Why you should care
Because before there were modern-day kingpins, there was this predecessor: the original narco.
Twenty-four years ago today, Pablo Escobar walked out of prison, setting off a massive 18-month manhunt. In season two of Narcos, the hunt is on. Watch the new trailer, and don’t miss new episodes of Narcos, streaming on Netflix September 2.
It was humiliating. He practically walked out of jail and disappeared into thin air. Colombia’s most wanted criminal was nowhere to be found. So on a Friday in the summer of 1992 — 24 years ago today — then president César Gaviria had no choice but to lower his head to the microphone and admit that the country’s most wanted criminal had slipped right through the fingers of a special forces raid. According to one theory, the escape artist dressed up in a stolen military uniform, pulled a gas mask over his head and melted into the crowd of soldiers as they lit up La Catedral, his prison-mansion compound on the outskirts of Medellín.
Netflix viewers will find it hard to forget the original narco, the ultraviolent, extravagant bad guy who set the standard — Pablo Escobar, played by Brazilian actor Wagner Moura in Narcos. Before he was gunned down atop the Spanish-tiled rooftops of a Medellín neighborhood in 1993, Escobar had tightened his ruthless grip on drug trafficking across the Americas. At the same time, he cultivated a reputation as a Robin Hood who tossed goodies to the poor even as he built a grandiose palace for himself on 5,500 acres, complete with a private zoo and an orchard. Al Pacino’s character in the 1983 coke-and-violence-fueled Scarf
The really big bucks poured in when Escobar switched from marijuana to cocaine smuggling; through the 1970s, he set up a network of growers, smugglers and enforcers that laid the groundwork for the notorious Medellín cartel. By 1982, he was using small-engine aircrafts to run weekly trips of two tons of cocaine each from airstrips in central Colombia to the Bahamas and onward to Florida. The power wielded by Escobar’s Medellín cartel began to rival that of the Colombian government. In 1985 alone, the government reportedly decimated 667 labs and 90 airstrips run by the cartel, barely denting its cocaine assembly line. At its height, the cartel was reportedly raking in $5 billion in annual sales. Taking his cut of $8 million per trip, Escobar’s wealth multiplied through the early 1980s, so that by 1985, his personal fortune had reached $7 billion to $10 billion. And security for all that dough? You might say a reputation for violence was his best asset. Escobar unleashed mass terrorism, setting off car bombs in the Colombian capital and elsewhere and sending assassins on killing sprees. He blew up two newspapers and killed a presidential candidate, the minister of justice and dozens of other politicians.
Even though he eventually settled on a deal with the Gaviria government for jail time, he still tried to run forever. Why? In the mid-1980s, the U.S. identified Escobar as a big-time troublemaker and sought his capture and extradition to stand trial. For Escobar, such a fate was utterly unthinkable. It wasn’t just a failure for him to face justice in the U.S. — it was an insult to his sense of patria, his patriotism. The consequences were ugly: Any big shot who favored Escobar’s extradition became a target, with too many citizens slain as collateral damage.
Could it have been a bad recipe of poverty and greed that shaped him? Escobar learned about the former early on. Born into a poor farming family in 1949, the soon-to-be drug lord did his apprenticeship in crime by stealing gravestones and turning them over to smugglers, dealing pot and jacking cars. And although he gave university a shot, his college career was short-lived. He turned to smuggling weed instead and became a millionaire before he was 25.
Whether motivated by genuine charity or a desire to burnish his image, Escobar made sure to remember the poor. “The problems facing [Colombian] society and its people are not just the state’s responsibility,” Escobar once told the people in his home city. He built free housing for the poor and funded schools and soccer stadiums around Medellín. Some people felt he took better care of them than their own government did. “He took from the rich to give to the poor, and he took good care of us in our misery,” says Luz Mery Arias, who still lives in a down-and-out Medellín neighborhood named after Escobar.
This legacy has inspired a new generation of narco kings, like Mexico’s cartel boss Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and Dairo Antonio “Otoniel” Úsuga David, leader of the emerging Colombian drug-trafficking mafia Los Urabeños. Like Escobar, Guzmán and Úsuga have used swift, merciless violence to impose their will. Guzmán became the unrivaled king of the Mexican narco scene. He turned his Sinaloa cartel into a $3 billion-a-year business dealing in everything from cocaine to methamphetamines to marijuana, earning him a top spot on the FBI’s Most Wanted Fugitives list following the death of Osama bin Laden. In Colombia, the military’s most elite forces, using Black Hawks and machine guns, are chipping away at Otoniel’s high command. But just like it was with Escobar for so many years, the top dog always seemed to manage an escape.
Pablo Escobar returns for season two of Narcos, a Netflix original series. New episodes September 2.