BOGOTA, Colombia – Learning from the mistakes of the high-flying Pablo Escobar, Colombian drug smugglers these days usually go low-profile: Levi’s instead of Armani suits, Toyotas rather than Ferraris, commercial flights in lieu of private jets.
But Camilo Torres, who is wanted in the United States on drug trafficking charges, broke all the rules.
On July 1, Colombian police raided a lavish week-long wedding party staged at a luxury hotel on a Caribbean island that featured a dozen bands, soap opera stars, models and prostitutes among the 200 guests. The host was Torres, a high-ranking member of the Urabeños drug trafficking organization.
Torres, 37, had just gotten married and was dancing with his bride when police agents crashed the bacchanal on its sixth night and arrested the groom. Torres’s guests were so inebriated they didn’t realize it was a raid.
“It was the strangest thing I’ve seen in 10 years of pursuing narcos,” one police agent told the Bogotá newsweekly Semana. “Even though we were armed and wearing uniforms, people clapped. They thought we were in costumes and were part of the show.”
Photos of the party show Torres singing along with rap artists. In others, fireworks explode and B-list Colombian actors pose next to large pink letters spelling out the word “LOVE.”
‘Fantasy Island’ retreat brings back memories of Medellín cartel
The party was held at the Punta Faro Hotel on the island of Múcura, which is located in the Gulf of Morosquillo. Rooms there cost between $300 and $700 a night. The local media dubbed the tropical atoll “Fantasy Island.”
News and photos of the celebration have caused a sensation in Colombia, in part, because they seem like a throwback to the days when the Medellín and Cali cartels ruled the cocaine underworld and flaunted their opulence.
Describing that era in “Killing Pablo” — his book about Pablo Escobar and the Medellín cartel — Mark Bowden wrote that all the cocaine kings had mansions, limousines, race cars, personal helicopters and planes, fine clothes and fancy artwork. “It was a higher life than anyone in Colombia had ever seen,” he wrote.
In 1979, for example, Escobar bought a 7,400-acre ranch that he christened Hacienda Nápoles. The kingpin built an airport, a helipad, six swimming pools, and artificial lakes at Nápoles and stocked it with hundreds of exotic animals, including elephants, buffaloes, lions, rhinoceroses, gazelles, zebras, hippos, camels and ostriches.
“The mansion was outfitted with every toy and extravagance money could buy,” Bowden wrote. “Pablo could sleep a hundred guests at a time… On display out front was a 1930s-era sedan peppered with bullet holes which Pablo said had belonged to Bonnie and Clyde. Nápoles was an outrageous blend of the erotic, exotic and extravagant.”
Drug traffickers keep a lower profile these days
But by living large and using extreme violence to maintain his wealth and power, Escobar made himself a more prominent target for both U.S. and Colombian authorities and rival traffickers. Since the demise of the Medellín and Cali cartels in the 1990s, subsequent smuggling chieftains have toned down their lifestyles.
That’s partly because they’re no longer as influential. Over the past decade, Colombian organizations have been displaced by Mexican cartels that took over the narcotics distribution routes into the United States, the most lucrative part of the business. As a result, there’s far less drug money in the Colombian economy.
Alejandro Gaviria, dean of the economics department at Bogotá’s University of the Andes, estimates that the illegal drug trade now makes up about 2.5 percent of Colombia’s gross domestic product, compared to about 4 percent of GDP when the Medellín and Cali cartels dominated the business.
But beyond the economic logic, going low-profile is safer and is often more effective. Rather than killing public officials, for example, traffickers prefer to win them over through bribes. Instead of mansions, some live in middle-class neighborhoods, take taxis and are virtually unknown to the Colombian public or even to anti-drug officials.
That’s why Torres, known by his rather whimsical pseudonym Fritanga, or “Fry-up,” seems like such an anomaly.
“He was an experienced trafficker,” said one police investigator. “That’s why it’s surprising that he cwould commit such a gross error as to throw a party as if he were a famous drug kingpin – something we haven’t seen since the 1980s. If he hadn’t thrown the party, we might not have caught him.”
'Fritanga' faces extradition to United States
Though not a cartel boss, Torres was an important member of the Urabeños, a criminal gang that controls many of the cocaine trafficking routes through northern Colombia. Colombian authorities claim Torres’ role was to help move drugs into Central America, in part, by securing navigational information from the Colombian Navy to help cocaine-laden boats avoid raids.
Torres was arrested on drug charges in 2008 but later released. He then fell off the radar of Colombian authorities after he faked his death in 2010 by convincing a government bureaucrat to forge a death certificate.
Another sign of his importance is that seven U.S. citizens, including five from Puerto Rico — a key stopover point for cocaine shipments heading to the U.S. from Colombia — were briefly detained at Torres’s party.
“The presence of foreign nationals at the wedding could be a further indication of Fritanga's status in the Urabeños’ business network,” said an analysis published by the Colombian think tank Insight Crime. “There are already some signs that Fritanga had significant influence over local Colombian authorities: he was able to release a forged death certificate, complete with notary public and medical approval, in 2010.”
Following his arrest, Torres stands to be extradited to the United States on charges of moving cocaine through Central America and Mexico and into the U.S territory. As he was being led away in handcuffs, Torres — who spent an estimated $1.4 million on his wedding — seemed unfazed and shouted to attendees: “I’ll be your friend forever.”