25 years on, Colombia still mourns Escobar plane bombing, still wants answers


Twenty-five years after late Colombian druglord Pablo Escobar ordered the bombing of a Boeing 727 to kill an enemy who turned out not to be on board, victims’ families are still demanding justice.

Colombian airline Avianca’s Flight 203 had just taken off from Bogota on its way to Cali on Nov. 27, 1989, when it exploded over the town of Soacha, outside the capital, killing all 107 people on board and strewing debris and dismembered bodies across the countryside.

Investigations determined the explosion was orchestrated by Escobar, the notorious kingpin of the Medellin Cartel, who was then at the height of his power.

Running a massive international cocaine syndicate and ranked by Forbes magazine as the world’s seventh-richest man, Escobar was determined not to let Colombia’s 1990 presidential election interfere with his ruthless ambition.

The target of the bombing, according to investigators, was presidential candidate Cesar Gaviria, a former interior minister.

But Gaviria, who Escobar’s henchmen had learned was expected to be on the flight, changed plans at the last minute.

He went on to win the 1990 presidential election and launch an anti-drug crusade, which Escobar answered with a bloody war on the government that ended only when the kingpin was killed in a rooftop gunfight with police in Medellin in 1993.

Escobar’s chief hitman, John Jairo “Popeye” Velasquez Vasquez, would later admit that Gaviria had been the target of the bombing.

Velasquez served 22 years in prison for the August 1989 murder of presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan — whom Gaviria replaced on the ruling Liberal Party ticket after his assassination.

The self-confessed hitman was released earlier this year for helping prosecutors convict former justice minister Alberto Santofimio, a rival candidate in the 1990 presidential election, of ordering Galan’s killing.

Others involved in the Flight 203 bombing also did time.

The Medellin Cartel’s military chief, Carlos Mario Alzate Urquijo, was jailed from 1993 to 2001 for his role in the bombing and other crimes. But he was released after serving less than half his 20-year sentence.

Dandenys Munos, another cartel hitman responsible for the bombing, is currently serving multiple life sentences in the United States, where he was captured in 1991.

But victims’ families say authorities have never traced the entire web of responsibility for the bombing, and are still demanding full justice.

“It’s as if just one day had passed since the crime, because we haven’t seen any progress,” said Gonzalo Rojas, 35, whose father was killed.

“In order to forgive, one has to know who was responsible,” Rojas, who founded a support group for victims’ family members five years ago, told AFP.

“It’s clear it was Escobar … but there was a structure surrounding him, too,” he added.

“Some of the state security apparatus was infiltrated by the Medellin Cartel. They had to have participated at some level.”

Prosecutors declared the airliner bombing a crime against humanity in 2009 and reopened the probe, consolidating all suspects’ files into a single case.

But those investigations “are in the preliminary stage,” a judicial source told AFP.

“The passage of time has done a lot of damage. The cases have passed through lots of different prosecutors and now we’re talking about 450 files with more than 300 pages each,” said the source.

The government in the violence-troubled country, which is also the scene of a 50-year conflict between the army, leftist rebel groups and now-disbanded right-wing paramilitaries, has registered 166 family members of Flight 203 victims as eligible for compensation from the national “victims’ unit” fund set up in 2011.

Fund officials said the family members of each victim had received compensation of 24 million pesos — about $11,000.