If you’ve seen Netflix’s Narcos, you’ll know how Pablo Escobar met his end: on the run, the world closing in on him, before being shot on a rooftop. What’s less well known – and not explored in the show – is that, years earlier, an assassination attempt was carried out on the drug lord by a team of British soldiers hired by Escobar’s rivals, the Cali Cartel.
In 1989, ex-SAS soldier Peter McAleese was brought in to lead the operation. He and his 12-man team holed up in the Colombian jungle for 11 weeks of training, the final target being Escobar’s infamous Hacienda Napoles. Despite their presence being leaked, with then-Prime Minister John Major interviewed about it on British TV, the assassination attempt went ahead as planned – it just didn’t end as they’d hoped.
Here, McAleese discusses the mission and a new documentary about his story, Killing Escobar.
VICE: Was there any hesitation when you were asked to lead the team to assassinate Pablo? Were you aware of his extreme reputation for violence?
Peter McAleese: Absolutely not. The challenge was a huge attraction. I felt excited when I found out who it was. Each mission you take, you want it to be a bigger challenge than the last one, and Pablo's reputation went before him. We were used to responding quickly and never got that long to train for a job, so we were up for the challenge. A lot of the guys had soldiered with me before, so we knew how to operate together. But we also knew that, had Pablo found us, we would have received terrible deaths.
Would you have said yes to any assassination job at the time if the money was right? Or was it because it was specifically Pablo?
Like anyone who does any job, we need to get paid for what we do. But money is not the motivating factor, it’s all about the challenge and adventure. Let’s face it: how many people do you know who have been asked to assassinate Pablo Escobar?
What were your first impressions of the Cali Cartel? Did you trust them?
They were very business-like. Colombia was in a mess at the time, so that really stood out for me. I knew deep down that they had a strategy to create conflict between the drug gangs. We didn’t have confirmation of that from them, but that’s what I suspected. I trusted them as far as I could – as far as you can trust anyone when you’re in that situation. If we were frustrated or needed something, we could get a message to them and they measured up to their part of the deal.
What qualities did you have that meant you were asked to lead up the team?
I was asked to lead the team because Dave Tomkins [who brokered the deal] knew I had the right background, the right set of skills and the right training. He understood that men would follow me and that I could build a great team.
When the story of you being in Colombia leaked to the press, what were your thoughts and feelings on it? Did you consider giving up?
No. We were out there already – we were in the thick of it, and everything was in process. I had committed myself. Of course I was going to carry on. I didn’t want to be labelled either. There is a huge element of pride in terms of carrying through on a job.
On the day of the assassination attempt, when you got the go-ahead, can you describe what you were thinking and feeling? What was running through your head?
I woke thinking, ‘The day is here, this is what we are here for.’ We had a determination and drive to get the job done. It was an exciting moment – what we’d trained for during the past 11 weeks. I felt confident we were going to succeed. I wanted to be successful; it’s how I am. We knew that we’d planned it well and everyone knew what they were doing and what they were responsible for. We were cohesive and strong and we were ready.
Members of Peter's team training in the Colombian jungle.
What would your job have been specifically during the assassination attempt?
I was the overall commander military-wise. I was leading the training and overseeing how the guys worked together. I would choreograph the assault itself. So, for example, when I was up in the helicopter, I could see the men on the ground below. They had yellow squares on their hats, so I could see exactly where they were. I was up there giving them orders, directing them, and if I could see that they were about to hit trouble I’d come down with the guns.
Had everything gone to plan, realistically how many of your men would you have expected to lose?
None. You never expect to lose any men; it’s not part of the plan. Everyone was working in pairs, covering each other. The plan was to bomb key sites. We’d make sure that women and children were left alone – we were simply out to get the bandits. People wondered how a small group like us could pull it off, but as long as you have the right assets and the right team, you can pull anything off. We’re professional soldiers. We knew exactly what we were doing.
In the documentary, one of Pablo’s men says they would have gladly died for him. Did that make you rethink your chances of success at all?
Not at all. It’s very easy for someone to say that, it’s a different thing to go through with it and actually die for them. Pablo had done a lot for that area, though. He did have very good press locally, he just couldn't help murdering the opposition. It was all about respect with fear. When I came back to the UK I would have jumped on a plane and got straight back to do the job again, if I’d had the chance.
The doomed helicopter.
Your helicopter went down during the mission, which got in the way of your plans somewhat. Can you talk me through what was running through your head when you were left in the jungle?
Flying through the jungle upside down was exciting, but once we were on the ground it was all about survival. I was very fortunate, as I’d done a couple of combat survival courses when in the British army, and that training had stayed with me. I knew how important it was to stay in the helicopter until the blades stop turning – if you exit when they’re still moving, the blades will chop your head off. So I told the guys that. The blade came through the cab, missed me and got the pilot. I was extremely lucky. I didn’t have a watch, so I laid there trying to judge the light, working out how long I’d been there. I had lots to think about – how to avoid hypothermia, how to stave off hunger and how long it would be before I was rescued. My training definitely kicked in.
Looking back on it, are you in any way grateful that the helicopter crashed?
No, not at all. I would have loved to have done that job. But it did make me take stock. When you think you could possibly die, it puts things in perspective, makes you think about the things you've done and how you lived your life. Also, what your relationships have been like. It made me reflect on how I could have been a better husband and a better father. I tried as a father, but I know I was very aggressive. All these things ran through my mind when I thought I was facing death.
Peter in the 1980s.
The film suggests that, as a result of the failed assassination attempt, Pablo’s men went out on the hunt to kill any out-of-towners in the area. How do you feel about this? Is this something you feel guilt or remorse about?
Pablo’s men were quite capable of doing that. You don’t want people to die – of course you don’t – but Pablo would easily have them killed them for something else if not that. That’s how it was. I didn’t kill any of those that died by his instruction, he did.
What did you learn about yourself making this film? It seemed like you traced a lot of issues back to your childhood and your dad. How was that process?
It came up to the surface after the Escobar job. I’d been soldiering all my life, and afterwards was a time of massive reflection for me. I did have a difficult time with my dad, but he didn’t know any better. He was of that generation. He believed in a beating first, enquiry later. I learned a very important lesson from my father: never to treat my kids like that. In terms of my life, I think that we were normal guys who got ourselves in extremely difficult situations. But, yes, I have learned a lot through the process.
Killing Escobar receives its world premiere at Glasgow Film Festival until the 10th of March. The film is being shown at virtual cinemas across the UK from the 12th of March. Tickets are available here.