Hooked on the King of Cocaine
Published by The Mail on Sunday (12th August, 2018)
As their small plane landed, the passengers were surrounded by two dozen men brandishing machine guns. They were taken to a huge hacienda, then driven for hours in dune buggies through grasslands stuffed with imported animals such as elephants and giraffes.
Eventually their host arrived by helicopter: short, pudgy and with a thick moustache under his mop of curly hair. ‘Delighted to meet you in person, finally,’ he said. ‘I’m Pablo Escobar.’
This was Virginia Vallejo’s introduction in 1982 to the man who became the world’s most infamous drug lord – and her lover for six turbulent years. ‘I thought he was fascinating,’ she says. ‘He adored me. We had so much love, so much passion. We would talk for hours and hours. We were very happy together.’
Yet ask this former television presenter what she thinks now of Escobar – shot dead by special forces nearly 25 years ago after slaughtering hundreds of innocent people while waging war on Colombia’s government – and she takes a very different view.
‘I loathe him,’ she says of the gangster who controlled 80 per cent of world cocaine trade, a man who raped her and even stole her savings to stop her leaving Colombia. ‘He was a monster but he’s been turned into a legend.’
Certainly there seems an insatiable appetite for books, documentaries and dramas about the man she described to me as ‘an ugly, fatty peasant’ but who became the world’s most wanted criminal after cornering the global cocaine market.
Few people alive today knew him as well as Vallejo – her book of their time together, Loving Pablo, Hating Escobar, has been turned into a film starring Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz as the unlikely couple. She saw his spectacular rise to become the planet’s seventh richest man – then watched his plunge into paranoia as he was hunted like an animal by ruthless paramilitary gangs, Colombian troops and US drug enforcement agents.
When they met, Vallejo was 32 and one of the most famous women in South America, an aristocratic beauty who claimed to be a descendant of Plantagenet kings and whose previous boyfriends included Colombia’s four wealthiest men.
She arrived at Escobar’s Hacienda Napoles with her then-fiance. ‘I thought I was going marry this beautiful man, the nephew of the president, but he had one big problem – he snorted cocaine like a vacuum cleaner. He loved it and I loathed it.’
‘It’s ironic, isn’t it?’ she adds with a laugh. ‘One month later and I was with the King of Cocaine.’
Escobar saved Vallejo from drowning when she was sucked into a whirlpool while swimming during that first encounter at Hacienda Napoles, but she did not fall for him until carrying out his first television interview.
He took her to meet poor families scraping a living on a stinking dump in the city of Medellin, speaking passionately as a newly elected politician about the need to help such people. He was popular in the city for spending cash on homes, jobs and sports facilities.
She describes their affair as ‘a love story’ – they were to meet 220 times over the next five years. Vallejo estimates she spent ‘1,000 hours by his side and maybe another 1,000 in his arms’.
She insists they were discreet, often meeting in a flat in a middle-class suburb of the capital Bogota. ‘He was married and I was a celebrity,’ says Vallejo. ‘We did not meet in front of all his hitmen like in those awful television series.’
Vallejo is dismissive of Escobar’s wife Victoria (‘she was very small, dark and frankly unattractive’) and bitterly dislikes portrayals in dramas such as the Netflix hit Narcos, in which the character of Valeria Velez is clearly based on her.
I asked Vallejo, now 68 and living in Florida, when she realised Escobar was a crook. She replies it was soon after their first meeting, ‘when he put a gun to the head of my ex-husband to force him to sign my divorce papers’.
‘I realised then he was not a normal politician. I quickly learned he was a criminal. He told me he had killed 200 kidnappers and then he bought me a Beretta pistol. You must realise kidnapping was a plague, with 3,000 a year at the time in Colombia.’
Escobar tracked down the kidnappers of one friend’s sister by placing men beside all 800 phone boxes in Medellin at the time of an agreed call. Then his goons followed anyone making a call, finally locating the gang leader and grabbing his entire family.
Escobar wanted help with improving speeches for his political career, but Vallejo says ‘he never learned to talk properly – he was a criminal’. Once asked by a journalist which woman he would most like to bed, the drugs kingpin replied: ‘Margaret Thatcher.’
He became so confident with Vallejo that he showed her his collection of 14 passports. He dyed his hair blond for one and wore glasses and a goatee beard for another, while a friendly Saudi prince had obtained one for him.
