The Accountant’s Story: Inside the Violent World of the Medellín Cartel – Roberto Escobar with David Fisher


On September 14, 1986, United States President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) gave a speech to the nation on the Campaign Against Drug Abuse. And though he did not mention names of drug lords, those with knowledge of the flood of narcotics entering the United States aware that Reagan was also speaking to Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria (1949-1993), the head of the Medellín cartel who had earned a place on Forbes’ list of the world’s wealthiest figures. Seven more years passed before Escobar met his fate on December 2, 1993, but prior to the final act of his life, Escobar continued to earn billions of dollars as cocaine became the drug of choice. There are countless documentaries, films, and articles about Pablo, but his brother Roberto has remained in the shadows. His role as the organization’s accountant and proximity to his brother, allowed him to witness the rise and fall of the Medellín cartel. And this is his story of that world and what really happened in their lives as Pablo became the most wanted drug lord in the world.

Before reading this book, I knew of Roberto Escobar, but I did not know his personal story. I did expect it to mirror Pablo’s but the perspective from Roberto’s view is unique on its own and raises questions about morality that I did not expect. Further, what he reveals adds more complication to the legend and infamy of Pablo. After a brief explanation of the family’s history which traces its maternal routes to Spain, Roberto focuses on the young Pablo who has no interest in narcotics. In fact, Robert explains that “in 1974 Pablo was studying political science at the Universidad de Antiochia. There are many who believe Pablo was an uneducated man who succeeded only through drugs. That simply is not true.” But the most significant aspect of the early Pablo’s life is his vision of becoming president of Colombia. It may sound comical looking back in hindsight, but the book leaves no room to believe that Escobar was insincere about this. And though he was trafficking narcotics, he did want to be president of the country.  This is supported by Pablo’s successful political campaign in which he ran for Congress and was elected. Of course, the drugs were never far away but as we learn from Roberto, Pablo did not start out as a narcotics trafficker nor did the violence in Colombia start with the Medellín cartel. Those who are from Colombia or have visited Latin America may find this sobering statement from Roberto that “Colombia has always been a country of violence. It was part of our heritage” to be hauntingly accurate.

After engaging in the transport of contraband and a narrow escape from police, Pablo realizes that he needs another stream of revenue and learns about a paste made from coca leaf extracts. It is chance event that changes history and the lives of all Colombians. But Pablo was unknown outside of Colombia early in his career and the leap from domestic trafficker to public enemy number one of Washington is a fascinating story, and Roberto delivers the goods. We learn that America was always a good drug market and traffic from Colombia and other parts of South America flew under the radar. But that all changed in 1979 when The United States and Colombia signed an extradition agreement to extradite drug traffickers to America to stand trial. It was a move in the making and changed the lives of Pablo and Roberto permanently. However, before that took place, Roberto knew that America was an entirely different arena and recalls that “for the entire family, our lives changed forever the day my brother decided to send his drugs to America“. War was declared and it has not let up to this day. And to drive home the significance of the agreement, Roberto goes on to explain that “Although none of us knew it at the time, the wars had actually begun in 1979, when the United States and Colombia signed a treaty that declared drug trafficking a crime against the United States and permitted Colombian traffickers to be extradited to the U.S. It was that law that changed everything.”

Within Colombia, Pablo and his family enjoy life as they could have never imagined with unlimited access to cash, enforcers, and political influence. However, I could not overlook the deeds by Pablo for the poor people of Colombia. And this part of the book presents a duality the remains constant throughout the story. We know Pablo is dealing drugs, but he also becomes a Robin Hood type figure who commits unbelievably generous acts of kindness, one of which is Barrio Escobar which stands to this day. The complicated nature of Pablo is observed by Roberto who cautions his sibling when needed and provides explanations for the decisions they make. And to be fair, Roberto does not shy away from criticizing his brother in the book when necessary. The best example is Pablo’s entry in politics which the author strongly disagreed with. But that was only the beginning in a bitter feud with the Colombia Government that included the Cali cartel, police hit squads and the notorious group of killers called Los Pepes. Colombia was turned into a bloodbath and the Escobars were the top prizes to be captured. The stories from Roberto are unbelievable and show that the idea of safety was a foreign concept for victims of the drug wars. The violence escalates in the book as expected and readers may want to use discretion.

