If one of the first things that comes to mind when someone says the word "Colombia," is "drugs," that fault lies squarely on the shoulders of notorious drug mobster, Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria. Born in 1949 to a school teacher and a farmer, Pablo Escobar grew up in the suburbs of Medellin (pronunciation) and turned to a life of crime early on. He was believed to have sandblasted tombstones for resale and committed a number of petty crimes before turning to drugs in the '70s. Escobar and his vast empire were the conduit for massive amounts of cocaine smuggled to North America. In the mid '70s it is believed that Escobar ordered the killing of a rival Medellin drug lord, Fabio Restrepo and with this one decisive move, Escobar cemented his status in Medellin, and soon through all of Colombia.
Escobar's unrivalled growth as a much-feared drug lord was fortified by his philosophy: "plata o plomo," which translates to "silver or lead." To pave a "smooth" path, he used either silver (bribes) or lead (bullets). Escobar is believed to have killed thousands during his lifetime and at one point was responsible for 80% of the world's cocaine trafficking.
With the escalation of the U.S. war on drugs, Escobar was a prime target for the Americans, and the U.S. repeatedly requested his extradition to face charges. With the U.S. tightening its vise, Escobar made an interesting arrangement with the Colombian government where he would be under house arrest in an elaborate "prison" he created for himself, called ironically enough, "Le Catedral." Escobar continued operating his drug business from Le Catedral (which boasted a jacuzzi, waterfall, and even a stadium) and had connections and influence in all high places. He even briefly served as a politician.
During the early '90s the pressure to get Escobar intensified and he went into hiding. With the help of the Americans, a special police task force called the Search Bloc was commissioned. This task force eventually killed the drug lord in 1993 during a shootout on a rooftop of a Medellin house.
Escobar was the stuff of legend in Colombia, especially in Medellin, where he created programs for the poor - including housing, schools, stadiums and churches. This Robin Hood image was apparent at his burial when thousands of the very poor showed up to mourn the gangster.
Escobar's vast drug cartel included a huge estate housing planes to carry the drugs, private landing strips, and even a private zoo with a variety of exotic animals. After the dismantling of the cartel, this sprawling estate, called Hacienda Nápoles, around 200 miles from Bogota, was converted to a public park. The park and especially the zoo suffer from various stages of neglect. Hippos have escaped from the zoo (see review of The Sound of Things Falling) and have since grown in population in the wild areas surrounding the park. Local residents have also contributed to the park's surreal dilapidation by digging for rumored buried treasure.
Second image: Artist Fernando Botero, a native of Antioquia, the same region as Escobar, portrayed Pablo Escobar's death in one of his paintings about the violence in Colombia. Third image: Escobar's first plane, a Piper, carried the first shipment of cocaine that Escobar delivered to the United States. It is now mounted at the entrance of Hacienda Nápoles.
This article was originally published in September 2013, and has been updated for the
June 2014 paperback release.
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