‘In those days cocaine was more innocent,’ Vallejo claims. ‘No one knew about all the killings, the addicts. Everyone in my country smoked contraband Marlboro and it felt like selling contraband cigarettes. I also saw what he was doing for poor people.’
When I ask about Escobar’s famously lavish spending, she laughs. ‘It was corny because these people had no taste. So they liked huge animals and all his huge toys were spread around the ranch.’ These included what Escobar called his ‘James Bond car’ – it had a dashboard studded with buttons that set off tear gas, oil slicks, smoke, explosives and even a flame-thrower. ‘If all that fails to work, this last button emits a frequency that destroys the eardrum,’ he told her.
But after a year together, their relationship started to corrode when Escobar confessed to a chilling reprisal on a previous girlfriend who became pregnant by another man. He told Vallejo he sent ‘four boys’ to seize the woman, who was then dragged to a vet for a forced abortion performed without anaesthetic.
‘It was a horror story,’ says Vallejo. ‘We never talked about it again but I did not see him after that for several weeks. I was left very scared. When someone does a horrible thing like that to another person, sooner or later they will do it to you. One year later he raped me.’
Vallejo does not wish to discuss this incident. But in her book she describes it taking place as the heat on Escobar grew more intense after photographs were published of him loading seven-and-a-half tons of cocaine into a plane in Nicaragua.
Returning from a trip to Europe where she was wooed by the chief of the rival Cali drugs cartel, Vallejo found death threats on her answering machine.
She ended up in Escobar’s half-built hideout where he raped her and demanded that she beg for her life while he throttled her.
‘You look horrible. Thank God I’ll never see you again,’ he told her afterwards. ‘From now on it’s only little girls and whores for me.’
By this time Escobar was fighting the Colombian government in a campaign to prevent extradition to the US. His hit squads slaughtered judges, police officers, politicians and presidential candidates, even bombing an airliner in 1989, killing 107 people on board.
In the most brazen attack, he paid for Marxist rebels to storm the Supreme Court in 1985. After a two-day assault, the army freed the building but dozens of hostages were left dead and crucial criminal records were destroyed, including those on Escobar.
‘Pablo really felt the suffering of people and so became a political animal,’ she says. ‘But he wanted to bring down extradition because this was the only thing he feared and it became his obsession, his crusade, his cross.
‘He was worried about going to a US jail and never coming out. In jails in Colombia they could almost live like at home, with drugs, prostitutes, booze, weapons, good food and family.’
Vallejo thinks this was why she was first invited to meet him, since she was engaged to the president’s nephew, a man who might have had political influence. But her contempt for Escobar grew as the body count mounted.
‘When I saw all the bombs, killing children and innocent people, I wanted to grab Pablo and his people to kill them myself,’ she says.
As the net closed on the cocaine baron, who had a $25 million bounty on his head, he became more and more paranoid. ‘If you open your mouth you’re dead, love of my life,’ he whispered to her one night in bed after smoking marijuana.
Vallejo says her phone was tapped by Escobar. Then he broke into her flat and stole tapes of their interviews, $30,000 savings from her safe, a handwritten draft of a novel and the Beretta.
She says Escobar would not let her leave Colombia since he wanted her to write the definitive account of his life. ‘The cruel man I loved so much has lost his mind and is condemning me to a slow death,’ Vallejo wrote in her book.
Six days before Escobar’s death, she contacted authorities abroad after learning he had ordered the murder of the ex-girlfriend forced to have an abortion. So how did she feel after hearing he had been shot? ‘I had mixed feelings when the entire country was celebrating the death of Pablo Escobar and even Bill Clinton was congratulating the government,’ she says.
‘I remembered how our relationship began with two innocent people who loved each other before his industry became a bloodbath and damaged all those addicts. This was my life.’
She says her book aims to show ‘the good, the bad and the ugly side of Pablo Escobar so people can understand him and the evolution of our relationship’.
In Narcos, Valeria Velez is killed. In contrast, Vallejo was flown out of Colombia in July 2006 and given political asylum in the US after making explosive disclosures about links between cartels and politicians. She believes vengeful forces linked to Escobar’s family and prominent Colombian politicians are still hitting back at her with negative portrayals in programmes such as Narcos, which she declines to discuss as a consequence.
Of Colombia, she says she misses only ajiaco soup, a chicken and potato dish. And reflecting on her extraordinary life as the ultimate gangster’s moll, she says: ‘This is my fate. I have to accept my life is different to most people.’