FOR a dog of war with a raging thirst for adventure, it was an offer that mercenary Dave Tomkins simply could not refuse.
“David!” the cartel boss boomed. “Bring me back Escobar’s head and I’ll give you $1million for it.”
A cartel boss boss boomed ‘David, bring me back Escobar’s head and I’ll give you $1million for it’Credit: Getty
That’s Pablo Escobar — the ruthless Colombian narco-terrorist once responsible for distributing 80 per cent of the world’s cocaine.
“I said, ‘Yeah, all right’, ” Dave remembers today.
After all, Escobar’s rival cartel was awash with cash. Dave recalls: “Money was no object for them. They had billions.”
The mission seemed no tall order for the carefully coiffured and medallion-sporting former safecracker from the outskirts of Basingstoke in Hampshire.
Dave Tomkins in his mercenary daysCredit: Rex
Despite having no formal military training, London-born arms dealer Dave was the veteran of bloody conflicts in the world’s worst trouble spots.
So he put together a Dirty Dozen of ex-Special Forces men with, as he put it, the “big balls to do this” and the mission was on.
He chose as his “Tactical Commander” tough-as-nails Glaswegian former SAS man Peter McAleese, who says: “You don’t get asked to kill Pablo Escobar unless you’ve got the right experience.”
Dave’s group of mercenaries train to assassinate drug lord Pablo Escobar
Under Peter and Dave’s leadership, the Dirty Dozen set off in two helicopters for Escobar’s jungle compound with, by their estimate, “enough ammunition to kill 3,000 guys”.
What could possibly go wrong?
Now the pair’s wild adventure has been immortalised in a captivating new documentary film, Killing Escobar.
It’s a good old-fashioned tale of derring-do that also charts Peter’s journey to personal redemption.
Escobar’s luxurious hideout Hacienda NapolesCredit: Getty
Now 78 and long retired from the mercenary game, he tells me from his Birmingham home: “When Dave said who the target was, I was very excited.
“For me it was the adventure — the money came second. That’s just the way I was made.”
As for larger-than-life Dave, Peter says: “Like myself, he has a shady background but he’s a person of honour.
“For a man who hasn’t got a soldiering background he’s a very gutsy person.
Dave has now left his mercenary days behindCredit: TWO RIVERS MEDIA
“If he says he’s going to do something he will do it.”
Dave’s journey to globetrotting arms dealer and mercenary Mr Big was not an obvious one.
Born in Victoria, South West London, his father was a road sweeper and his mother a cook.
Now 80 and still living in Basingstoke, the grandfather of seven tells me in a telephone interview: “I didn’t really have any aspirations to be anything.
“I went to sea with the Merchant Navy and I’d have remained there for the rest of my life, had circumstances not intervened.”
The team with the helicopter they planned to use in the attack on Escobar
What were those circumstances, I ask. Dave replies: “I punched a cop and went to prison.”
He would later become an accomplished safe-blower, then his life took a different turn after a conversation with former paratrooper John Banks at a failed transport company where they were both directors.
Dave recalls: “I resigned from the company before it failed but I used to go back to the office before it did so. All the male staff were ex-paratroopers. One night, in a half-drunken state, one said, ‘What we need is a f***ing good war and we should hire ourselves out as mercenaries’.
“John put an advert in a newspaper — and the phone never stopped ringing. Soon they were invited to Angola and I got invited along too.”
It was 1976 and Angola, in south west Africa, was engulfed in a bloody civil war.
The mission’s Tactical Commander Peter McAleese
Military greenhorn Dave took to warfare like a duck to water, and says: “It was great, so exciting.”
But he had been in Africa less than a month when he tripped a mine and was hit in the buttocks with shrapnel from the explosion.
Describing Dave’s return to the UK, his wife Mary says: “The injury didn’t stop him for a moment. He was restless, as ever. The first thing he said to me was, ‘I’m going back’. ” Soon the petty crook had transformed himself into an international arms dealer and mercenary.
Peter tells his part of the story in the documentaryCredit: TWO RIVERS MEDIA
He recalls: “In that era everything was up for grabs. Lebanon was being torn apart by civil war, as was Angola, the Iran-Iraq war was going on, there was Yugoslavia.
