Pablo’s Ghost

Fernando Botero’s portrayal of Escobar’s death in one of his paintings, detailing the violence seen in Colombia.

Roberto ‘Cubby’ Escobar is the 71-year old, former accountant of the defunct Medellín drug cartel and the curator of the Pablo Escobar Museum, which he established after his release from prison in 2006. The museum honors the memory of Colombia’s most famous criminal, who is his brother. Housed in a former hideout, it capitalizes on the growing stream of foreign tourists who want to know more about the notorious drug lord, and Cubby is the bobble-headed dashboard adornment of the vehicle bearing the late capo’s decontaminated image to them.

Once known as the ‘King of Cocaine,’ Pablo Escobar is now more popular than ever, even though he died in 1993.  His name is associated with a multi-million dollar, globe-spanning tourist and entertainment industry that has accelerated the romanticization and commodification of his life. His legacy has generated tensions between the Colombian state, which wants to separate the country from an international image of drug-fueled violence, and savvy entrepreneurs who want to capture tourist dollars by glorifying his over-the-top lifestyle. The frictions shape a struggle over the meaning and truths of Escobar’s life, which is part of a larger story of a vicious civil war fueled by the massive profits of the illegal cocaine traffic. That struggle is worth understanding, because it has international implications and strategic significance for Colombia.

Promoted as one of the Americas’ ‘hot tourist destinations,’ a mere two-hour flight from Miami, Colombia is drawing visitors nursed on movies and police procedurals like the hit Netflix series ‘Narcos,’ as its decades-long civil war abates. Medellín, Colombia’s second largest city, is where Pablo Escobar grew up and launched his criminal career, and sightseeing tours have multiplied.  One can choose excursions to coffee farms, quaint rural villages, and once violent urban comunas, where the proliferation of street art stakes out hope for a peaceful future. There are also tours to the city’s churches, museums, and government buildings, but the most popular outings are the so-called ‘narcos tours,’ which have boomed like cocaine once did in the delirious days of the Medellín cartel. Cubby purportedly founded the first one, a 50-minute guided walk through the Pablo Escobar museum featuring photographs, family furniture, and various vehicles used by Pablo and his henchmen. A plethora of knock-offs, at hefty prices, also promise an insiders’ look at Pablo’s life and death through visits to locations around the city where the drug lord left his mark. Together, they spin stories in which fiction collides with fact like a temperature inversion, creating a dense fog that obscures a dark, complicated history.

In his heyday, Pablo Escobar not only dominated the global cocaine traffic. He was one of the world’s wealthiest men, who offered to pay Colombia’s foreign debt in exchange for exemption from an extradition treaty with the United States. Known as the patrón,Escobar ordered the murder of hundreds of people. He kidnapped and tortured his enemies and placed car bombs in densely populated urban areas. He blew up a civilian airliner, in 1990, intending to kill presidential candidate César Gavíria who was not on board, but ending the lives of all 107 passengers. He assassinated three other presidential hopefuls in a single election cycle, killed a minister of justice who wanted to extradite him to the United States, and employed a private army of hitmen and mass murderers who wreaked havoc throughout Colombia and further afield long after his death.

Despite this reign of terror, a morbid curiosity surrounds his life and death, which offer Hollywood and the tourist industry lucrative topics for popular consumption, and make Pablo Escobar the latest in a line of gangsters and organized crime figures from Billy the Kid to Al Capone whose mythologization has a long tradition. The Pablo Escobar museum is a strange cog in this fantasy machine.  High on a wooded hillside overlooking downtown Medellín, it sits at the end of a steep driveway, off an unmarked, narrow road that leads away from a busy thoroughfare. A large, blue metal gate covers the approach, but there are no signs that announce the museum’s existence. Getting lost is easy, as my taxi driver and I discovered.

After knocking on the door of an unsuspecting neighbor, we received directions to the museum’s entrance and announced ourselves to an invisible observer, who allowed us to pass. We pulled up to the gift shop, where a middle-aged, ex-lottery vendor with spikey black hair named Victor approached me. He said that for a nonnegotiable $35 dollars—the equivalent of three days’ work at minimum wage in Colombia—, I could enter the museum and he would serve as my guide. After failing to get a better deal, I handed my credit card to a young, female cashier who processed the admission fee as a said-to-be, ex-cartel member looked on.  Like the foreign tourists milling around the grounds, I could absorb the sticker shock better than most Colombians.

