Victoria Eugenia Henao was 12 years old when she first saw Pablo Escobar. It was 1972 and they were both living in Envigado, a working-class town half an hour south of Medellín in Colombia. Escobar was 23 and had a reputation as a ladies’ man: he would drive around on a Vespa wearing a white paisa poncho and cheap hair tonic. One day he noticed Henao in the street and started sending her gifts – chocolate bars, romantic albums, a pearl ring. By the time she was 15, they were married.
The Henaos grudgingly accepted their new son-in-law, but they weren’t happy about it. Her mother asked whether she wanted to spend her life ‘taking meals to Pablo in prison’. But Henao was willing to ignore her family’s disapproval as well as her new husband’s transgressions. ‘Being with a man I loved but who was a womaniser,’ she writes, ‘I came to accept that many situations are never to be spoken about.’ When he cheated, she wrote love letters to win him back; when he was arrested with 26 kilos of coca paste, she went by plane and overnight bus to take him lunch in prison (her mother had been right). In 1977, she gave birth to a son – her waters broke during a high-school English test – whom they named Juan Pablo, after the leading man in a soap opera about a couple whose love prevails over hardship.
Mrs Escobar, Henao’s record of her years as the long-suffering wife of the world’s most infamous drug trafficker, opens with a question she has often been asked: ‘How could you sleep with that monster?’ Her answer is that she loved him, and, in retrospect, that she was too afraid to leave. Henao has lived with Escobar’s legacy far longer than she lived with Escobar, who was killed in 1993. She changed her name and the names of her children (Juan Pablo is now Sebastían, Manuela is Juana and she is María Isabel), fled Colombia, went into hiding and fought lawsuits, blackmail and media attacks. To cope with the stress, she studied for a diploma in ‘leadership and ontological coaching’ and came to rely on the services of an astrologer to Latin America’s elite, Mauricio Puerta, who has written the introduction to her book. (He attributes Escobar’s testy personality to being ‘a Sagittarius with Pisces rising, one of the most difficult combinations in the zodiac’.) She also corresponded with the families of several of her husband’s victims and began to understand what exactly Pablo was doing when he vanished for months at a time. This curiosity about the past was new. For many years, accepting that certain things were never to be discussed was a central tenet not only of her relationship, but of her life.
In his own memoir, published in 2014, Juan Pablo wrote that while he considered himself one of his father’s victims, he placed himself at the very bottom of the list. Henao makes no such claims: she chose to marry Escobar, even if she was a child at the time. But her story gets darker as it progresses, alternating between outlandishness and horror, between descriptions of extreme luxury and accounts of the violence and isolation they endured. Escobar’s life has been extensively documented and Henao has no grand revelations to offer. Mrs Escobar is a memoir written in somebody else’s shadow – mostly, it seems, to settle scores, and clear her old name.
Escobar started off as a small-time grave robber – he would sand the inscriptions off stolen tombstones and sell them again – but by 1979 he had diversified his operations and had cocaine smuggling routes extending through the Bahamas to Miami. He bought a mansion in an affluent part of Envigado and 4700 acres in the Antioquia jungle between Bogotá and Medellín: the future site of the Hacienda Nápoles, Escobar’s infamous bachelor pad-cum-villain’s lair. Now a poorly maintained public theme park, this ‘monument to bad taste’ included Latin America’s largest motocross track, 27 artificial lakes and, most famously, a zoo that Escobar stocked by inviting beggars to bring him animals they found in the streets. When those animals kept dying, Escobar spent $2 million on giraffes, kangaroos and elephants from a private zoo in Dallas. He also imported the African hippos that, after his death, escaped from the grounds and were adopted as pets. He opened the house to the public and on weekends thousands of people would show up expecting meals and a place to sleep.
One of the more memorable visitors to the hacienda was Virginia Vallejo, a TV presenter who claimed to be a descendant of Charlemagne and socialised exclusively with the Colombian elite. Although she arrived at Nápoles in the company of her then fiancé, the nephew of a former president, the trip marked the start of a five-year affair with Escobar, which began after he rescued her from a whirlpool. Despite his coarse manners and his looks – ‘perfectly ordinary, more ugly than beautiful’, she judged – Vallejo was unable to resist his charms. ‘If in hell they glued me to [your] body with Krazy Glue for all eternity,’ she told him, ‘I would never get bored for a second, and I’d feel like I was in heaven.’ That, he replied, was a perfect declaration of love.
