Written by Kat Jivkova
By the early 1990s, Colombian drug trafficker Pablo Escobar had run out of luck. He was facing a war on all fronts: the United States threatened extradition, the Cali Cartel – a rival drug organisation – launched their own attacks, and the Colombian military was hot on his tail. In an effort to save himself from the possibility of being handed over to US authorities – he was quoted in saying “better a grave in Colombia than a cell in the US” – Escobar struck a deal with the Colombian government. His terms were the following: the guarantee that he would be immune from extradition, and that he would serve in a prison of his choice. Both were granted, and he surrendered in June 1991. La Catedral was specifically built to accommodate Escobar, and its interior resembled a fortress far more than it did a prison. As his wife, Mara Henao, once said to Escobar’s son: “It’s just like a farm.” While most literature discussing the impact of drug trafficking in Colombian prisons focuses on rates of incarceration, little research has been done on the changes in power relations within prison spaces. La Catedral provides an obvious example of the ways in which the Narco era transformed prison social order and created an imbalance between prison authorities and inmates. Escobar’s son, Juan Escobar, documents his own experiences in “Stories from La Catedral,” which will be used to assess the extent to which the “King of cocaine” controlled his own prison.
The construction of La Catedral was undoubtedly a response to Colombia’s extradition policy, which came into force in 1989. The controversial issue had been on the agenda of Colombian security forces since the early 1980s. However, it was not seen as popular by the majority of the public – many Colombians were not keen on the prospect of US interference in domestic affairs. Former president Belisario Betancur himself was initially against extradition, though he changed his stance in 1984 after his justice minister was killed by cartel members. Subsequently, the Colombian government doubled down on drug trafficking, launching raids on labs and warehouses in the same year. In response, Escobar’s Medellín cartel nicknamed itself “The Extraditables,” murdering an average of 40 judges and lawyers per year between 1979 and 1991. The cartel stated:
“We are friends of Pablo Escobar and we are ready to do anything for him. [. . .] We are capable of executing you at any place on this planet. [. . .] For calling Mr Escobar to trial you will remain without forebearers or descendants in your genealogical tree.”
Extradition was finally passed by President Virgilio Barco following another series of high-profile assassinations by the hands of the Medellín cartel. As written by the Bogotá-based US Embassy in a telegram to Washington’s Department of Justice, “the days when drug kings acted in Colombia with immunity appear to be over.” Unfortunately, the policy was overturned just two years later at the request of Escobar, which can be seen in the Constitution of 1991. Though the constitution was seen as liberal and backed by human rights groups, it allowed for Escobar to escape the fate of being imprisoned in the US.
In the eyes of the public and the press, La Catedral was an average Colombian prison. On the inside, it was a palace. In his most famous book, Killing Pablo, American journalist Mark Bowden describes the luxuries that were made available to Escobar during his time in prison. The prison cells, as Bowden describes, “were actually more like hotel suites,” while the remainder of the building was equipped with a lounge containing a bar and disco, a sauna, and a kitchen filled with the most respectable chefs in Colombia. Escobar even ordered the construction of a games and cinema room and a football field to keep his family entertained when they came to visit; this was, of course, whenever they wanted. Escobar’s son recounts his own memories at La Catedral, particularly the “collection of James Bond movies” that he would watch with his father on a “29-inch Sony television.” Thus, Escobar was entirely in charge of how his self-styled prison operated. His authority superseded the authority of the State. To make matters worse, he continued to lead his drug empire from the inside – the Colombian government had made it even easier for him to do so by indirectly protecting him from the Cali cartel.
The prison order within La Catedral was not characteristic of the general Colombian prison, which suffered from overcrowding, lack of funding, and the option of solitary confinement. As historian Máximo Sozzo argues, Latin American prisons were notorious for “affliction, pain and deprivation.” Attitudes toward criminals in Colombia did not help the prison system either, with the phrase “let them rot in jail” reflecting the anti-penitentiary sentiment across the country. In contrast, La Catedral provides an extreme example of how the Narco were able to overcome the constraints of traditional prison life by changing their relationship vis-à-vis the prison authorities. Here, the captive, being Escobar, was more powerful than, and in control of, his captors. But how did Pablo manage to achieve this feat?
Escobar remains one of the most popular figures in Colombian outlaw folklore. He is considered a criminal and bandit, but also a visionary genius and “a master of global economics.” It seems more than fair to attribute the prison order of La Catedral to his own brilliance – though this is perhaps an overstatement. It can be argued that the Narco were able to exploit prison spaces because of the permeability of the Colombian prison system. Within these prisons, certain structures which existed in a free society, such as the movement of goods and services, continued. The Narco were able to exacerbate the penitentiary market to such an extent that prisons no longer served their purpose as institutions of confinement. Escobar, for instance, encouraged the flow of luxury goods into La Catedral, transforming his imprisonment into a retreat. Conversely, the poor and less powerful criminals sat at the bottom of the prison hierarchy, forced to live in overcrowded and underfunded institutions. Not only did the Narco challenge the authority of prison staff, but they also became the most influential kinds of criminals within prison institutions. Bowden describes La Catedral’s structure as the following:
“Effectively, it [La Catedral] was a state within a state. The surrender agreement had been a capitulation to violence, pure and simple, a deal with the devil. [. . .] Before, Pablo Escobar ruled Colombia; now he ruled Envigado.”
The most obvious evidence of Escobar’s influence in La Catedral is how easily he was able to escape from it in 1992. Four hundred troops surrounded the prison, and yet he fled without a scratch. Embarrassed by the military complicity that the Narco had exposed, the Colombian government passed a series of penitentiary policies, including the tightening down of other prisons and the construction of US-style institutions. However, nothing could escape the legacy that La Catedral had left on the Colombian prison world. Since the 1990s, various other prisons have been revealed to have similar issues to La Catedral regarding their structures. In 2011, for example, the Tolemaida Military Detention Centre was uncovered to have housed its inmates in cabins rather than prison cells, and they were allowed to leave the base whenever they pleased. Similarly, there have been countless reports of Colombian political figures imprisoned for corruption scandals receiving special treatment inside prison complexes. Therefore, the Narco era significantly transformed the structures of Colombian prisons, and La Catedral still serves as the trademark to these changes. La Catedral proved that the Narco had the ability to create “hybrid prisons,” which overturned the power of the State and introduced a flow of capitalist markets into the prison world. In the present, La Catedral’s foundation is its only remnant. However, wherever there is a powerful political figure or Narco imprisoned in Colombia, one can only assume that a La Catedral copy is close by.
Bowden, Mark. Killing Pablo: the Hunt for the Richest, Most Powerful Criminal in History. London: Atlantic, 2002.
Livingstone, Grace. Inside Colombia: Drugs, Democracy and War. Latin America Bureau, 2003.
Pobutsky, Aldona Bialowas. Pablo Escobar and Colombian Narcoculture. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2020.
Sozzo, Máximo. Prisons, Inmates and Governance in Latin America. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2022.
United States Embassy. Colombia. Extradition: Carlos Lehder Speaks Out 1984. [Online]. [Accessed on 15 January 2023].
United States Embassy. Colombia. 1983. Open Season on Drug Traffickers. [Online]. [Accessed on 15 January 2023].