The last days of Pablo Escobar in the mysterious Casa Azul
How was the Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar moments before he was assassinated? His passion for a color, his goodbye to his family, and a pledge he was never able to keep.
A boy who seems to be looking at everything for the first time, with his slippers pierced, watches captivated as his father Abel de Jesús Escobar Echeverry, peasant, tanned body, look of silent pain, paints in light blue his small and collapsed piece, which he shares with his brother Roberto in El Tablazo, a rural area of Antioquia, Colombia. The idea came from his wife Hermilda de los Dolores, a teacher. Pablo Emilio, who bears the name of an apostle, sometimes goes out to steal oranges to sell and pay his parents.
Powerful narco, millionaire, fearsome, omnipotent, owner of the death of his enemies and not enemies, orders that a sector of his mythical hacienda is painted light blue. He feels that nothing and no one can overthrow him from the pedestal he built with bullets, blood, and cocaine. A nostalgic but defeated man, cornered by his persecutors and ghosts, with the death he domesticated like a pet now turned into a wild animal about to devour him, asks a worker to paint his new home light blue. That shelter is called La Casa Azul. There are three versions of Pablo Escobar Gaviria that cover 44 years.
"My father took us to La Casa Azul as a way to say goodbye without knowing it. We even saw him cry for the first time," his son, Juan Pablo Escobar, told Infobae. Why did the most famous narco capo in history return in his last days to recover a portion of his innocent side? Perhaps at times when there seems to be no point of return, the man becomes a child. As if returning to childhood would take him away from imminent hell. Stripped of intentions or speculations and ambitions. No plans. As if one could empty oneself of the evil or horror caused in the other.
It was August 1992 and Escobar's empire peeled and collapsed like the walls of his first house.
Pablo Escobar had an obsession, or more than an obsession, an imaginary place to cling to, which only his own knew: the color light blue. This color accompanied him like a toy that is never abandoned. Like a shield. He wore that color of clothes. He had cars in that color. He never said what that color produced for him. It wasn't a whim. Maybe it was a secret. A mirror of the color of the sky or the sea. But the days at La Casa Azul showed another version of him: he wasn't El Patrón, he was Pablo Emilio.
"My husband had been left practically alone because his once-powerful army had disappeared", recalled years later Victora Eugenia Henao, "Tata", his widow. Less than a month had passed since her husband escaped from the Cathedral prison. His allies, the few who survived, handed him over to Justice. "He only counted on Gladys and her husband, Gordo; a trustworthy couple who collaborated in some of the household chores. As well as Alfonso León Puerta, the Angelito, one of the hired killers who accompanied him and who acted as bodyguard and messenger," he said.
In the center of Medellín, Victoria and her children, Juan Pablo and Manuela waited for the indications of the head of the family. Next to them was Andrea, the girlfriend of Escobar's son. The most wanted man in the world managed to hide a few kilometers away, in a house, he occupied a year before taking his own. But before doing so, he made a decision that could have brought him down, but in his desperate present, he was worth more than any of his treasures.
"Paul insisted on hiring a worker to paint the walls in the light blue he liked so much. The desire for the house to be impeccable and taste like home led him to neglect his safety and to run the risk of allowing a stranger to do the work for two weeks, while he remained locked in a room," writes Henao in his book Pablo Escobar, mi Vida, mi Cárcel. While the bricklayer was unknowingly carrying out one of the last orders of the Master, Escobar gave Angelito clear instructions: "Now you bring them to me for here".
His wife, children, and daughter-in-law arrived at La Casa Azul with blindfolds, after hiding for several weeks in a nearby cove. "Once we were in the new shelter, I was surprised when Pablo gave an account of how the house had been painted. "Pablo, you're crazy, how do you do that? For God's sake," Victoria reproached him. "It was the only thing I could tell him and he looked at me with a sly laugh. The Escobars didn't know it yet, but the countdown had already begun.
Escobar had only 16 months to live and he had decided to spend them with them, far from luxuries, bullies, and refugees in his last fortress; more austere and blue, like his childhood home where, according to his widow, you can still see "the traces of paint in the small room located near the entrance".
The color didn't just remind him of his childhood. "Everything was blue for him. When he was very wealthy, he had a sector of the Naples hacienda painted light blue. Shirts and t-shirts of that color could not be missing from his wardrobe. I also remember that he loved the light blue tones of the painting La Marina, painted by the artist Francisco Antonio Cano, which I had bought and exhibited on one of the walls of the Monaco building", she told in her book Henao, or María Isabel Santos, the name she used in her "exile" in Argentina.
"La Casa Azul became a museum. It was hidden. My father was badly beaten. Betrayed. But he connected a lot with us. What hurt him the most was a magnificent display of security to bring his mother, he needed her, but she didn't want to stay. She said she should see her son Roberto, who was in jail. But my father told her that I could see Roberto any day, but not him. My grandmother left and he was hurt. His face changed. It was a disappointment," Juan Pablo Escobar, author of two revealing books, Pablo Escobar, my father, and Pablo Escobar, tells Infobae in fragrance.
