Pablo Escobar is still remembered two decades after his death in Colombia, and Latin America in general, but the way he is recalled varies.
Twenty years ago, on December 2, 1993, Pablo Escobar was shot and killed during a raid by the Colombian police. The operation, which took part in Medellin, would be the beginning of the end for the Medellin Cartel which was headed by Escobar, one of the most powerful and ruthless criminal entities in Colombia at the time.
Fear no more?
Pablo Escobar’s rise to fame and the violent actions that he carried out during the late 1970s and 1980s, at the height of his power, has generally been well-documented.
He and his allies, such as the Ochoa brothers and Jose Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, transformed the Medellin Cartel into a powerhouse within his country. (Incidentally, Jhon Jairo Velasquez Vasquez, AKA Popeye, one of Escobar’s assassins, was freed this past September after spending just 23 years in prison, even though he has declared to the media that he has killed around 300 people).
He was particularly violent against his opponents, whether they were members of the Colombian government, security forces, journalists that did not write about him from a positive angle, or of other criminal entities, such as the Cali Cartel.
Some of Pablo Escobar’s most famous assassinations include Guillermo Cano, editor of the daily El Espectador, as well as the 1989 murder of Colombian presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan.
Moreover, it has often been alleged that Escobar, also known as El Patron or El Doctor, orchestrated the 1985 storming of the Colombian Supreme Court by fighters of the M-19, a defunct Colombian left-wing guerrilla movement.
One curious factor that made him different from other drug traffickers of the time is that, to paraphrase Mark Bowden (author of the 2001 best-seller biography “Killing Pablo”), Escobar did not just want to be rich and powerful, he also wanted to be loved.
To this end, he carried out many philanthropic initiatives in his native region of Antioquia, such as building sports complexes and bringing electricity to isolated areas. Even today, he is still fondly remembered in several Medellin neighborhoods for constructing houses for people in need.
Most memorable was Pablo Escobar’s success in getting elected to the Colombian Congress. This happened in 1982, when he ran as part of the Colombian Liberal Party and was elected to be an alternative in the House of Representatives.
Furthermore, when Escobar went to prison, it was on his own terms. He managed to hatch a deal with the Cesar Gaviria administration through which he was allowed to build a prison, known as La Catedral, for himself and some of his associates. Unsurprisingly he did not spend much time there before escaping.
When he was killed in 1993 by a Colombian police task force known as Search Block, Pablo Escobar was trying to negotiate a new surrender. However, after the embarrassing fiasco of La Catedral, neither Gaviria nor Washington (which was increasing its presence in Colombia to combat drug trafficking) were eager to accept a new agreement.
Pablo Escobar’s legacy
Two decades after his death, the question now is how Escobar is, or should be, remembered. Certainly, he has become part of Latin American pop culture history. This is perhaps best exemplified by the telenovela aptly entitled “Pablo Escobar: El Patron del Mal” (The Lord of Evil).
The soap opera portrays Escobar’s life, but whether it gives too much humanity to the late kingpin is open to debate.
It should be noted that it is not just television stations that are capitalizing on Pablo Escobar’s admittedly fascinating story. Even his son Sebastian Marroquin (he changed his name two decades ago after Escobar’s death), is profiting from his late father’s image, as he has created a clothing line called Poder Poder.
The line produces items such as t-shirts that have a picture of Escobar’s arrest documents as well as his father’s face. Marroquin argues that he started this enterprise so that he could influence young people to not become criminals, however, he has been critiqued for this initiative nevertheless.
It should be noted that there has been much scholarly work analyzing Pablo Escobar’s life. Apart from Bowden’s aforementioned Killing Pablo, the renowned journalist Yolanda Ruiz recently made public an interview with Escobar that she carried out in 1988.
The interview is fascinating, as Escobar is ambiguous regarding his role as a drug trafficker while also describing himself as “simply a person that respects the ideas of other people” (for audio of the interview click here).
It is a worrisome development that a new generation of Colombians and Latin Americans, who did not grow up during Pablo Escobar’s era of terror, may become fond of him.
A similar pattern is already emerging in Mexico, where there are alarming reports that some young Mexicans want to become narcos, due to the wealth and power of criminal entities like the Zetas or Sinaloa Cartel.
As for Colombia, modern-day drug trafficking entities are not as powerful as Escobar’s Medellin Cartel was, but there are plenty of criminal groups involved in this trade.
These include the FARC, as well as criminal gangs like the Urabeños. Hopefully, whatever the future of drug trafficking in Colombia, no narco-lord will ever have the same type of power and impunity that Pablo Escobar once enjoyed.