Any story about Escobar must address the elephant in the room and that is the sad fate of Avianca Airlines Flight 203. Roberto explains that he did not know of any plot, but had he known he would have stopped Pablo. There is no smoking gun and any discussions about it were hidden from Roberto, most likely to protect him from prosecution. This act combined with the attacks on government buildings, political assassinations and deadly battles with Colombian police units, catapulted Pablo to a level of infamy from which he has never descended and never will. Yet while these things were taking place, he was still committing acts of kindness to those in need. But he was firm in his determination to never be incarcerated in an American jail and was clear to Roberto that he would rather die on Colombia soil than sit in a United States prison. In the end he got his wish.

Following the Avianca tragedy, the writing is on the wall, and we know that Pablo will not escape alive. But there is still more carnage to come, and Colombia saw more bloodshed before the drug lord was ambushed and eliminated. Roberto recounts those finals weeks with Pablo and the feeling they both had as the walls closed in. Both were deeply affected by the isolation from their children and Roberto goes through three marriages while telling the story. The Escobar name became a liability and the bounty placed on their heads resulted in death coming from all angles. But following Pablo’s demise, their mother takes action to end the battles with the Cali cartels and rebel groups with astonishing courage. Roberto suffered a different fate and his ordeal in prison at the time of Pablo’s death and its aftermath are beyond shocking. It is a miracle that he is alive today. The glory days of the Medellín cartel are gone but drug trafficking continues to exist. But there was a time when a simple man from Colombia with an unobstructed vision of destiny became the poster boy for the cocaine trafficking industry. And along for the ride was his brother Roberto who served as the accountant, confidant and voice of reason when needed. If you want to know the real story of Pablo Escobar, this book is a must read and a welcome addition to the books we have now about the man who entrenched himself permanently in the history of Colombia.

“It is impossible to even imagine how much money remains put away somewhere, probably never to be discovered. People who managed millions of dollars got killed without telling anyone where the money was hidden. Or they took the money and disappeared when Pablo was killed. I feel sure there are undiscovered coletas in houses all throughout Colombia—but also in New York and Miami, Chicago and Los Angeles, and the other cities in which Medellín did business. I am also certain there are bank accounts in countries whose numbers have been lost and forgotten and never will be opened again.” 

-Roberto Escobar


Smuggler’s End: The Life and Death of Barry Seal – Del Hahn

sealAmericans in my age range and older will easily recall Nancy Reagan’s (1921-2016) advice to “just say no” to drugs.  At the time, America had become fully engulfed in a deadly war against the rising trafficking and use of narcotics.  The federal government continued to increase spending each year in the effort to combat drugs in America but regardless of the approach, the drugs kept coming and brought with them lengthy jail sentences, murder, and scores of addicts.  However, the drugs did not arrive without help.  Drug traffickers quickly realized that the growing market for cocaine and other hard drugs also produced large amounts of money.  Drug routes began to sprout up all over the planet as traffickers continued to find ways to elude authorities.  Stories of their exploits are plenty.  And I believe everyone knows the names of the major drug kingpins such as Pablo Escobar (1949-1993) and Joaquin Guzman known as “El Chapo”.   The bosses made the deals, but the groundwork was left to those willing to risk death and capture in a market worth billions of dollars.  Among these fearless individuals was Adler Berriman “Barry” Seal (1939-1986).  Fans of the Netflix show Narcos might recall Seal’s demise in season one.  The scene is graphic but is also a fairly accurate depiction of Seal’s final moments.  But what is missing from the show is Seal’s full background and his descent into the criminal underworld.  Rumors have persisted that Seal was working for the Central Intelligence Agency (“CIA”) or other secret parts of the U.S. Government. But is there any truth to that?  Author Del Hahn was an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) and worked in the Baton Rouge field office at the time Seal was under active investigation.  In this informative and gripping book, Hahn provides what may be the most accurate account of Seal’s tragic life.

