February issue of the NACLA Report on the Americas: “Putting Down Roots: The Latin American Right Today.”


1. This account is based on fieldwork carried out in Medellín between 2000 and 2007; Colombian news media (Semana, El Tiempo, El Colombiano, El Espectador, Desde Abajo, Indymedia Colombia); reports from Corpades, Corporación Región, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, the Colombian Commission of Jurists; and U.S. media sources (El Nuevo Herald, the Los Angeles Times, The Miami Herald, The New York Times, The Washington Post). It extends arguments laid out in “Medellín’s Makeover,” New Left Review 44 (March–April 2007). New insights and information have been culled from Lesley Gill’s forthcoming work on neoliberalism and political violence in Barrancabermeja; reports from the Instituto Popular de Capacitación on Don Berna and Judith Vergara; Gustavo Duncan, Los señores de la guerra: De paramilitares, mafiosos, y autodefensas en Colombia (Planeta, 2006); Guillermo Medina Franco, Las milicias en Medellín en la década del noventa (IPC, 2006); Mauricio Romero, ed., Parapolítica: La ruta de la expansión paramilitar y los acuerdos políticos (Nuevo Arco Iris, 2007). I am deeply indebted to Mario Arango Jaramillo’s pioneering work: El proceso de capitalismo en Colombia (J.M. Arango, 1986); El impacto del narcotráfico en Antioquia (J.M. Arango, 1988); Los funerales de Antioquia la Grande (J.M. Arango, 1989). Indispensable sources in English are Ann Twinam, Miners, Merchants, and Farmers in Colonial Colombia (University of Texas Press, 1982); Alonso Salazar, Born to Die in Medellín (Latin American Books, 1992); Peter Wade, Blackness and Race Mixture: The Dynamics of Racial Identity in Colombia (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995); Mary Roldán, “Cocaine and the ‘Miracle of Modernity’ in Medellín,” in Paul Gootenberg, ed., Cocaine: Global Histories (Routledge, 1999); Ann Farnsworth-Alvear, Dulcinea in the Factory: Myths, Morals, Men, and Women in Medellín’s Industrial Experiment, 1905–60 (Duke, 2000); Mark Bowden, Killing Pablo (Penguin, 2001); Ramiro Ceballos Melguizo, “The Evolution of Armed Conflict in Medellín: An Analysis of the Major Actors,” Latin American Perspectives 28, no. 1 (January 2001): 110–31.

2. Mike Davis, Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb (Verso, 2007), p. 109.

3. Mauricio Romero, Paramilitares y autodefensas, 1982–2003 (IEPRI, 2003), pp. 194–95.

4. David Harvey, Spaces of Global Capitalism (Verso, 2006), pp. 7–68.
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Postby Stephen Morgan » Fri Jan 25, 2008 5:41 am

They make a desert and call it peace. -- Tacitus
Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that all was vanity; but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, and make it possible. -- Lawrence of Arabia
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Re: Medellín: The Peace of the Pacifiers

Postby guruilla » Wed Sep 09, 2015 8:45 pm

Interesting to read this in light of recent Netflix show Narcos - I was curious to see how much the facts have been distorted. The show def. makes the US look like heroes (so far, up to 7th ep), and it doesn't indicate any sort of CIA-backing for Escobar's operations, which I would sort have taken as a given, knowing nothing about the specifics of this history. Anyone else see the show?
It is a lot easier to fool people than show them how they have been fooled.
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Re: Medellín: The Peace of the Pacifiers

Postby brainpanhandler » Wed Sep 09, 2015 9:55 pm

guruilla » Wed Sep 09, 2015 7:45 pm wrote:Interesting to read this in light of recent Netflix show Narcos - I was curious to see how much the facts have been distorted. The show def. makes the US look like heroes (so far, up to 7th ep), and it doesn't indicate any sort of CIA-backing for Escobar's operations, which I would sort have taken as a given, knowing nothing about the specifics of this history. Anyone else see the show?

I'm through three episodes. Wagner moura, who plays Escobar, is fun to watch. But yeah, straight up propaganda. The narration treats the viewer like an idiot. Barry seal was glossed over. That series won't be going anywhere risky at all, but I'll probably watch more of it unless the violence becomes totally gratuitous. At least as a study in historical revisionism.
Last edited by brainpanhandler on Thu Sep 10, 2015 1:39 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Medellín: The Peace of the Pacifiers

Postby guruilla » Wed Sep 09, 2015 10:19 pm

Gary Webb: What [Confidential Informant] Rudd told them was, that he was involved in a meeting with Pablo Escobar, who was then the head of the Medellín cartel. They were working out arrangements to set up cocaine shipments into South Florida. He said Escobar started ranting and raving about that damned George Bush, and now he's got that South Florida Drug Task Force set up which has really been making things difficult, and the man's a traitor. And he used to deal with us, but now he wants to be president and thinks that he's double-crossing us. And Rudd said, well, what are you talking about? And Escobar said, we made a deal with that guy, that we were going to ship weapons to the contras, they were in there flying weapons down to Columbia, we were unloading weapons, we were getting them to the contras, and the deal was, we were supposed to get our stuff to the United States without any problems. And that was the deal that we made. And now he double-crossed us.

So the U.S. Attorney heard this, and he wrote this panicky memo to Washington saying, you know, this man has been very reliable so far, everything he's told us has checked out, and now he's saying that the Vice President of the United States is involved with drug traffickers. We might want to check this out. And it went all the way up -- the funny thing about government documents is, whenever it passes over somebody's desk, they have to initial it. And this thing was like a ladder, it went all the way up and all the way up, and it got up to the head of the Criminal Division at the Justice Department, and he looked at it and said, looks like a job for Lawrence Walsh! And so he sent it over to Walsh, the Iran-contra prosecutor, and he said, here, you take it, you deal with this. And Walsh's office -- I interviewed Walsh, and he said, we didn't have the authority to deal with that. We were looking at Ollie North. So I said, did anybody investigate this? And the answer was, "no." And that thing sat in the National Archives for ten years, nobody ever looked at it.

Voice From the Audience: Is that in your book?

Gary Webb: Yeah. ....

Gary Webb: Yeah, let me sum up your question. Essentially, you're asking about the goings-on in Mena, Arkansas, because of the drug operations going on at this little air base in Arkansas while Clinton was governor down there. The fellow you referred to, Terry Reed, wrote a book called Compromised which talked about his role in this corporate operation in Mena which was initially designed to train contra pilots -- Reed was a pilot -- and it was also designed after the Boland Amendment went into effect to get weapons parts to the contras, because the CIA couldn't provide them anymore. And as Reed got into this weapons parts business, he discovered that the CIA was shipping cocaine back through these weapons crates that were coming back into the United States. And when he blew the whistle on it, he was sort of sent on this long odyssey of criminal charges being filed against him, etcetera etcetera etcetera. A lot of what Reed wrote is accurate as far as I can tell, and a lot of it was documented.

There is a House Banking Committee investigation that has been going on now for about three years, looking specifically at Mena, Arkansas, looking specifically at a drug trafficker named Barry Seal, who was one of the biggest cocaine and marijuana importers in the south side of the United States during the 1980s. Seal was also, coincidentally, working for the CIA, and was working for the Drug Enforcement Administration.

I don't know how many of you remember this, but one night Ronnie Reagan got on TV and held up a grainy picture, and said, here's proof that the Sandanistas are dealing drugs. Look, here's Pablo Escobar, and they're all loading cocaine into a plane, and this was taken in Nicaragua. This was the eve of a vote on the contra aid. That photograph was set up by Barry Seal. The plane that was used was Seal's plane, and it was the same plane that was shot down over Nicaragua a couple of years later that Eugene Hasenfus was in, that broke open the whole Iran-contra scandal.
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Re: Medellín: The Peace of the Pacifiers

Postby divideandconquer » Wed Sep 09, 2015 10:26 pm

Thanks guruilla... I just finished watching Narcos and this is very interesting
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Re: Medellín: The Peace of the Pacifiers

Postby divideandconquer » Thu Sep 10, 2015 10:48 am

Since it's been well publicized that the US has backed Colombia, not to mention, protected high-level drug traffickers, since the late 1970s/early 1980s when it helped to establish the Medellin cartel, it's interesting that this show completely whitewashes Israeli/Western elite/US involvement, not only reviving the legendary Escobar, but pumping his legend up to extraordinary proportions, making it seem as if he alone is responsible for the cocaine wars and the resulting Orwellian "war on drugs" legislation.

