23 years ago, Pablo Escobar was gunned down in his hometown, but his killing remains shrouded in mystery

On December 2, 1993, Pablo Escobar, the wealthiest drug kingpin the world has ever seen, attempted to flee from a hideout in his home base of Medellín, Colombia, by scrambling across a neighboring rooftop.

Instead, he was cut down by gunfire, and the resulting image has been seared into the public memory — the bloody corpse of the world's most powerful drug lord splayed across a tile roof in the city that was once his safest redoubt.

The other men in that image, a group of Colombian troops, have long been regarded as the ones responsible for delivering to Escobar the justice he had so long avoided.

But accounts from rival traffickers and gang members, intelligence documents, and Escobar's own family indicate that those troops, soldiers backed by the legitimacy of the state, may not have been the ones responsible for the demise of El Patron.

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Pablo Escobar's life and killing
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Pablo Escobar's life and killing
FILE PHOTO AUG83 - Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar and his wife Victoria Henao appear in this file photograph when Escobar was a member of the Colombian Congress in 1983. The late cocaine kingpin's wife and her son Juan Pablo Escobar were detained in Buenos Aires late Monday on charges of laundering drug money and falsifying documents. B/W ON LY (COLOMBIA OUT). CLP/ZDC
BOGOTA, COLOMBIA - SEPTEMBER 6: An image taken 06 September 1989 from Colombian television of a wanted advertisement for Medellin drug cartel leaders Pablo Escobar and Gonzalo Rodriguez. (Photo credit should read CARLOS LEMA/AFP/Getty Images)
MEDELLIN, COLOMBIA - OCTOBER 14: A resident of the Itague neighborhood in Medellin observes an army patrol 14 October 1992 as they conduct house-to-house searches in the homes near the Itague prison. Another of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar's associates surrendered 14 October. Luis Fernando Henao also known as 'The Missile' is the sixth of Escobar's elite to give himself up. (Photo credit should read CRIS BOURONCLE/AFP/Getty Images)
Colombia: This photo taken 10 Aug at the Enviagado Prison shows Colombian drug kingpin and head of the Medellin Cartel,Pablo Escobar,posing as Pancho Villa. The original photo hangs in one of the rooms in the prison where Escobar was incarcerated. Escobar and nine of his associates escaped from the prison 22 July after 13 months of detention. (Photo credit should read GUILLERMO TAPIA/AFP/Getty Images)
Undated file photo showing late Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. Escobar had been held at the Envigado Prison since June 19, 1991, escaped on July 22, 1992, and was killed by Colombian special forces after being discovered hiding in a house in Medellin, Colombia on December 2, 1993. (Photo credit should read STF/AFP/Getty Images)
Colombian police and military forces storm the rooftop where drug lord Pablo Escobar was shot dead just moments earlier during an exchange of gunfire between security forces and Escobar and his bodyguard 02 December 1993. The death of Escobar and the bodygaurd ends a 16-month hunt for Escobar, who controlled one of the world's most ruthless drug trafficking empires. (Photo credit should read JESUS ABAD-EL COLOMBIANO/AFP/Getty Images)
MEDELLIN, COLOMBIA - DECEMBER 2: The body of Medellin drug cartel leader Pablo Escobar (C) lies on the roof of a house 02 December 1993 moments after Escobar was gunned down by Colombian police while trying to escape authorities. (Photo credit should read MEDELLIN POLICE/AFP/Getty Images)
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Bloque de Búsqueda

In late 1989, after a series of bloody humiliations dealt by Escobar to the forces and officials of the Colombian government, then-President Virgilio Barco created a special police unit to deal with the kingpin and his cartel.

While its initial encounters with the Medellín network left the Bloque de Búsqueda, or Search Bloc, dazed and weakened, it eventually became a hardened task force that hunted down Escobar and his associates.

Assisted by US special forces, US Army intelligence, as well as members of the CIA and DEA, the Search Bloc pursued Escobar throughout 1992 and 1993. According to official accounts, it was the Search Bloc that ultimately killed Escobar.

On December 2, 1993, just one day after Escobar's birthday — according to Mark Bowden's "Killing Pablo," he celebrated with marijuana, a birthday cake, and wine — the Search Bloc tracked the drug baron to Los Olivos neighborhood in Medellín.

The Search Bloc was able to converge on the house where Pablo was speaking on the phone with his son.

In Bowden's account, despite all their gadgets, a positive ID was made only when a member of the Search Bloc spotted Escobar through a second-story window.

