Today, December 2, marks the death anniversary of Pablo Escobar. Killed in 1993, twenty-four years ago. Growing up, the adults around me hated or loved Pablo. No deep look into what shaped him. Pablo was either El Patron or un monstro.
At the end of the craft intensive workshop I attended last month we sat behind and asked each other questions that writers love to ask one another. Favorite books? Authors? Genres? Lyrists? Quotes? I listened to those around me, nodded my head to their answers, and gave my own. But, it was the last question asked that I answered before anyone. Pablo Escobar, I said real fast, when asked: what villain in history are you obsessed with? On the ride home I thought about my answer, and why. It was more than just Pablo Escobar the famous outlaw I was obsessed with, it was the story behind him. The history of Colombia. As with all good stories, there is another story woven. Once unraveled, a glimpse of the truth is exposed.
About two years ago I bought a novelty T-shirt with Pablo Escobar’s face imprinted in the center, his name written in script above it. Not for myself, but for my son, Rubencito. He had walked into the living room that summer and caught a glimpse of an episode of Narcos, season one. Pablo Escobar was in the middle of a road, a truck filled with coca behind him, with a henchman at his side, he faced an official in army fatigues. Pablo stared down the man, and delivered the words that later became one of his memorable catchphrases: plata o plomo?
My son asked, “Who is that?”
Both my husband and I turned around and said in unison, “that’s Pablo Escobar.”
Perhaps it was the reverence in our voice which peaked his interest. Rubencito sat beside us and said, “tell me everything about him.”
We told Rubencito as much as we could. His eyes grew wide. First wonder, later amazement, fear, and a sadness too.
When Mami saw Rubencito with the t-shirt, she was pissed. Told me to take it off him, that I had lost my mind.
“Porque?” I rolled my eyes.
“Ese hombre es un asesino. He killed millions. That Avianca airplane filled with so many innocent people, that was the worst. May he be in the pits of hell.”
I turned to my husband, who hated Narcos, but often found himself pulled into a scene despite himself. And who refered to Pablo Escobar as, Tio Pablo.
I thought about my last trip to Colombia as I strolled through el Norte de Barranquilla. My prima Clara pointed to the fancy stores on the strip mall, “built with dinero de narcotraffico.” I searched her face, there was no hate and disgust nor reverence, but a respect for the order of things in Colombia. I tried to make sense of it. I supposed it was no different from America’s history of being built on the exploitation of others. A different version of capitalism.
It’s been a few years since Narcos made its debut on Netflix. Careful to take note how many have asked my husband about the show. Whether at a party, wake, dinner, or a quick exchange, people were now interested in the history of Colombia. Asked if the show is authentic? Was it really that bad? His answer never wavers: I don’t want to remember those bad times. Some have placed a hand on his shoulder and nodded their heads. I suspect that in the moment they realized, the show they binged watch, was a country’s history. Others don’t. On a recent trip out of the country for work my husband was asked about the show Narcos during customs. Often pulled off the line and interrogated by immigration officers, but this time flooded with relief he answered questions about Narcos. On the same trip one of the men my husband worked for asked if he could call him Escobar once he learned he was Colombian. It was met with a firm NO.
During the entire season one of Narcos I asked myself where was Popeye? Popeye, was Pablo Escobar’s number one hitman for El Cartel de Medellin. Real name, Jhon Jairo Velasquez. If Pablo Escobar was the most notorious bandit in Colombia, Jhon Jairo second.
After the end of season three of Narcos, Netflix suggested another show I might like based off my loyal viewing of Narcos. Intrigued by the title, Surviving Escobar, Allias JJ. I watched one episode and another, soon found myself watching the show whenever time opened itself up. Popeye, the main character, Pablo Escobar’s memory braided in the storyline, but it was the character of Colombia that pulled me in. I watched the world of crime and prison in Colombia, told with no agenda other than to tell a story, a unglamorous and unsentimental narrative of Colombia unfolded.
At the very start we meet Popeye who with the blessing of Pablo Escobar turns himself into the authorities in an effort to save his own life and that of his girlfriend, later wife. Certain that he will receive a short sentence and be protected in jail by Pablo Escobar, Popeye plans for a quick and easy prison term. And, like a good story, conflict soon arises in the form of Pablo’s death, and a series of events that leads to a thirty year prison term. Popeye is left to survive his sentence in the country’s capital, a prison separated by three cell blocks, la guerrilla, los paramilitares, and los narcotraficicantes. The latter responsible for the waves of fear sent throughout the country during the 1980’s and 1990’s . Colombia forced to its knees with so many acts of violence, death, and corruption. Corruption, an infection so pervasive and insidious that nothing remained untouched. Powerless to a political structure that did not allow the poor, which make up most of the country, to make advances. Desperate many choose a life of crime, or are caught up in the siege of the guerilla, and their opposition los paramilitares, everyone collateral damage of a country with few choices.
A small crack on a windshield that opens and spreads, webbed with millions of tiny cracks, Colombia’s corruption is that shattered glass. The show, while focused on Popeye, gives testimony to all those fine cracks, through the stories of other prisoners, politicians, judges, lawyers, police, a prison warden, guards, wives and girlfriends of the intimates, the narcos that are free, the guerrilla and paramilitares fighting in the countryside and jungles of Colombia, journalists, and DEA officers, all casualties of the breakdown of Colombia.
An episode at a time, I have gained insight to what it must have been like to grow up in a country where no one is left untouched by the lure of money and the weight of fear. I think about how Pablo gave back to the poor, seen as a demigod by many in Medellin then and now. How after his prison release twenty three years later, Jhon Jairo has a following, seen as a repent assassin. That despite admitting to having killed close to 300 people, and being responsible for the murder orders of over 3,000 people, Popeye has become hero for many. Popeyes crimes are not forgiven, but forgotten, as he shines a light to the facts. The facts about Colombia that helped create two banditos like Pablo Escobar and Popeye.
Along with question about Colombia, and if it was really that bad? My husband is asked another question. I’m asked too. Is it better now with the cartels dismantled? I pause before I answer, aware that the questioner like a small child wants to believe the monster no longer lurks in the shadows. But. The answer is, that the only thing that has changed is that big cartels no longer control the coca trade in Colombia. Young capos realized that a bunch of small groups make it hard for USA and Colombian officials to connect all the dots. Guerilla and paramiltaries invited to take part in this elaborate assembly line operation, each group responsible for their part. It is said that over three hundred groups are responsible for the smuggling of coca out of Colombia to every industrialized nation. The truth is, Colombia still makes a ton of money in el trafico de drugas.
I have romanized Colombia in the past, and a part still does. But, like all things I now search for the oppressed and the oppressor that exists in every character. Yes, Pablo Escobar committed atrocious crimes and his actions merited punishment. Colombia does not offer life sentences nor has the death penalty, a reason why extradition to the US was what every narco feared. Jhon Jario, Popeye’s list of crimes is not much different from those of his Boss. But, behind their crime is a story. A story of a broken down Colombia, filled with a country full of powerless and hurt people.