I guess we're supposed to believe that the billion dollar cocaine smuggling business that resulted in the drug wars, "war on drugs" etc., was/is due only to the miraculous survival and escape of a Chilean drug chemist named Cockroach and the mere existence of one all-powerful man named Pablo Escobar? If you didn't know better, and most people don't, that's the takeaway from this show, yet, to this day covert action continues in Columbia.
The vast profits made from drug production and trafficking are overwhelmingly reaped in rich “consuming” countries – principally across Europe and in the US – rather than war-torn “producing” nations such as Colombia and Mexico, new research has revealed. And its authors claim that financial regulators in the west are reluctant to go after western banks in pursuit of the massive amount of drug money being laundered through their systems.

The most far-reaching and detailed analysis to date of the drug economy in any country – in this case, Colombia – shows that 2.6% of the total street value of cocaine produced remains within the country, while a staggering 97.4% of profits are reaped by criminal syndicates, and laundered by banks, in first-world consuming countries.

“The story of who makes the money from Colombian cocaine is a metaphor for the disproportionate burden placed in every way on ‘producing’ nations like Colombia as a result of the prohibition of drugs,” said one of the authors of the study, Alejandro Gaviria. ”Colombian society has suffered to almost no economic advantage from the drugs trade, while huge profits are made by criminal distribution networks in consuming countries, and recycled by banks which operate with nothing like the restrictions that Colombia’s own banking system is subject to.”…

From Washington Post:
The 50-year-old Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), once considered the best-funded insurgency in the world, is at its smallest and most vulnerable state in decades, due in part to a CIA covert action program that has helped Colombian forces kill at least two dozen rebel leaders, according to interviews with more than 30 former and current U.S. and Colombian officials.

The secret assistance, which also includes substantial eavesdropping help from the National Security Agency, is funded through a multibillion-dollar black budget. It is not a part of the public $9 billion package of mostly U.S. military aid called Plan Colombia, which began in 2000.

The previously undisclosed CIA program was authorized by President George W. Bush in the early 2000s and has continued under President Obama, according to U.S. military, intelligence and diplomatic officials. Most of those interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity because the program is classified and ongoing.

And while searching for information, I came across an excerpt from: "America's Corrupt War on Drugs--and the People", by Captain Rodney Stich. ... ract-pilot The experience of a contract undercover agent/pilot for the government during Escobar's reign
Sabotaging Government Contract Pilot

This chapter focuses on an unusual tool occasionally used by government agencies to infiltrate drug operations as they seek evidence to bring about arrests and termination of the operation: contract undercover agents. They use private individuals. Very few of them exist. These private individuals provide their own airplanes, fund the undercover operations, take enormous risks, and they are paid on the basis of missions accomplished.

They carry out undercover operations that require they act as drug traffickers so as to infiltrate the targeted drug operation. They rely upon the integrity and trustworthiness of the government agents who direct and authorize their undercover activities, most of the authorizations given verbally.

One of them, involved in bizarre activities, was Rodney Matthews. He was one of those contract pilots who infiltrated the inner workings of some of the top and most dangerous of all drug kingpins. He initially worked undercover for the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) and then for U.S. Customs Service in San Antonio, Texas, with occasional work for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

Matthews did not know about the problems within U.S. Customs that were identified in a 1992 House report which revealed massive integrity problems within that government agency, and which exist today. If he had known of the internal problems, he would have realized that reliance upon the verbal authority given by Customs agents had grave consequences. For any number of reasons, the government agents giving him authority to haul drugs as part of undercover operations could deny having given the authorization. In a case like this, a long prison term can follow, even life in prison.

Targeting America’s Number One Drug Target: Pablo Escobar

Under his government authority, Matthews targeted top drug lords, including America’s most-wanted and dangerous drug trafficker at that time, Pablo Escobar. Just as he was about to succeed in this endeavor, Department of Justice personnel blocked that operation, and through perjury and corruption, caused Matthews to receive a life-in-prison sentence, while simultaneously rewarding part of the Escobar group.

Brief View of the Matthews Family History

First, a brief history of the Matthews family that goes back to George Washington’s time. One of Matthews’ relatives on his father’s side was a General under President James Madison in 1812: General George Matthews. An article about General Matthews appeared in the Miami Herald, written by noted Florida historian, Joe Cranksha­w:

Things were looking bad for the Spanish governor of East Florida, Juan de Estrada, in 1812. Fernandina had fallen to a ragtag army of American Adventurers who proclaimed themselves to be the Republic of Florida. They had captured Fort San Nicolas near the St. Johns River and were now besieging St. Augustine.

On March 26, 1812, John Houston McIntosh, leader of the “Patriots,” as the ragtag army was known, sent a message to Estrada demanding the surrender of St. Augustine and the Castillo de San Marcos. He offered liberal terms, promised protection for Catholics, and assured the Spaniards that Florida would be quickly annexed to the United States.

On April 4, 1812, General George Matthews, an agent for President James Madison, left Fernandina promising to capture St. Augustine and then go on to liberate all of South America from Spain. It was brave talk. Matthews, McIntosh and others had also been working on the Indians. They had told the Indians that this was a white man’s war and to stay out of it. They rejected Indian offers of assistance in fighting the Spanish.

The besieging force numbered 300 militia and, due to the intrigues of the times, 100 regular soldiers from the supposedly neutral United States. Off shore, American privateers, private vessels licensed to capture foreign shipping, bottled up the port. Estrada had about 300 men, mostly untried blacks trained as colonial troops, with which to defend the town and fort. He was determined he would not surrender, and he sent to Havana for help. He also sent an agent, Sebastian Kindelan, out into the surrounding wilderness to seek help from the Seminole Indians who had moved onto the Peninsula.

Matthews fought alongside Washington in the battles of Brandywine and Germantown where he was wounded and spent four years on a British prison ship in New York harbor. The National Archives shows Matthews was a colonel under Washington and a Brigadier General in the militia.

Before the 1812 attempt to annex East Florida, George Washington traveled to Georgia and supported Matthews in his successful bid for governor. But in 1812, Matthews fell victim to corrupt politics and was betrayed and disavowed by elements in his own government. He was branded a pirate and a criminal, and lost everything, including his life.

Love for Flying Motivated Matthews to Transport Marijuana

Rodney Matthews was addicted to flying, having learned to fly at the young age of 16, funding his flight lessons with odd jobs. To continue his love for flying, he started transporting low-tech electronics into Mexico in 1970, and eventually, this led to flying marijuana into the United States. This was before the drug culture took on the extreme violence with hard drugs that exists today.

In 1984, Matthews‘ luck ran out. His airplane, being flown by another pilot, had just landed at Matthews’ private airstrip at Damon, Texas, with 600 pounds of marijuana when government agents showed up. That pilot was arrested by Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) agent Robert Nestoroff and U.S. Customs agent Richard Nichols from the San Antonio Customs office. Matthews was charged with marijuana smuggling when the pilot became a witness for the government and had charges dropped in exchange for testifying against Matthews. Matthews believes his brother-in-law provided government agents with information leading to the arrest in exchange for having his charges dropped.

Matthews’ Talents Wanted by the Gover­nment

Luckily for Matthews, he had talents wanted by the State of Texas and by the federal government. Needing the services of someone with Matthews’ background to bring about the arrest of top drug traffickers, Nestoroff and Nichols offered to expunge Matthews’ arrest record and allow him to keep his assets in exchange for help obtaining evidence against several suspected drug traffickers. They included Jimmy Norjay Ellard, John Phillips, Larry Manley, and John McFarland.

Working for Pay After Immunity was Granted­

After working off the deal for immunity against prior charges, Texas DPS agents continued to use Matthews in other cases, paying him for his services. Some of these cases originated from information Matthews acquired on his own, and some targets or leads were given to him. As Matthews’ value became known to other government agencies, they approached him to work for them as well. Matthews started working for Customs agents in San Antonio, Houston, and Miami, and occasionally for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). At the government’s request, Matthews started transporting cocaine, something that he had not done before.