Victor walked with a pronounced limp, as he directed me to the first exhibit—a poster-sized photograph of a plaque that commemorates nine victims of a 1992 police massacre in a Medellín park that was blamed on Pablo. Only years after the bloodbath did the municipal authorities assign responsibility to the security forces, and, in 2002, they authorized the construction of a memorial to honor the eight children and one young adult who died. Victor insisted that just like these innocent people, Pablo was also a casualty of police corruption. To emphasize the point, he gestured to additional photographs that showed Cubby seated in the park, where he clearly served as a stand-in for his brother. Statues commemorating the dead children surrounded him.

The appropriation of victimhood is one aspect of the Escobar myth, which holds that Pablo was less a cold-blooded psychopath than a Robin Hood figure who was unjustly targeted by state security forces and who uplifted the poor. Victor communicated this tale in a relentless staccato that felt like a drive-by shooting. He almost never paused to inhale or recalibrate, and raising a question was like trying to light a match in a hurricane. Pablo’s humanity, his victimization and the immorality of the police comprised the central message of Victor’s well-oiled spiel.

The verbal pasting continued as we proceeded from one exhibit to another. The museum offered a bird’s eye view of Medellín’s old airport and the runways that once delivered cocaine to the world. Several automobiles—some with prominent bullet holes—occupied much of its space. They included a modified, James Bond-style, pick-up truck retrofitted to excrete a dense black cloud through the rear exhaust pipes. Victor explained that a special fluid, ‘made in England’, produced the smoke screen. He then detained me for another lecture in front of a photomontage of Escobar’s estate—the Hacienda Nápoles, where, during the peak of his wealth and power, Pablo Escobar imported exotic animals and created a personal zoo. In Victor’s narrative, the zoo benefited the poor, peasant children of Colombia’s Middle Magdalena region, and Pablo’s love of animals moved him to nurture a sick elephant back to health. Victor pointed to a picture of the elephant with the smiling mafioso on its back. Such yarns garnished the fable of Escobar’s rags-to-riches life, a story about a humble outsider who elbowed Medellín’s blue-blooded establishment aside, built neighborhoods for the urban poor, donated money for soccer fields, and lived the kind of lavish life that others only realized in their dreams.

The tour’s defining moment came at the end, when Victor informed me that I could speak with Cubby. Few narco tours offered the chance to meet a high-ranking, cartel member, much less Pablo’s brother and comrade-in-arms, and the presence of such a gaudy gewgaw distinguished this high-end tour from the low-end rabble. Known as “Don Roberto” to his underlings, the old capo had one eye and posture like a question mark. He was seated in a chair by the James Bond truck, chatting with a pair of German tourists and soliciting donations for a religious charity that the museum allegedly supported. In a place where he could feel the air made way for him, Roberto Escobar exuded a hustling, smiling aura of menace. When I asked what he wanted the mostly North American and European visitors to take away from the visit, he snapped “the truth” but refused to elaborate, insisting only that an unnamed movie that portrayed him castrating a donkey and leaving it to bleed to death was a lie. He felt more comfortable regaling listeners with stories of the exploits of cartel members and larger-than-life portrayals of Pablo.

Because Pablo Escobar never harmed the visitors at the museum nor touched their lives, the distance—physical, cultural, and national—that separates him from them nurtures an emotional obliviousness to the passions and memories that roil Colombia after years of drug-propelled violence and civil war. Their wide-eyed questions about Pablo’s zoo, his safe houses, his hit men, and his fortune, and the jockeying for position in the museum to take selfies in front of a car window shattered by a bullet communicate fascination, innocence and naiveté. Yet such unworldliness quickly turns toxic in a country where impunity remains part of the drinking water. The murdered, displaced, tortured, disappeared and terrorized—by Escobar, the paramilitary successor organizations that emerged from the cartel, and state security forces allied with them—disappear from the drug kingpin’s legacy like uprooted weeds.  Their stories form the seamy underbelly of Colombian history, and the romanticization of Pablo Escobar’s legacy reproduces the ingenuousness on which the consumption of a disinfected past depends.

How to tell the story of Pablo Escobar, which unfolded within a civil war that claimed the lives of a quarter million people and displaced another six million, is far from settled. Some Colombians –mostly among the Medellín poor–view Escobar as a benefactor and a hero. He built an entire neighborhood of low-income housing named “Barrio Pablo Escobar” and paid for soccer fields in poor neighborhoods that the state ignored. During a brief stint in Congress, he also supported health and education programs for the disadvantaged. Thousands of people paid their last respects at his funeral in 1993 and did so on the anniversary of his death for years afterward. Even today, one encounters Medellín taxi drivers who carry his image in their cars, and some residents in peripheral neighborhoods celebrate his birthday with fireworks.

