The cult of Pablo Escobar: EDGAR profiles the ruthless Mexican drug lord
Why is Colombia’s most infamous criminal remembered so fondly by so many?January 18, 2015
In Colombia, 11 years after his death, many see drug baron Pablo Escobar, who killed and disappeared thousands while accruing enormous wealth amid the poverty of the city of Medellín, as a legend.
Escobar enjoyed complete impunity and no little prestige through his charitable works in the working-class neighbourhoods of Medellín, his home town and the base of his business. He transformed himself into a mystery, hidden by layers of intermediaries and zealous foot soldiers; a man of iron will, who bestowed gifts of charity, employment and public works from behind his curtain of secrecy.
He's provided a fertile subject for a number of films, books and TV documentaries, including Escobar: Paradise Lost, which premiered at the 2014 Dubai International Film Festival. The film tells the fictional story of a young Canadian surfer who is drawn into Escobar’s web of crime and violence through his relationship with a niece of Escobar, with the crime boss played by Academy Award winner Benicio del Toro.
Born into a large lower-middle-class family, Escobar’s teenage years were spent as a petty criminal. He carried out his first kidnapping at the age of 20, before he entered the drug trade. With the murder of a rival Medellín cocaine dealer, Fabio Restrepo, Escobar took over the dead man’s operation. In a single breath, Restrepo’s men were told that their boss was no longer alive, and they were now to work for “Don Pablo”. It is said he made his first million by 22.
By a process of eliminating the opposition and enlisting the support of other drug barons to form a cartel, Escobar had by the mid-Seventies earned a considerable fortune. To put the size of the operation in context, the drug lord’s brother, Roberto, who looked after the financial side of the operation, revealed in his bookThe Accountant’s Story that Escobar’s cartel spent AED 9,000 a month solely on rubber bands to secure the bundles of money it had earned.
Pablo was earning so much that each year we would write off 10 per cent of the money because the rats would eat it in storage or it would be damaged by water or lost. - Roberto Escobar.
At first Escobar would modify old plane tyres to smuggle cocaine by air to the United States, where demand for the drug had been rocketing. As his operation grew, he built two submarines, which could each carry one tonne of product. By the Eighties, year-on-year growth of his business was reported to be at 20,000 per cent from an estimated 70-80 tonnes of cocaine being smuggled every month from Colombia to the US, but returning the proceeds had become a problem. Because the small plane Escobar had typically used could only carry $10 million in notes at a time, the drug lord purchased a Learjet, which could carry 10 times that amount.
Meanwhile, he continued with his corporate policy of eliminating any form of opposition, at any level, that he encountered. “All empires are created of blood and fire,” he advised one reporter. If associates and workers did not adhere to his strict code of conduct, he would deal with them mercilessly. “There are mistakes that cannot be forgiven,” he once said, and stayed true to his word simply by disposing of his transgressors.
At the height of its power in the late Eighties, the Medellín cartel was said to be bringing in more than $60 million each day, and Escobar used a tiny percentage of it to establish food programmes, build parks and build houses for the poor in a suburb of Medellín that continues to be named after him.
By 1989, Escobar had succeeded in bribing his way into all levels of Colombia’s government and law enforcement. “Everyone has a price; the important thing is to find out what it is,” he once said, but following an incident on the eve of the presidential election that year, the ease with which he did business was to change immeasurably. Luís Carlos Galán, a former journalist, had been seeking office on a reform ticket, having declared himself an enemy of Colombia’s drug barons. Having pledged that, should he be elected, drug dealers across a number of cartels would be extradited to the US, he was assassinated by hit men during a rally. The Medellín cartel was thought to be responsible.
Now on the government’s radar, Escobar went to ground, only surfacing to attack state police as a means to pressure the authorities. In 1991, and with the government of César Gaviria by now closing in on him, he surrendered to officials after a series of negotiations. The prison, named La Catedral, was as luxurious as a resort and from it the kingpin was able to control his empire.
Under the terms of the deal he hatched, Escobar was allowed to build a jail for himself and his associates to his own specifications, and could even appoint his guards.
During his incarceration, the Colombian government continued to crack down on its country’s drug business, leaving Escobar increasingly fearful of a transfer to a mainstream prison, and when it came to the attention of the authorities that Escobar had been running his business from inside La Catedral, so breaching the conditions for his special treatment, they prepared to do exactly that. Learning this in good time, Escobar made an easy escape from his private prison, but he found life on the run difficult, amid the heat of a frenzied manhunt and knowing that the police would shoot him on sight. He longed for his family — he married María Victoria when she was 15, and together they had Juan Pablo and Manuela — and for some time he even drove in a taxi as part of his disguise.
According to his son, who has since changed his name to Sebastian Marroquín and lives in exile in Argentina, the fugitive moved his family every 48 hours between the 15 hideaways he kept in Medellín. He even blindfolded them before each transition so that they could never work out the whereabouts of each house and give the locations to torturers if they were captured.
On December 2, 1993, 18 months after he escaped from La Catedral, Pablo Escobar lay motionless under the bright sun on a Medellín rooftop, barefoot and with his belly out, blood pouring from his temple. Having spoken on the phone to his family minutes before, a military electronic surveillance team triangulated the call and tracked down Escobar in Medellín. In the firefight, he escaped onto a roof where he was taken out by the national police. It became a very public ending once the pursuing forces took trophy photos over Escobar’s corpse. Clearly, Escobar had brought terror to Colombia, and some experts suggest his hand was behind more than 5,000 murders. A judicial Truth Commission convened by the Colombian government ultimately decided that Escobar had ordered the murder of 30 judges, 457 police and as many as 20 ordinary people a day, because they crossed him in some way.
He was not in any way some kind of people’s hero, bent on exposing corruption and throwing his wealth at the poor. Escobar shied away from publicity and was rarely, if ever, forced to indulge in public relations. He lived by his actions, not by courting popularity, though he would often talk proudly of his charitable work.
Though he often referred to his love of the common man, the fact that he killed so many innocents over his career of violence must call his sincerity in question. But in a region as open to the worship of personality over deeds, his reputation has served to canonise his memory in a way that is traditionally reserved for those who have done widespread good for others or improved living standards. Escobar never chose to be a cult figure, but in Latin America he is revered along with the greatest.