Vallejo has spoken publicly about her relationship with Escobar, and in 2007 published Loving Pablo, Hating Escobar, a florid account that leans heavily on references to luxury brands and misjudged quotes from European writers. (‘True love suffers, and is silent,’ Oscar Wilde offers in the epigraph.) Where Henao’s book is a cautious reckoning polished by decades of therapy, Loving Pablo is an insider’s account written with an eye to the tabloids. Which, of course, was a winning sales strategy: the book became a bestseller in Latin America and the US, and was the basis of an embarrassingly bad 2017 movie starring Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem. Staking her claim as the intimate authority on Escobar, Vallejo also cultivated a feud with her late boyfriend’s wife. In an interview last year on Telemundo, she publicly accused Henao – whom she refers to as ‘the nanny’ – of being ashamed to use Escobar’s name, but not too proud to spend the millions he left her. In turn, Henao dismissed Vallejo as Escobar’s ‘ticket into the Bogotá elite’.
Escobar’s romance with Vallejo coincided with the launch of his political career. While he was popular in Antioquia for funding local development projects that the government refused to, it was only after Vallejo interviewed him about his initiative Medellín without Slums that he came to national attention. Shortly afterwards, in 1982, he was elected as a suplente, or substitute, to the Chamber of Representatives. He celebrated by taking his extended family to Rio de Janeiro and disappearing at night to visit prostitutes. This was the height of his success, both politically and extramaritally. He would fly in dancers from international strip clubs for the weekend, and maintained at least six other girlfriends in addition to Vallejo, including ‘Miss Coffee’, ‘Miss Antioquia’ and ‘Miss Livestock’. He tasked his sister with sending them expensive gifts.
Escobar’s time in politics was dominated by his near pathological obsession with a proposed extradition treaty between Colombia and the US. ‘If I have to wipe Colombia off the map, I’ll do it,’ he told Henao, ‘but I’ll never let myself be extradited.’ In early April 1983, Escobar invited ‘businessmen’ from across Colombia to a forum on the topic, and spent the session railing against a new anti-corruption movement whose leaders had blacklisted him for his connections to paramilitary groups. Four months later, one of them, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, was appointed minister of justice and promptly held a debate in Congress about Escobar’s ties to organised crime. Within days, President Belisario Bentancur ordered the grounding of nearly a hundred private planes and helicopters suspected of being used for drug trafficking, and a circuit court judge reopened a case that linked Escobar to the murder of two security service agents. In September, less than two years after taking office, Escobar was forced to resign from Congress. This was a significant turning point. With his immunity gone and a warrant issued for his arrest, he went into hiding. In April 1984, a month after Colombian police destroyed the world’s largest cocaine processing factory, costing Escobar an estimated billion dollars, the justice minister who had hounded him was assassinated while driving through Bogotá.
Henao writes that the murder of Rodrigo Lara marked the start of a nine year period during which ‘I would be running constantly, nine years during which I would often open my eyes at dawn and find a rifle pointing in my face.’ The family moved first to Panama City, where they stayed in a house provided by the dictator Manuel Noriega, and later to Nicaragua, where they were met by Sandinistas. Their daughter, Manuela, was born in May 1984. The years between then and 1991, when Escobar agreed to a truce with the government, were among the most violent in Colombia’s history, with one inconceivable event following another. On 6 November 1985, members of a guerrilla movement associated with Escobar’s Medellín cartel occupied the Palace of Justice in downtown Bogotá and took the entire Supreme Court hostage. After a 27-hour stand-off, more than a hundred people were dead and all files relating to pending extradition requests had been destroyed. The following year, a prominent newspaper editor was murdered for publishing an article in favour of extradition, and Escobar’s organisation took the credit. At the beginning of 1988, a war broke out between the Medellín and Cali cartels.
By 1989, the explosive growth of cartels and their collaboration with paramilitary and guerrilla groups had made Colombia’s murder rate the highest in the world. That year saw the assassination of three presidential candidates, 48 judges and prosecutors and 19 journalists, all murders linked to the Medellín cartel. The organisation was also connected to two brutal terror attacks: in November, a commercial airliner was bombed as it was taking off from the city of Cali, killing 107 people; a few weeks later, a bus full of explosives was detonated outside the security service headquarters in Bogotá, killing 63 people and injuring more than a thousand. In a message read on the radio and attributed to ‘los Extraditables’, Escobar declared ‘total and absolute war against the Colombian government, the industrial and political oligarchy, the journalists who have attacked and insulted us, the judges who have sold out to the government, the magistrates who have extradited us, the union leaders, and all those who have persecuted and attacked us’. By the end of the decade, it was clear that Escobar would soon be either dead or in prison.