Routine Granting of Immunity for Prior Drug Hauling

In a later trial, Charles S. Harrison from Customs headquarters in Washing­ton testified that government agents gave drug traffickers immunity for prior offenses if they cooperated in obtaining evidence on other drug traffickers. The government has used undercover agents, sometimes called Confidential Informants (CI), for years in the so-called war-on-drugs. Matthews fell into a different category. He was a contract agent or “cut-out” for the government, funding their investigations, providing his own expensive aircraft, incurring the high expenses, and assuming the risks of being tortured or killed by the targeted drug organizations.

In this capacity, the government paid Matthews only when his efforts proved successful. He was also paid by the trip when government agents instructed him to pick up drug loads in Colombia or other locations and deliver them to designated locations in the United States. For each of these trips, he was often paid $40,000 to $50,000. In many cases he was allowed to keep money obtained from the targeted drug lords to offset his expenses, and he kept records of these monies and the expenses incurred.

Government agents gave Matthews various aliases to keep his true identity from drug traffickers and also from other government agents and agencies. These aliases included such names as Bill Martin, Bill Miller, and “Shadow.”

Shifting the Dangers, and Deniability, to Contract Agents

To carry out its policy of denying responsibility for operations, U.S. agencies use proprietaries, fronts, or contract undercover agents. “Proprietaries” are secret corporations or companies in which government ownership is hidden, and are widely used by the Central Intelligence Agency.

Examples would be Air America, Nugan Hand Bank, and others listed in the third edition of Defrauding America. “Fronts” are corporations or companies that allow the government to secretly use their facilities in carrying out clandestine activities. These include law offices, public relations firms, banks, insurance companies, newspapers, magazines, publishers, and an endless list of other businesses. “Contract undercover agents” are individuals doing work for government agencies such as the DEA, Customs, FBI, or the CIA. They are sometimes called “cutouts.”

If the operation fails and gains media attention, the authorizing agencies and agents simply deny any knowledge, authority, or responsibility. To add credibility to this lie, Justice Department prosecutors will usually file criminal charges against the contract agent, and fraudulently state the person did not have govern­ment authority. Matthews, as with other agents in similar positions, were acting as government-authorized undercover agents in such places as Mexico, Jamaica, Bahamas, Guatemala, and Colombia.

Confidential Informants (CI)

Another category of people who provide information but do not have the knowledge, funding, and equipment that contract agents provide are called “confidential informants” (CI). They can be a very onerous group, who openly lie with full knowledge of Justice Department prosecutors, and are used as paid witnesses against people targeted by Justice Department prosecutors. None of the key individuals within these pages, including Richard Pitt, Rodney Matthews, and Barry Seal were in this category, even though the government may have loosely referred to them as confidential informants.

Complex and Dangerous Operations

Great expense and complex planning are standard with the few contract undercover agents that various government agencies use. Sophisticated aircraft are often used that can cost a million dollars or more, and which are sometimes lost during undercover operations. Replacement engines can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars. An insurance claim for a lost aircraft often cannot be made due to the undercover nature of the operation.

Acting Like a Drug Smuggler to Succeed

In order to infiltrate high-level drug organizations, Matthews obviously had to act like a drug trafficker. This was expected of him and verbally authorized by government agents. Even though drugs would occasionally hit the streets, the intent was to get evidence on top-level people and bring down the entire operation. Also, when drugs were allowed to reach their destination, arrests would often be made down the distribution chain so as not to focus suspicion on Matthews.

To be effective, an undercover operative must be resourceful, flexible, able to think quickly on his feet, take immediate advantage of any opportunity that arises, act the part of a drug trafficker, and try to avoid being a government undercover agent and subsequently killed. Because of the complex and ever-changing nature of undercover operations, and the lack of expertise in these areas by government bureaucrats, the undercover agent must have the freedom to function in various undercover roles outside of internal government guidelines.

Given Wide Latitude by Government Bureaucrats

Government bureaucrats, sitting safely in their offices and without the experience possessed by people such as Matthews, do not understand the complexities of infiltrating powerful drug organizations. This lack of knowledge and the constantly changing conditions required that Matthews and other contract agents in a similar capacity be given wide latitude and discretion in bringing about a successful infiltration of the targeted crime group.

Danger from All Directions

The combination of informal verbal authority and wide discretion to carry out the task of infiltrating powerful drug groups carries great risks for the contract agents who assume there is a uniform procedure and recognition among different government agents and agencies. They believe that an undercover agent working under authority given by one agent will be respected by agents of another agency or another office of the same agency. Many contract agents discovered after the fact that this situation did not exist.

Matthews Set Up Many Sting Operations

For over a year, Matthews described to me in hundreds of pages of factual information and documents undercover operations he carried out under the blanket authority given by various government agents from U.S. Customs, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and U.S. attorneys. In one of the letters he wrote:

I set up the 500-kilo load out of Cali to Panama in 1990. I set up the 600 kilo air-drop in the Gulf of Mexico in 1990 and I was on the Customs boat that received it. I set up the bust of the 300 kilos that caused Emmons to be busted in Florida in 1989. I flew in the cocaine and set up the 50 kilo bust in Ontario, California, where my $100,000 was seized in February of 1989. Between 1984 and 1986, I set up numerous grass [marijuana] loads, including a ship out of Colombia.

Matthews' Introduction into
|Mexican Presidential Drug Protection

The type of work Matthews was doing required that he initiate investigations that could lead to drug busts. One of these self-financed investigations took him, physically, into the presidential palace in Mexico City. In trying to infiltrate a suspected drug smuggling operation known as the “Emmons group,” Emmons introduced Matthews to a Cuban National referred to as “Fernando,” who worked out of a real estate office, Symms Realty, located west of Miami International Airport. Fernando was reportedly a middleman furnishing front companies, bogus loans to facilitate money laundering, and various drug-related activities. Fernando had good connections in Colombia and Mexico for moving drugs. Matthews explained:

Fernando put me in touch with staff in the presidential palace in Mexico City who were part of the Presidential Task Force on Drug Trafficking. This Presidential Task Force would have to be notified before any major drug bust could occur, to preclude embarrassment to the President. This would be my protection or guarantee against arrest or interference. I had several meetings with these officials, which included a military officer. They furnished me with aerial photos of different airstrips I could use in the Pozo Rica area and offered to introduce me to the General who controlled the area. They also provided me with stacks of drawings and diagrams for an abandoned petroleum pipeline and associated landing strips on the Texas-Mexico border that they wanted to utilize for moving drugs. After meeting them at the Presidential Palace and going for lunch at a nearby restaurant several times, I became overwhelmed with the fact that the trail I had followed led to the Presidential Palace of Mexico.

[U.S. Protecting High-Level Mexican Drug Traffickers]

Before committing myself to any actual hands-on drug shipments using Mexico for transshipping I thought it prudent to advise Customs Agent Nichols, who was my contact for international-related operations at that time. Because it involved top-level officials of the Mexican government, I phoned Nichols from Mexico City for instructions whether or not to proceed. To my surprise, Nichols’ response was to back off, after I have invested several months of work, several hundred thousand dollars, and waited for almost two years to reach this point.

I had questions, but I figured who am I to question the wisdom of my government. I walked away from the whole deal in amazement of what was going on in the Presidential Palace, and after all my work and expense the U.S. government simply said—forget it.

Infiltrating the Victor Stadter Organization­

In 1986, San Antonio Customs agent Richard Nichols recruited Matthews to target the Victor Stadter group suspected of drug smuggling activities ranging from California to Florida, with operations in Texas and an auto dealership in El Monte, California known as B and D Motors. It was suspected that the organiza­tion brought tons of cocaine into the United States. Matthews had first met Stadter in 1981 during an aircraft trade in which Matthews was trading a Cessna 210 for a Lake Buccaneer. When Stadter learned that Matthews was rated to fly a DC-3, he started opening up about his drug activities.

Part of Pablo Escobar‘s Operation, Top Target of U.S. Agencies

The Stadter organization was reportedly tied in with the Colombian drug kingpin Pab­lo Escobar and his aide, Jimmy Ellard, bringing large quantities of drugs into the United States. At that time, Escobar was considered the greatest drug-smuggling threat to the United States, and guilty of hundreds of brutal murders. Obtaining evidence against the Stadter group would assist in getting to Escobar.

