In the annals of criminal history, the name Pablo Escobar looms large. A charismatic and ruthless Colombian drug lord, Escobar rose from humble beginnings to become the world’s most powerful and feared criminal. Yet, his meteoric rise was matched only by his cataclysmic fall.
Here we delve into the life and death of the infamous Pablo Escobar.
Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria was born on 1 December 1949, in Rionegro, Antioquia in Colombia and came from a humble background. Raised in Medellín as the third of seven children, his father was a farmer and his mother worked as a teacher.
Early on, Escobar demonstrated his entrepreneurial spirit (and criminal tendencies), engaging in various schemes like selling fake diplomas, smuggling stereo equipment and selling stolen tombstones.
He left school in 1966 just before he turned 17, but returned two years later. His hard life on the streets of Medellín had shaped his teachers’ view of him, and a year later, Escobar dropped out of school again. Nevertheless, having forged a high school diploma, Escobar briefly studied in college with dreams of becoming a criminal lawyer, politician and even president, but gave up due to financial constraints.
Before long, he started stealing cars (resulting in his first arrest in 1974), and played a prominent role in controlling the smuggled cigarette market.
In the 1970’s, Colombia emerged as a key location for marijuana smuggling, and Escobar initially worked as a small-time marijuana dealer for various drug smugglers. (During this time, Escobar notably kidnapped businessman Diego Echavarria, later killing him in 1971, despite having received the $50,000 ransom.)
He gradually transitioned to the cocaine trade, recognising the immense profit potential due to Colombia’s strategic position between coca cultivation centres in the south, and the lucrative North American market.
Escobar’s ascent in the world of narcotics was spectacular. In 1976, he founded a criminal organisation that evolved into the infamous Medellín Cartel, a drug trafficking organisation based in Medellín, Colombia, which would go on to become one of the most powerful and influential criminal groups in history.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Escobar played a pivotal role in the ‘cocaine cowboy’ era in Miami. His network of smugglers used ingenious methods to establish the first smuggling routes, transporting vast quantities of cocaine from Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador through Colombia and into America. This operation involved various means, from submarines to small aircraft landing in remote fields.
Escobar’s meteoric rise caught the attention of the Colombian Security Service, leading to his arrest in May 1976 when a significant amount of cocaine was discovered in his car. Managing to influence the legal process, he was released; the following year the agent who had arrested him was assassinated.
Escobar’s infiltration of the drug market created unprecedented demand for cocaine in America. Under his leadership, the Medellín Cartel came to dominate the global cocaine trade, controlling over 80% of the cocaine shipped to America. This immense operation earned him an estimated $420 million a week, and the nickname ‘The King of Cocaine’. By the 1980’s, the sheer volume of cocaine entering the US (approximately 70-80 tonnes per month) made Escobar one of the ten wealthiest people on the planet, with an estimated net worth of around $30 billion, according to Forbes.
Escobar’s vast wealth afforded him a lavish lifestyle, including private planes, a Caribbean getaway on Isla Grande, and numerous luxurious homes and safe-houses, including a 7,000 acre estate in Antioquia which he bought for $63 million. It was here he built his luxurious ranch, Hacienda Nápoles, which included a zoo featuring around 200 animals (including elephants, giraffes, and hippos), a lake, sculpture garden, air-strip, private bullring, football pitch, tennis court, artificial lakes, and numerous other amenities for his family and the cartel.
Escobar paid his staff generously, and gained a reputation for philanthropic efforts, spending millions developing some of Medellín’s most impoverished neighbourhoods, building housing, parks, football stadiums, hospitals, schools, and churches, leaving a complex legacy of both criminality and social investment.
By the late 1980s, Escobar’s wealth was such that he reportedly offered to pay off Colombia’s $10 billion debt in exchange for exemption from any extradition treaty. During his final years on the run, he famously reportedly burned $2 million to keep his daughter warm.
‘Plata o plomo’
Escobar’s dominance of the cocaine trade was characterised by corruption, intimidation, and violence. His guiding principle was ‘plata o plomo’ (‘silver or lead’) – effectively meaning ‘bribes or bullets’. Throughout his reign, he systematically bribed and intimidated Colombian law enforcement agencies, public officials and political candidates.
The financial backing provided by both the Medellín Cartel and its rival, the Cali Cartel, to political candidates had a profound impact on Colombian politics. These cartels were able to exert influence at every level of government, enabling them to manipulate political processes, bribe politicians, and effectively control the political landscape.
The Medellín Cartel was not only engaged in a battle against rival drug cartels, but also resorted to a reign of terror when Escobar introduced the concept of ‘narco-terrorism’, employing tactics such as bombings, assassinations, and extortion to maintain control over Colombia and to intimidate rivals and enemies. The Medellín Cartel’s ruthlessness knew no bounds, operating with total impunity.
Escobar’s criminal empire resulted in the deaths of around 4,000 people who dared to challenge his reign, including police officers, government officials, journalists, and judges. Under his influence, Colombia became the murder capital of the world, marked by unimaginable violence and corruption.
In the 1980s, Escobar’s influence and popularity amongst many Colombians prompted him to enter politics, where he played a significant role in the formation of the Liberal Party of Colombia. He was elected to an alternate sea in the country’s Congress in 1982, and in this capacity, further developed community projects, earning him popularity and support among the local population in the areas he frequented. Now a public figure, his philanthropic efforts led to his nickname as a modern-day ‘Robin Hood Paisa’.