The austerity of his last refuge contrasted with the opulence of Naples or Monaco. Stripped of power and desperate for the safety of his family, Pablo made time to long for his old Jeep Nissan Patrol -also blue- with which he used to move during his stays at the Hacienda, guarded by a dozen armed men. Now, only Angelito, a dog, and a goose took care of him, whom he named "Palomo" (Pigeon).
La Casa Azul was the last hiding place for Escobar and his family. It was accessed after passing through two doors. The first one, sliding, was operated by remote control and painted in dark green so that it was confused with the trees and vegetation. Once inside, it was forbidden to get out of the car. "Whoever did this was faced with a huge German shepherd and a furious goose with white plumage. That animal had arrived at La Casa Azul because, according to Pablo, it was more dangerous than a dog and had to be fed from afar because it was very irascible.
The Patron's last bodyguard was a farm animal. Escobar joked: he said that the goose had more intelligence, loyalty, and temperament than the hitmen who had abandoned it. It was bought by "Gordo", his landlord. He paid 30,000 Colombian pesos for it in a square in Medellín. After evading the dog and the crazy goose, a second dark blue gate was opened. It was three meters high. Posts with barbed wire were erected around the place, forming a kind of barrier to hinder the eventual arrival of intruders.
A dog, a goose, and a wall of barbed wire were enough for Escobar to elude the Colombian authorities for more than a year, who also had the full support of the DEA. In addition to another enemy: the PEPE (Persecutors of Paul). Life had to be simple: they did not know how long they would have to live like this and unearthing the treasures of the Patron became more and more complicated.
In the exclusive interview that Victoria Henao gave to Infobae, she recalled that in her last months, she read to him in bed while he fell asleep. "I read Og Mandino's The World's Greatest Seller; Leo Buscaglia's Living, Loving and Learning, and Wayne Dyer's Your Misplaces. He had given me a memory exercise book whose dedication was: 'For my little donkey Victoria, the only thing he remembers is me'".
None of the Patron's lovers ever managed to take Victoria's place. Now, cornered by Justice, the mother of her two children enjoyed the longing she had for most of her marriage: to be certain that her husband would sleep with her every night. But she never did it before four o'clock in the morning. She arrived at dawn. But, unlike in other times when the late nights had to do with his business or his women, the defeated boss of the Medellín cartel had to wait for dawn because he had to guard his cove.
During the day, Victoria enjoyed the scenery and her children, despite the seclusion. But the darkness of the night made her a real ordeal. "I went to bed very exhausted, but I woke up continuously startled by fear and the horrible sensation of opening my eyes and seeing a rifle pointed at my face, as had happened on numerous occasions. It took Escobar's widow 22 years to be able to sleep peacefully and get rid of the emotional splinters left by her years with Pablo. "In 2015 I managed to overcome this trauma, after intense work with specialists from various disciplines and spiritual retreats. I never took a pill," she told Infobae.
While the Patron was playing his last cards and fighting his final battle, Victoria's concern was the education of her children. Juan Pablo was 16 and Manuela only 9. "While my husband slept soundly, I got up at seven in the morning to bathe and give Manuela breakfast. Then, around ten o'clock, I played the role of Spanish teacher so that the girl, who was in the fourth grade of primary school, would not be delayed academically," she wrote in her book.
Andrea, Juan Pablo's girlfriend, also collaborated and taught him math, geography, history, and art. "Meanwhile, my son was sent a copy of the notebooks of the best student of his old school, as well as the list of tasks and exercises to be developed in each subject. That was the only way I could think of not to completely interrupt my children's education," Victoria said.
Schooling was not interrupted by the move to La Casa Azul. Escobar's heirs had not been to school for six years for security reasons. Pablo himself told Victoria during summer at Hacienda Naples. "That's not going to happen," she immediately refused. "The education of our children is above anything else. Attentive to his wife's words, Escobar listened to her and closed the conversation without further discussion: "Tata, do you accept my decision, or do you prefer to see your children disappear, kidnapped or dead?
Manuela's classes ended at eleven o'clock in the morning when Victoria went to the kitchen to prepare her husband a brunch. It was always the same. Rice, fried egg, roast beef, fried slices of ripe banana, arepa, and a glass of milk, which he said were vital for strengthening bones. He accompanied everything with a salad of beetroot and tomato, which Victoria seasoned with a little lemon and salt.
When he could, Escobar gave himself other tastes. From time to time he loved to eat small portions of rice pudding, bananas, mazamorra, and arepa de mote with cheese and butter. He didn't do it often, but not for lack of goods: he was flirtatious and didn't want to get fat. "Pablo was almost always careful about excess food and maintaining his weight was a priority," recalls Henao.
Although he had plenty of scales, Escobar unusually controlled his weight. "When he woke up, he took a rope out of a drawer, measured his waist, and tied a knot in the top. The next day, he repeated the operation and confirmed if the knot was still in the same place or if it had to be run backward or forwards, of all those times he was with several kilos or more". He also took two years to shave, bathe and brush his teeth. "It's not that I want to get to the end clean, it's that if I get a grinding pain could be an ordeal," he said.