Escobar was credited, or blamed, for greatly expanding the drug trade by bringing together many individual drug shippers into a group. He terrorized the country, blowing up buildings, and played a key role in the bombing of an Avianca airliner[1] killing 110 people, and many other murders. In November 1985, Escobar joined forces with heavily armed guerrillas and took over the Palace of Justice in Bogota, killing many of the Colombian Supreme Court judges. He was responsi­ble for killing many journalists, politicians and police. Matthews‘ activities were a threat to Escobar’s organization, including Escobar himself and one of his key aides, Jimmy Ellard.

Between 1986 and 1988, Matthews made nearly two dozen trips to California in an attempt to infiltrate the Stadter organization—all funded by Matthews himself, taking all the physical risks. These attempts to infiltrate the group stalled, and it wasn’t until two years later, in 1988, that his attempts to infiltrate the group started making progress. He started associating with two of Stadter’s pilots, Greg Thompson and another pilot whose first name was Benjamin and known as “Crazy.”

Matt­hews ingratiated himself with one of Stadter‘s underlings, Diane Borden, becoming intimate and buying her a new Mercedes. She told Matthews that she counted as much as 15 million dollars of drug money at a time. She told him about Greek fishermen on Florida’s West Coast who brought ashore drugs that were air dropped into the Gulf of Mexico by the Escobar group working with Stadt­er. Matthews represented himself as a “player,” a polite term for a drug trafficker.

Borden’s husband, a pilot, was killed in a California plane crash while delivering a shipment of drugs for Stadter. Thompson had been waiting at the destination airstrip for Borden to arrive and had gone to the crash scene to remove the cocaine from the crashed aircraft.
As Matthews was slowly infiltrating the Stadter group he convinced Stadter to allow him to pick up the drugs during one of the airdrops. Matthews was in the receiving boat, along with Customs agent Peter Delsandro from the Ft. Lauder­dale office and another agent from the DEA, during one such pickup. After the drugs were picked up, government agents ordered Matthews to personally deliver the drugs to Cubans at Broward Mall in Ft. Lauderdale, where he then met Carlos Duque.

Duque was arrested on a drug charge and then released on bail pending trial, at which time he promptly fled. A year later, Duque was captured in Costa Rica. At his trial, Assistant U.S. Attorney (AUSA) Bill Shockly called Matthews to testify, which put Matthews at great risk since he was still infiltrating major drug operations in Colombia.

Matthews Responsible for Bringing About Ellard‘s Arrest

Several years earlier, in 1985, Matthews‘ undercover activities brought about the arrest of Pablo Escobar‘s partner, Jimmy Ellard. Ellard had flown a drug load into the United States from Belize in 1984 and was to have landed at San Marcos Airport in Texas where Matthews was waiting with government agents, who would then arrest Ellard. Instead of landing at San Marcos, Ellard landed at Eagle Lake, Texas, about 70 miles west of Houston, apparently to rip off the drug load. Despite this diversion, government agents accidentally discovered Ellard and his drug load, and arrested him. Shortly after his arrest, Ellard was released on bail and fled back to Colombia, rejoining the Escobar operation.

Ellard had been a former deputy sheriff in Fort Bend County, Texas. He was again arrested in 1990 while living under a false name in Florida. He pled guilty in 1991 to his leadership in a large smuggling operation that flew nearly 30 tons of cocaine from Columbia to Florida.

During questioning, Ellard told government agents how he was able to evade the government’s radar interdiction system.

While living in Colombia in the late 1980s, he provided Dandy Munoz-Mosquera—Pablo Escobar‘s assassin—knowledge on how to put a bomb on board a Colombian airline, Avianca, which killed over 100 people, including the two police informants that were their targets.

Uncomfortable Working Sensitive Operations with New Agents

Matthews had been working with Customs agent Richard Nichols in the San Antonio office, relying upon his verbal authorization to fly drugs as part of government-authorized undercover operations. He felt uncomfortable about this verbal arrangement and his discomfort surfaced in June 1988 when Nichols told Matthews that he would be gone for several months attending job-related training at Marana, Arizona. Nichols told Matthews he would be working under Customs agents Thomas Grieve and Jim Dukes during this time.

An Irresponsible Request of Matthews by a Customs Agent

Before Nichols left, Grieve asked Matthews to fly a drug load into the United States without being granted immunity, and take the chance of getting caught. This was an irresponsible suggestion. Grieve was playing it safe. If the operation backfired and received media attention, Grieve could easily lie. Unknown to Matthews, lying was part of the Customs’ culture. The Customs agent could say he knew nothing about the drug flight, and Matthews could end up with a life-in-prison sentence.

Another possible reason for Grieve’s request was that U.S. Customs was trying to set up Matthews for an arrest and get rid of an undercover agent who had learned too much about the involvement of government personnel in drug trafficking.

“I’m getting in too deep”

Matthews refused Grieves’ request: “I’m getting in too deep. I’m afraid some of this stuff will come back on me down the road.” Matthews told Nichols that he needed authorization from higher authority. Matthews later explained:

Nichols assured me if I would continue my efforts he would arrange that I hear the authorization from someone higher up. We discussed the possibility that if I had authority to fly loads in myself, perhaps we could wrap up the case in a few loads. Otherwise, it could go on for years. The meetings were set up and I was assured by a special prosecutor out of Main Justice in Washington, AUSA David Hall, that I could fly loads in myself.

A second meeting was held on August 23, 1988, seeking to reach an agreement where Matthews would be willing to continue the undercover efforts to infiltrate the Stadter organization. This meeting, held at a San Antonio restaurant, was attended by Customs agents Richard Nichols, Thomas Grieve and Jim Dukes; Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) agents Robert Nestoroff and Kenneth Dismukes, and Justice Department AUSA David Hall. Dismukes advised Matthews that the authority to authorize such operations was with federal agencies, that Texas agents could not grant such authorization.

Carte Blanche Authority to Fly Drugs—But Don’t Tell Us!

Hall stated that Matthews had carte blanche authority to fly drugs into the United States as part of his government-authorized undercover activities. Grieve then told Matthews, “You have carte blanche from the special prosecutor to do whatever it takes. You can’t tell us everything, or we will have to interdict the load and the load will never reach the target.” Matthews asked Grieve, “What if it takes more than one load?” to which Grieve replied, “Do whatever it takes.” After Grieve said this, Dismukes’ face turned beet-red and he walked out. (Matthews had been given specific authority to fly drugs into the United States as part of normal sting operations in 1986, 1987, and 1989.)

Drug Loads Picked up and Delivered for U.S. Customs

Although Grieve said they would have to interdict the drug load if they knew about it, Customs agents knew of many drug loads entering the United States without being interdicted. These included CIA drug loads being clandestinely shipped into the United States, and drug loads that Customs agents specifically directed Matthews to pick up and deliver to destinations in the United States. For flights like these, for which Matthews simply provided transportation for the drugs, the government paid him $40,000 to $50,000 per trip.

Top-Level Justice Department Authority

Dave Hall, who had given Matthews authorization to fly drug loads, was a former trial attorney assigned to the Narcotic and Dangerous Drug Section, Criminal Division, Department of Justice, and head of a multi-agency task force based in San Antonio that consisted of agents from Customs, DEA, and IRS. Being Washington-based in a key Justice Department position, his authorization to fly drugs came from the Justice Department’s highest offices.

Unknown to Matthews, Hall was encountering a great amount of problem­s in the San Antonio Customs office, and particularly from SAC Neil Lageman. As stated in earlier pages, a 1553-page report prepared by the House Committee On Government Operations detailed mismanagement, internal bickering, corruption, and interference with major drug busts throughout U.S. Customs in the southwestern part of the United States. This was not the environment for a government undercover agent to put his faith in the verbal authority given by a Customs agent. But Matthews was unaware of these serious internal problems.

Prophetic warning, “In the end, they’re gonna screw you.”

After the meeting, Dismukes warned Matthews that in every case that he personally knew of, where a contract undercover agent participated in that type of operation, he would eventually be charged and prosecuted, despite the authority given him by government agents. Matthews wrote:

Dismukes approached me in the hall. He was visibly upset that the feds were allowing drugs to hit the street. His face was red and his eyes were also red and watery. He was having trouble restraining himself. He told me it was my choice, but if I “went along with the feds on this and got in any deeper, eventually they will hang you out to dry; it always happens like this. In the end, they’re gonna screw you.”