Members of the Search Bloc surrounded the home while others stormed through the door. Alerted, Pablo and a bodyguard stumbled out a back window, on to an orange-tile roof. They were met with a hail of gunfire and both fell from shots to their heads — Pablo with one that had entered his right ear and killed him instantly.

Once the gun blasts had subsided, Col. Martinez, the Search Bloc leader who had pursued Pablo for three bloody years but was not on the scene, heard one of his men shouting into the radio: "Viva Colombia!" the soldier said. "We have just killed Pablo Escobar!"

Reports emerged afterward that Escobar had gone down firing his own weapon, and the confusion of the encounter has left the question of who fired the fatal shot open to speculation.

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Inside the prison where Pablo Escobar was held
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Inside the prison where Pablo Escobar was held
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY ARIELA NAVARRO People look at the remains of a prison known as 'The Cathedral', where late Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar was held, in the Envigado municipality, near Medellin, Antioquia department, Colombia on November 24, 2013. The place was once a prison known as 'The Cathedral', where Escobar was held. December 2, 2013 marks the 20th anniversary Escobar's death. AFP PHOTO/Raul ARBOLEDA (Photo credit should read RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY ARIELA NAVARRO The prison known as 'The Cathedral', where late Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar was held, in the Envigado municipality, near Medellin, Antioquia department, Colombia on November 24, 2013. The place was once a prison known as 'The Cathedral', where Escobar was held. December 2, 2013 marks the 20th anniversary Escobar's death. AFP PHOTO/Raul ARBOLEDA (Photo credit should read RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images)
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Los Pepes

In January 1993, according to Bowden, a new group had joined the hunt for Escobar. "Perseguidos por Pablo Escobar," or People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar (Los Pepes), were made up of rival drug traffickers, paramilitaries, and others scorned by the Medellín cartel boss.

Previously, Pablo's execution of two lieutenants broke his cartel into warring factions.

And according to journalist Alma Guillermoprieto, who spoke with a former Los Pepes member, the group was most likely led by former members of the Medellín cartel who, seeking vengeance, had offered money to members of Escobar's crew, members of the Search Bloc, or anyone else who was willing to take on the kingpin.

Lose Pepes were, in Bowden's words, "some extralegal muscle ... who didn't mind crossing the lines of legality and morality that Pablo so blithely ignored." Many in the Colombian government were reportedly open to their participation in the hunt.

According DEA documents cited by Bowden, the group probably received funding from the rival Cali cartel and likely got information from the Colombian National Police and, allegedly, from American intelligence agents operating in the country.

A recent court ruling ordered the CIA to release more documents that could shed light on the suspected cooperation between the American government, Colombian security forces, and Los Pepes.

Los Pepes quickly mounted a campaign that rivaled that of Escobar's for sheer violence. In early 1993 there were up to six killings a day. Low-level cartel managers, former state officials linked to the cartel, Escobar's attorneys — anyone was fair game.

Escobar retaliated with more bombings in urban areas, and Los Pepes responded in kind, destroying numerous properties belonging to Escobar and his associates.

An account from Diego Fernando Murillo, aka Don Berna — a central figure in Los Pepes, according to Insight Crime — also indicates that members of Los Pepes accompanied the Search Bloc on its raid of Escobar's hideout in Medellín.

In Don Berna's telling, it was his brother, Rodolfo, who delivered the coup de grace, shooting Escobar in the head with an M-16.

Despite evidence that the Search Bloc was working with Los Pepes (and evidence, cited by Bowden, that Don Berna worked with both the Search Bloc and the DEA), it hasn't been confirmed whether Don Berna's account is accurate.

A 2003 confession by a former paramilitary member seemed to corroborate Don Berna's claim that it was joint operation.

"It was an agreement that they had because Escobar was a common enemy," said the former fighter.

However, paramilitary leader Fidel Castaño, a cofounder of Los Pepes, had previously denied such involvement, saying in a 1994 interview that "we never performed any operation with the Search Bloc.

The operation during which Escobar was killed was realized exclusively by the police, as is public knowledge."

Here, too, Bowden's account contradicts Castaño's, describing missions on which the paramilitary leader accompanied the Search Bloc as well as a DEA cable that referred to Castaño as "a cooperating individual."

