Pablo Escobar: why you shouldn’t romanticize Colombia’s nightmare
Updated: Jun 24
Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
As a Colombian, it never ceases to shock me whenever someone makes a Pablo Escobar or cocaine joke (even when I should already be used to it, as this is often the response I receive upon telling people that I am from Colombia). Colombia is the third most biodiverse country in the world, the country of coffee and emeralds, and home to some of the greatest cyclists like Nairo Quintana and world-renown artists like Shakira. All of this goes ignored as the world continues to see it as it was 40 years ago—the land of cocaine and home to famous narco (or better, narco-terrorist), Pablo Escobar.
Don’t get me wrong, reputations are there for a reason, and I don’t intend to deny my country’s ties to cocaine— Colombia was and continues to be the world’s largest producer of cocaine. In fact, it’s not the title of “cocaine producers” which bothers me the most, even though the vast majority of the country is not involved in its production, and is actually strongly opposed to drug consumption (most of the cocaine produced heads to Europe and the United States). My main concern is with the romanticized portrayal of Pablo Escobar presented by the media which not only continues to push this burdensome stereotype, but that creates a skewed image of him that disrespectfully ignores the violent reality lived by many Colombians.
Luxurious haciendas, private planes, countless piles of cash, beautiful women— these are the repeating images in most Escobar films. Watch any trailer and you’ll notice that they tend to begin with these captivating images of Escobar’s lavish lifestyle; glorifying him before turning an eye to the violence that he incited. Let us consider the trailers for the most prolific series about Escobar, Netflix’s Narcos. The first trailer begins, “Imagine you were born in a poor family, in a poor country, and by the time you are 28 years old you have so much money you can’t even count it.” The second trailer continues, “During the early 80’s, the best mob in the world was Pablo Escobar. He was the living embodiment of the Colombian Dream, and with the money, came the violence.” Both trailers also present images of his wealth and power before portraying fewer images of the violence surrounding him, which are mostly of fire conflict between the cartels and the police.
These depictions of Escobar’s life are clearly problematic. Not only do they celebrate his “success” overlooking the source of his wealth, but they also lessen the violence behind this. They place Escobar’s atrocities as a secondary idea, whilst his glorified image takes on the leading role. Moreover, even when shown, violence is often presented as clashes between the mobs and state agents, but Pablo Escobar did not only attack the government or law-enforcing agents, he attacked an entire country. What is more, he is called “the embodiment of the Colombian dream.” I am yet to meet a fellow Colombian that supports Escobar. In fact, most people in the country oppose him, the reign of violence he brought upon the country, and the reputation it cost them. Pablo Escobar is not the embodiment of the Colombian dream.
Pablo Escobar was a narco-terrorist, a drug trafficker that uses terrorist tactics against their government to achieve their aims— in Escobar’s case, this included the avoidance of extradition agreements between Colombia and the United States. Simply put, Pablo Escobar was more than a drug lord: he was a terrorist and “plata or plomo” (“money or lead”) was his philosophy. Pablo Escobar was responsible for the death of around 5,000 people— including presidential candidates, judges, policemen, and civilians. He blew up a commercial flight killing 107 people, just to target one man. He funded paramilitary groups and engaged in kidnappings. He turned Medellin into “the murder capital of the world” and continually terrorized entire cities with bombs on a daily basis.
I was lucky enough to be born at a time when Pablo Escobar is history, but for many Colombians, he was their reality. Thus, the romanticization of this notorious figure has led to a concerning level of ignorance. It hurts Colombians to hear people make Pablo Escobar jokes, or hear people idolize him as a ‘Robin Hood’ figure, when there was a time in which they had to live under his reign of terror. A time when they were too afraid to go to bars or shopping centers for fear of a terrorist attack; a time when students had to evacuate their university at least once a week due to bomb threats; a time when the sound of car bombs was a daily occurrence, sometimes close enough to blast people’s windows (as was the case for my dad). And when so many were killed for standing in the way of the mobs, even just approaching the wrong woman in a bar (as was the case for my mom’s uncle).
Now, I don’t mean to argue that there should not be movies and series made about Pablo Escobar. His story is interesting, intense, powerful—there is a reason why there are so many films about both him and mobs in general. What I argue is that although this is a story worth telling, it must be told correctly, showing the reality of the violence that affected and continues to affect Colombia. The truth is captivating and dramatic enough, there is no need to romanticize a man who does not deserve it, whilst worsening the pain of those affected by him. So, if there are any Narcos fans reading this, or anyone interested in the story of Pablo Escobar, I recommend you watch instead Pablo Escobar, The Drug Lord, a Colombian-made series on Escobar (which you can find on Netflix). To this day, this series remains in my opinion and that of most Colombians, as the only series to tell the true story about Escobar and the reality of the country. This is absolutely necessary because, as its introduction claims, “he who doesn’t know his history is doomed to repeat it.”