Matthews later wrote, “I should have listened.”

Holiday Drug Loads Plan to Catch Escobar and Stadter

In mid-1988, Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) and San Antonio Customs agents asked Matthews to again try to infiltrate the Stadter organization. Through his earlier connections with the Stadter group, Matthews managed to have the group allow him to fly two loads of cocaine into the United States before committing larger loads to him. Matthews advised Texas DPS and Customs agents of the two test loads and that he planned to fly one load on Christmas day, 1988, and the next load on January 1, 1989. No objection was raised.

“It’s gonna be a white Christmas”

Nestoroff, acting as communication liaison, received a message from Matthews on his answering machine on Christmas Eve stating, “It’s gonna be a white Christmas.” That was the code indicating Matthews would be flying to Colombia and bringing in a load of cocaine the next day, as part of the previously discussed plan.

Matthews landed in Florida on Christmas day with 1,400 pounds of cocaine. A member of the Escobar -Stadter group, “Chicha,” received the bulk of the load in Fort Lauderdale. One hundred ten pounds of the original cocaine shipment (50 kilos) were driven to California by Douglas “Dancer” Voet, a member of the Stadter organization. DEA agents in California, unaware of the undercover operation, seized the drugs.

The Second Load Went Badly

On December 30, 1988, Matthews left a message on Nestoroff‘s answering machine advising him that he would bring in a load of cocaine the next day. Nestoroff passed the word to Customs in San Antonio, and Customs assured Nestoroff that the information would be passed on. Either through bureaucratic carelessness, or deliberately, that wasn’t done. On this flight, Matthews had one of Stadter‘s pilots with him, Greg Thompson. Matthews landed his Merlin turbo-prop plane at the remote Colombian airstrip and trouble started immediately. Matthews explained:

As soon as the plane landed, another group or faction moved in and attempted to take the load, the plane, and anything else of value. A small-arms firefight ensued during the loading and fueling, about a half mile away on the only road leading to the strip. I left the engines running for the fueling and loading, with Greg Thompson, the copilot, holding the brakes. Special outboard fuel receptacles had been installed for this purpose.

As I deplaned and stepped away from the plane, I heard the shooting start. Max jumped in the jeep with four or five others and headed down the road to lend support to those guarding the road.

After about 25 minutes, the jeep returned. Max was sitting on the passenger side of the jeep, being held up in the sitting position by a person sitting behind him. Max’s chest was covered with blood. Max had taken a high caliber round, probably from the back as the hole in his chest was near the size of my fist. Max and the guy holding him up were Italians who had lived in Colombia for many years. When I walked over to the jeep to talk to Max, the guy holding him up said, “Max finito,” meaning Max is finished [dead].

Matthews finally was able to take off from the airstrip, but there were other problems. As he approached Florida, his radar-detection equipment showed his plane had been picked up on radar. Thompson wanted to dump the load into the ocean, but Matthews wanted to save the undercover operation. He changed heading for his home strip at Damon, Texas.

Arrested by the Same Agency That Authorized the Operation

Matthews hoped that if an interdiction plane had gotten close enough to get the registration number on the side of his aircraft, Customs would realize he was carrying out an undercover operation and cover for him. After landing at Damon, Matthews and Thompson moved the 700-kilo drug load onto a pickup truck and drove from the airstrip. About five miles away, on Farm Road 1462, they were stopped and arrested by Houston Customs agents. This arrest occurred despite the fact that San Antonio Customs agents had notified Houston that Matthews would be arriving with a load of drugs as part of the two test runs. Or was it planned that way? Matthe­ws was getting a taste of how undercover operations authorized by agents in one office were not recognized by agents in another office of the same agency.

Houston Chronicle Protecting Drug Traffickers

Greg Thompson contacted Stadter‘s attorney, who in turn contacted Stadter. Stadter then contacted his newspaper friend, Bob Sablatura who then wrote several Houston Chronicle articles favorable to Stadter that sought to shift blame to federal agents. Sablatura contacted the television program, 60-Minutes, to play up the angle of corrupt state and federal officials attempting to entrap his friend, Victor Stadter.

Shown by the Movie, “Breakout.”

Stadter had purchased a ranch near Leakey, Texas in the 1980’s where he controlled a small newspaper. Information given to me showed Stadter orchestra­ting a scheme to free someone falsely accused of a murder and incarcerated in a Mexican prison. A book was written about it, followed by a 1975 movie, “Breakout,” starring Charles Bronson. The movie was allegedly based upon Stadter orchestrating the 1971 rescue by helicopter of a prisoner (Kaplan) in a Mexican prison.

Stadter had been a thorn in the side of the CIA and State Department since he brought about Kaplan’s escape. Kaplan was an heir to a vast fruit company in Latin America and he was at odds with the CIA. The agency then reportedly orchestrated the murder of his grandfather and with the cooperation of corrupt Mexicans, arrested and sentenced Kaplan to 28 years in prison. The other heirs to the fruit company operation were amenable to CIA activities, and it was felt that Kaplan’s imprisonment would bring about a management change favorable to the CIA. Kaplan’s wife paid to have a pilot free her husband from the Mexican prison.

Back to Matthews

After the arrest, Texas DPS and San Antonio Customs made it known that Matthews was conducting an undercover operation. AUSA Dave Hall also got involved, making it known that Matthews had carte blanche authority to engage in his undercover drug-related activities. Charges against Matthews and Thompson were eventually dropped. Matthews’ Merlin propjet aircraft (N707PK), his truck, and his car, which had been seized, were returned. However, the publicity given to the arrest was an embarrassment to Customs officers in the southwestern division, and they sought to deny Matthews had authority to fly the drugs. Matthews explained the reason why certain Customs officials refused to provide him the support following the holiday drug bust:

I’m saying that after it hit the newspapers that cocaine was smuggled in and no one was charged, it was a terrible embarrassment to the government that they would have to admit the cocaine hit the street; that they allowed cocaine to hit the street; that they were allowing those kind of things in order to get convictions, to get people busted, or to get to certain targets.

Secret San Antonio Customs Cover-Up Report

In an effort to make it appear in Customs records that the test runs were not known or authorized by Customs agents, and unkno­wn to Matthews, an 18-page report (February 16, 1989) was prepared in the San Antonio Customs office by Agent James King. This was sent to the U.S. Customs Regional Enforcement Commissioner. That report was followed by a Customs cover-up memorandum written by San Antonio Special Agent in Charge (SAC) Neil Lageman. These reports charged Mathews with unlawfully flying drugs into the United States, omitting all reference to the authority given by AUSA Dave Hall and Customs agents. The reports ended up in Washington and intended to protect U.S. Customs supervisors. That report remained hidden from Matthews for several years.

If Matthews had actually flown the drugs into the United States without authority and for his personal use, Customs would have been required to promptly charge Matthews with drug-related offenses and DOJ prosecutors to file charges against him. This was not done.

Another Problem

The person who took the 50-kilo drug load to California after the drugs were unload­ed in Florida had $100,000 of Matthews‘ money on him when arrested, which was to be returned to Matthews. Matthews asked Texas DPS Captain Don Cohn to send a letter to Washington explaining that the drug seizure in California, and seizure of the $100,000, was part of an authorized undercover operation. Cohn instructed DPS Agent Robert Nestoroff to write the letter. This would justify releasing the $100,000 to Matthews. The letter created a major problem.

Igniting an Internal Customs Firestorm

The two Customs reports falsely implying that Matthews‘ test runs were not a Customs-authorized operation—which had gotten to Washington, were then contradicted by the letter sent by the Texas Department of Public Service. This contradiction created problems within U.S. Customs. It also created problems for Matthews.

Multiple Reasons to Put Matthews out of Commission

Matthews‘ later discoveries of high-level corruption, and his threat to a major Colombian drug lord with CIA connections, would generate other reasons for government officials to get rid of Matthews. It was necessary to also discredit—and possibly imprison—the Texas DPS agent who wrote the letter to Washington stating that Matthews had authority to fly the drug loads: Robert Nestoroff.

