by Marcos Pereda / translated by Matthew Bailey
Roberto cycled to school with his brother Pablo. On even the gentlest of hills he would leave his brother behind. “I could be good at this. I could be a pro,” he thought. And he managed exactly that. Then he set up his own team – just as his brother was becoming the most powerful drug lord in South America.
The finish in Medellín is hellish. Rivers of mud flow like it’s the end of the world; torrential rain falls from a sky that seems to be emptying its guts. What was a road is now nothing but a track, and what was a track is nothing but black silt. And there they come, one by one, the riders, the poor wretches, chewing on earth, on rainwater, on saliva and tears. One of the first to arrive is entirely covered in mud: neither skin, nor jersey, nor face can be made out. The announcer screams “the rider that just arrived is unrecognisable, he’s completely brown, like an osito” – that is, like a teddy bear. And the name Osito stuck, forever.
That cyclist’s name was Roberto Escobar Gaviria.
The ‘80s were a difficult decade for Colombia. It was a time when all of society social reality was affected by drug trafficking, violence, murders, clichés, drama. And, at the centre of everything, the figure of Pablo Escobar Gaviria, now a metaphysical icon for so many. The great drug lord.
Roberto is ten, Pablo just eight. They are on Alto de Minas, one of Colombia’s mythical colossi, a monstrous, interminable climb which tops out at almost 2500 metres. They have not yet reached the top, because – among other things – they only have one bicycle between them, and the younger brother is perched on the handlebars while Roberto does all the pedalling. It is there, on a curve, that they have agreed to stop and wait for the cyclists to come by. It is the second and final stage of the Clásica El Colombiano, a minor race that runs from Medellín to La Pintada – there and back in a day. This edition, the third, offers a special attraction: one Fausto Coppi, an arrival from the other side of the Atlantic. But by January 1958 he is no longer the great Campionissimo, and he has no answer to the energy of local idol Ramón Hoyos, who destroys the Europeans – Hugo Koblet was also present – on the ascent of Minas. Lost in the endless twists of the road up that lofty Cyclops, after many minutes of laboured, unstylish pedalling, Coppi and Koblet abandon. The brothers Escobar see their idol, Ramón of Antioquia, destroy the living legends. Their eyes sparkle. “I’m going to be a cyclist,”, says the older brother. The younger is silent. Years later both will continue to attend cycle races. But it will be in a different way. They won’t arrive on their bikes, but in chivas, a kind of jeep fitted with large, comfortable seats, a private bar and all the amenities. The chivas park on the toughest slopes of the Vuelta a Colombia; the two brothers smile, enjoying the efforts of the “beetles”, and, just for a moment, feeling like excited little boys again. They did it incognito, surrounded by security, equipped with every possible luxury, but unable to breathe freely the clear air of the cols. It is the 1980s, and Pablo Escobar is the great patrón of the Medellín cartel.
Whatever. We were talking about Roberto, who an announcer once named Osito – and Osito he remained, even to half the world’s police. But we still haven’t got to him. Robert took to the bike when he was still at school. Getting to lessons took hours on foot – but far less time on your bike. At first he took his little brother Pablo, sitting on the handlebars. Later, the two of them would travel elbow-to-elbow, each on his own machine. But Robert would find himself waiting for his little brother, as, without even trying, he would leave him for dead on even the slightest incline. “I could be good at this,” he thought. “I’d like to be a cyclist.”
So Roberto starts to race, while Pablo starts stealing, then reselling, gravestones from local cemeteries. At first, Roberto is sponsored by Aliadas Pharmacies, and later by Mora Hermanos, a chain of electrical stores. And he starts winning races: a strong rider, powerful, he shines wherever he competes. In 1965 he wins the gold medal in the Bolivian cycling championships in Guayaquil. Or at least, that is what it says in his official biography, repeated a thousand times in books and articles – although this is not what appears in the official record of the race, and when we look at the Colombian press of the day we see that the winner was Severo Hernández. In second and third places were two other Colombians, Alfonso Galvis and Álvaro Pachón. Martín Emilio “Cochise” Rodríguez won the track event. So the myth remains a myth. But even if we prune the fabrications from his palmarès we can see that he is a good rider, with excellent performances in the Vuelta al Oriente and the Vuelta al Táchira. According to the official records he managed 37 victories as a cyclist. Although, at this distance in time, whether you can believe the official records . . .