Yet for many others—by far the majority—Escobar was a purveyor of death and mayhem. This was true of Pedro Lozada, a poor peasant who grew up in the Magdalena river valley, along the middle stretch of the river where Escobar and other drug lords owned extensive properties. He belonged to the first wave of peasants forcibly displaced from their lands in the early 1980s, when Death to Kidnappers, a death squad financed by the Medellín cartel, unleashed a reign of terror that forever changed the region. “They started to kill anyone who belonged to a civic organization, a union, or a neighborhood committee,” Lozada said. “They killed people at any time of the day and in any place.” He recalled how the mercenaries gutted their victims and threw the corpses into the Magdalena river. Their scorched earth rampage demolished a way of living that was meaningful and felt connected to other people. Looking back thirty-five years later, Lozada still mourned the transformation of a region of “green gold” into a “land of cannibals.” The image of blood thirsty cannibals symbolized how he and other families lived through a devastating trauma, when they became the prey of monstrous ghouls.

Lozada’s ordeal unfolded as cocaine traffickers were accumulating large tracts of land in the Middle Magdalena to launder their profits, while elbowing their way onto the escalator of social mobility. Men like Pablo Escobar wanted to mingle with the Colombian oligarchy, who regarded them with disdain and referred to them as lice.  Hatred of left-wing guerrillas, who were also flexing their muscles in the Middle Magdalena, served as the glue that united narco parvenus and blue bloods.  The insurgents targeted the drug lords and the old guard with extortion demands, stole their cattle, and kidnapped them for ransom. Fearing for their lives and unable to visit their rural properties, oligarchs set aside their status anxieties and welcomed the narcos’ seemingly limitless financial resources and weapons. The result was an unholy alliance of nouveau-riche drug traffickers, cattle ranchers, urban merchants, machine politicians, and the Texas Petroleum company, a subsidiary of Texaco, that gave rise to Death to Kidnappers. The mercenary force served as a prototype for paramilitary organizations that would morph into standing armies by the 1990s. Military officials gave it free reign to carry out the disreputable acts of ‘dirty war,’ while simultaneously denying knowledge of the group’s existence to avoid charges of human rights violations. The mercenaries gathered information on unions, opposition political parties, and peasant organizations and then carried out attacks on their leaders and supporters under the direction of the military.

Regional powerholders and the cocaine capitalists not only detested the guerrillas. They shared a fundamental hostility to social movements and popular calls for a more equitable distribution of wealth, whether peasants’ appeals for land and credit, urban movements’ calls for better housing, public education and infrastructure, or workers’ petitions for higher wages. These demands grew louder in the 1980s, when government reforms opened the electoral system to competition from previously excluded groups and political parties. The self-organization of the lower orders most irritated the oligarchs. Imagining working people freeing themselves from the shackles of their presumed betters disturbed patricians and parvenus alike because it threatened their power and conjured a social world in which they were irrelevant.

The repression unleashed by Death to Kidnappers did less damage to the guerrillas than to unarmed civilians, like Pedro Lozada who was a prominent peasant leader and member of the city council of the small, river town of Puerto Berrío. In 1982, rumors of massacres along the Magdalena river had already placed him on edge when he received word that he, too, was a target. Without pausing to put his affairs in order, Lozada, his wife, and child fled on a river boat with nothing but the clothes on their backs and with no idea where they were going. The family eventually lost itself in the shantytown of a Colombian city, where legions of other terrified peasants were seeking refuge. The lands of the displaced passed into the hands of drug traffickers, their front men, and local elites, and cattle and African palm plantations spread across fields once cultivated in food crops.

Colombia underwent a massive reverse agrarian reform. Although the regional particulars of the war played out in different registers, the consequences have been devastating: land concentration and dispossession in the countryside, and the explosion of impoverished neighborhoods, unemployment and gang violence on urban peripheries. Allegations of links to Pablo Escobar continue to dog some of Colombia’s most prominent politicians, such as former president, current senator and right-wing kingmaker Álvaro Uríbe Vélez, who helped cartel members obtain licenses for landing strips when he ran the civil aviation authority in the 1980s.  Like other Latin American countries emerging from periods of strife, Colombia has taken halting steps toward holding the perpetrators accountable, addressing victims’ claims, and constructing a national narrative about its violent past. To this end, the National Center for Historical Memory, created by the government in 2011, researches the root causes of the civil war through the testimony of victims and produces public reports to clarify the past. Memorials to the war victims have also opened in both Medellín and Bogotá, the national capital, and are open to the public. But tourists are far more interested in pop icons like Pablo Escobar.