Seizure of New Year’s Load Resulted in a Kidnapping

There was other fallout from the loss of this second load. The daughter of one of Matthews‘ friends in Colombia was kidnapped, and Matthews acted to bring about her release. Matthews explained the kidnapping:

The kidnapping was a result of the New Year’s eve 700-kilo load being leaked to the Houston Chronicle. That newspaper article literally started a war in Colombia between those who believed I was furnishing valid AWACS schedules and those who believed I was an informant. The two owners of that load were Molina, who controlled the Colombian emerald industry and Gaucho Rodriguez, a.k.a. “The Mexican.”

[Matthews Helping to Rescue Kidnapped Girl]

The girl was kidnapped and held until they were paid for the loss of the load. My girlfriend’s brother worked with a military colonel in the Colombian army. I personally turned over several hundred thousand dollars to the colonel. I was asked to fly a group of about 25 men from the North Coast of Colombia to a ranch about 75 miles northwest of Bogotá.

They furnished a Howard 500 [airplane] that was based at the Santa Marta airport. It was a motley crew that I picked up on the Guijira east of Rio Hacha at a clandestine airstrip. Some of the men were dressed in neat military uniforms with automatic weapons and others were shabbily dressed with old bolt-action rifles and shot guns. They loaded some of the heavier weaponry in the forward cargo compartments. We landed on the ranch northwest of Bogotá before dark, and I waited with the plane.

The following day the group returned. I was assured by my girlfriend’s brother that the girl had been released and was in safe hands in Medellin, Colombia, where she had been held at a small farm outside of town. I flew the crew back to the strip on the Guijira and returned the plane to the Santa Marta airport, where I took an airliner back to Bogotá.

[Executing 18 People]

It was not until the next morning, while I was drinking coffee and reading the newspapers in the Hotel Tacandama, that I saw where Molina and at least 17 of his leading security force members were handcuffed and removed from the house where a large party had been in progress with a Mexican and a Colombian band. Those 18 people were executed. No one else was harmed, according to the Colombian newspaper. The ranch was in the area northwest of Bogotá where I had landed. I later learned that someone at the party was forced to call via high frequency radio the ranch where the girl was being held, and order her released. The people who were holding the girl in Medellin were all killed by the military, according to the newspapers. The girl was never mentioned in the newspapers. Gaucho, the Mexican, met his demise shortly thereafter, and the pressure was off of me in reference to the “Chronicle” article about the 700 kilos which only hinted I may be an informer.

[DOJ Informing Colombians Matthews was U.S. Informant]

It was when AUSA Thompson sent out a two-page fax to major media around the country, officially notifying the world that I was a U.S. government informant, after I refused to cooperate in the cover-up and the prosecutor’s request to falsely name other people, that really did me in. This was done while my case was still under seal and Thompson knew my wife and child were in Latin America, easily accessible to the cartels of drug traffickers I had burned. I’m sure Thompson, Customs and DOJ officials thought I would be killed or be begging to cooperate in their cover-up that would protect them from embarrassment and censure. The 1998 ABC news documentary only opened the door to the cover-up.

Government Agents Again Give Matthews a Clean Slate

Present at this meeting were Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) agents Robert Nestoroff, Don Cohn, Jim Fields, and David Davis, and Customs Special Agent in Charge (SAC) John Farley, Agents Richard Cardwell and Tony Singleton. During this meeting, Farley offered Matthews a clean slate if he would agree to do undercover work for Houston Customs and the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) task force. It wasn’t really necessary to be given a clean slate as Customs personnel authorized the holiday drug loads. The statement by Customs personnel that they were giving Matthews a clean slate appeared to be another attempt to show the holiday loads were not authorized.

Clean-Slate Meeting

The “clean-slate” immunity was for the holiday drug load arrest and all the previous operations connected to the Stadter group (that had already been authorized by Justice Department’s Dave Hall and Customs agents from the San Antonio office), or any other drug load. Matthews had this to say about the meeting:

The gist of the meeting was ‘Let’s put this behind us and move on.’ Houston Customs advised me they had some specific operations they wanted me to help them with. In return, I would be given a ‘clean slate.’ I accepted part of the responsibility of the holiday loads fiasco and agreed to assist them using my planes, assets, and skills. This came to be known as the ‘clean slate meeting’ I set up a load of cocaine out of Cali, Colombia, to be delivered to a military base in Panama using my wife’s Aztec. Everything went like clockwork.

While I was negotiating with the Colombians in New York to receive their load, I learned of a newspaper article in the Panama newspapers that fingered me as an informant. The Houston people I worked with said it was the Panamanians they worked with who had leaked the information to the press. I didn’t suspect anything because I thought I was back in the good graces of Customs.

I didn’t know about the 18-page report yet that was just sitting there smoking, it was so hot, and they couldn’t prosecute me for fear of embarrassment. I had been hearing about an official letter or memo from Customs, black-balling me from any further work for them. It didn’t make sense because Customs kept using me over and over and over. I continued to do some operations for Houston “free-gratis”. I eventually settled into flying contract smuggling flights for Houston HIDTA. On many of the flights as I previously indicated, it looked as though I was deliberately being set up to be killed. At that time, I didn’t know of any reason why anybody in the government would be trying to kill me.

Continuing to Work Undercover Operations

Matthews had several undercover operations going. He shifted his attention from the Stadter project, which had been undermined by Customs, to the Nelson Emmens group that he had been trying to infiltrate since 1986. Part of Matthews’ tactics to infiltrate the group was to broker the purchase of two airplanes for Emmens through Matthews’ front company, Rod Aero. Matthews, trying to have Emmens use him for drug transporting, told Emmens he had a safe route to the United States based upon his access to AWACS schedules (Airborne Warning and Control System).

This was not true, but the ruse was used to gain Emmens’ confidence. Matthews then had to confirm that the initial two loads were actual drug loads and not dummy runs, a tactic drug traffickers sometimes use to check the security of a run. If this was done, and a non-drug-load was busted, Matthews’ usefulness would cease, and the target would be alerted and escape punishment. In November 1989, Matthews had accumulated enough evidence to bring about Emmens’ arrest.

The seizure of the New Year’ test run by Customs undermined the operation to get evidence against Stadter and indirectly, the Pablo Escobar organization, requiring that the focus be put on other targets. Houston Customs personnel met with Matthews at the Lakeside Airport conference room in Houston (November 1990), purporting to use him against other targets.

Furnishing Transportation for Government Cocaine Flights

As Matthews previously described to me, the contract drug flights were flights where he simply provided transportation requested by government agents, flying to remote Colombian airstrips designated by Customs agents and delivering the drugs in the United States to people designated by the same agents. At that time, Matthews didn’t realize the flights were a small part of a much larger practice of government agents and agencies flying drugs into the United States, as explained to me for the past decade by a long list of undercover agents. I asked Matthews about these flights, and he confirmed that he did not know what was done with the cocaine for which he had provided transportation and which he delivered to Customs and DEA-designated parties in the United States.

Juan Carlos Facholos Operation

In another undercover operation Matthews carried out for Houston Customs (1990), it ultimately resulted in the seizure of 491 kilos of cocaine from the Juan Carlos Facholos operation. In that operation, Matthews used his wife’s Piper Aztec to carry a drug load from Cali, Colombia to New York via Panama. However, U.S. agents in Panama seized the drugs. While Matthews was negotiating to get the drugs released and simultaneously negotiating with the Colombians in New York to bring about delivery, Panamanian newspapers printed information indicating Matthews was a U.S. government informant. Matthews suspected this information came from Customs personnel in the San Antonio office.

Flying Captured Drug Traffickers Into the United States

Besides flying undercover operations to ensnare drug traffickers and flying drug loads arranged by government agents, Customs agents paid Matthews to provide personnel transportation. One such flight was flying government agents from his Damon, Texas airstrip to Aruba in his Merlin and then from Aruba, flying two Colombians who had been previously arrested with the cooperation of Aruban authorities to Hooks Airport near Houston, Texas. He received a $40,000 government check for this flight.

Suspicious Government-Ordered Drug Flights

Other flights for which Matthews merely provided transportation had serious overtones that Matthews did not recognize at the time. Matthe­ws said several of his drug hauling flights were directed by government agents who directed him to specific airstrips to pick up and then deliver a load to government agents at various places in the United States. Government agents sometimes gave Matthews hand-drawn maps of airstrips showing the pickup location. Matthews was given government questionnaires to fill out after the flight. Matthews’ only involvement in these flights was to provide transportation for which he was paid by the U.S. government, with government checks. There was no effort to infiltrate any drug group.