In the early 1970s Osito continued to work within cycling, as coach to a number of teams in Antioquia. In 1975, in Manizales, he opened a workshop and bicycle factory called Ositto – his nickname italianized with a double ‘t’ to lend it dignity. It appears that Pablo was behind this investment – and that it allowed him to launder large sums of money. Because Ositto achieved a certain success, thanks to an advertisement which said that its bikes had “more stars than a Monark” (then the best-known and most sought-after machine in Colombia). It grew incessantly, so much so that the brothers made another leap – this time, into team sponsorship. On their jerseys and shorts you could just make out the words Ositto and “Pablo Escobar: Renovación Liberal”, the name of his political party. The jersey was red with yellow sleeves. In charge of the team were Osito himself, who appeared to focus solely on the bikes, and Rubén Darío Gómez, a coach who was widely admired throughout Colombia. The aim was clear: to be the best team in Colombia, and win a place at the Tour de France. One team member was Gonzalo Marín, a rider of genuine class, who continued to deliver while with Team Ositto. Years later, on the 25th of April 1990, he was brutally assassinated. The press leapt on his connections with the Medellín cartel. But that’s another story . . .
The fact is that Ositto never made it to the Tour de France. That dream was destined never to be fulfilled. But Pablo remained close to the world of cycling. He had already sponsored the Clásico de Antioquía, and later he built a private velodrome in Medellín, where numerous well-known cyclists would come to perform solely for the entertainment of the brothers.
Times got tough. Juan Carlos Castillo was arrested when he travelled to Madrid to represent his team, Manzana Postobón, at the 1991 Vuelta a España. Four kilograms of cocaine were found in his suitcase. Two years later he was murdered. Alfonso Flórez, who had won the Tour del Porvenir and was a regular at Escobar’s velodrome, also met a violent end, although his case was never solved, and he was never formally linked to drug trafficking.
Stories about Colombian cyclists being used as transatlantic mules are common. Packages containing bicycle tubes full of white powder, handlebars stuffed full of treasure, double-layered bibshorts . . . Laurent Fignon went so far as to say it was well known that “the ‘beetles’ all carry cocaine”, and in his autobiography he claimed to have seen, during a Clásico RCN in Colombia (the majority of the races, he suggested, were sponsored by drug criminals), car boots filled with blow, which disappeared like there was no tomorrow . . . He also wrote that during the final stage of the 1987 Vuelta (where, he also claimed, Herrera’s team bribed the French not to attack him) the delirium was such that they were handing out cocaine “left and right, entire packets of the stuff!”. Whether or not this is true is irrelevant: the image, the icon, the caricature remains.
Around the middle of the 1980s the life of Osito took a different turn. After the Medellín cartel murdered Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, the Colombian justice minister, the state started keeping a close eye on the capo and his family. According to Roberto Escobar, this forced him into the cartel, becoming Pablo’s close confidante. Opinions about this differ, ranging from those who see Roberto as Pablo’s right-hand man (some say he was head of logistics, others that he was in charge of the hitmen, still others that he managed the cartel’s investments) to those who say (and this was the most widely held view) he merely provided moral support. Being someone in whom Pablo could have complete confidence – in his final years, when there was no one else he could trust – to this, Osito dedicated himself.
One way or another, he ended up part of the cartel during the war that massacred the country towards the end of the 1980s. Roberto remembered spending three weeks walking through the jungle carrying bags containing ten million Colombian pesos and one hundred thousand US dollars in cash. And how he realised that in the ends they were nothing more than useless ballast, a powerful smell when he used them as a pillow at night, a symbol of the strangeness and absurdity of being human. He threw the dollars into a river. According to his own account, he gave the pesos to a peasant who had provided him with a hot meal.
Roberto Escobar handed himself in to the authorities in 1991, two years before the death of his brother. On the 21st July 1992 he escaped from the Prisión de La Catedral with Pablo. He turned himself in again later that same year, and in 1993 he was almost killed by a letter bomb while in prison at Itagüí. He spent a large part of his remaining sentence in hospital, the door guarded by two military policemen. Today he is a free man, as he has been for over a decade, and runs a museum in the old family home, dedicated to Pablo, which also offers a sort of lysergic “Pablo Escobar Tour”. There, among drawers with hidden compartments, bulletproof cars and bags for storing cash, rests a bicycle. The old bike of Osito, the one with which the brothers Escobar tried to conquer the world of cycling.