The drug lord and his court musician | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 02.12.2013
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The drug lord and his court musician

Drug lord, terrorist, benefactor - Pablo Escobar was shot dead 20 years ago. The Colombian was the most wanted criminal of his time. Danilo Jimenez was Escobar’s court musician - until he became a victim himself.

The bleeding bull, with its eyes fixed on the red cape, lowered its horns and scraped its hooves against the ground. Then it started galloping forward. The torero made an elegant swerve, and the animal's angry attack failed to find its mark. Then, the torero struck. The bull dropped to the ground. The crowd started cheering.

It was a weekend, and the bullfighting arena in Medellin was packed. The sugar cane liquor flowed like water. Up in the stadium, Danilo Jimenez and his band Marco Fidel Suarez entertained the audience with their traditional brass music. So far, it had been a good day for the musicians.

But as Jimenez and his colleagues left the arena, a deafening explosion suddenly boomed out. A cloud of smoke darkened the sky. People screamed for help as shrapnel flew through the air. Burned corpses and body parts were everywhere. Jimenez touched his head - he was bleeding from a giant wound. Then he lost consciousness.

Archive photo of Danilo Jimenez with his band (Photo: private)

Entertainer: Danilo Jimenez (in grey suit) and his Banda Marco Fidel Suarez

Jimenez suffered severe brain damage. He spent the following years in kind of a comatose state: "I returned to life only very slowly. It was like waking up from a dream."

During the attack in February 1991, 25 people died - among them three musicians. Jimenez' wife Gabriela was heavily wounded, and she died from complications in 2007. Musician Jimenez knows who is to blame: "Pablo Escobar. There were many policemen outside the arena whom he wanted to kill. Pablo paid a bounty on every dead policeman. He didn't care about the other victims."

Terror against the state

Escobar had declared war on the state. "We have to create absolute chaos and total civil war," raged Escobar other drug gangsters in a tapped phone call. "Then they'll come to us to ask for peace."

The goal of the terror mission was to force the state to impose an extradition ban. Extradition to the United States was the number one fear for the boss of the Medellin cartel, which at the time controlled some 80 percent of global cocaine trade.

Bogota's secret police headquarters is nearly demolished 06 December 1989 following a powerful truck bomb explosion nearby. (Photo: EDUARDO SOTOMAYOR/AFP/Getty Images)

Escobar's bombing of the DAS secret service building in 1989 resulted in almost 70 deaths

Escobar had politicians, judges and policemen murdered; he was behind the explosion of a passenger plane in the air; and he detonated bombs outside government buildings. Thousands died as a result. And the terror attacks got Escobar what he wanted: The state refused to allow his extradition.

In June 1991, Escobar held a press conference announcing his intentions to turn himself in for his crimes. "After seven years of manhunting, wounds and battles, I will now go to prison for as long as is necessary to bring peace to my beloved Colombian fatherland."

The reaction in Colombia was one of relief. Escobar went to a private jail. The building was given the name "La Catedral" and was erected according to the drug baron's own sketches, and was luxuriously equipped. Guarded by Escobar's own men, La Catedral quickly became the Medellin cartel's new control center, where visitors were greeted and opponents were murdered. Eventually, the Colombian government decided that enough was enough.


Pablo Escobar wearing jail clothes (Photo: source unknown)

Escobar: "a grave in Colombia is better than a cell in the US"

But as usual, Escobar was well informed. In July 1992, before the authorities could move him to a different place, the mafia boss escaped. This marked the beginning of an unprecedented manhunt that involved not only the Colombian police, but also US agencies the CIA and Drug Enforcement Agency.

Enemy drug gangs supported by the police simultaneously went on the hunt for members of the Medellin cartel. Escobar was being driven into a corner.

Escobar was a family man, and one phone call with his wife and children was eventually his undoing. The police located him in a building in downtown Medellin. On December 2, 1993, the 44-year-old was shot dead upon arrest. Escobar's enemies popped the corks.

But while the dominant feeling was one of jubilation, there was also grief about the drug boss' passing. Thousands of supporters came to Escobar's funeral in his home town Medellin, reaching out to his coffin, paying their last respects to their hero. Escobar had donated to the poor, built houses for people living in rubbish, and provided jobs to many.

Music for the bosses' boss

Musician Danilo Jimenez belonged to those who profited from Escobar for many years. He and his band would regularly play at the mafia boss' events and private parties. "If we hadn't done it, others would have," the 75-year-old said. "There was a lot of money to be had. That attracted everybody, everybody wanted to live well and profit from Pablo. Everybody knew what Pablo was doing."

Danilo Jimenez today (Photo: private)

Jimenez: the shrapnel of Escobar’s bomb hit the back of his head, which continue to have lingering effects

The drug baron was one of the world's richest men, and his drug-trafficking earnings also trickled into the legal economy. "Pablo Escobar had infiltrated the whole city, and the whole country," said social scientist Alejandra Echeverri of Medellin University. "Everybody here knows somebody who had something to do with drug trafficking." Herself included - Echeverri's aunt was a secretary for one of Pablo Escobar's cousins.

But the ties between the mafia and other parts of society were never really been analyzed in detail. After Escobar's death, Medellin went into a phase of ignoring this chapter. Upon first glance, Medellin is a different city today - it's become safer, and has spent a lot of money on infrastructure. Foreign firms are investing, and tourism is booming.

A boy touches the tombstone of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar at Montesacro cemetery on December 2, 2010 in Medellin, Antioquia department, Colombia, (Photo: RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images)

Hero worship: a young boy at Pablo Escobar’s grave in Medellin

But the drug traffickers' culture hasn't gone away, said Echeverri: "History is repeating itself: Pablo's killers are now the bosses of today's gangs. Drug trafficking, corruption, the logic of abundance, fast money - all of this is still a part of daily life." Especially to the young generation in the poor neighborhoods, said Echeverri, Pablo Escobar remains a mythological figure.

For Colombia as a whole, 20 years after Escobar's death, the country is still the world's largest exporter of cocaine, and many people live off the business.

But musician Danilo Jimenez regrets that he ever got involved with a drug baron like Pablo Escobar. "He practically took away our life. But I've forgiven him. I don't hate him. Hatred kills you. God passed judgment on him."

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