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| 12/3/2008 12:00:00 AM

Pablo Escobar refuses to go away

Fifteen years after his death, Pablo Escobar still inspires writers, film directors, artists, and entrepreneurs. Will he become an icon like Che Guevara?

Fifteen years have passed since Pablo Escobar’s death on the rooftop of a house in Los Pinos, a neighborhood in the west of Medellín. Yet nobody agrees about the true breadth of his legacy - nor about the impact of his image - now mythicized because of a death that is increasingly distant and blurry.

It’s not easy to define a person’s true legacy. Escobar came to be (and in some countries still is) an immediate reference when mentioning Colombia: a reference for terror and violence. How present is that brand in a country that has witnessed successive waves of violence following Escobar’s death? How much has he made a mark on the country’s ethics and esthetics?

To begin with, the name Escobar holds a powerful appeal on people, whether they hate or love him. The artist Fernando Botero expressed in oils the moment in which the mafia capo fell in defeat to his pursuers. On the silver screen, the list of documentary films and dramas revolving around the character or his legend is endless. At the moment, Hollywood is preparing the mega production “Killing Pablo.” Examples of successful television productions include documentaries based on a book by that name, or on Pablo Escobar’s family archives. Books about his life are still coming out. Last year Virginia Vallejo, Escobar’s former lover, generated controversy with her work “Loving Pablo, Hating Escobar,” a well narrated apology of the mafia head.

In addition, one of the greatest successes of Colombian television in recent years (since “Ugly Betty”) has been “El Cartel,” a series based on the confessions of the drug trafficker Andrés López, alias “Florecita.” In this series, Colombians could see, in one way or another, the point of view of drug traffickers following the death of Pablo Escobar. It was also proof that the world of drug trafficking and the stories of people who are born in the gutter but reach the peak of mafia power continue to fascinate the public.

But the ghost of Escobar also lingers in places far from journalism and the dramatization of his life. Some tourists to Medellín, almost all of them foreigners, ask about Escobar’s tomb and visit Montesacro cemetery in the south of the city, where the epitaph “here lies Pablo Escobar Gaviria, a king without a crown” is carved in the marble tombstone – similar to the pilgrimage made by thousands of tourists in Paris to the tomb of Jim Morrison, at the Père Lachaise cemetery.

Some travel agencies in Medellín have started tours that visit emblematic buildings related to Pablo Escobar (buildings such as the Mónaco, and two examples of so-called “thug architecture” or “narco-deco,” the Dallas and the Ovni), the La Catedral prison in the rural area of the neighboring Envigado municipality, where he was confined and from where he escaped; phone stalls in the city center from where, legend goes, he communicated with his family; the house where he was gunned down in Los Pinos, and of course his tomb. During the tour the operator plays music from the group Los Tigres del Norte and Bob Marley as background music, and there are always some who offer a little marijuana. Some tours also offer the option of a three hour trip to Hacienda Nápoles, Escobar’s ranch.

If there ever were an icon of “Pablo Escobar-ness” it would be Hacienda Nápoles in Doradal, a Magdalena Medio town in Antioquia, with an entrance that features the Piper Club plane that delivered Escobar’s first shipment of cocaine to the United States. There, the trafficker built a zoo and had a collection of antique cars that was a must see for those traveling between Bogotá and Medellín by car. When he died, the zoo was abandoned and, according to hearsay, just over a year ago some hippopotamuses escaped as they looked for females in the Magdalena River.

Escobar’s ghost has lived on in the lives of some fishermen in the Cimitarra area of Santander, whose unexpected meetings with hippos resembled experiences of those exploring the Zambezi River in the heart of Africa.

Escobar also endures as an esthetic icon. His image, stripped of its incalculable evil, or perhaps as a challenge to new generations, adorns t-shirts, like Che Guevara. As what happened with the symbol of the best of the Cuban Revolution; those who wear the shirts don’t profess Escobar’s ideology. People wearing Escobar t-shirts in Europe might just as well use a Homer Simpson or Rolling Stones t-shirt, for they lack knowledge of the interminable trail of blood that he left in Colombia.

Another noteworthy factor is to see how, while the real drug traffickers learned lessons from the past and now keep low profiles, wide swaths of society have been infected with the thug culture of ostentation. It is a trend that some see in decline, like the publicist Ángel Beccassino, a student of the meaning of popular images, who says that “that rabid kitsch culture has also come and gone. With the new trend of local drug traffickers to lay low, the exaggerated kitsch aspect is now seen in Mexico’s drug cartels.”

The same thuggish or “narco-deco” architecture has left a profound mark, not only in cities such as Medellin or Cali, both known for drug cartels that bear their names, but also elsewhere in the country.

Escobar has a more profound meaning among residents of Medellín. For the elites, Escobar was a stigma to be erased from the new Medellín of public libraries in parks, the metro and the Metrocable; but among the poor many continue to see him as a paisa (one from Antioquia) version of Robin Hood, who challenged the establishment, made himself rich, but unlike the traditional rich, shared some of his wealth building homes for the poor or mini-soccer fields. What they don’t see is his diabolical side, and his criminal past of placing bombs on commercial airlines or in a shopping center on Mother’s Day.
At Escobar’s burial, some 25,000 people came to mourn the death of a Robin Hood who, they think, stole from the rich to give to the poor.

Different authors consider Escobar to be something like the revenge of the dispossessed. In a country where social mobility is almost nonexistent, characters such as Pablo Escobar (or singer Diomedes Díaz, soccer player Tino Asprilla and now pyramid king David Murcia) claim the resentment of those born without anything and condemned to poverty regardless of their merits.

Lastly, there are those who think that Escobar has not died – like those who think Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha, Elvis Presley and Jim Morrison are still alive.
But generally speaking, how much do people still retain of Escobar’s presence? Many anthropologists and students of culture believe that Escobar’s image has become watered down in the midst of the country’s whirlpool of characters and problems.

Alive or dead, present or withering, what is certain is that Pablo Escobar, one way or another, will continue to hold his own in a country that suffered the criminal horror of his megalomania. Yet the country must recognize that the great mafia boss was a product “made in Colombia.”

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Francisco superstar

La esperada visita del papa a Colombia tiene tres dimensiones: una religiosa, una política y otra social. ¿Qué puede esperarse de la peregrinación del sumo pontífice?