Cultural Exchange: Pablo Escobar’s allure persists


MEDELLIN, Colombia — The actor’s comb-over, the mincing walk, the flat speech cadence and murderous, reptilian glare are all too reminiscent of one of the most powerful criminals who lived.

The large number of Colombian eyeballs glued to a new prime-time telenovela about the life and times of Pablo Escobar, highlighted by actor Andrés Parra’s bravura performance, shows that the late drug narco still fascinates more than 18 years after he died on a Medellin rooftop in a shoot-out with police.

And the sale of the series to U.S. Spanish-language broadcaster Telemundo, plus the increasing number of foreigners taking “Pablo tours” here in his hometown, suggests interest in the ex-car thief who rose to become a billionaire drug lord extends far beyond this country’s borders.


Caracol TV, the Colombian broadcast channel broadcasting the series, said “Escobar: The Boss of Evil” has pulled in near-record numbers of viewers since having its premiere in late May. It’s even approached — but not quite surpassed — ratings ofColombia’smost popular soap ever, “Betty La Fea,” whose plot was exported and reproduced in the U.S. as “Ugly Betty.”

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The writers are exploiting a rich vein of dramatic material. Early episodes were concerned with Pablo’s entrepreneurial rise from petty crime to cocaine magnate. Later ones have focused on his bloody campaign to force the Colombian government to revoke extradition. To do that, he ordered the killing of justice minister Rodrigo Lara and presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan; offered 1-million peso bounties that produced murders of hundreds of policemen, and planted a bomb that brought down an Avianca jetliner in 1989 killing 110 crew and passengers. The target, presidential candidate Cesar Gaviria, missed the flight.

The series is being co-produced by relatives of two of Escobar’s high-profile victims: Camilo Cano, son of Guillermo Cano, editor of El Espectador newspaper, whom Escobar had murdered in 1986; and Juana Uribe, niece of Galan, who was gunned down at a campaign event in 1989.

Like many soaps, its duration is open-ended as the producers seem to be willing to extend the series for as long as ratings warrant. It’s proved to be a visual treat: It’s been shot at 450 locations across Colombia, including a ranch that resembles Escobar’s pleasure palace Hacienda Napoles, where Colombians once flocked on weekends to see his exotic collection of lions, giraffes, zebras and hippos. The real ranch is now home to a prison and public park.

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The soap also covers the elements of the Escobar legend that have made him out to be a Robin Hood, including his building hundreds of housing units for dwellers of the Medellin city dump. As the telenovela makes clear, the largesse was electorally motivated and helped him get elected to congress as an alternate in 1982.

Evil can exert a strange attraction.

Recently, a group of 14 German, Irish, Australian, French and American tourists — mostly backpackers — piled into a van to tour Escobar’s grave site, the now-abandoned and bombed-out high-rise that was the nerve center of his criminal enterprise and a onetime “safe house” that is now occupied by his brother Roberto.

It’s one of half a dozen Pablo tours in Medellin but the only one that includes an audience with a blood relative of the narco, who in the 1980s made the Forbes magazine list of the world’s richest people.

Though scarred and partly blinded by a letter bomb that exploded while he was serving an 11-year prison term for his role in his brother’s cartel, Escobar, 65, cheerfully signed photos and books and told anecdotes about his younger brother. He pointed out bullet holes on the entry wall of the house, remnants of a gunfight during a kidnapping attempt two years ago.

Roberto gave the group a sanitized version of his brother’s rise to notoriety, insisting he had all the ability to make a success in legitimate business but that a “lack of capital” forced him into a life of crime. Pablo took up violence solely in self-defense, and his generosity was limitless, Roberto said.

“If I needed money, he would show me a suitcase filled with cash and say, ‘Here,’ ” Escobar said. “And I did the same for him.”


Miles Lehmann, a retiredU.S. Armycolonel from Florida who paid $45 for the tour, said the visit to Montesacro cemetery “didn’t do much for me” but that meeting his brother was “quite interesting.” “So was the fact he got just 11 years in prison for his part in murdering thousands of people. In the States, you get that for one count of armed robbery.”

Some Colombians old enough to remember Pablo Escobar’s reign of terror have mixed feelings about his continued allure. Some would prefer to bury the past and focus on Colombia’simproved security and economy, while others agree with the George Santayana maxim flashed at the beginning of each show: “Those who ignore history are destined to relive it.”

One person who is decidedly unhappy with the TV show is Roberto Escobar, who says he will sue the producers for allegedly lifting episodes without permission from his books he wrote about his brother, episodes that he says only he and Pablo knew about.

Kraul is a special correspondent.