He was the most feared gangster in the world, responsible for thousands of murders and 80 per cent of the world’s cocaine trade.
At his peak in the Eighties, Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar blew up an airliner to silence an opponent and wreaked terrible vengeance on anyone who threatened his all-powerful Medellin cartel.
Notorious for mutilating informants, the paranoid boss reportedly once had 49 teenage girls killed in the space of only one weekend.
Former SAS soldier turned mercenary Peter McAleese, 78, was hired to take down the South American drugs baron
But despite the South American drug baron’s terrifying reputation, when former SAS soldier turned mercenary Peter McAleese was hired to take him down, he did not think twice.
Raised in the shadow of HMP Barlinnie in the East End of Glasgow, McAleese had already served in the Parachute Regiment, joined the Special Forces and worked as a soldier of fortune across Africa by the time he was tasked with assassinating the most famous criminal in the world.
In 1989, he led a small private army into the Colombian jungle with the aim of bringing home Escobar’s head. McAleese is now telling his incredible story for the first time on screen – in a feature documentary, Killing Escobar, which premieres at the Glasgow Film Festival next weekend.
It tells how the soldier put together a crack team of former Special Forces troops for the black op against Escobar’s fortress mansion – in full knowledge of the grisly end they would face if captured.
The Colombian rose to prominence in the drug trade in the 1970s, graduating from petty crime to car theft before becoming a feared boss in charge of an operation worth £300 million every week.
In 1989, he led a small private army into the Colombian jungle with the aim of bringing home his head (pictured after leaving the South African Army)
His story was immortalised in Netflix’s hit drama series Narcos.
Two of the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) officers who are portrayed in the TV show have taken part in the documentary from director David Whitney, who also interviewed former members of rival cartels.
McAleese, now 78, long retired and living in Birmingham, had been all over the world as a member of regular armies and mercenary forces, but he had never been involved in anything like the Escobar mission, which was called Operation Phoenix.
The job was initiated and funded by the Cali cartel – but the operation is believed to have had the tacit support of the Colombian, US and UK Governments who, it is claimed, were happy to see Escobar taken out by anyone.
For McAleese and his crew, it was simply a paying job – but while he would not claim the mission was a heroic endeavour, there was no doubting that their target was a ruthless psychopath.
McAleese said: ‘I’m just an ordinary guy who got himself into extraordinary situations and that’s how it worked out.
McAleese had been all over the world in regular armies and mercenary forces, but had never been involved in anything like the Escobar mission, nicknamed Operation Phoenix
‘It’s funny for a boy from Shettleston to have a world premiere for this programme and I feel quite honoured.’
Raised in a tough environment with a violent father who once broke his son’s nose and was often incarcerated in nearby Barlinnie prison, McAleese was a born fighter.
As a teenager he felt he had to get out of Glasgow and channel his aggression, so he joined the Parachute Regiment at 17, in 1960, and worked towards his dream posting in the Special Air Service.
He made it and saw action during the Aden Emergency in 1967. He said: ‘I had my first contact with the enemy in the SAS.
‘We were on patrol and ran into some shepherds, who turned out to be bandits. We had a shoot-out and killed five while they wounded two of us.’
After leaving the Armed Forces, McAleese struggled for direction and drifted around jobs, including as a North Sea oil worker.
He admits he had trouble controlling his temper and ended up in jail for fighting. Hitting that rock bottom was a turning point.
He found a new path as a private soldier, being recruited into conflicts such as the civil war in Angola in 1976, where he fought with the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) and first encountered private military operative David Tomkins.
Following his work in Angola, McAleese joined the Rhodesian equivalent of the SAS, passing basic training in his mid-30s.
Approaching his 40s, he signed up for the South African parachute brigade. He was 46 and back living in the SAS’s home town of Hereford when old pal Tomkins approached him with the challenge of a lifetime.
At that point, Escobar was the seventh richest man in the world, worth £18 billion, and featured on the Forbes billionaire rich list.
McAleese set about staffing his 12-strong team from the various forces he had served with in almost 30 years of soldiering, and they arrived in the Colombian city of Cali in March 1989
Despite an estimated 4,000 murders to his name, the criminal was beloved by his local community and treated like a folk hero after spending fortunes on local services.
But by 1989, drug gang rivalry had exploded into factional violence with mass shootings, bombings and political assassinations rife – with Escobar at the heart of it all.
McAleese said: ‘David came to me and said, “Are you interested in doing a job?”. I never asked what it was, I just said yes. Then he said, “Do you want to go to Colombia?”.
I knew about Escobar in passing, I’d read the odd piece in the paper, but I didn’t know a great deal. It set my heart pumping. I was really up for it.’
McAleese set about recruiting his 12-strong team from the various forces he had served with in almost 30 years of soldiering, and they arrived in Cali in March 1989.
While it was effectively a hit being ordered by one drug enterprise against another, McAleese is confident there was also tacit government backing to ensure Escobar’s reign came to an end.
