Inspiring endless books, documentaries and ultra-violent dramas, Pablo Escobar – who was killed in a shootout on 2 December 1993 – has long reigned in the popular imagination as a kind of monarch among criminals. And a quick glance at the basic, blood-soaked facts will tell us why. At the height of his success, the Columbian drug lord and "face" of the Medellin Cartel was responsible for 80% of the world’s international cocaine trade – making him one of the richest men in the world and famously putting him amid the big business leaders on the Forbes rich list.
But was he just a very, very successful criminal – a jumped-up Al Capone – or something grander? Opinion is still bitterly divided, with some viewing him as a cruel, ruthless thug and terrorist, and others revering him as a generous philanthropist who took from the rich and gave generously to the poor – a kind of drug-propelled Robin Hood.
Born in Rionegro and raised in nearby Medellin, Pablo came from very humble beginnings – a fact which he would later use to win the affections of Columbia’s struggling, everyday people. His criminal activity began soon after abandoning his university course, and started with him selling contraband products for smugglers, stealing cars, and kidnapping people for ransom. Building on this experience he began to sell cocaine, and by 1975 he had established the first audacious smuggling routes into the United States. Business soon boomed, and by the 1980s it was estimated that 70 to 80 tons of cocaine was being transported to eager customers in the US every month.
During this time Escobar used aggressive tactics to protect his business interests. Whether they were police, journalists, or politicians, those that defied or spoke out against him were promptly assassinated. As the Columbian government attempted to close in around him, he waged an open war on them, using his vast wealth to fund further assassinations, as well as corrupt the very people tasked with stopping him. For a time, Pablo Escobar appeared to be invincible.
In his private life Pablo certainly liked to enjoy his money. He basked in a sprawling home, Hacienda Napoles. The idyllic property featured lush grounds, swimming pools, zoos filled with exotic animals, and an army of employees tending to the family’s every whim. “Not all of my father’s history and its acts are full of evil,” remembers his son. “I have to live with both truths. The love I feel for him is not negotiable – he was an excellent father.”
But the real conundrum stems from Escobar’s undeniable generosity towards the local community. Throughout his career he gave generously to the Columbian people, building schools and sports fields, donating vast sums to charity, and constructing housing developments for the poor. People loved him. He represented one of them – one who had risen up to hit back at their wealthy oppressors.
But it is important to note that not every Columbian saw him as a Robin Hood-like hero. For writer Bernardo Aparicio Garcia, his childhood memories of Escobar’s Columbia come without the romanticized images of flourishing communities and beautiful football fields – for him it was largely about fear, and the unwavering morals of his father.
“My dad despised the drug traffickers, and to the extent that he could do so without getting shot, he was intolerant of any social interaction that might legitimize their place in society,” Garcia recalled in an article about those days, also speaking of the relief he felt when Escobar was killed, comparing it to the defeat of Satan.
For some Columbians, Pablo Escobar’s acts of violence overshadowed any act of generosity. Arguably his most shocking attack on the government was the Palace of Justice siege in 1985, in which he allegedly backed the M-19 guerrilla group to attack the Supreme Court of Columbia and destroy evidence they held against him. Dozens of soldiers and judges were killed. Beyond that, there’s no clear figure to indicate just how many hundreds, or thousands of people were killed in the interest of Escobar’s empire. What is clear, however, is that dealing out death came easily to him. And this is the bottom line in any debate about his apparent good deeds.
In every portrayal of Robin Hood, the character’s unwavering traits are nobility, fairness and selflessness – three words that wouldn’t be your first three choices when describing Pablo Escobar. Granted, he gave to the poor by the millions, but was helping his community his overall motivation? Or was it his love of silk sheets, pet hippos and sprawling haciendas?
At best, Pablo’s generosity towards the Columbian people could be viewed as something he used to atone for the atrocities he committed. At worst, it was a ruse to garner adoration and support of everyday people, to better protect and further his interests. As Javier Pena, one of the DEA agents who tracked down Escobar, said: “People loved him and that often got in our way. Many in Colombia looked up to him as a god but he was just a master manipulator.”
On this anniversary of the murderous drug baron death’s, that should surely be the point that overrules the words spoken in his defence.