“There were all those opportunities if you went looking for them or they turned up on their doorstep.”
Sometimes in these far-flung killing fields he would bump into fellow mercenary Peter, a bushy-moustached Scot.
Peter had been brought up in Riddrie, on the outskirts of Glasgow, close to infamous Barlinnie prison, where his “very tough and violent” father had spent time.
In the film, Peter says: “I was trained to kill by the Army but the fighting instinct came from Glasgow.”
Among the trouble spots that Dave blew through in the 1980s was Colombia, where the multi-billion-pound cocaine trade was fought over by rival cartels.
Pablo Escobar was gunned down by cops four years laterCredit: AFP – Getty
He says: “So when Pablo’s name came up for termination, of course I’d been there before and I knew all about him.
“In that era there was a whole circuit of arms dealers, brokers and security people.
“Everybody knew everybody else and everybody else knew somebody else. I guess I was the one that they decided was stupid enough to do something like this.” And incredibly brave — or ridiculously foolhardy — it most definitely was. Known as the King of Cocaine, Escobar was the blood-soaked leader of the Medellin Cartel.
Worth more than £40billion, he was the wealthiest criminal in history.
At the height of his powers he was smuggling 15 tons of cocaine per DAY. Rival cartels were kept at bay with the bullet and the bomb.
It was into this narco civil war in 1989 that Dave, Peter and their band of mercenaries were sent to claim Escobar’s head.
Dave recalls: “It was a fabulous opportunity, financially interesting.”
The pair’s wild adventure has been immortalised in a captivating new documentary film, Killing EscobarCredit: NewsCom
According to Killing Escobar, the mercenaries were on $5,000 (£3,600) a month, plus expenses, but Dave was getting $1,000 (£720) a day. After 11 weeks of training, the crew were ready to take out Escobar at his rambling Hacienda Napoles ranch, located 90 miles east of Medellin.
Peter says in the film: “I had no morals about killing him. I’ve never looked upon it as murder. I looked upon it as a target.”
On board two helicopters, the soldiers of fortune sped over the treetops to take out the drugs baron at his jungle hideaway.
But as the helicopter carrying Dave and Peter attempted to scale a densely forested mountain in low cloud, it clipped the foliage and plunged to earth. The pilot and Peter were badly wounded.
Peter says: “She ploughed into the ground. I went to work on the pilot. His leg had been severed and I tried to get a drip into him and all I could do was make his death easier. So I gave him some morphine. I was so busy working the pilot that I hadn’t realised I was in shock myself.
“I had broken ribs in the front, broken ribs in the back. When you think you’re going to die you tend to do a bit of soul searching.
Colombian police and military forces storm the rooftop where drug lord Pablo Escobar was shot deadCredit: AFP – Getty
“I just had a bit of time to do it up there.”
The divorced dad-of-three adds: “If we’d managed to clear that mountain we’d have done the job. We’d have finished it. I have no doubts about it.”
Escobar was alerted to the failed mission and sent his men to search the mountain. Peter lay for three days in excruciating pain before he was taken off the mountain by local rescuers.
He and Dave, who was not seriously injured, avoided capture but the mission was over. Escobar’s head was still very much on his shoulders.
But Dave still had an itch to scratch. In 1991 he was caught in a US sting planning to buy an A-37 Dragonfly light attack aircraft from undercover federal agents and bomb the prison in Colombia where Escobar was being held.
He fled the US, where in 1994 he was charged in his absence with conspiracy to violate arms export laws by attempting to buy the plane.
When Dave returned to the US in 2003 to take part in a chemical weapons survival course, so that he could work in Iraq, he was arrested, and in 2004 he was jailed in the US for 33 months.
By then he was far too late to kill Escobar anyway. In 1993, a day after his 44th birthday, the drug baron was gunned down after escaping prison — not by hired British assassins, but by Colombian cops.
Escobar with his wife Victoria Eugenia Henao
But at home in Basingstoke, octogenarian Dave says that while age has slowed him down, he still has a thirst for adventure.
He says: “If somebody came up with something tomorrow, like overthrowing a small country, I’d be there in a heartbeat.”
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