He and Tomkins liaised with Cali cartel security specialist Jorge Salcedo, himself formerly of Colombian intelligence, to set the operation in motion.
McAleese said: ‘He was always keen and kept us in the picture as best he could. ‘Everybody knew what was going on there.
McAleese was 46 and back living in the SAS home town of Hereford when old pal Tomkins approached him with the challenge of a lifetime (pictured in Colombia in May 1989)
‘Basically what the government did was outsource killing him because Pablo Escobar had so many top government men on the payroll that you couldn’t fly anywhere without him being informed. They knew about it.’
In the film, former United States DEA Agent Javier Pena says: ‘When we heard about this plan, of course we wanted him dead. So any effort to kill Pablo Escobar was welcomed. We wanted it to happen.’
As they got closer to launch, the mission relocated to a jungle training camp, where they were furnished with automatic weapons and explosives smuggled in from the US, and helicopters repainted in Colombian police livery.
The target was Escobar’s mansion residence, the Hacienda Napoles near Medellin, which had massive gardens, its own bullfighting ring and a zoo.
McAleese and his crew had conducted aerial reconnaissance of the area and were planning an armed assault. His team were on a retainer of $5,000 (£3,600) a month each.
But team leader Tomkins said Escobar’s head itself would be worth a $1 million bonus.
McAleese said: ‘You need a combination of men. You can’t just take gun hands, you need a medic, a signaller, someone who is explosive-trained – so we needed a balance and luckily enough, most ex-Special Forces guys are trained in these things.
Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar blew up an airliner to silence an opponent and wreaked terrible vengeance on anyone who threatened his all-powerful Medellin cartel (Pablo Escobar depicted in the upcoming documentary)
‘You realise there are an awful lot of limitations with private work – you don’t have aircraft or a large military back-up, we only had us and we had to organise ourselves.’
In the midst of training, the team were shocked to discover that one man who had been let go after ‘losing his bottle’ had sold a story to Australian TV news about a British mercenary force on the loose in Colombia.
Although he had not detailed the target, the story nearly sparked an international incident, with then UK Foreign Minister John Major publicly denying knowledge and condemning the presence of any such force, if true.
McAleese said: ‘What John Major said… he’s a politician and he’s got to say what a politician would say.’
Training continued for weeks more and, although at 46 he was the oldest member of the team by at least ten years, the Scot said he felt no fear about taking on Escobar’s 60 armed guards, or risking the wrath of a man famed for torture and brutality.
In Killing Escobar, he recalls the fateful operation in detail, and incredible home movie footage from the camp shows the intense training and preparation (pictured: reconstruction of Peter McAleese injured in the jungle)
‘It never entered my mind until later on. The way I looked at it was we trained to do a job.
We trained for 11 solid weeks, practising hitting that place and covering every eventuality.
‘I felt they had guys who were trained to run about with submachine guns. Some of them had been soldiers but not professional soldiers, maybe they had done their national service.’
He added: ‘We got up in the morning, I’d lay something out and there was no messing.
‘If we didn’t get this right, it could backfire on us. I’ve never seen as much training done in my Army career, bearing in mind it was only for the one day.’
In the film, he recalls the fateful operation in detail, and incredible home movie footage from the camp shows the intense training and preparation.
When it was go time, the team set off for the air assault in high spirits and confident of success. But just minutes out from Medellin, disaster struck.
When it was go time, the team set off for the air assault in high spirits and confident of success. But just minutes out from Medellin, disaster struck. Their helicopter crashed into the jungle
Their helicopter got caught in cloud cover and crashed into the jungle – leaving the men stranded in Escobar country until they could be rescued.
The op was derailed and McAleese and his team were left to rue what might have been.
Despite the mission’s failure, McAleese remains content with his involvement, saying: ‘I’m happy with the way it went. The outcome wasn’t what we thought it would be but there’s not many things I would change.’
In the years after Colombia, McAleese worked as a security consultant, with contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan in the 2000s.
He is now retired and sees his three grown-up children and grandchildren regularly.
He said: ‘I was never a good husband, I tried as a father. ‘I was a terribly aggressive person when I was younger, and sitting here today I no longer feel the challenges of that.
‘Behaviour-wise, I’d like to have been calmer in my approach to life but I’ve got to look at this way – if I hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t be here now.’
Training continued for weeks more, and although at 46, he was the oldest member of the team by at least ten years, the Scot said he felt no fears taking on Escobar’s 60 armed guards (reconstruction of the training)
As far as professional regrets go, he looked on with interest when the drug boss was finally gunned down by Colombian police in 1993. He said: ‘What they did to Escobar was long overdue.
‘Take the situation we were in. We trained for 11 weeks. The DEA were out there for years and couldn’t put it together.
‘It’s all right saying that they got him, but it’s not a good reflection on how they handled the situation.
‘I don’t know much about the DEA but I just know that we had a go at it for 11 weeks. And we got pretty close.’
- Killing Escobar’s world premiere will be at the Glasgow Film Festival on March 7 and be available to watch through UK online cinemas from March 12.