Pablo Escobar, born on December 1, 1949, in Antioquia, Colombia, entered the cocaine trade in the early 1970s. He collaborated with other criminals to form the Medellin Cartel and eventually controlled over 80% of the cocaine shipped to the U.S. He earned popularity by sponsoring charity projects and soccer clubs, but later terror campaigns that resulted in the murder of thousands turned public opinion against him. He was killed in 1993.
Background and Early Life
Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria was born on December 1, 1949 in the Colombian city of Rionegro, Antioquia, with his family later moving to the suburb of Envigado. He came from modest means; his father worked as a peasant farmer while his mother was a schoolteacher. From an early age, Escobar packed a unique drive and ambition to raise himself up from his humble beginnings.
As a young man, he told friends and family that he wanted to become president of Colombia. Yet as he saw it, his path to wealth and legitimacy lay in crime. He got his start as a petty street thief, stealing cars before moving into the smuggling business. Escobar’s early prominence came during the “Marlboro Wars,” in which he played a high-profile role in the control of Colombia’s smuggled cigarette market. This episode proved to be a valuable training ground for the future narcotics kingpin.
Rise to Power
It wasn’t by chance that Colombia came to dominate the cocaine trade. Beginning in the early 1970s, the country became a prime smuggling ground for marijuana. But as the cocaine market flourished, Colombia’s geographical location proved to be its biggest asset. Situated at the northern tip of South America between the thriving coca cultivation epicenters of Peru and Bolivia, the country came to dominate the global cocaine trade with the United States, the biggest market for the drug, just a short trip to the north.
Escobar moved quickly to grab control of the cocaine trade. In 1975, Medellin drug trafficker Fabio Restrepo was murdered. His killing, it’s believed, came at the orders of Escobar, who immediately seized power and expanded Restrepo’s operation into something the world had never seen.
Under Escobar’s leadership, large amounts of coca paste were purchased in Bolivia and Peru, processed, and brought to America. Escobar worked with a small group to form the infamous Medellin Cartel. By the mid-1980s, Escobar controlled more than 80 percent of the cocaine smuggled into the United States. More than 15 tons of cocaine were reportedly smuggled each day, netting the Cartel as much as $420 million a week.
The cash was so prevalent that Escobar purchased a Learjet for the sole purpose of flying his money. With an estimated worth of $30 billion, Escobar was named one of the ten richest people on earth by Forbes.
Even as his fortune and fame grew, Escobar didn’t relinquish his dream to be seen as a leader. In some ways he positioned himself as a Robin Hood-like figure, which was echoed by many locals as he spent money to expand social programs for the poor.
In 1982 Escobar was elected as an alternate member of Colombia’s Congress. But the reasons for his wealth could not stay hidden and two years after his election, he was forced to resign, with the justice minister who had revealed Escobar's notorious background later slain.
Height of Power
With the realization that he had no shot of becoming Colombia’s president, and with the United States pushing for his capture and extradition, Escobar unleashed his fury on his enemies.
Using terror, Escobar tried to influence Colombian politics towards a no-extradition clause and to grant amnesty to drug barons in exchange for giving up the trade. His terror campaign resulted in the killings of thousands of people, including politicians, civil servants, journalists and ordinary citizens. The violence claimed the lives of three Colombian presidential candidates, an attorney general, scores of judges and more than 1,000 police officers.
In addition, Escobar was implicated as the mastermind behind the bombing of a Colombian jetliner in 1989 that killed more than 100 people, including two American citizens. Escobar’s terror eventually turned public opinion against him and caused a breakup of the alliance of drug traffickers.
Surrender and Escape
In June 1991, Escobar surrendered to the Colombian government of President Cesar Gaviria. In return, the threat of extradition was lifted and Escobar was allowed to build his own luxury prison called “La Catedral,” which was guarded by men he handpicked from among his employees. The prison lived up to its name and came complete with a casino, spa and nightclub.
In June 1992, however, Escobar escaped when authorities attempted to move him to a more standard holding facility. A manhunt for the drug lord was launched that would last 16 months. During that time the monopoly of the Medellin Cartel, which had begun to crumble during Escobar’s imprisonment as police raided offices and killed its leaders, rapidly deteriorated.
After so many near misses, Colombian law enforcement finally caught up to Escobar on December 2, 1993, the day after his birthday, in a middle-class neighborhood in Medellin. A firefight ensued and, as Escobar tried to escape across a series of rooftops, he and his bodyguard were shot and killed.
Assisting in the manhunt were two American Drug Enforcement Agents, Steve Murphy and Javier Peña, both of whom had been working the Escobar case for years. Their story formed part of the backbone of the 2015 Netflix series Narcos.
Escobar’s death accelerated the demise of the Medellin Cartel and Colombia’s central role in the cocaine trade. His passing was also celebrated by the country’s government and other parts of the world. Still, many Colombians mourned his killing. More than 25,000 people turned out for Escobar’s burial.
“He built houses and cared about the poor,” one funeral goer stated at Escobar’s funeral in a story reported by The New York Times. “In the future, people will go to his tomb to pray, the way they would to a saint.”
Escobar married Maria Victoria Henao, a 15-year-old bride, in 1976. The couple had two children together: a son, Juan Pablo, and a daughter, Manuela. Shortly before his death, Escobar’s family unsuccessfully sought asylum in Germany and eventually found refuge in a Bogota hotel. After Escobar’s death the family was placed under police protection.
In 2015, Escobar’s son, who eventually studied architecture and changed his name to Sebastian Marroquin, wrote a book, Pablo Escobar: My Father, which tells the story of growing up with the world’s most notorious drug kingpin. He also asserts that his father had committed suicide.
'My father's not a person to be imitated,” Marroquin said in an Agence France-Presse interview. “He showed us the path we must never take as a society because it's the path to self-destruction, the loss of values and a place where life ceases to have importance.”
In July 2016 Escobar's brother, Roberto, announced he was prepared to sue Netflix for $1 billion for its misportrayal of their family in its series Narcos. Roberto was Pablo's accountant for his drug gang in real life, but in the show, the accountant is depicted as a non family member who turns out to be a C.I.A. agent. Roberto is demanding a right to review the second season's story and getting properly compensated.
“In the first season of Narcos, there were mistakes, lies and discrepancies from the real story,” Roberto writes in a letter to Netflix. “To this date, I am one of the few survivors of the Medellin cartel, and I was Pablo’s closest ally, managing his accounting and he is my brother for life. I think nobody else in the world is alive to determine the validity of the materials, but me.”
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