On this day in 1993, Pablo Escobar was shot to death in Medellín by the members of the Search Bloc who celebrated their achievement by taking a picture with his bloodied and bloated corpse. The news of his murder was denounced by his family members since they insisted that Escobar could never have been killed, he was larger than life. He must have shot himself through the year. Even after all these years, the immense image projected by Escobar to the world has only continued to be amplified and recirculated beyond his grave.
Born in Rionegro in 1949, Escobar grew up on the streets of Medellín and did what he had to do to survive. Various reports claim that he resold gravestones to smugglers and peddled fake school diplomas, eventually becoming a millionaire by the time he was in his mid-twenties. How he came to acquire such power and wealth isn’t really a mystery to anyone – by running a ruthless criminal empire that expanded far beyond South America and even managed to reach Asia.
What is fascinating is that how popular culture has warped and distorted the image of Pablo Escobar into an anti-establishment icon who espoused the ideals of freedom in a depressingly bureaucratic world. Furthermore, almost everyone is aware that this “freedom” came at the cost of hundreds of lives and the subjugation of many innocent people but it somehow doesn’t matter in the case of Escobar. At his funeral, around 25,000 people showed up to pay their tributes to the ‘Paisa Robin Hood’ who had helped many to achieve his political goals but murdered many more to secure his interests.
The most popular work on the life of Escobar is certainly Netflix’s hit show Narcos and while it has its flaws, it still attempts to show that Escobar was far from a saint. It probes the insecurities that plagued him throughout his life and does its best to paint a more human picture of a narcissistic tyrant who did everything he could to remain at the top of the power structures in Columbia before inevitably falling from grace. Despite these depictions, the portrayal of Escobar’s life is still interpreted as an escapist fantasy by many who are desperate to break free from the monotony of life and just casually become one of the most influential criminals in the world.
Even Kanye West named his album The Life of Pablo after Escobar (along with Picasso and Neruda) so you can already tell that there’s some validity to these claims because nobody in the world is more counterculture than Kanye, at least according to Kanye. Is Escobar really a symbol of resistance against the corrupt institutions of government and American neocolonialism or should he be recognised for what he was – a psychopath who crushed anyone in his way so that he could fulfil the sick fantasy of keeping hippos and giraffes at his house?
To be honest, it doesn’t matter anymore because the operations of the hyper-capitalist media complex has already done its job. Escobar has been commodified as an extremely effective symbol who can be whatever people want him to be. He can be an object of hatred and disgust for real revolutionaries wanting change or he can be someone to look up to for school kids who watched Narcos instead of doing their math homework. Either way, the image of Escobar is owned by the criminals of today who are much more subtle in their methodologies yet more pernicious.