Gustavo Gaviria: Pablo Escobar’s Right-Hand Man

Everyone knows the name Pablo Escobar. Most have a passing idea of what exactly made the so-called King of Cocaine so infamous.

The founder and head of the Medellín Cartel was in a position of great power. However, with such a position, trusted individuals were hard to find. 

Escobar needed someone on his side that he could trust implicitly. He found that person in Gustavo Gaviria.

Gustavo was more than just a high-ranking employee of Escobar–he was also his cousin. He was considered by some to be the real brains behind Pablo Escobar’s narcotic empire. 

In this article, we will explore Gustavo’s rise, the part he played in the cartel’s drug trade, and what eventually befell the Lion of Medellín. 

Gustavo Gaviria seen in a rare photograph

Growing Up With Pablo Escobar: Gustavo Gaviria’s Early Years

Born on Christmas day, 1946, Gustavo de Jesús Gaviria Rivero was three years Escobar’s senior. From the moment his cousin Pablo was born, the lives of the two boys were intertwined.

The early years of his life were fairly unremarkable. But as he entered his teenage years, he and Escobar both began to explore criminal activity.

Their first endeavors weren’t ever going to launch them into the lives of riches and international notoriety they would eventually experience. However, it was a start.

All that mattered at the time was making money. Gustavo and Escobar did whatever they could to accomplish that goal.

Everything from snatching tires off parked cars to pilfering gravestones, filing off the information, and reselling them. No low was too low, as long as it paid.

By the 1970s, their crimes became less annoying and veered hard into the world of danger. Their next endeavor was kidnapping. 

Unsurprisingly, this turn to truly serious, harmful criminal activities got both Pablo Escobar and Gustavo Gaviria arrested. This arrest would be the catalyst for their rise in the drug smuggling world.

Pablo Escobar, 1989

International Cocaine Trade and the Medellín Cartel

Deep in Colombia, after he had been released after his arrest, Gustavo Gaviria and his cousin felt the rumbling of demand coming from the United States–the demand for cocaine

By 1976, Pablo Escobar was heavily into organized crime and was already dealing in cocaine. During the following years, the Medellín Cartel would begin to take shape, with Escobar leveraging his money and influence as a drug lord to manipulate the Colombian government. 

Escobar didn’t leave his cousin Gustavo behind, and for good reason. Where Pablo was charismatic and unafraid to resort to violence, Gustavo Gaviria was less conspicuous.

His mind and talents lent themselves better to the financial side of the business. He was the perfect counterpart to the overspending that Escobar tended to indulge in. 

What Did Gustavo Gaviria do for Pablo Escobar?

Clearly defining what Gustavo did in his role for the Medellín Cartel is difficult, considering the inner workings of Escobar’s empire. We do know that Gustavo Gaviria was most well known for being the “right-hand man” for Escobar, ” and one of the few people who had his true, unequivocal trust. 

This wasn’t an example of someone powerful offering a family member a job simply because of a blood relation. Gustavo was brilliant, and without him, it’s possible that Escobar would have never reached the heights that he did. 

Where Escobar excelled as the figurehead of the cartel, Gustavo kept the gears turning behind the scenes even as the cartel began to do an absolutely unbelievable amount of business. The Colombian government couldn’t keep up.

Any attempts to stop the cartel were woefully inadequate. At one point, the Medellín Cartel and the two cousins at the head of it were providing 80% of the cocaine going into the United States. 

Gustavo’s role was multifaceted. He handled much of the financial work for Escobar. When their means of smuggling were interrupted, Gustavo would figure out alternatives, some of them genius in their creativity.

There were the usual routes of hiding the cocaine in food and drink products, but Gustavo also orchestrated smuggling the cocaine in denim fabric. The denim would be soaked in cocaine, which would later be removed by American chemists. 

When all of these contributions to the cartel are considered, it’s easy to see why Gustavo is often referred to as the brains of the operation, and Escobar the brawn. 

A still of Gustavo Gaviria from a YouTube video

The Death of Gustavo Gaviria 

While Escobar’s empire was growing at an incredible rate, he wanted more. Manipulating politics with bribes and hitmen wasn’t enough anymore–he wanted to be involved in the Colombian government himself. 

By the late 1980s, Escobar was endearing himself to the Colombian public by providing much-needed infrastructure and housing to poorer neighborhoods. None of that mattered to the government, though. He was still a wanted criminal, and by association, so was Gustavo. 

When Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla challenged Escobar and was killed in the process, the tension between the Medellín Cartel and the government reached a fever pitch. 

The cartel was hitting hard with bombings and assassinations. But on August 11, 1990, the Colombian government struck Pablo Escobar in the heart. 

Police had managed to track down the location of Gustavo Gaviria in a wealthy Medellín neighborhood. Gustavo was a man who enjoyed luxuries, and his penchant for the finer things may have made him easier to locate. 

The operation to find Gustavo was carried about by a special forces unit known as Search Bloc. A raid commenced, and in the skirmish, Gustavo Gaviria, cousin and right hand of Pablo Escobar, was killed.

The official word was that Gustavo had been shot during a firefight. However, his cousin always believed that a more sinister, agonizing death from torture may have befallen Gustavo. 

No matter how he perished, the death of Gustavo Galviria shook Escobar to the core. Shortly before Gustavo’s death, the Medellín Cartel had made a truce with the Colombian government.

All of that went out the window when new president Cesar Gaviria, no relation to Gustavo, was elected. The new president had his sights set on finally dealing with the drug smuggling trade, and alliances of tentative peace agreements were destroyed. 

Gustavo’s single death would result in retaliatory violence, and in time, contributed to the unraveling of Pablo Escobar’s empire as a whole. 


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