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Mourning Pablo Escobar after his death
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Mourning Pablo Escobar after his death
MEDELLIN, COLOMBIA - DECEMBER 3: The mother of Pablo Escobar, Mermilda Gaviria (C), rides in a car taking Escobar's casket to a funeral home, 02 December 1993, from the local coroners office in Medellin, Colombia. She is accompanied by an unidentified relative (L) and an unidentified man. Escobar was killed in Medellin by members of a police and army elite group formed to hunt for the head of the Medellin drug cartel. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read B/AFP/Getty Images)
MEDELLEN, COLOMBIA: Hundreds of people wait, 03 December 1993, outside the cemetery, where the body of Pablo Escobar is being viewed. Police estimated that some 20,000 people came for the viewing, one day after the drug lord was killed by a police-army elite force in Medellin, Colombia. (Photo credit should read ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)
MEDELLIN, COLOMBIA - DECEMBER 2: Hermilda de Escobar (2nd-R), mother of Medellin drug cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar (portrait), walks with friends and relatives to Escobar's tomb to celebrate the first anniversary of his death. Escobar was killed by Colombian special forces after being discovered hiding in a house in Medellin. (COLOR KEY: Trees are green.) (Photo credit should read GUILLERMO TAPIA/AFP/Getty Images)
MEDELLEN, COLOMBIA: An unidentified woman places flowers on the grave of slained Medellin drug cartel boss Pablo Escobar 30 Nov at a local cemetery in Medellin. Escobar was gunned down by Colombian police commandos 02 December 1993 while hiding in a house in Medellin. (COLOR KEY: Trees are green) (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
COLOMBIA - APRIL 03: Teresa Jimenez, 70, of Barrio Pablo Escobar, a neighborhood named after the infamous drug lord, holds a photo of Pablo Escobar and his mother in Medellin, Colombia, on Monday, April 3, 2006. (Photo by Scott Dalton/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Nelly Rojas cleans the picture of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar inside her house at Pablo Escobar neighborhood on December 1, 2010 in Medellin, Antioquia department, Colombia, on the anniversary of his birth. On December 2 commemorates the 17th anniversary of his death. AFP PHOTO/Raul ARBOLEDA (Photo credit should read RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images)
A girl stands next to a portrait of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar inside her house at Pablo Escobar neighborhood on December 1, 2010 in Medellin, Antioquia department, Colombia, on the anniversary of his birth. On December 2 commemorates the 17th anniversary of his death. AFP PHOTO/Raul ARBOLEDA (Photo credit should read RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images)
A French tourist puts flowers on the tombstone of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar at Montesacro cemetery on December 2, 2010 in Medellin, Antioquia department, Colombia, on the 17 anniversary of his death. On December 1 commemorated the anniversary of his birth. AFP PHOTO/Raul ARBOLEDA (Photo credit should read RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images)
Army Personnel keep order December 3 after thousands of people showed up to pay their last respects to drug lord Pablo Escobar
Two visitors stand by the grave of late drug kingpin Pablo Escobar showed in this file photo taken on July 26, 2000. Despite being dead for seven years this Saturday, the memory of the former cocaine boss lives on in the minds of many poor Colombians, who consider him a modern day Robin Hood. Picture taken July 26, 2000. IB/RCS
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Pablo himself

A third actor to whom Escobar's death has been attributed is Escobar himself.

His son, Juan Pablo Escobar Henao (who has changed his name to Sebastián Marroquín) has insisted that his father took his own life on that Medellín rooftop.

"I have no doubt" that the elder Escobar killed himself, Escobar Henao said in a 2014 interview.

In his book, "Pablo Escobar: My Father" released that same year, Escobar Henao details the basis for his claim. Pablo told his son numerous times that he would shoot himself in the right ear to avoid being captured alive.

Moreover, the son claims, images of the drug lord on the rooftop show his Sig Sauer pistol, which Escobar Henao says his father would've used to shoot himself, lying next to his body.

Other members of the Escobar family have posed this theory. After an exhumation of the drug baron's body led by his mother and widow in 2006, the family said that a hole in his head confirmed the theory that the fatal wound had been self-inflicted.

But according to Col. Martinez, a gunshot from within three feet would've left gunpowder marks on Pablo's skin, marks that are not visible in autopsy photos, Bowden writes.

The question of who killed Pablo Escobar is likely to go unresolved, probably by design.

His death, like his life, left a dark stain on Colombia, and the commitment to forgetting how he died seems to be one shared by Colombians and Americans alike.

"[N]obody is ever going to tell you" whether Los Pepes killed Escobar, or if it was someone else, an American soldier involved in the hunt told Bowden. "You have to surmise."

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