I preface today's post, as I have with others that delve into Colombia's difficult history, by stating that much has changed since the events I will detail herein occurred. While many Colombians rightfully shy away from these episodes, in fear that those in other countries will only focus on our negative past, I trust that readers of this blog know that Colombia cannot be encapsulated or understood by these episodes alone. Colombia has undergone an unbelievable renaissance over the last fifteen years or so, one that has to be experienced in order to be understood or believed. Additionally, the amount of beauty and kindness that exists in Colombia and its people is seldom documented, and its for that reason that I write about Colombian cycling in this blog.
Having said that, Colombia's cycling history is truly unlike any other, and must be told as a result. Gonzalo Marín is but one example of how different Colombian cycling can be. I say this because it's not often that a leading cyclist retries in order to become a member of one of the largest, most murderous crime organizations in the world, then orders an enormous terrorist attack (one of the biggest in Colombian history), and in turn gets assassinated by a vigilante group that may have been funded and made up of DEA agents.
At least I don't think that's what most cyclists do when they retire.
In the three months leading up to December 6, 1989, there had been 295 violent attacks in Colombia, which national authorities deemed as being "terrorist acts". These ranged from violent executions, to bombings, and mass murder. To say that the nation was oddly jaded and numb to the amount of violence we endured would be an understatement. We had all become hardened by the current situation we lived in, and casually discounted these reports in order to get through the day. At least that's what I think we did, because so few of these events made an impression on me. They were, sadly, a constant hum that we all became accustomed to.
Much of this violence was committed under direct orders of two individuals: Pablo Escobar and Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha*. These the two leading drug traffickers were determined to make the Colombian government back down from their plan to allow extradition to the United States (where the legal system was difficult to buy off or scare into lesser sentences). It was for that reason that 295 attacks had been perpetrated in only three months during the end of 1989. Escobar and Gacha were determined to make the government back down by influencing public opinion through fear. But in a sense, the endless bombings had the opposite effect. Colombians turned numb. It would take a substantial attack to wake us from our slumber. On December 6, 1989, the entire country put aside its apathetic outlook and finally took notice.
*By 1989, Gacha had grown from being a small time thug in Colombia's emerald mines, to being one of the richest and most violent drug traffickers in the world. In the book Olympic Gangster , Matt Rendell details the relationship between Gacha and French gold medal-winning cyclist José Beyaert. I spoke with Matt about this topic, and you can read about it here.
The Administrative Department of Security (DAS), is Colombia's primary intelligence agency, which carries out anti-terrorist and anti-paramilitary operations. In 1989, the DAS was led by Miguel Maza Márquez, seen at the time as the lone reliable pursuant of men like Pablo Escobar. In 1989, Colombian officials were easy to buy off, but Maza Márquez appeared to be out of reach. He couldn't be bought, and thus became a primary target for narco-terrorists like Escobar and Gacha.
In the morning of December 6, 500 kilograms of dynamite were detonated in front of the DAS building. The bomb (which was concealed in a small public transit bus) was timed to coincide with Maza Márquez's arrival to the DAS building. Only he wasn't in the office that day. 104 people died, with over 600 being seriously injured. The size of the blast, and (perhaps more importantly) its intended target, made all of Colombia take notice. It had only been months since another carbomb had been detonated in an attempt to kill Maza. Escobar's attacks, and the high level of its targets made the public uneasy.
Short video about the December 6th bombing
After the attack, investigations quickly led Police to Escobar and Gacha. But it would take years to untangle the specifics of how the attack had been carried out, and who had been involved in its execution. In 1993, as the investigation came to a close, and its findings were published, one unusual name came up in the list of those who were responsible. It was a name that Colombian cycling fans knew well: Gonzalo Marín.
Gonzalo Marín, a native of Antioquia, had raced at the highest level of the sport in Colombia for much of the 1970s. During that time he had earned podium placings at the Vuelta a Colombia (in 1972, and 1978), and had also worn the leader's jersey for days, while taking several stages along the way. Unlike other Colombian cyclists of the time, Marín was one of the few who raced in Europe. "Chalo" as family and fans alike referred to him, had led a young Colombian squad at the Piccolo Giro in 1974. During that race, the Colombian team was dominant, and took several stages, while Marín would eventually finish second in the overall (his teammates finishing third and fourth as well). The team's performance provided a huge boost to Colombian cycling, at a time when many wondered how their abilities compared to those in European countries.
