At the height of the Colombian drug wars in 1989, a small private army of mainly British ex-servicemen were hired to assassinate Colombian drug boss Pablo Escobar.
The private unit — led by former SAS man Peter McAleese — was armed to the teeth, funded by a rival drug cartel and sent into the jungle to wage war against the gangster responsible for an estimated 4,000 deaths and 80% of the international cocaine trade at the time.
Now the incredible story of Operation Phoenix has been told on screen in the stunning new feature documentary Killing Escobar, premiering on BBC Two (9pm, 19 July) and iPlayer.
The film includes breathtaking archive footage of McAleese’s battle-hardened unit gathering in the Colombian jungle to train for armed assault against Escobar’s Hacienda Napoli home.
At the time, drug lord Escobar — recently portrayed on screen in smash hit Netflix series Narcos — was head of the Medellin drug cartel and one of the most wanted men on Earth, with a million dollar bounty on his head.
His rivals at the Cali drug cartel wanted him out of the way and hired British security contractor Dave Tomkins to take him out. He then contacted McAleese to put a team together.
As McAleese, now 78, recalled: “It set my heart pumping. I was really up for it.
“David came to me and said, ‘Are you interested in doing a job’. I never asked what it was, I just said yes, and then he said ‘Do you want to go to Colombia?’ and I said yes and he outlined the job.
“I knew of him (Escobar) in passing, I’d read the odd piece in the paper but I didn’t know a great deal.”
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Having served in the paras regiment since he was 17, then joined the SAS and travelled around the world serving in private military forces, McAleese recruited 11 former comrades for the deadly task.
While it was funded by the Cali cartel, McAleese claims it was with the tacit approval of UK and US governments.
Former DEA agent agent Javier Pena — one of the real Narcos hunters portrayed in the Netflix series — agreed, and commented in the film: “When we heard about this plan, of course we wanted him dead. So any effort to kill Pablo Escobar was of course welcomed. We wanted it to happen.”
The men touched down in Cali in March 1989. They tooled up and moved out to a special camp in Antioquia, nearer Escobar’s Medellin headquarters.
At their jungle base, they trained with a massive cache of weapons, secured a helicopter painted in local police livery and prepared for the attack.
The team were on $5,000 a month basic pay and organiser Tomkins was told a further million dollar bonus was payable for Escobar’s head.
All the while knowing that any slip of security could lead Escobar’s notorious enforcer soldiers, or Sicarios, to their location.
McAleese said: “The way I looked at it was we trained to do a job. We trained for 11 solid weeks, practicing hitting that place and covering every eventuality.
"We outlined the areas of his house in the grounds and everyone took different sections and we changed ranks and everyone did a different job every time we did a rehearsal, so if anyone went down, we could replace him.
“I felt they (Escobar's men) 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: “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.”
The film uses a mix of archive footage, new interviews and dramatic reconstructions with actors to tell the story of their 11 week training, and then setting off to kill Pablo.
There's then a fateful twist when the attack goes wrong en route to Medellin, leaving McAleese and his soldiers stranded in the jungle needing a dramatic rescue.
Despite fearing for their lives, McAleese and his crew finally made it out of the jungle - and while the mission was unsuccessful, Escobar was ultimately killed by Colombian police in 1993.
To this day McAleese contemplates just how close they came to ridding the world of Escobar all those years before.
He commented: “I feel that 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 alright saying 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.
“The outcome wasn’t what we thought it would be, but there’s not many things I would change.”
Killing Escobar is on BBC Two, Monday 19 July, 9pm, and available on iPlayer.
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