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One of the most prolific drug smugglers of all time has opened up on his extraordinary life – from working for Pablo Escobar to the horrific torture he was subjected to in a Mexican prison.
Roger Reaves made more than 100 flights from Colombia and Mexico over the US border to Miami to smuggle cocaine, earning him tens of millions of dollars.
But the drug mule's actions came at a devastating cost – spending a total of 33 years behind bars in 26 prisons across four continents.
In an eye-opening interview with Lex Fridman, Roger spoke about working with some of the most feared drug cartels in history, what movies get right about smuggling and how his plane was shot down twice.
Meeting Pablo Escobar
Roger revealed how he performed several smuggling missions for the Medellin Cartel during his career and formed a bond with its head Pablo Escobar.
Upon first impressions, the smuggler believed Escobar to be a “gentleman, just like you and I”.
The drug lord paid for his family to stay in a five-star hotel during meetings. This, Roger said, was for "security" to make sure he was not a drug enforcement agent.
Escobar even rode motorcyles with the smuggler and invited him and his family to live in his extensive estate.
Roger said he predominantly worked under Jorge Ochoa, one of the founders of the cartel. It was Ochoa, he claims, that was the "brains" behind the entire operation.
He claimed the pair were "really nice people" – but then everything changed.
“When I heard about Pablo Escobar blowing up that airline and killing those women and children, I was sorry I ever shook his hand,” he said, referring to the domestic Colombian flight shot down in 1989.
Pablo was ultimately “not a good man at all”, but one Roger believed he could trust in business.
Being shot down
Most of Roger's smuggling flights went by without a hitch, but on certain occasions they went disastrously wrong.
He recalled one haul in which Mexican police opened fire on his plane as he attempted to fly cocaine out of central America.
The police had shot out his tyres and despite Reaves' effort to leave the runway, the police "opened up with machine guns" and "riddled" the airplane.
“As I pulled off the ground they opened up on both sides of me with machine guns, and they riddled that airplane, I mean the windshield came out," he recalled.
"I got hit three times, but I didn't know I was hit," he said. "The world turned yellow, I must have been in shock."
He crashed into a waterfall but managed to escape authorities by running up a mountain before jumping on a donkey and riding seven miles.
The smuggler then hid himself on a lorry transporting corn.
Roger claims he was also shot down over Colombia.
Torture in a Mexican prison
Some of Rogers' most horrific experiences in jail came in Mexico, where he was subjected to constant torture.
He said officers submerged his head underwater and beat him until "black, blue and yellow" from the bottom of his feet to the top of his head in a bid to make him sign a confession declaring himself a drug smuggler.
"They put the papers under your nose and said 'this will be over if you sign," he recalled. "If you sign, you've got six years."
Another tactic to get a confession was bending Roger over naked before lodging a chilli pepper in his anus. They even brought in a frozen body hung on a hook, assuring him that he would be killed next.
"As he started to thaw out it looks like he's crying and the paper starts unraveling and the formaldehyde starts puddling on the floor," he recalled. "What a rotten smell the insides were."
Roger never confessed and was eventually released.
Barry Seal and snitching
While sat on a plane out of Central America, Roger sat next to a pilot called Barry Seal who told him he had just left prison for smuggling 100 kilos of cocaine.
Seal, the subject of 2017 Tom Cruise film American Made, entered into a working relationship with Roger and the pair became close.
But he later discovered Seal was working as an informant for the Drug Enforcement Agency after being caught with three tonnes of cocaine.
Seal agreed to testify with an American district attorney and later snitched on Reaves who was faced with either testifying himself or life imprisonment.
"My guts were just like ice water and I thought I can't do the same, I testify against my friends," he said.
Roger sought out legal advice and found an attorney who told him "being a snitch is like being pregnant, you either are or you're not" and decided against testifying himself.
In one final meeting, he told Barry: "They gonna to kill you man, you can't deny it".
In 1986, Barry Seal was murdered by contract killers thought to be hired by the cartel.
The drug smuggler miraculously escaped prison five times though not without a shotgun wound to the back and the memory of one horrifying incident where his skin flayed after jumping through a window.
Despite his shocking success in escaping maximum security prisons, he couldn't evade incarceration forever, especially after Seal's testimonial which set authorities after him.
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"The United States prisons are awful places, every one I went to."
Roger recalled the ethnic separation that dominated the American prisons and the social isolation he endured through the 33 years of his life sentence.
He said he survived life behind bars by learning to cook, reading two books a weeks and playing chess.
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- Pablo Escobar
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