A ruthless climber in the great Colombian tradition, "Chalo" raced for the Bicicletas Ositto team, under the direction of Roberto Escobar (Pablo Escobar's brother). Ositto was a bike company co-owned by both Roberto and his brother. The Ositto team (later Freskola-Bicicletas Ositto) was built around Marín, who had known the Escobars for some time, and had also raced in smaller teams sponsored by Pablo's political campaigns for public office(a pastime that Escobar enjoyed before the source of his sizable income was known by the public). Additionally, Gonzalo Marín's cousin was Escobar's brother-in-law. In a world were few could be trusted, Marín was family to Escobar. How close the two were was not obvious until sometime in 1993 however, when results from the DAS bombing investigation were released.
The findings stated that the primary organizer of the attack, the man who authorized the bombing was Gonzalo Marín.
Suddenly, Marín's old sporting nickname ("Chalo") was reported on as being his alias in the criminal underground. His links to Escobar were well known, but no one suspected that the cyclist—who hundreds greeted at the airport upon his return from the Piccolo Giro in '74‚—had ordered one of the most horrific and potentially destabilizing terrorist acts in Colombian history.
Prior to me knowing this, I had asked several retired professionals about Marín, and each time my questions were met with complete silence, along with an occasional shake of the head. No one would speak about him, thus showing that the concept of omertà within cycling can sometimes extend past doping innuendo, and back to its original meaning. At least in Colombia.
By 1993, when Marín was singled out as the primary director of the December 6th bombing (albeit under orders from Escobar), he had been dead for some time.
On April 25th, 1990, Gonzalo Marín was brutally murdered, something that had barely been reported on by Colombian news sources, even with Marín's relative celebrity status as a retired cyclist. At that point, the assassination of yet another Colombian cyclist was hardly news, so few paid attention. Many professionals (retired or not) had been brutally murdered by then (which you can read about here), so what was another one?
But as it turned out, Marín's death was different, and not just because of his later involvement in the December 6th bombing that killed over 100. While other cyclists had been killed by drug traffickers, Marín's death came about because of his connection to traffickers, namely to Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel.
Marín was found dead in a barbershop, strangled, and his body showed clear signs of torture. All his belongings had been taken, but one item had purposefully been left in one of his pockets. It was a paper ticket showing that he had visited someone at the maximum security prison in nearby Itagui. It was there that Roberto Escobar (Pablo's brother, and Marín's old team director) was then incarcerated for weapons violations, trafficking, extortion, kidnapping, illicit enrichment, and his connection to the deaths of 4000 people.
Marín's murder was quickly attributed (and later claimed) by a group known as Los Pepes (which stood for People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar). Los Pepes were a vigilante group composed of Pablo Escobar's enemies, who ruthlessly murdered those related to Escobar, as well as any lawyers, accountants or anyone else who had ties to the drug kingpin or his family. These murders were brutal, sometimes killing as many as five people at a time through shootings, strangulation, bombings, or creative methods meant to shock and scare Escobar. In every case, clues (like the ticket in Marin's pocket) or simple explanations were left with the bodies. These explanations often came in the form of crudely handwritten signs. One such sign, left around the neck of a victim read:
Killed as a result of working for the narco-terrorist and baby-killer Pablo Escobar.
- Los Pepes"
While another stated:
I watched over people who were kidnapped by Roberto Escobar.
- Los Pepes
The public wanted to know who Los Pepes were. Who were these brutal vigilantes, the only ones who were standing up to the most feared man in Colombia (and possibly the world), who appeared to be out of his reach?
Connections to the DEA and the CIA
Many in Colombia quietly rejoiced as Los Pepes continued to torture and murder individuals connected to Escobar. That their acts were reprehensible (not to mention illegal) mattered little at a time when the social contract had long been considered null and void. It was clear that the police and government were unable (or unwilling) to bring Escobar and his men to justice, so Los Pepes and their violent actions became popular with many.
Eventually, however, some astute journalists and politicians began to realize that Los Pepes seemed to be acting on high level intelligence that was in no way available to common citizens, or even well-connected thugs. Los Pepes, it would appear had access to classified information held by elite forces at the national police.
The truth, however, was far more sinister.