Far More Drugs Shipped Than Required for Sting Operations

The excuse given by government supervisors when Matthews asked about why drugs are being shipped into the United States was that the drugs were being used for sting operations. Unkno­wn to Matthews at that time, those flights were part of an overall drug smuggling operation involving the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the U.S. military. Matthews described several of these drug-hauling flights for which he provided transportation:

Of the five drug flights, three were to Guatemala and two were to Colombia. Jerry Garner and Mike McDaniels were the DEA lead agents for these flights. The first of these flights was to a hayfield type landing area in Central Guatemala from my hangar in Delray Beach, Florida to Guate­mala, where I picked up the cocaine and delivered it to agents waiting at my Texas hangar. Jerry or Mike were always waiting, usually accompanied by other Customs or DEA agents.

I made an inspection run in my MU-2 to identify the surrounding terrain, look the strip over and obtain the GPS coordinates. At that time I didn’t even know Jerry or Mike. Tony Singleton with Houston Customs put me in touch with them and we made all the arrangements by phone and fax. They faxed me a hand-drawn map and other instructions one afternoon. On each of these cocaine flights the agents, Jerry and Mike, provided me with a hand-drawn map of the strip area. On a couple of occasions afterwards I was given a numbered government form to fill out concerning the clandestine airstrip and what transpired.

Government Agents at Both Ends of Drug Loads

In answer to one of my questions about drug load pickups ordered by government agents for which he provided transportation, Matthews replied:

After the holiday loads fiasco, it was almost always government agents on the receiving end here in the United States or at a military base outside the United States. After going to work for Houston HIDTA in 1990, most of the cocaine loads were handled by the government on both ends. I was just a contract pilot flying cocaine for the government. On the pickup end, the government made the arrangements.

Sham Excuses Given to Drug Cartels for Successful Drug Runs

Several times, drug cartels asked Matthews to explain his success at bringing drugs into the United States without being caught. To avoid suspicion that he was a government undercover agent, Matthews told them that he was obtaining AWACS schedules from his U.S. Customs connections. They offered to pay him for copies of these schedules, which he then fabricated. Escobar and Ellard paid Matthews $500,000 each time he provided the bogus schedules. Because of the large time slots when there were no AWACS planes covering the particular area, the success rate at not being interdicted—with or without AWACS sched­ules—provided Matthews a certain amount of credibility.

Drug Cartels Funding Part of Matthews‘ Undercover Operations

By being recognized as a successful drug transporter, Matthews had his targeted drug traffickers provide him money to buy planes and other expensive equipment. In one case, a targeted drug lord gave Matthews $300,000 to improve his airstrip at Damon, Texas, in preparation for transporting 10,000 to 15,000 kilos of marijuana aboard a DC-6. DPS agents inspected the property at Damon, Texas and approved the plan.

Coca-Cola in the Drug Business?

A low-key contract undercover agent working for the DEA and CIA, who hauled arms to Central and South America during the Contra operation in the 1980s, Basil (Bo) Abbott, frequently talked about how he flew drugs for the DEA in DEA-provided aircraft. During one conversation, Abbott told me that the land owned by Coca Cola in Belize was heavily planted with marijuana. I asked Matthews if he knew anything about this. He wrote:

There are little patches of marijuana growing all over Belize with some larger fields in the south. I never flew over the Coca-Cola property specifically and looked. However, I can confirm that at one time one of the foremen or managers for the Coca-Cola plantations was heavily involved in loading airplanes with marijuana and facilitating smuggling flights.

Guantanamo Naval Air Station and Drugs

Customs agents frequently directed Matthews to fly drugs from Colombia into Guantana­mo Naval Air Station in Cuba. During these flights into the naval base, the procedure was to radio to the Navy control tower using code names given to him by the DEA, including “Hot-Rod” and “Dark-Cloud.”

Upon landing at the naval station, the drugs would be unloaded by military personnel or DEA agents. They would then be loaded onto a U.S. Customs Beech King Air and flown to Homestead Air Force Base by Customs pilots, one of whom Matthews knew by the name of Dornak.

Richard Pitt, another contract pilot whose exploits are described in the next chapter, also told me about the many drug flights that he flew into and out of this navy base. [I thought to myself, how things have changed; during World War II, when I was a Navy flight instructor in PBY seaplanes, I flew many training trips to that same naval base. At that time, the sinister activities that started with the formation of the CIA in 1947 did not exist.]

Placing Tracking Devices on Matthews‘ Aircraft

Matthews explained how DEA and Customs agents placed tracking devices on his aircraft, including flights from Guantanamo Naval Air Base to Colombia. Matthews said the devices were basically transponders that emitted a particular code displayed on the radar screens of air traffic controllers. He explained that one type of device emits the signal “suspect” on the controllers’ screens.

On one flight in April 1992, Matthews noticed the technician entered into his records the number C-38, which stood for the 38th flight to Colombia that year. It seemed that Matthews was not the only pilot used by government agents to fly drugs from Colombia to the United States facilities.

Plan to Capture Pablo Escoba­r

In 1990, Matthews suggested a plan to Customs agents for him to capture Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar and fly him into the United States. At that time, Escobar was America’s Number One drug target. They approved the plan; it was Matthews’ life at risk, using his own plane, and his own money, with no risk to U.S. government agents. In trying to carry it out, Matthews set up money laundering and electronic smuggling operations with the Escobar group. The plan to kidnap Escobar was based upon luring him to a place where he could be kidnapped and flown to the nearest U.S. military base. Escobar was considered the biggest drug trafficker and the most brutal, and considerable efforts were exerted by the United States to bring about his capture.

Escobar Bombing Hilton Hotel in Cartagena­

In an earlier attempt to bring about Escobar’s arrest, Matthews met with Escobar and other cartel members in the Cartagena Hilton Hotel over a three-day period. Escobar had been on the “wanted” list for some time and Matthews thought this was a good time to bring about Escobar’s arrest. He called Texas DPS agent Robert Nestoroff, advising that Escobar was at the hotel. Nestoroff then notified EPIC (El Paso Information Center) and this information was then given to Colombian authorities. Before they arrived at the hotel, someone alerted Escobar to the imminent arrival of Colombian police, allowing him to escape. Thinking that someone on the hotel staff had reported his presence, Escobar had the hotel bombed.

Matthews explained his plan to bring about Escobar’s arrest:

The first attempt to capture Pablo Escobar was a quasi-sanctioned operation. The plan was to lure Escobar to a clandestine airstrip about a hundred miles from Colombia’s border in Brazil. This would cut off his support in the Colombian military and reduce his cadre of personal bodyguards. My group out of Barranquilla, Colombia, had an HF [high frequency] radio setup near the strip and were in touch with my girl friend in Barranquilla who would call me at my hotel in Boa Vista, Brazil, when Escobar was ready to be picked up.

The strip was 140 miles from Boa Vista. I notified Peter Delsandro in Miami Customs by fax the day before the Panama invasion that I would be bringing the fugitive into San Juan, Puerto Rico, less than 1000 miles from the strip. My phone call from Barranquilla did not come that day because the hotel phone lines were down. I assumed there was a delay and waited. I didn’t know the lines were down.

The plan had gone like clockwork. Pablo and his group arrived in a helicopter that carried only six people. My group easily got the drop on them. With me being more than a day late, the group under my Colombian partner began to panic. Pablo offered them more money than I was paying, a lot more. My partner hit the jungle with his hand-held aircraft radio. My delayed phone message caused me to arrive a day late in the middle of a situation that was not friendly. I was circling over the strip trying to make radio contact with my guy on the ground to get the OK-to-land signal.

Suddenly the left engine was ablaze [from ground fire]. It felt like someone hit the plane with a sledgehammer. The left engine began surging and the feathering control was jammed solid. I saw pieces of metal protruding through the cowling. We were loaded with fuel and loaded for bear. It was a slow descent to find the nearest clandestine gold min­ing/smuggling strip along the river.

The strip was soft, the nose wheel sunk in and broke off. The left wing went down on the tip tank and we were sliding 10 degrees to 15 degrees to the left of the strip toward the trees. As we began to slide off the left side of the strip, I locked up the right brake and she changed direction enough that it came to rest slightly to the right of the strip, partly on the strip. The right main gear had partially collapsed and the left wing pointed upward at about a 30 to 40 degree angle. The tip tank had been ripped open and fuel was pouring down the leading edge of the left wing onto the burning engine.

