Killing Escobar: The Story of the Band of British Mercenaries Out to Kill the World’s Biggest Drug Lord.
The new documentary tells the unlikely tale of the men who trained to take out Carlos Escobar on behalf of his competition.
This fact-is-stranger-than-fiction documentary recounts the story of a group of mercenary soldiers from the UK who headed into Colombia to assassinate the largest cocaine manufacturer and distributor on the planet.
At the heart of the film is Peter McAleese, a soldier from Glasgow, who describes himself as “A dirty lowdown scumbag of a man.”
In the 1980s, Pablo Escobar was responsible for 80% of all the cocaine in the world. His Medellin Cartel flooded Miami with the white stuff. He ruled his empire with an iron fist doling out retribution to anyone who crossed him with unforgiving brutality. He had politicians executed, and rivals bombed, executed, and their premises burnt to the ground. “Unfortunately, it was a very cruel war,” El Ñangas, one of Pablo’s hitmen, says with understatement in the film.
By 1989 his business rivals the Cali Cartel, who controlled New York, had one eye on Miami, while Escobar wanted a piece of their business on the US East Coast. A war began. Cali knew they had to get rid of Escobar before he eliminated them. So, they did what anyone would have done to put their rivals out of business; they hired a band of mercenaries to kill him.
Jorge Salcedo Cabrera was the Cali Cartel security chief appointed to act as a liaison. Englishman Dave Tomkins, a former safecracker turned gunrunner was put in charge of assembling the team with instructions to rid Escobar from the Cali Cartel’s lives. The first phone call he made was to Peter McAleese. “I could not resist the challenge,” McAleese said.
In the documentary, McAleese, now 78 leans on his crutch, his body battered from decades of fighting, and looks back reflectively on a life he felt could have been lived better. His regrets though he is at pains to point out, were all in his personal life. He’s ashamed of nothing he did as a soldier. The film looks at McAleese’s upbringing in Glasgow, and his father’s influence and hard man reputation, which was hard fought for on the streets where they lived in HMP Barlinnie’s shadow.
The 18-year-old McAleese joined the Parachute Regiment in 1960. He made rapid progress and was then accepted into the 16 TroopD Squadron of the SAS, which specialized in parachuting. He fought with the SAS in Borneo and Aden, but his temperament got in the way of his career progression. So much so that a prison spell became inevitable. He became a mercenary fighting in Rhodesia and for a special South African force in Namibia on his release. It was while fighting in Angola that he met Tomkins.
In a segment ripe for any fictional film Tomkins and McAleese go to work assembling a crew of a dozen men known to them from their army experience. The criteria they outlined was: twelve men — top guns — big balls. “None of them said no,” McAleese recalls. “They just said they’d come.” Of course, the pair neglect to tell their men precisely who their target is. For their task, the cartel would pay every mercenary $5,000 a month for as long as the operation took. Tomkins was on £1,000 a day. “Money was not an object for ‘em,” Tomkins said of the Cali Cartel. “They had billions.”
One of the fascinating things about the film is the archive footage shot by Tomkins. He films his newly assembled crew rolling into town, having been swiftly ushered through customs by Jorge Salcedo Cabrera coming out of the airport with their luggage and plastic bags. From behind what must have been a bulky camera given this was the 80s, Tomkins compliments one of his men on his attire; a pastel suit jacket and T-shirt. “Miami Vice, mate,” the man laughs. It looks like the beginning of a lads holiday, not a mission to assassinate one of the world’s most dangerous men. It would turn out that a few of the soldiers couldn’t help but treat the early days of training that way, and McAleese had to go into a bar and forcibly drag them out.
The footage also shows the crew at their training camp. The most astonishing part being as they test rockets and bombs, firing them into the water and laughing as explosions rise into the air. The archive is augmented by reconstructions, while the leading players in the story provide their version of events. Additionally, filmmakers tracked down a few people living in secrecy due to their involvement in one or other side of the Medellin/Cali drug war.
McAleese set about turning the idea into a plan, working out medivac if they had to move any injured colleagues and color-coding Escobar’s palatial mansion so they knew what they would find, and where the guards were stationed when they raided. The plan was to fly directly into Escobar’s fortress, with McAleese hanging out of one low flying helicopter ripping the place apart with machine gunfire. They knew that they would be heavily outnumbered, but they also knew that they wouldn’t be outgunned with the resources available to them. The Cali cartel then dropped in the added sweetener of a million dollars in cash if Tomkins could cut Escobar’s head off and hand it to them. He agreed without a second’s hesitation.
Could McAleese square killing for money with his morals? “How can you have morals when the American government has a million dollars on his head?” McAleese said. Escobar was on the US most-wanted list, so the American authorities were happy to turn a blind eye to the mission. Javier Peña, the US DEA agent, immortalized by Pedro Pascal in the Netflix series Narcos says, “Any effort to kill Pablo Escobar was of course welcomed. We wanted it to happen.”
Of course, a mercenary life is never a smooth one, and things begin to go wrong from both inside and outside the camp.
Killing Escobar is available to stream in the UK through local cinemas via the Modern Films website.