What many feared then, became clear in subsequent years. Los Pepes were not only receiving information from Colombia's national police, they were also partially made up of Colombia's top agents. Additionally, Los Pepes were in direct contact with DEA operatives, who at times may have also participated in, and perhaps funded those murderous outings (like the one in which Gonzalo Marín was killed).
Today, only one paramilitary leader admits to having been a members of Los Pepes, but it's commonly believed that the vigilante group, DEA agents, and the national police were all one and the same. Further information became available when the CIA released several documents on the matter, as reported in Mike Bowden's investigative book Killing Pablo.
It's at this point that I must take a step back, and alert you to the fact that the connection between the DEA and Los Pepes has been well documented in the Colombian press, and is common knowledge throughout Colombia. In the United States, however, people are understandably more careful about making this connection, though reports on the matter have appeared in reputable newspapers such as the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Nevertheless, and in order not sound like a raving lunatic who believes in conspiracy theories, and to to err on the side of caution, I'll simply quote the report published by The National Security Archive (a non-profit research institution located in the George Washington University, which publishes declassified U.S. government files concerning topics of US foreign policy) on the matter:
While it is certain that the Task Force was exchanging information with Castaño [leader of Los Pepes] and Los Pepes, we do not know how long the Task Force maintained these ties and whether the relationship was sanctioned—either tacitly or explicitly—by U.S. participants in the Task Force, the Embassy, or at a more senior level of the U.S. government...Unfortunately, the vast majority of U.S. diplomatic and intelligence reporting on Los Pepes remains classified."
A video from the History Channel based on Bowden's book, in which key agents from the DEA, and the ambassador to Colombia at the time speak on the matter.
For what it's worth, here's a portion from the Wikipedia entry about Los Pepes:
Links to authorities
There are reports that Los Pepes had ties to members of the Colombian National Police, especially the Search Bloc (Bloque de Búsqueda), with whom they exchanged information in order to execute their activities against Escobar. According to documents released to the public by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 2008, "Colombian National Police director General Miguel Antonio Gómez Padilla said 'that he had directed a senior CNP intelligence officer to maintain contact with Fidel Castano, paramilitary leader of Los Pepes, for the purposes of intelligence collection.'" Indirectly, it is surmised the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) funded some of these missions as DEA agents were, at times, included in raids conducted by Los Pepes and some of the reward money for tips came from DEA pockets.
Los Pepes is also strongly tied to Centra Spike, a covert ops group that was heading, in large part, the hunt for Pablo Escobar. There is evidence that Los Pepes acted on CIA/DEA/Delta Force intelligence to launch their missions. This actually became some concern for the U.S. as it appeared they would be linked to some of the retaliation acts linked to cutting off Escobar's power (most of these attacks were against his sources of money and negotiations with the government; i.e. his lawyers).
As I read through this post, I realize how often Pablo Escobar comes up in this blog. I don't mean for that to happen, but I was introduced to cycling in the 1980s, and that remains a time in the sport's history that interests me greatly. It was then (and into the early 90s) that Escobar's connections to the sport were strongest. Anywhere I look, Escobar comes up again and again.
I also realize that I've placed a good bit of emphasis on the likely connection between the DEA and Los Pepes on this post. I did so in the spirit of proving the veracity of that part of this story.
Lastly, as unusual as Marin's story may seem, it simply illustrates something that Gabriel Garcia Marquez said during his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize (something that I've paraphrased often on this blog):
Colombian writers and dreamers have had to ask very little of their imagination, because Colombia's reality is far more amazing than the fiction which others can possibly dream up.
Additional reading and sources:
Article from El Tiempo detailing the murder of Marín (in Spanish)
Article from El Tiempo naming Marin as having given the orders for the December 6th bombing (in Spanish)
Article from El Tiempo again naming Marin for his role in the December 6th bombing (in Spanish)
Article from the Philadelphia Inquirer detailing the connections between US intelligence and Los Pepes (in English)
Report from the National Security Archive on the connection between the DEA and Los Pepes, based on declassified reports by the CIA (in English)
Article from the highly regarded Semana magazine regarding the DEA connection with Los Pepes. This article places the beginnings of Colombia's ongoing paramilitary problem squarely at the feet of the DEA, due to its connection and possible funding of Los Pepes (in Spanish).
Article regarding Roberto Escobar's multi-million dollar stud-horse being castrated by Los Pepes (in Spanish)