We all got out of the plane and for about 20 minutes it was like the fourth of July. One of the passengers had a camera and was able to photograph the different stages of burning and the marks on the dirt strip to indicate what had occurred. When the fireworks began to die down, the Indians began slowly emerging from the jungle.

These were real Indians with the tattoos on their faces and stretched bottom lips, wearing leather straps. There was a Colombian on the strip who had an HF radio in the jungle nearby. He knew the whole deal and tried to turn the Indians on me. He called me “Del Norte Americana agente.” I had some friends standing by or working the gold fields nearby. They saw the smoke and came to rescue us in a Bell 205, just in time.

The next day, I faxed Delsandro of Miami Customs a photo of what was left of the plane and told him to disregard delivering the fugitive to San Juan Puerto Rico Customs.

Covert Publicity Resulted in Operation Shanghai

Since Escobar was the top drug lord targeted by the United States, Matthews‘ nearly successful plan to capture him caused U.S. officials to authorize Matthews to conduct another attempt. This plan was called Operation Shanghai. Key people involved in approving the plan included Congressman Charles B. Rangel, who headed at that time the Congressional committee on narcotics; Customs Commissioner Tom McDer­mott, who named the plan Operation Shanghai; Special Agent in Charge Charles Rosenblatt ; six Miami Customs officials, and former U.S. Attorney Steven Rozan.

At that time, Rozan was a nominee for the political U.S. Attorney position at Houston. Rosenblatt authorized Matthews to engage in money laundering and smuggling electronics to finance and facilitate the operation.

At the urging of Rozan, it was agreed that Matthews would be paid $5 million if he could bring about the successful kidnapping of Pablo Escobar. Secretly, Rozan demanded that Matthews give him half the reward money. That plan fizzled out for various reasons. At a later meeting, Matthews was represented by attorney F. Lee Bailey.

In 1999 I sent two letters to Congressman Rangel, one of them certified mail, asking Rangel for his comments on the plan. He refused to respond to either letter.

Loss of $700,000 Insurance on the Plane

In the first attempt to capture Escobar, Matthews lost his plane from gunfire, as previously mentioned. That plane, a Mitsubishi MU-2 Solitaire, registration number N25G­M, was covered by a $700,000 insurance policy. Former AUSA Steven Rozan, then an attorney who worked with Matthews, suggested that Matthews have the Rozan-Berger law firm file a loss-claim with the insurance company, and this was done.

But the insurance company refused to pay. Matthews could have filed a lawsuit, but this would require testifying in court and exposing his undercover status. This decision caused Matthews to lose $700,000, one of the downsides to being a contract undercover agent for the government. Matthews filed an accident report with the Federal Aviation Administration at Ft. Lauderdale, which included the affidavits of two Brazilian pilots who were on board the aircraft. Matthews had taken the Brazilian pilots along because they were familiar with the area, the people, and their language. One pilot, Jorge Rogerio, was well known in the Brazilian media as “Marijuana George.”

Government Plan to Kill Matthews ?

Toward the end of his career as a government contract agent, there were a number of incidents where it appeared government agents were trying to bring about his death. One incident occurred when Customs agents directed Matthews to pick up a drug load at a short airstrip on the Colombian island of Provenden­cia in the Central Caribbean. This was one of many flights in which government agents directed Matthews to pick up a drug load in Colombia and then fly it to a designated destination either in the United States or to Guantana­mo Bay Naval Air Station.

Befo­re taking off from the naval base, a DEA agent instructed Matthews to arrive and land after dark, using the makeshift runway lighting provided. As a precautionary measure, Matthews left the base early so he would arrive while there was still light, permitting him to inspect the airstrip from the air. To his surprise, there were two high hills at each end of the dirt strip, requiring a much steeper approach to the short runway. If he had arrived at night and made a normal approach to the relatively short airstrip with the unlighted hill on the approach end, it is very possible he would have crashed.

Dissatisfied With His Safe Return

Upon his return to Guantanamo Bay Naval Air Station, and while taxiing with his drug load to a hangar near the coffee shop, an obviously angry Customs pilot Matthews knew by the name of Dornak rushed toward the plane, shouting, “Why did you go in before dark and land?” Matthews said that it appeared Dornak was surprised he had made it back. Matthews said that Dornak flew the cocaine from the naval station to Homestead Air Force Base on at least two occasions that he knew of. He said that Dornak followed him one evening as they landed at Matthew’s airstrip, and that Dornak almost lost control of the King Air as he landed. (Matthews said that Dornak often drank heavily while at Guantanamo Bay Naval Air Station and had been working closely with AUSA Terrence Thompson, who later filed sham charges against Matthews.)
'I see clearly that man in this world deceives himself by admiring and esteeming things which are not, and neither sees nor esteems the things which are.' — St. Catherine of Genoa
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Re: Medellín: The Peace of the Pacifiers

Postby Wombaticus Rex » Thu Sep 10, 2015 10:56 am

brainpanhandler » Wed Sep 09, 2015 8:55 pm wrote:Wagner moura, who plays Escobar, is fun to watch. But yeah, straight up propaganda. The narration treats the viewer like an idiot. Barry seal was glossed over.

Barry Seal's short shrift was my absolute favorite part -- he's such a fetish for researchers but he was, in fact, one of hundreds, if not thousands, of white pilots with military connections doing the exact same thing, and his death affected very little.

It's natural to focus on the cogs in the system we can see and document, but the more we squint, the bigger they appear.
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Re: Medellín: The Peace of the Pacifiers

Postby 82_28 » Thu Sep 10, 2015 11:07 am

It wasn't until recently, even though I've seen it dozens upon dozens of times going back to when I was like 10 that the film Fletch was about just this.

"I always ask him, what are you doing some stunt flying up there?"

"What does he say?"

"He just gives you that look. You know that look."

"Well he's the boss."


Forgive me, but I can probably rattle off the entirety of Fletch.
There is no me. There is no you. There is all. There is no you. There is no me. And that is all. A profound acceptance of an enormous pageantry. A haunting certainty that the unifying principle of this universe is love. -- Propagandhi
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Re: Medellín: The Peace of the Pacifiers

Postby brainpanhandler » Thu Sep 10, 2015 12:51 pm

Wombaticus Rex » Thu Sep 10, 2015 9:56 am wrote:
brainpanhandler » Wed Sep 09, 2015 8:55 pm wrote:Wagner moura, who plays Escobar, is fun to watch. But yeah, straight up propaganda. The narration treats the viewer like an idiot. Barry seal was glossed over.

Barry Seal's short shrift was my absolute favorite part -- he's such a fetish for researchers but he was, in fact, one of hundreds, if not thousands, of white pilots with military connections doing the exact same thing, and his death affected very little.

It's natural to focus on the cogs in the system we can see and document, but the more we squint, the bigger they appear.

True enough. By 'favorite part' do you mean that because Seal is treated with merely footnote status the series gets his importance or lack thereof, right?
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Re: Medellín: The Peace of the Pacifiers

Postby Wombaticus Rex » Thu Sep 10, 2015 1:04 pm

I guess what I meant by that is "holy shit this is an underwhelming show and I wouldn't have seen it at all if not for my roommate marathon viewing the entire thing repeatedly." It was pretty much the only detail I liked.

Although I agree the gentleman depicting ol' Pablo turned in a superb, restrained performance.

I'm looking forward to seeing Brian Dennehy do Bill Clinton, though.
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Re: Medellín: The Peace of the Pacifiers

Postby Luther Blissett » Thu Sep 10, 2015 2:28 pm

Wait, is that really happening?
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Re: Medellín: The Peace of the Pacifiers

Postby Wombaticus Rex » Thu Sep 10, 2015 2:37 pm

Luther Blissett » Thu Sep 10, 2015 1:28 pm wrote:Wait, is that really happening?

Yeah, bud. Tom Cruise and everything. "Mena" is currently being filmed.
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Re: Medellín: The Peace of the Pacifiers

Postby Luther Blissett » Thu Sep 10, 2015 3:02 pm

Oh right, that thread. I thought this was a Season 2 of Narcos or something.
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