Prior to reading the book, I had a fair amount of knowledge regarding Seal.  Movie buffs will recall that Tom Cruise played Seal in the 2017 film American Made.   The movie is pure Hollywood and its allegation that Seal was “recruited” by the CIA are nothing short of misleading. Hahn explores the issue at length and explains what did take place at the Mena Intermountain Airport in Mena, Arkansas as Seal was preparing to depart for a trip to South America.  Officially, the CIA has stated that Seal never worked for their agency even though it did have a presence at the airport.  Seal himself never said that he worked for the CIA.  But what is more important in the story at hand is Seal’s downfall and his work for the Drug Enforcement Agency (“DEA”).   However, before we reach that part of the book, Hahn provides a good biography of Seal, showing the twists and turns along the way even before he becomes involved in trafficking narcotics.  It is clear that Seal’s life was anything but ordinary even from an early age.   Further, I could see that Seal was an incredibly talented and articulate individual.  Readers might be surprised to learn how early he became involved in the field of aviation.  To say that flying was in his blood might be an understatement.  It will be recalled by some that he began working for Trans World Airlines (“TWA”) in 1967.   Although he was eventually terminated, he had established himself as a good pilot whose aircraft was the Boeing 707.   After leaving TWA, Seal found a new source of income in the world of smuggling.  But cocaine was not his first choice as Hahn explains as he shows the path Seal took from one drug to another.  In some instances, Seal was at the right place at the right time and around the right people.

Similar to other players in the drug game, incarceration is never far away, and Seal found himself in trouble with the law on several occasions.  But it was a major bust in an undercover sting operation by multiple law enforcement agencies that finally derailed the smuggler’s gravy train.  This is the part of the book where the story takes a sharp turn down a darker path.  At this point, Seal is fully engulfed in the cocaine business and associating with figures from the most notorious drug cartels in history.  Faced with a stiff prison sentence and additional time in other pending cases, Seal makes a life changing decision and becomes more acquainted with the DEA that some may realize.  The legal drama heightens the suspense in the story and Hahn does a solid job of putting everything in the simplest terms possible to help the story flow easily.  I personally picked up a couple of things about the Title III Wiretap law and the Brady Rule which put things into a more clarified context.  Law students and readers with an interest in criminal procedure will appreciate this part of the book.  A sub-story to the legal drama is that the author refutes some of the more outlandish rumors about Seal’s alleged “work” for the CIA or any other intelligence agency through the explanation of the wiretaps.   He also puts to rest any rumors about Seal’s connections to politicians in Washington.   Hahn states frankly that:

“Mena/CIA conspiracy buffs should take note that during the entire time the Title III wiretap was in operation, there were no conversations intercepted between Seal, Terry Kent Reed, Bill Clinton, Lt. Col. Oliver North, or any representative of the CIA.”

The real story is not as sensational as some may wish but it is crazy enough on its own to keep readers glued to the pages of this book.  Seal was a larger-than-life character with a love for the darker side of society.  And he learned that in the drug game, no one can be trusted.

We know that Seal died in February 1986 but is what we see on Narcos the full explanation?  Hahn also discusses how and why Seal was gunned down.  And as I read the account of the events leading up to his death, I shook my head at the fate in store for Seal who has no idea that he has become a pawn in a much larger and deadlier game.  As the 1980s progresses, Central America becomes a hotspot and the Reagan Administration becomes deeply involved in the war in El Salvador, events in Nicaragua and affairs in Honduras.  Ret. Lt. Col. Oliver North also makes an appearance and provides the author with a statement that I believe should help put an end to the Seal mystique.  North may be viewed suspiciously as some due to the Iran Contra affair but that is a discussion for another time. The focus here is on Barry Seal and North clears up any possible rumors about his alleged association with the notorious smuggler.

