BOGOTÁ — This week marks 25 years since the death of cartel boss Pablo Escobar, one of the 20th century's most notorious criminals. Beyond the criminal justice issue, this anniversary of his Dec. 2, 1993 death offers a good moment to rethink how Escobar in particular, and drug trafficking more generally, has affected Colombia's society and culture.
Months ago, I entered a souvenir shop in London, and the young attendant asked me where I was from. Colombia, I replied and he immediately said with a laugh, "Ah, Pablo Escobar." On another occasion, passing through the airport in Aruba, an agent asked me on which flight I had arrived. Bogotá, I said, which immediately prompted my being held up, unlike other passengers, and an inspection to check for drugs.
I only recount these to show this particular way Colombians have been viewed around the world for more than a quarter-century We may not need visas anymore to visit many countries, but we are still perceived as potential threats to the security of other countries, or somehow involved in drug trafficking.
Drug trafficking has become a part of mainstream culture.
Besides the dismay of being judged unfairly so far from one's country, there is also the consternation of watching certain people honor him. They sell T-shirts of his face around the world, while at home Escobar is remembered by some as a generous benefactor who built stadiums for cities and gave homes and money to those who had none.
The image of Escobar as a latter-day Robin Hood leaves out the 85 bomb attacks he orchestrated around the country in the 1980s and 1990s, and the 400 people he ordered murdered.
So how have we narrated this story, and transformed Escobar into a folk hero? The Mexican crime writer Élmer Mendoza recently told me that drug traffickers were good people, full of empathy for the working classes. One may find this vision puzzling, but his words make more sense as you examine how drug trafficking became a part of mainstream culture.
Pablo Escobar as depicted in the popular Narcos series — Photo: Netflix
People like Escobar filled a void left by state institutions, offering acts of "goodness" to legitimize their evil deeds. The villain can thus begin to acquire heroic dimensions, and the gifts and handouts intended to make locals accept the presence of crime among them begin going further, penetrating culture and shared psychology.
Sectors of Colombian society have for example come to accept what we might term "drug architecture and aesthetics." Mobsters brought to Colombia big white houses with tinted windows, like private clubs one might see in the United States or Mexico. Escobar went further in building his estate and private zoo, though the idea behind the shameless opulence was to show big crime's interest in unconcealed, territorial occupation.
Literature and film have been prolific, both fictional and factual.
Use of ostentatious materials is a show of power and sign of identity. It is then emulated, as people start to aspire to live within the ornate façades to display their own prosperity. Then there were the objects gangsters came to love: Escobar reputedly accumulated art valued then at around $1.5 billion, including works by Dalí, Picasso, Rodin, or Colombian artists like Botero and Luis Caballero. The fact is many of these reports were never authenticated, the works never found, but anecdotes like one told by a former Escobar wife, María Henao, about a gallery owner declaring the drug lord's collection to be the most important in Latin America, confirm his desire to buy art to show his refinement, and power.
Literature and film have in turn been prolific, both fictional and factual, narrators of the various aspects of the mob world and its excesses. They have made Escobar's life visible, and turned him into an action figure who becomes a little immortal every time he smashes another opponent. Series like Narcos on Netflix, or Escobar the Boss of Evil, depict him as someone who loved his family and gave refuge to neighbors. He is eternally depicted as the hope of those who had despaired of the state and the law.
Their fates are recounted in an urban literature genre written by such novelists as Héctor Abad Faciolince, Fernando Vallejo or even Gabriel García Márquez. They depict youth placed at the service of death and crime, in a society living in the grip of fear. The Sound of Falling Objects ("El ruido de las cosas al caer"), News of a Kidnapping and Our Lady of the Assassins are three works that take us closer to this nebulous, fratricidal world.
These and other books convey Colombian literature's choice not to leave uncharted the truths and experiences of the violence perpetrated in Escobar's name. They also paint another reality, namely, as the television critic Omar Rincón said, of an entire society embracing the culture of anything goes.
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