Henao knew about Escobar’s activities from news reports, and the occasional ‘stray comment made by his men’ – she was never let in on the details and didn’t seem to want to know. ‘Talking with my husband was tough because he’d go off on tangents,’ she writes, ‘and it wasn’t easy to make him speak frankly. He was naturally evasive. And he was always suddenly saying he had to go and would be back later.’ While Escobar was on the run, life would seem normal for months at a time and then things would suddenly escalate. At one point, Juan Pablo’s only playmate was a gangster called ‘The Nose’.
During these years, Escobar lived in the countryside, where he set up a power structure to rival that of the government. While a police chief in Bogotá might earn around $5000 a month, Vallejo observed, ‘the poor police of some villages in semi-jungle territories [could] earn between $20,000 and $50,000’ if they co-operated with Escobar. He would add a bonus of between $2000 and $5000 for an enemy corpse. With the infusion of cartel money, ‘all those zones that the central government had forgotten about’ started to develop at ‘vertiginous speed’. The army wasn’t quite so successful in its attempts to win support among the rural public. One weekend, a small plane circled the town where Escobar was hiding and dropped thousands of pamphlets featuring a picture of Juan Pablo. It was captioned ‘Would you want this kind of husband for your daughter?’ He was 11 at the time.
If she was ignorant about his criminal activities, Henao was fully aware of her husband’s marital transgressions. She threatened to leave him, accused him of lying and occasionally engaged in acts of open defiance, such as flying to Bogotá against his orders to attend an art opening, or secretly returning from Nicaragua to Medellín to be with her infant daughter after Escobar insisted that they leave her behind. Yet out of fear, love or concern for her children she stayed with him. Her one hobby was collecting art, which Escobar derided as ‘elite’. After their apartment in Medellín was destroyed by a Cali cartel car bomb in 1988, Henao hid the remaining artworks in a secret compartment in a Bogotá warehouse. The proceeds from their sale, she says, have funded her life since Escobar’s death.
Just when things seemed to have reached breaking point, Escobar was offered a way out. In 1991 he made a deal with the government: they agreed to drop the extradition order; in return, he would move into La Catedral, a private prison he had built in Evigado. This ‘temple of perdition’ was a cross between a home office and a Las Vegas penthouse. Escobar was insulated from the police and from his enemies, but still able to manage his cartel. (Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman, former leader of the Sinaloa cartel, would later make a similar arrangement with Mexican law enforcement.) And, as usual, not all of Escobar’s business was professional. His prison ‘bedroom’, Henao writes, was converted into a setting ‘conducive to love: a romantic fireplace, large candles in every colour and scent, a large waterbed, several paintings by famous painters, the finest quality bedding and pillows, a well-stocked refrigerator, and champagne … lots of champagne’.
Within three weeks Henao learned that his regular prison shipments included women smuggled in at night in the backs of trucks. Determined to monopolise her husband’s affections, she enlisted professional assistance. ‘With the help of a philosophy professor, a good writer and an even better poet, with whom I was taking classes at the time, I started sending Pablo up to six messages a day. They were beautiful letters, and their one sincere, heartfelt aim was to outdo any beauty queen who visited La Catedral.’ To complete her efforts, she also consulted a sex therapist.
Vallejo describes her affair with Escobar in a more rapturous light. Fascinated by his wealth and his reputation as the ‘paisa Robin Hood’, she presents herself as Henry Higgins to his Eliza Doolittle, coaching him in Colombian power politics. ‘Play your cards well, my love; although you’ve lived a lot, you are still a child, and you have time to correct almost all your mistakes,’ she told him, a year into his existential war with the government. Like Kate del Castillo, the Mexican telenovela star who exhorted El Chapo in a late night tweet to ‘traffic with love’ – and later inadvertently revealed his location to the authorities – Vallejo delights in Escobar’s status as both a criminal working ‘for the people’ and one of the country’s biggest landowners. She recalls an evening they spent with the leader of the guerrilla M-19 group, where she marvelled that ‘the head of a rebel organisation, the number one drug trafficker and a woman who owns not a square foot of land but is related to half the country’s oligarchy and is friends with the other half’ were sitting down together.
