In the late 1980s, Pablo Escobar’s Medellin cartel was the most powerful drug-trafficking organisation in the world.
As such, Escobar and his associates had attracted the attention of Colombian authorities.
Violence in Colombia had increased throughout the decade, and by 1988, Escobar and the Colombian government had entered into “indirect” negotiations, during which the cartel leaders proposed a deal to preserve their wealth and end the government’s efforts to hunt them down.
In their effort to secure the deal and protect their business, Escobar and his associates tried to contact some of the highest-ranking members of the US political class, including a former secretary of state as well as a Florida power-player and presidential scion: Jeb Bush. Bush would later become governor of Florida and ran for president in 2016 before dropping out.
Escobar “and the traffickers of Medellín … offered to abandon drugs trafficking in return for — no more, no less — an end to extradition, a judicial pardon and a tax amnesty,” wrote Simon Strong in his 1995 book, “Whitewash: Pablo Escobar and the Cocaine Wars.“
At the suggestion of Germán Montoya, the head of then-Colombian President Virigilio Barco’s staff, the drug lords looked for a way to get US officials onboard with the deal, particularly the part about ending extradition. Montoya and others considered US approval essential to any agreement.
“In 1988, the drug lords reportedly attempted to hire the services of the New York firm Kissinger and Associates to mount a public relations campaign on behalf of the proposed trafficker-government accord,” Patrick Clawson and Rensselaer Lee wrote in their 1996 book, “The Andean Cocaine Industry.“
“No agreement was reached with the firm, however,” Clawson and Lee added.
The drug barons were not deterred. They waited until then-US President Ronald Reagan, a dedicated anti-drug warrior, was out of office.
The following year, through intermediary Joaquin Vallejo, a former Colombian senator and Escobar’s godfather, they turned their efforts to someone even closer to the White House than the firm of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
In 1989, they “dispatched Vallejo to Miami to discuss their proposal with a lawyer who had at one time ‘sorted out legal difficulties’ for Jorge Ochoa [a member of the Medellin cartel] in the United States and who just happened to be working with a team of corporate attorneys headed by Jeb Bush, the then-president’s son,” according to Clawson and Lee.
“The idea was for the lawyer to persuade Bush’s son to talk privately to the president” about the cartel leaders’ proposal, Vallejo told Strong.
According to both accounts — Strong, as well as Clawson and Lee — the lawyer in Miami agreed to carry the matter to the younger Bush, but said he would do so only if the Ochoa brothers paid him a debt they owed him for previous work.
The Ochoas balked at this request, according to Vallejo, and the talks between the traffickers and the Colombian government were delayed.
This delay, and the events that occurring during it, likely scuttled the negotiations and any deal that could’ve been reached.
While Jeb Bush was known to make recommendations to his father’s office, there’s no sign that the Medellin cartel’s request made it to him. (The younger Bush, however, did reportedly advocate on behalf of some Latin Americans with suspect backgrounds.)
Jeb Bush was also praised by law-enforcement officials for his support of the drug war in Florida during his time in state office.
‘Absolute and total war’
One of the events that may have ended any chance at a successful negotiation was one of the most notorious political killings in Colombian history.
In August 1989, Luis Galán, the leading presidential candidate — who had promised to extradite drug traffickers to the US — was assassinated, a killing orchestrated in part by Escobar and reportedly at the urging of Galán’s political rivals.
After Galán’s death, the situation in Colombia deteriorated. According to Clawson and Lee’s account, the government reacted by issuing an emergency decree against the narcotics industry in the country, to which the traffickers responded with a declaration of “absolute and total war against the government and the industrial and political oligarchy.”
Cesar Gaviria, who had also promised to extradite drug traffickers, was selected as Galán’s Liberal Party successor and went on to win the presidential election in 1990. The Colombian government, with US help, continued its bloody pursuit of Escobar for the next year and a half.
Though Escobar agreed to jail himself in a prison of his own design in mid-1991, by the middle of 1992 he was again on the loose.
In December 1993, with his Medellin cartel withering, Escobar was killed on a rooftop in his home town — though who delivered the fatal shot remains unclear.
To Vallejo, Escobar’s godfather, Galán’s assassination was the beginning of the end for Escobar, even if the Medellín kingpin felt justified in ordering it.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if Galán was killed in retaliation” for police action against the cartel during talks, Vallejo told Strong. “That was an error. Escobar did not have the academic preparation to realise all the effects of what was basically a political act; it finished him.”