Escobar followed closely what happened outside his blue fortress, especially when any news spoke of him. He used to watch movies, cartoons with his daughter, and newsreels. Early, Gladys or El Gordo dodged the goose to buy copies of the newspapers El Tiempo, El Colombiano, and El Espectador. As he ate lunch, he watched the news closely. "It was very annoying because he changed channels constantly because he didn't want to miss the news that talked about him.
Escobar was surrounded and knew it. Without resources and betrayed by his allies, the leader of the Medellín Cartel analyzed the possibility of giving himself up, only in exchange for the guarantee that Victoria, Manuela, Juan Pablo, and his girlfriend could travel to another country as exiles. It was a difficult bet and the clock was ticking.
La Casa Azul had a spacious parking lot where up to ten vehicles could be parked, but due to the scarcity of visitors, it became a recreation area, a multipurpose space that also served as a football field or basketball. The days were long, the nights eternal and since they could not go out they were forced to invent an ideal world. Therefore, with some frequency and to take advantage of the sun, they put on their bathing suit and bathed with a hose that had good pressure. "Pablo loved to enjoy those moments because they relaxed him. That was another way to escape from our harsh reality," Henao recalled. Sometimes, he says, he would start to see the landscape of Medellín. As if he were rediscovering another world.
Escobar's weakness was his daughter Manuela. When she was 9 years old, the youngest of the Escobars was the one who suffered the most from the confinement. "The girl wanted to go with her grandmother, her cousins, and friends. But her father was strict in keeping us away from the outside world for security reasons. Only exceptionally and when Manuela reached the limit of despair, did Pablo agree to let her go on the weekend with one of his teachers. Making his daughter happy had the same priority as the war he was waging against the Colombian state.
"It occurred to him to stick fluorescent stars on the ceiling of our room for Manuela to see when she lay in bed with Pablo and me. She was especially affectionate with her father and from time to time, before falling asleep, she would say to him: 'When I can't see you or you're not with me, dad, can I look for you in the stars looking at the sky?" Victoria recalled.
Manuela didn't know, but her father had days left. A year after moving to La Casa Azul, she would leave her 10 years forever in Colombia. She would cease to be Manuela, would have to be called Juana, and would move on to live in anonymity in the then distant and unreal Argentina. "When someone comes to visit her from Colombia, she asks him to bring her a special mortadella that is not available in Buenos Aires," said her mother. The custom has its blue halo. "On many occasions, in the early hours of the morning, Manuela and Pablo would go to the kitchen to fry mortadella in a saucepan and eat it with rice and Coca-Cola. She still does".
September 3, 1993, fell Friday. It was Victoria's second birthday in the "blue world" her husband had built to protect them. She didn't expect anything, but Escobar surprised her with a cake and six bottles of Dom Perignon. It was the last celebration they had together. Time was running out. Moving the cake put several lives at risk. Two days later, Escobar experienced the most relaxed, and perhaps cheerful, moment of his nostalgic stint at the Casa Azul: Colombia's historic 5-0 win over Argentina in the play-offs. He celebrated the goals and embraced his son. But all that fictitious evasion of reality lasted 90 minutes.
Fifteen days later, Escobar received a letter. He had achieved his goal: his family could go into exile. "He read it carefully and suddenly stood up, approached me, and told me to go talk alone in one of the rooms on the second floor. Victoria resisted, but there was no case: the boss gave his last order. She had to go and take care of her two children.
Reality had entered the house and the bluish universe was falling apart. Firm in his decision, Escobar said goodbye to his family. She accompanied them to the blue gate and then watched them go out through the green, under the watchful gaze of the German shepherd and the goose. Escobar had 74 days to live. Could he have thought of his more than three thousand victims? The truth is that his son, over the years, became an ambassador for peace and travels the world giving a message against the violence of his father and has even apologized to the victims, face to face.
"Once, looking at the starry nights in La Casa Azul, Manuela discovered a cobalt blue star; very special, which stood out in the firmament. That star still accompanies her wherever she is," Victoria said. Today, when melancholy invades her, Escobar's daughter goes out to the balcony of her house and looks for the blue star to talk to her father, as she did when she was nine years old in her parents' bed.
Her family saw Escobar cry like a child. Especially when he hugged Manuela. He couldn't talk. The ungodly, bloodthirsty, unforgiving man was at that moment a child who had to say goodbye. Forever and ever. "Wherever you go, and wherever you are safe, I will find you. I will take a boat and find you," Escobar promised, but fate was impossible to circumvent.
In a house near La Casa Azul in Medellín, Escobar waited for his enemies. He was more afraid that he could not have been more human than bloodthirsty than dead. He no longer had a choice. His son is convinced that he killed himself before his captors did. He died on a roof. He was barefoot, like that child who was walking to school on dirt streets because his parents couldn't buy him slippers. He had a beard. The last to see him alive said it hurt more to lose his family than to lose power.
His family is convinced: in the end, Escobar took refuge more in his childhood than in his weapons. When he fell lifeless, he was wearing a blue T-shirt. As if he had painted death with his favorite color.