As in the cases of Hugo Chávez or Fidel Castro, recent Latin American history has shown us that one man alone can change a whole country. But there is one Latin American icon who not only changed a country: he also turned it into a place of global infamy. I refer to Colombia’s most famous criminal, a man who shares a place in history alongside his own “role model”, Al Capone. Human history has been witness to many icons, some now forgotten and others who have carved a permanent niche in the collective memory. Some are heroes, but many others are powerful symbols of contradiction, loathed by many and admired by some. Al Capone, Pinochet, or even Maradona are not generally considered role models, yet nobody could deny their status as icons.
Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria, also known as El Patrón, (“The Boss”), earned global infamy as Colombia’s most notorious drug baron. Escobar became so rich from the drug trade that in 1989 Forbes magazine listed him at number seven among the richest and most powerful men in the world. He was widely considered the most powerful, ambitious and brutal drug dealer in history. But he also changed a country’s vision of how to make money. He kept Colombia in the news headlines for twelve years. By the end of the 80s, it was almost impossible not to know who Pablo Escobar was.
But in Medellín, his hometown, Escobar is considered a part of the city. In many of the poorest barrios of the city he was a hero, even while to the rest of the country he was the most brutal criminal alive. His tomb is the third most visited site in the country, although tourist brochures say nothing of it, nor does any travel agency make open mention of the tours of “Hacienda Nápoles”, Escobar’s property, which has now been all but destroyed by wanderers in search of money or buried treasures, but which nevertheless continues to be a tourist attraction. In its glory days, “La Nápoles” had three artificial lakes, a hospital, one thousand rooms, stables, a private airport for his fleet of private jets, a casino, a bullring, a jurassic park filled with life-size metal dinosaurs, and the best zoo in the country. In his private jets, Pablo sent people around the world to collect animals for his private zoo. Whether they had to hunt them down or buy them, his hunters and gatherers travelled the five continents in search of exotic creatures. Indian elephants, kangaroos, koalas, African lions and American buffalo were but a small sample of his vast collection.
Many of the bathroom fittings in his mansion were made of solid gold. He decorated the entry to the hacienda with the plane that carried his first cocaine shipment to the United States. He bought Al Capone’s car in an expression of his admiration for the American mafia boss. His thoroughbred horses were valued above market prices, as were the thousands of properties he owned. He pushed up the price of real estate to inaccessible levels in the most luxurious districts of Medellin and Bogota. Price didn’t matter: if Escobar wanted it, he bought it.
But Escobar was no ordinary drug dealer. He had a vision for his business and of how it fit into Colombian society. He expected people to understand that drug money could help to improve living conditions in the poorest barrios of Medellín.
He built a whole neighbourhood (ironically named “La Paz”, Spanish for “peace”) and several soccer fields, and he distributed money to thousands of people living in poverty. This was how he obtained a seat in the Colombian congress, winning the election with legitimate votes. Although his political life was plagued with accusations of drug-trafficking, he was ironically invited to the presidential inauguration of Felipe Gonzalez in Spain as a member of the Colombian delegation, and he visited Washington D.C. several times.
But as head of the “Medellín Cartel”, he initiated the most violent period of Colombian history. His most notorious crimes include the explosion in mid-flight of an Avianca Airlines aircraft carrying U.S. passengers, resulting in approximately 200 deaths, the bombing that destroyed the DAS (the Secret Police of Colombia) Building, resulting in 70 deaths and hundred of injuries, and the murder of Luis Carlos Galan, perhaps the most famous politician in recent Colombian history, who lobbied for Escobar’s extradition to the United States. He hired the M19 guerrilla forces to destroy the criminal archives in the Colombian Law Courts, and launched a war against the “Cali Cartel” over disputed domains in the drug trade.
After a long war with the Colombian government, Escobar decided to “surrender”, submitting himself to justice on the condition that he would not be extradited to the United States. He was locked away in a prison named “The Cathedral” – which was more like a five-star hotel than a prison – from where he continued working: he had a cell phone, internet access and a fax machine. His cell also featured a Jacuzzi and other luxuries.
When the Colombian government became aware of his luxurious prison conditions, they determined to move him. Escobar was warned of the move a few hours in advance by one of his government sources, and he had no time to organize a more comfortable escape; he fled on foot on July 22, 1992. His escape is considered the most embarrassing event in Colombian history. Accusations of corruption and ineptness at every level forced the government to create the “Bloque de Búsqueda” (“Search Block”): a group of 100 soldiers trained by the CIA exclusively for the purpose of capturing Escobar.
The CIA and the Colombian government spent eleven months trying to apprehend him. They detained his wife and sons when they tried to fly to the United States – in spite of having legitimate visas – as a strategy to track him down. Escobar began calling his children, not realizing that the CIA was tracing his calls by satellite. At last, they discovered his whereabouts.
On December 2, 1993, Pablo Escobar was taken down by the “Bloque” in an operation qualified as a “success” in the press releases issued by Washington and Bogotá. Nevertheless, a large number of people in the poorest barrios of Medellin mourned his death in one of the largest funerals in Colombian history.
Why is Pablo Escobar important to Latin American history? Why should he occupy a place with Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and Simón Bolívar as a Latin American icon? The answer is very simple: Pablo Escobar changed Colombia: one man who changed an entire country. He rendered the nation ungovernable during three presidential administrations. Not only did he change the vocabulary, but the customs, the economy and the culture of Medellin and Colombia as a whole. Before Escobar, nobody knew the meaning of “sicario” (“hitman”); the term has since become regrettably familiar to Colombians. Before Escobar, Medellin was considered a paradise; now, even fifteen years after his death, foreigners prefer not to visit the city. Before Escobar, nobody considered the idea of a bomb in a supermarket or a on a plane in full flight; today, all Colombian politicians drive in bullet-proof cars, and the buildings have been architecturally redesigned for security purposes. As a result of the scandal of his escape from prison, Colombian legislators changed imprisonment laws and the prisons themselves. He even forced the CIA and the Colombian government to join forces to create an army, initiating a new tradition of U.S. intervention in the Colombian military.
Escobar never expected that he might become an infamous mafia boss. Today, he is an icon of the Colombian mafia. His most cherished belongings are now snapped up by collectors, many of them drug barons who view Escobar in the same way that he himself viewed Al Capone: as a role model.
Alberto Caballero is a musician born in Bogotá, Colombia. He has contributed to Colombian publications and websites as a contemporary music and opinion commentator. He currently lives in Toronto.
Translated by Martin Boyd