Escobar’s political position granted him parliamentary immunity and a diplomatic passport. However, his political career faced opposition when the new Minister of Justice, Rodrigo Lara-Bonilla, accused him of criminal activities. Lara-Bonilla launched an investigation into Escobar’s 1976 arrest, and a few months later, Liberal leader Luis Carlos Galán expelled Escobar from the party.
Although Escobar fought back, after a campaign to expose his criminal activities he announced his retirement from politics in January 1984. Three months later, Lara-Bonilla was assassinated. Escobar’s political ambitions were further thwarted by the Colombian and America governments, who continually pushed for his arrest and extradition to America.
Fight against extradition and ‘narco-terrorism’
In the mid-1980s, Escobar waged a campaign against the Colombian judiciary, bribing and murdering several judges to further his objectives. In 1985, Escobar requested the Colombian government allow his conditional surrender without extradition to America.
When this was denied, Escobar founded the Los Extraditable Organisation to fight extradition policies. This organisation was subsequently implicated in obstructing the Colombian Supreme Court from studying the constitutionality of Colombia’s extradition treaty with America.
In retaliation, the Colombian Judiciary Building was attacked, resulting in the deaths of half of the Supreme Court’s justices. The violence escalated, leading the Supreme Court to subsequently declare that the previous extradition treaty was illegal in late 1986 because it had been signed by a presidential delegation, not the president.
However, Escobar’s victory over the judiciary was short-lived, as the new Colombian president, Virgilio Barco Vargas, promptly renewed the extradition agreement with America.
Escobar’s grudge against Luis Carlos Galán, who had removed him from politics, led to Galán’s assassination in August 1989. In further retaliation, one of Escobar’s most notorious acts of narco-terrorism included his alleged orchestration of the bombing of Avianca Flight 203 in 1989, which killed all 107 people on board in an attempt to assassinate Galán’s successor, César Gaviria Trujillo. Gaviria missed the plane and survived. Escobar’s involvement in this, as well as the bombings of DAS (Department of Security) buildings, prompted direct US government intervention due to the killing of two Americans in the Avianca bombing.
The US government recognised the grave threat posed by the Medellín Cartel and initiated a massive effort to apprehend Escobar and dismantle his cartel empire. American and Colombian authorities cooperated extensively in an unprecedented manhunt, spanning years and involving multiple countries.
The newly approved Colombian Constitution of 1991 prohibited the extradition of Colombian citizens to America. However, this was a controversial act, as it was suspected that Escobar and other drug lords had exerted influence over members of the Constituent Assembly to pass the legislation.
Nevertheless, later that year, Escobar negotiated with the government, offering to turn himself in to authorities and cease all criminal activity in exchange for a reduced sentence of five years’ imprisonment, and preferential treatment during this captivity. Colombian officials agreed to the terms, and Escobar was housed in his own, luxurious, self-built private prison, La Catedral. This ‘prison’ featured a football pitch, giant dollhouse, nightclub, bar, jacuzzi, sauna, and even a waterfall.
The kingpin’s fall
Despite this highly reasonable deal, reports emerged that Escobar had tortured and killed two cartel members while at La Catedral, prompting the government’s decision to move him to a more conventional jail on 22 July 1992. However, Escobar’s influence had enabled him to discover the plan in advance, and he successfully escaped, abandoning his opulent lifestyle and living in hiding while on the run as a fugitive.
This led to a nationwide manhunt; Escobar faced threats from the Colombian police, the US government, and the rival Cali Cartel – leading to the Medellín Cartel’s downfall. A period of intense surveillance and tracking culminated in a large-scale operation on 2 December 1993 when Colombian special forces, with technological assistance from America, located Escobar’s hideout in a middle-class neighbourhood in Medellín.
An attempt to arrest Escobar quickly escalated, leading to gunfire exchanges. In the end, authorities stormed the building, resulting in the death of Pablo Escobar and his bodyguard as they tried to escape from the rooftop. Escobar sustained multiple gunshot wounds, including one to the head. This prompted speculation that Escobar had killed himself, especially as he had once expressed a preference for a grave in Colombia over a jail cell in America.
Nevertheless, his death, one day after his 44th birthday, marked the end of an era.
Pablo Escobar’s legacy continues to loom large – not only as a notorious criminal but as a cultural phenomenon.
While many decried the heinous nature of his crimes, in Colombia, he was perceived by some as a Robin Hood-like figure, particularly in Medellín, where he was credited with providing amenities to the city’s poor that the government had not. Indeed Escobar’s funeral drew over 25,000 people, and his memory remains influential.
His former private estate, Hacienda Nápoles, was given to low-income families by the government, and also converted into a theme park surrounded by four luxury hotels overlooking Escobar’s zoo. (Most of the zoo’s animals were transferred to other zoos, yet 4 hippos were left behind. By 2014, 40 hippos were reported to exist in the area, and by 2021, Colombian authorities began a chemical sterilisation program to control the hippo population.)
Escobar’s life story has been the subject of numerous books, films, and television series, most notably Narcos, serving as a cautionary tale about the immense power organised crime can amass, the devastating consequences and effects of the drug trade, the corruption it breeds, and its tragic human cost.
Although Escobar’s death marked the end of his reign, it did not signal the end of the drug trade, or its challenges. The Cali Cartel dominated the cocaine market in the years following Escobar’s demise. In Colombia, memories of Escobar’s reign of terror remain vivid. While Colombia has made significant progress in curbing drug violence and improving security since his death, the drug trade and associated violence have not been entirely eradicated, and challenges persist.
In America, the pursuit and eventual downfall of Pablo Escobar represented a turning point in the fight against drug cartels, underscoring the importance of international cooperation in addressing transnational crime, and laying the groundwork for further efforts to combat the drug trade.