As her relationship with Pablo approached its end, Vallejo recast herself as his future biographer. It was because of the ‘hundreds of nights’ they had spent together that she claims Escobar anointed her – and only her – as the person to write about him. ‘I chose you for your integrity and your generosity,’ she quotes him as having said. ‘I think only you are prepared to communicate exactly what I think and what I feel.’ (Vallejo says that Escobar thought of her much as he thought of Margaret Thatcher: too intellectual to be traditionally feminine but nonetheless compelling.) When they finally broke up, Vallejo attributed it to her discovery that Escobar had traded hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of jewellery for a weekend with a beauty queen. It’s more widely believed that Escobar ended the relationship when he discovered she was involved with the head of the rival Cali cartel.
Vallejo suffered for her association with Escobar and her public championing of his causes. After the media started reporting on their relationship – even, at one point, announcing that they were going to marry – her TV contracts and sponsorship deals disappeared, she received death threats and rumours began to spread that she had been diagnosed with HIV, that she was being treated for syphilis, and that her face had been ‘slashed with razors on orders from Pablo Escobar’s wife’. As an increasingly desperate Escobar appealed to Colombia’s elite to finance his wars, Vallejo found herself even more isolated. When she turned to him for a loan so that she could train as a simultaneous translator and ‘do the work I’ve always wanted’, he refused.
Both Henao and Vallejo survived their relationships with Escobar, but haunting both their memoirs is the woman who didn’t. Wendy Chavarriaga Gil was with Escobar for years before she unexpectedly became pregnant – and, to his displeasure, refused an abortion. Concerned that an illegitimate heir would stake a claim on his fortune, Escobar had Chavarriaga drugged during her second trimester and found a veterinarian to perform the procedure. Devastated, Chavarriaga began dating his top hitman and became an informant for Search Bloc, the military unit that had been set up to capture Escobar. When he found out, he phoned the hitman while the couple were in bed and told him to choose ‘amor o muerte’. Chavarriaga was shot twice in the forehead – a warning for the women who would come after her.
The countdown on Escobar’s life began in July 1992 amid rumours that the government was planning to reinstate the extradition order. That month, he escaped from La Catedral and went back into hiding. While Search Bloc hunted for him, his family and associates were being targeted by Los Pepes (‘Persecuted by Pablo Escobar’), a vigilante group formed of his victims’ relatives, Cali cartel leaders and ex-Medellín members who had turned against him. Borrowing from Escobar’s playbook, the Pepes began targeting the people around him. They assassinated his lawyer, the manager of Hacienda Nápoles, the children’s tutor and Manuela’s nanny; they also destroyed the homes and businesses of many others. Convinced that she and her children would be next, Henao decided to apply for asylum in Germany, but they were refused entry at Frankfurt: Vallejo had tipped off officials about their arrival.
Once back in Colombia, the family requested government protection and were placed in a hotel in Bogotá. The suite, of course, was bugged, and Henao’s phone calls with Escobar were monitored. On 3 December 1993, the day after he turned 44, the wiretaps led Search Bloc and Los Pepes to the working-class Medellín neighbourhood where Escobar was hiding. He was shot while attempting to flee; in an infamous photograph, eight soldiers kneel over his body, grinning like hunters on safari.
Henao was left to clean up the mess. Though various channels, it was made clear to her that although her husband was dead his debts weren’t settled. In a series of clandestine meetings she negotiated with the heads of Colombia’s remaining cartels – including Don Berna, the Los Pepes leader whose brother had reputedly shot her husband – about repayment of the millions they had spent fighting Escobar. The groups demanded $120 million in compensation from Henao. They also wanted something else. ‘Ma’am, you have to understand that there’s reasonable concern that Juan Pablo is going to end up amassing a lot of money and might go crazy one day, arm a paramilitary group and go to war against us,’ a Cali leader told Henao. ‘That’s why we’re only agreeing to let the women live. There will be peace, but your son must die.’
It took eight months of meetings to ensure that Juan Pablo would be allowed to live. While Henao goes into tedious detail about auditing and distributing Escobar’s assets – probably because the Argentinian government has twice charged her with money-laundering – she’s vague when it comes to how much was left. Since Escobar is thought to have been worth $30 billion, there is reason to be cagey. As soon as they could (and after a bizarre detour through Mozambique) the family relocated to Buenos Aires, where they have lived ever since. Juan Pablo is an architect and motivational speaker; he has written two books about his father as well as several viral Facebook posts correcting factual errors in the TV show Narcos. Vallejo, meanwhile, became a star informant in a series of high-profile drugs cases and was granted political asylum in the US. She is now a presenter on the Spanish-language arm of RT, Russia’s state-owned media network.