Netflix and chill? Not for the victims of Pablo Escobar
David R. Goyes
María sits in her apartment in a poor barrio in Medellín, Colombia, cradling an album full of photos of her late husband, Luis. “God made him,” she said, “and threw away the form.” But all that she has of him are memories of the days when Pablo Escobar’s drug cartel ruled the streets of her city and Luis became one of its victims.
Thirty years ago today (Dec. 2, 1993), the saga of the Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar came to a bloody end in a rooftop shootout with police. Before then, between 1981 and 1993, historians estimate, Escobar and his cartel were responsible for over 65,000 homicides in Medellín, his hometown.
Despite the trail of victims, like Luis, and their grieving survivors, Escobar’s deeds are now celebrated.
He has become a streaming brand with a museum that honors his life and draws tourists from around the world. In the Netflix series Narcos, Escobar is portrayed as a folk hero, the main character in a drama about a poor kid from the barrio who rose to become the wealthiest criminal in history as the “King of Cocaine.”
Prompted by the show’s popularity, relatives of the drug lord established the Pablo Escobar Museum. (Admission: $49 to visit the museum and travel by bus to see Escobar’s grave.) Hundreds take the narco tour every day. Recently, a dozen New Yorkers wandered around the museum taking in the exhibits: Al Capone’s car, James Bond’s jet ski and a replica of the Piper PA-18 Super Cub airplane Escobar flew in 1977 on his first cocaine smuggling trip to the United States. To fans, Escobar is a brand. To the ordinary Colombians who lived through the violence of the drug wars, he is a ghost that continues to haunt the lives he blighted.
In July, I went to Medellín to understand what it’s like for those left behind to see on TV screens the face of their victimizer. I found María in her cramped apartment. She is 57, a former laundress, who lives in what once was one of the world’s most violent neighborhoods. She lost her left hand to diabetes and undergoes several health treatments.
Medellín became chaotic, María told me, by the end of the 1970s when Escobar started recruiting youngsters in the barrio as drug dealers and hitmen. “Part of the sickness I suffer from today comes from that time,” she said. “A traumatic event stays in the head. When you remember those hard times, when you saw 15-year-old boys lying dead on the streets, with their eyes spread on the pavement — you suffer, and your body suffers.” Blood and death populate her memories.
At 4 in the morning in August 1992, the phone rang. A voice told her that her husband was dead. He commuted daily to his job as a security guard in the city. The cartel demanded a vacuna, payoff for protection. At first he paid, María said, but eventually he balked. They shot him to death five blocks from home. María ran out and found his body in the street. When she returned home, she found her oldest daughter, who was 13, crying. “Those who killed my husband,” María said, “broke into the house, took everything, and raped my daughter.”
While many see the story of Pablo Escobar as exotic entertainment, the reality is that people continue to be victimized by an entertainment industry that exploits his name and transforms a perpetrator into a notorious icon, the ultimate outlaw.
Hundreds visit Escobar’s tomb daily; they leave flowers and expensive bottles of rum and whiskey. On the 30th anniversary of his death, many more may come.
Today, I won’t commemorate Escobar, the purveyor of death. I celebrate the memory of Luis Alberto and his widow, María, and the untold story of her life and resilience.
David R. Goyes is a researcher in the Department of Criminology, University of Oslo. He has interviewed hundreds of victims of atrocities and incarcerated people. Goyes is the co-author of Victimhood, Memory, and Consumerism: Profiting from Pablo (Oxford University Press). He is at work on a new book, Humans Behind Bars, based on interviews with people who have committed major crimes and are imprisoned in Latin America.