Context: Research for Cocaine: An Unauthorised Biography
Location: cafe in Bogota, Colombia
Date: November 2000
Interviewee: General Hugo Martinez
This interview is with Hugo Martinez – the man who ‘got’ Pablo Escobar. General Martinez explains the rise – and rise – of cocaine trafficking in Colombia, and how he came to be in charge of the operation to kill the richest, most violent, criminal in history. This interview took place in a cafe in Bogota in November 2000.
Download: Download Interview (PDF)
Was there any cocaine around in Colombia when you started your career in 1964?
No. At that time marijuana was the only drug here – and even then not too many people were using it.
When did you start noticing cocaine?
We started arresting users in around 1971, 1972. But back then a big bust was like half a kilo, a kilo.
Was it dangerous working in drug interdiction back then?
It was dangerous because the people who were working in the drug trade were already delinquents, they were already criminals.
Was it the marijuana traffickers who became the cocaine traffickers, or outsiders?
It was other groups – at least in my area. According to police information we had at the time, marijuana trade was largely located in the Guajira, Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Where did cocaine come from at first?
It started when they brought it in from Peru. That’s where the trafficking started. Peru. It was sold in public in small quantities, like marijuana at first.
When did you begin to notice the increase in power and money behind cocaine trafficking?
In 1971 and 72 the police formed a special anti-drug unit in the Department of Judicial Police. It was especially to tackle cocaine because the US police was already asking Colombian authorities to co-operate. One or two of us were captains who were interested in learning more about cocaine. Sometimes we would find laboratories but only small ones. We would check them out, investigate, and try to find out who was behind them. Medellin had always had a big crime problem, and a bit further south in the State of Caldas, in the coffee areas. And the northern part of Valle Department (Where Cali is). Basically it was the coffee areas. Those were the areas for contrabanding. All types of stuff was coming in from Panama… At that time it was a relatively minor thing.
The first big traffickers and dealers? Santiago Ocampo, Griselda Blanco and the others?
Griselda Blanco! The queen of cocaine! 1973, 1974. That’s when you started to see the traffickers becoming visible for the first time. Most of them are dead now. A few are still alive…
At what point did the violence start?
At the time I was in charge of F2, the sort of secret police, every time there was a big robbery or a killing or a kidnap by then it was always related to drugs. And the majority of the people we were arresting came from Medellin.
It was always a violent trade?
Always violent. We were already seeing a lot of people killed by sicarios. All of these deaths were related to the upcoming of the new heads of the cocaine trade.
Why was this based in Medellin?
Medellin and Cali were the coffee areas. They were always involved in contraband trade. We were also detecting the trade in Bogota, Barranquilla and other cities – but the majority was around the coffee growing areas.
Was there a moment of realisation – when you thought ‘this could be really, really bad’?
Yes. It started with the corruption, especially in the northern departments up by the coast. The army was sent in to fight drugs but the corruption was so bad that you had generals in jail! At that time, 74 and 75, 76, …there was the Coffee Bonanza. The coffee price just shot up. So the traffickers started moving coffee outside of Colombia. So we started trying to control the coffee trade.