A Colombian cocaine mule escapes from jail and cartel killing

Roberto Torres’s hands. (Steban Rondon/SFMN)

Grandparents love telling stories. Roberto Torres does too. But, his stories are different. They often end not with some moral, but with one or two pieces of advice on the best way of smuggling cocaine.

Torres was a professional drug mule for three decades — one of the few who actually made it alive out of the business. Starting in the 1960s, he trafficked an average of 200 kilos of white powder a year between his native Colombia, Europe and the United States. The fruits of his labor made it feel as if he owned the world, but when authorities arrested him in Italy in 1993, his dreams of money became hopes for liberty. Desperate to see his family, he broke out in 2004. He has been on the run ever since.

Now, pondering the weight of his past decisions, he has decided to tell his story. Because he is an international fugitive, the South Florida Media Network agreed to use a pseudonym to protect his identity.

Photo via Prexel.com

Torres was born in 1940 in the Colombian town of Fenicia, about 70 miles north of Cali. In 1952, his family moved to the city, where he spent his afternoons working as a delivery boy for the local pot farmers who had started sprouting around the outskirts of Cali. By the time he was a teenager, the small marijuana farms had been replaced by coca haciendas. It wouldn’t take that long for Torres to start his own “venture.”

In 1961, Torres made his first business trip – from Cali to Barranquilla. He was loaded with five pounds of cocaine. It was a small delivery to a group of regional distributors hoping to use it for local consumption, a relatively easy job. It was also Torres’s first time on a plane.

“I almost shitted my pants,” he said. “Not because of the drugs, but because no one ever prepared me for the turbulence; I was more worried about not pissing myself than being caught transporting illegal substances.”

Torres began creating a net of contacts throughout the country; local dealers, other mules, casual tourists, university students and small community leaders. Everyone seemed to be attracted to his product. He would carry cocaine under his bell-bottom jeans, loose shirts, leather boots, and inside his luggage.

“If they had asked me, I’d probably carry it in my ass,” he said. “Chico, it’s good money and you cannot disappoint your loyal customers.”

In 1963, he moved to Bogota and bought his first house in Cedritos, one of the capital’s most exclusive neighborhoods. He married his neighbor, Nora, and the two became partners in crime during a burst of cocaine trafficking that emerged in the mid-1960s.

By the time he was 26, he had already obtained a U.S. visa and made several trips to Miami and New York. He was earning about $20,000 per month. By age 40, he had one apartment in Manhattan, one in Queens, three houses in Bogota and a mansion in Cali. In 1972, his wife gave birth to his only child, a beautiful baby girl called Camila. Life couldn’t have been better.

But soon, the drug business centered on a few powerful hands, becoming more dangerous and unstable. Cali and Medellin became home to a few powerful groups of dealers called cartels that had started monopolizing the market and making any conflict bloodier.

“The cartels started bothering us,” he said. “If you didn’t buy their product, they wouldn’t let you leave the country.”

Torres became a mule working for Gustavo Rodriguez Gacha “El Mexicano” in Medellin and that of Helmer “Pacho” Herrera in Cali. As a member of their organizations, he had to move carefully. Gone were his years of working as a freelancer and distributing to whomever he wanted; now, he had to report to the cartels how much he was making, to whom he was selling and when he was traveling. He became an employee, and as such, his profits were reduced from 15% of the sales to about 4%.

“In a way, they were a parallel government with their own taxes and regulations,” he said. “And as governments do, they also waged war.”

The late 1980s and early 1990s were a cruel era for Colombia. Those were the days the cartels declared war against each other and the state; every week a bomb would explode, killing thousands. And every week someone would appear hanging from a bridge. However, Torres wouldn’t be present to see the end of that war. During a trip to Sardinia in 1993, Italian police arrested him for drug trafficking and sentenced him to serve 16 years at the Colonia Penale di Mamone, a prison on the island. Torres says not a day passed without him thinking about his family. Every night he would pray for a chance of seeing them again. Yet, that opportunity would take 11 years to materialize when the prison started giving him day permits for good behavior.

“They gave me a hand; I took an entire arm,” he said. “During those days, I was supposed to go to the islands’ malls, hang out in the countryside, and so on. And yes, I did all those things, but I also reached out to some contacts I had in Sardinia.”

Before anyone could notice, Torres had bought a fake passport and a one-way ferry ticket to mainland Italy. On November 2, 2004, the then 64-year-old crossed the sea headed to the little town of Ostia, 18 miles from Rome. The next day, he would take a plane from Spain to Colombia.

“El Mico was helping me throughout the trip,” Torres said, referring to one of his Mexican smuggling partners. “He told me to call him when I got to Colombia. He had some contacts in Venezuela to create another fake passport and ID for me. From there, I would fly to Mexico to cross El Hueco.”

Once at the Mexican-American frontier, Torres contacted a coyote—a gang member dedicated to smuggling people across the border.  He would help him cross the Rio Grande to the small town of Salineno, Texas.

“Those four days were hell on earth for me,” he said. “We couldn’t risk ruining our shoes trying to cross the river, so we had to take them off and let the rocks peel our feet.”

Despite the difficulties, they made it through the other side without any complications. In Texas, he boarded a Greyhound bus for Florida, where his family awaited him.

“I remember that day very well,” Torres said. “My hands were shaking. I didn’t know if my daughter would want to see me again. There was a time when I really doubted whether or not to knock on the door. I felt that I would change her life without asking… and I was unsure if I had that right after so many years.”

However, as soon as Torres saw the eyes of his girl, who was already a woman, he knew she still loved him with the same intensity she had when he last kissed her.

“The first thing I told her was: “Ratoncita, papa is back,” he said. ” My daughter hugged me instantly. It was like a reset in my life.”

Since that moment, Torres has never left his daughter’s side.

Torres now lives in Miami’s suburbs. As he cannot legally have any kind of record or documentation, his wife watches over everything in his life. Torres on his end takes care of the household duties; he cooks, cleans, and repairs anything broken. Every morning, after kissing his wife’s forehead, he puts on a pair of white socks and green Crocs to cover up the many calluses and scars left from his escape. The only time he takes them off is at bedtime when he can forget the world exists.

Torres always tells his story to those close to him. For him, to remember is to rebel against time. As a man who officially doesn’t exist, his tales and anecdotes are rare glimpses of reality.

Despite the risk involved with telling his story, he does it as an act of trust and goodwill. For him, it is just another opportunity to be remembered and perpetuate in ink what memory may fail to do. It’s the perfect excuse to spend his day rambling as old men often do about the past that is no more; it’s the chance to forget that the bars on his bedroom window, long and rusty, sometimes look similar to those in his cell.

“No one can say with absolute certainty if they are free or not,” he said. “But at least I chose behind which bars I want to be.”

Steban Rondon is a junior majoring in digital journalism at Florida International University and a member of the Honors College. Currently, Steban is also trying to pursue a career in the legal field while not leaving behind his love for politics, philosophy and the arts.