Throughout the book, not once does any information surface that Seal was anything other than a drug trafficker who got caught in an undercover operation and decided to work for the U.S. Government to help his own cause. That decision came with a heavy price, and he could not have known he was on a collision course with fate. His death while tragic, did nothing to stop the flow of illegal drugs into the United States. And Seal himself stated more than once that the narcotics could not be stopped by the war on drugs. Today we know that he was correct in his assessment.  Seal may have been romanticized on screen, but the truth about his life is far more bitter and less glorious.  If you want to know exactly who Barry Seal was and what really happened behind the scenes during the war on drugs, this is a must read.


Pablo Escobar: Beyond Narcos, War on Drugs Book I-Shaun Attwood

pabloWagner Moura became one of Netflix’s most memorable faces when he assumed the role of infamous drug czar Pablo Escobar in the hit series Narcos. The series, while based off of true events,  is also a fictional account of the late kingpin’s life as a cocaine trafficker and public enemy number one in Colombia.   The received rave reviews and I  enjoyed it immensely.  I was aware of Escobar’s story before watching the show and knew that the producers would tweak some parts of the story to enhance its seduction.  The created a hit that will remain one of the best products of the digital behemoth.  But some of us may be asking ourselves, how much did Netflix get right? And what did they change as they filmed the show?  Shaun Attwood goes behind the camera and revisits the real story of Pablo’s rise and downfall that lead to his death on December 2, 1993 in the city of Medellín.

Attwood gives a brief recap of Escobar’s early life before returning the story at hand, his time as a narco.  And it is here that the story quickly picks up speed.   Netflix changed some of the names of the major players in the story most likely for either legal or creative reasons.  For some readers, they may need to quickly catch clips of the show to match the characters.   The deaths are also different but follow the same narration as the show.  Pablo once again takes center stage with a supporting cast of deadly enforcers.   Combined with the animosity of rival cartels, law enforcement, revels and a president determined to see Escobar fall,  the war on Escobar and drug trafficking nearly turned Colombia into a bloodbath.   The violence and increase in American consumption in cocaine, earned Escobar the wrath of Washington, then under control of President George H.W. Bush.   Attwood probes in the battle between the two and Washington’s many actions to bring the drug lord down.   Some are familiar but other information might be surprising for some readers who were unaware of the extent of Washington’s involvement in Escobar’s apprehension.

In spite of changes by the producers of Narcos, the show did an excellent job of telling the story.  The actors in the show all did an incredible job of bringing the past alive again in stunningly vivid detail.   The cinematography was beyond amazing and Colombia became enchanting real, a beautify country caught in an unfortunate situation.   As I read the book,  I involuntarily pictured the actors from the show as I read the conversations that are put on display in the book.  And although their faces and names are changed, their roles in the story are not.  To be fair to Attwood, the book is not a biography of Escobar, so readers in search of that will be disappointment.  But for those who want to know what was changed during the filming of Narcos and what really happened, Attwood does a great job of putting it together in a narrative easy to follow and thoroughly engaging.

Twenty-three years have passed since his death but Escobar continues to live in pop culture, documentaries and on the internet.   To be fair, a large number of traffickers existed at the time Escobar made his name.  Some of them are still alive today while others are incarcerated or deceased.  Regardless of their present status, none have come close to matching the man who could arguably be called narco number one.   In future years, he will continue to fascinate and mystify and his story is re-told and readopted for the silver screen.  In death he has become martyr, icon and glimpse into Colombia’s dangerous past.   Narcos has yet to be discovered, but more viewers will tune into the show and have many questions about the true story.  With books such as these, they will find the answers that they seek.

ISBN-10: 1537296302
ISBN-13: 978-1537296302