Until the narco tours started glamorizing his life and former cartel members emerged as major tourist draws, the state chose to ignore the Escobar legacy. Doing so became more complicated, when civic boosters championed Medellín’s makeover from homicide capital of the world to modern, capitalist paradise, and cartel assassin Jhon Jairo, a.k.a. ‘Popeye’, Velásquez started showing up at the Pablo Escobar museum at the side of Cubby. After murdering some 300 people and serving 23 years in prison for assassinating presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán, Popeye left jail in 2014 and began hawking CDs with anecdotes about his hit jobs. He instantly became a YouTube sensation, and videos of him talking with tourists went viral. Although Popeye went back to prison last May, after cavorting with traffickers, attempting to extort former associates, and making multiple Twitter threats, the Colombian authorities remain leery of Pablo’s ghost. They temporarily shuttered the museum in September, ostensibly because it lacked the necessary tourist operating permit.

In subtle and not-so-subtle ways, the clash between the drug lord’s flamboyant legacy and the state’s desire to suppress it bubble to the surface in the sightseeing excursions around Medellín. Little more than expensive taxi rides, these expeditions stop at the hideout where police agents killed Escobar, his grave site, a bunker-like home, the La Catedral prison, his ranch, and a church where he worshipped and his assassins sought blessing for their bullets.  None of these sites bear official signs or interpretative markers, and some have changed dramatically since Escobar haunted them, forcing visitors to fill in the gaps with their own imaginings.

The former hideout where Escobar died currently functions as a Spanish school. The new owner has added a second floor, placed a sign bearing the school’s name over the front door, and bricked in the back window, where Escobar tried to escape. For tourists forced to stand on the sidewalk, conjuring the Cocaine King’s last moments as he scrambled across the tile roof is not easy, but guides assist them with booklets of color pictures that display his corpse splayed on the roof and surrounded by police and DEA agents, smiling with the self-satisfaction of big game hunters. Another tour attraction is the Monaco building—a six-story, fortress-like structure with a penthouse apartment, where Escobar and his family lived until rivals bombed it in 1988. The edifice looms over cracked pavement in a state of decay.  Weeds push up through the cement, and a stray dog sleeps on the driveway. A sign on a metal fence indicates that the building belongs to the national police and will be demolished. The mayor plans to erect a memorial to Escobar’s victims in its place, a gesture that will demonstrate the rebirth of the city, where, he told the New York Times, the law triumphs over chaos and the endless repetition of Pablo Escobar’s story will end. My young guide, Jairo, thinks the memorial is a bad idea. Given the value of real estate in the neighborhood, he insists that there are more lucrative options.

The battle with Pablo’s ghost bursts into fuller view at La Catedral, a hilltop prison overlooking Medellín that the drug lord built for himself, following a 1991 agreement with the Colombian government to surrender, serve five years, and avoid extradition to the United States.  Nowadays, part of the former prison operates as a senior citizen center.  Girders stretch over another section, forming the framework of a museum that the municipality of Envigado had planned to build before public outrage cancelled the plan. The failed project would have enshrined Escobar’s 13-month stint in the facility, which was equipped with a jacuzzi, a waterfall, and a rotating bed. A banner now extends across the beams, placed by a priest, informing tourists that the information they receive from their guides may not be 100 percent accurate. It includes the admonition that “people who do not know their history are bound to repeat it.”

Born after the collapse of the cartel, Jairo acknowledges the controversy around the narco tours, but says that he and his boss–a 40-something Colombian-American who sat out the worst years of the violence in Los Angeles–are providing a public service by educating foreigners about a painful moment in Colombian history. “It isn’t a pretty history,” he explains in broken English learned during a 6-month visit with an aunt in Miami, “but it is history that people need to understand.” On our 30-minute drive back to central Medellín, he plays a BBC podcast that examines the popular veneration of Pablo in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

A flourishing tourist industry that inflates and distorts Escobar’s legacy and rubs salt into the unhealed wounds of victims and survivors spreads shade on attempts to understand the past. Similarly, the accommodations and forms of collusion that enabled Escobar’s rise to power accentuate the difficulty of historical clarification, because they remain hidden from view. As Pablo’s ghost grows fat on tourist dollars, it is not clear that the state’s insistence on obliterating the physical traces of the drug lord’s existence and refusing to talk about him will drive away his evil spirit. But shining a powerful light into the dark corners of Colombian society where phantoms still reside might empower those who suffered to speak their own truths.