In 1991, one of the world’s most prolific drug traffickers fled Colombia to Bolivia where he went into hiding. A team of Bolivian Leopardos with American advisors from the DEA and Navy SEALs raided the ranch house at the CIA’s request. After making entry, they found cups of coffee on the table that were still warm. The counter-narcotics team had just missed the notorious Colombian drug lord named Pablo Escobar.
From a foreign policy standpoint, pressure was building within the United States government to capture Escobar, a man who has since been glorified and entered into mythology with the help of folks song, movies, and even a Netflix series. Special Operations Command-South was involved in planning a number of capture/kill missions that targeted Escobar after the raid in Bolivia forced him back into Colombia. On several occasions JSOC launched personnel, logistics, and assets into Colombia only to result in mission failure.
Delta Force commander Jerry Boykin describes the hunt for Pablo Escobar in his memoir, a mission called Operation Heavy Shadow. The White House approved the mission and General Bill Garrison called down to Boykin at Delta. “I want you to go down there,” Garrison said. “Select a few folks to take with you. Keep it small,” (Boykin, 229). Boykin chose Squadron Leader LTC Gary Harrell and operators SFC Joe Vega, and SFC Tony Mafnas. Harrell also selected Sergeant Major Jack Alvarez to additionally be on the team.
Arriving in Colombia, Harrell and Alvarez went to conduct liaisons with the police, specifically “Search Bloc” which led the hunt for Escobar. From the beginning, Delta was supposed to be invisible and the operation would have to have a Colombian face to it. Meanwhile, Mafnas and Vega set up a sniper observation post overlooking the Medellin valley where Escobar was suspected to be located. Using their observation equipment, they could get visual confirmation of reports received by SIGINT platforms flying overhead.
Colombian Special Operations units had been established decades ago by American SOF, but now Delta operators were brought in to hone their proficiency for upcoming raids. 16 operators from Delta put 100 Colombians through a three-week assault course at an army base named Tola Maida. The hunt for Pablo continued with numerous false starts and frustrations until December of 1993.
Using SIGINT equipment provided by the United States, Colombia’s Search Bloc police unit got a positive hit on Escobar coming from his mother’s house. A Search Bloc member actually got eyes on Escobar, spotting him in the second story window of the house talking on the phone. Back at Tola Maida, a Delta operator quickly helped prep the assault team and got them out the door to hit the target.
The Colombian assault team made entry into Escobar’s safe house, chased him up the stairs, and shot him as he tried to flee across the roof. Rumors about Escobar’s death continue to this day with his family members claiming that he killed himself rather than allow himself to be captured. Whispers have persisted that it was actually a Delta Force sniper who shot Escobar from across the street, an allegation alluded to in Mark Bowden’s book “Killing Pablo.” Jerry Boykin wrote, “I can answer that: no” (Boykin, 292).
Considering how quickly the intelligence came together for the mission and how fast everything was moving, the chances of a Delta sniper rushing into the neighborhood, setting up a position, and being perfectly poised to make the kill shot seem fantastical. Other sources who served in the unit concur, adding that, “I know who shot the Hussein brothers. I’m pretty sure I would know who shot Pablo.” The allegations that Delta killed Escobar make for a good campfire story but are not factually correct.
At the end of the day, a man who ordered the deaths of somewhere around a thousand people finally got paid a visit by the reaper. Of course, this is far from the end of the story as Delta’s next focus was on the Escobar’s rival, the Cali cartel.