By María Jimena Duzán, CAMBIOColombia, December 2, 2023

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

Thirty years ago, they gunned down Pablo Escobar, the Capo of all Capos. His death quieted down the noise of the bombs and the gunfire, but Colombia has not yet been able to recover from his bloody heritage. This is the analysis by María Jimena Duzán.

Few days are as etched in the memory of Colombians as the day that Pablo Escobar was gunned down on a rooftop in a working-class neighborhood in Medellín. The news caught me at a transit point, coming out of a forced exile that had kept me from returning to Colombia since 1990, after my sister Sylvia, also a journalist, was murdered by that new para-Army that nobody dared to talk about because it had been financed by Escobar in the Magdalena Medio with the blessing of the high-ranking Colombian military.

The war that Pablo Escobar had declared against judges, police, and journalists condemned many Colombians to banishment and silence, because the truth about what was happening to us was so complex that it was better just to keep quiet.

From a distance, the death of the big boss seemed like a dream come true that would permit many of us to be able to return to Colombia. That night, somebody broke open a bottle of champagne and we celebrated with some of our colleagues who had been Escobar’s victims, including Mauricio Gómez and Francisco Santos, members of the most upper-crust families in Colombia. Besides, Pablo Escobar had kidnapped Pacho Santos and had kept him tied to a bedpost for several months. With that kidnapping of the rich and powerful, that had included Diana Turbay, the daughter of former President Julio César Turbay, Escobar had been trying to force the government to agree to his custom-tailored surrender to the legal system which, in fact, happened in 1991.

Escobar had left us with wounds that were still open, and his death gave us a sense of relief, as if the country had concluded one of the darkest periods in its recent history. Our euphoria was such that we actually convinced ourselves that this was a triumph by the government of Right over Terror. We were thinking then that everybody who had paid a high price for denouncing Escobar’s violence was on the right side of history.

Thirty years after his death, things are looking very different, or better said, they look the way they are, now without the anguish or the mixed feelings that cloud things over so much. The bad guy in the movie, who was Pablo Escobar, has solidified into an iconic figure of Colombian popular culture, and in the working-class neighborhoods in Medellín, nobody remembers him for all the murders, or for the bombs, but rather for the projects and for his flourish of rebellion, which, for many people, seems inexplicable. Which side is reading the history wrong? The tourists from all over the world who buy tee shirts with his emblem? Or those who keep saying that the death of Escobar is the proof that Colombia is no longer a narco-democracy?

Thirty years later, it seems to me that nothing we were saying then made any sense. Even though the national psyche felt relief, neither did terror come to an end in Colombia, nor did we construct a democracy that would be distanced from the dynamic of drug trafficking.

Pablo Escobar not only invented a new business model for the export of cocaine. He also installed the bases for financing the armed conflict in Colombia through drug trafficking. He planted the first seed when he decided to found MAS[1] in 1982 and allied himself with high-ranking Colombian Army officers to force M19 to release Marta Nieves Ochoa, the sister of one of his partners. After her release, MAS continued operating and that marriage between the narcos and the Armed Forces ended up converted into the paramilitaries.

The other big lie says that killing Pablo Escobar was a great triumph by the Armed Forces. The reality is that Pablo Escobar got the government to kneel before him. He didn’t do that with terror exactly, or with indiscriminate bombings, or by killing thousands of police, judges, journalists, and even candidates. None of those acts of terror were able to disturb Colombia’s powerful. He only got them to bow down before him when he kidnapped the children and relatives of the families with pedigrees and old money, and thus was able to touch the heart of power. Those kidnappings allowed him to negotiate the terms of his surrender to a justice system made to his measure.

His surrender was a mockery, because what ought to have been a prison ended up converted into the Cathedral of his empire, from which he committed every kind of crime, like the murder of his two partners, which set off a war against him by his old pals, which added to what was happening with the Cali cartel. When the Gaviria administration belatedly tried to enter the prison to transfer him to another one not as embarrassing, Escobar escaped by the main door without any interference. The administration, its pride wounded, immediately started to hunt for him. To accomplish this commitment, they gathered together the Police, the Army, the Americans, and Escobar’s enemies, who at that time were dispersed in two fronts: on the one hand, The Pépes group, made up of former partners of his, like the Castaño family, and employees, like Don Berna, and on the other hand, the Cali cartel, that was allied with the government to kill Escobar.

Hollywood has wanted to show that this persecution against Escobar was a triumph of DEA agents, and intelligence techniques. The series in Colombia insists that the heroes are the Police officials. But the Mafia, which had also spoken already, say that they were the ones that killed the Capo. Don Berna said that recently in his book, “This is How we Killed the Boss”, in which he says that it was his brother, known as “Semilla” (“Seed”) that shot down Escobar.

Thirty years after his death, it at least seemed extraordinary that we didn’t know for sure who killed him. We didn’t know if it was a Police officer under the command of Colonel Hugo Aguilar of the Búsqueda Bloc, or if it was “Semilla”. What is known is that there are several registries of the period that show how the information given by the Castaños and by the Cali Cartel was fundamental to surrounding the Capo. Those dalliances among the narcos and the Armed Forces reinforced the relationship they both had built when MAS was created, a relationship that nobody has been able to break down to this day.

Pablo Escobar was gunned down, but his heirs have been converted, in the ‘90’s, into the heroes of the new war against subversion and the communist guerrillas. The heirs of Escobar—the Castaño family, Don Berna, Otoniel, Macaco, the Mejía Muñera, among other—ended up being recognized and exalted by the political, economic, and military powers. The Capo’s successors used the war on subversion to clean up their narco past and position themselves as a Savior Army. That means, they achieved what Escobar could not achieve. In the ‘90’s, we called them “narco-paramilitaries”, but already at the beginning of this century, when they sat down to talk with Álvaro Uribe to negotiate their surrender, they were called “paramilitaries”, as if their narco past had been forgiven by Colombia’s elites because they had fought against the FARC and communism. Being admired by the elites was what Escobar wanted more than anything. He didn’t achieve that, but his heirs did. Escobar was able to choose Members of Congress in 1983, but the “paracos” who succeeded him achieved, in the 2002 elections, one-third of the seats at the Capitol.

The other big lie is saying that Pablo Escobar was overthrown. They killed him, but his legacy continues to be present in many of the activities that now are part of Colombian idiosyncracies: the narco-esthetic, the financing of campaigns and football teams, rumble architecture, and even the intimidating power of a narco-Toyota, as right now, the importance of a politician is measured by the number of Toyotas he has.

Pablo Escobar also represented, in the midst of the terror, many middle and working class Colombians that had aspirations for improving themselves and of triumph as it used to be, and in drug trafficking they found the easiest way to get rich. Escobar used drug trafficking to rise in the social scale and restructure power in Colombia. Politics changed after him because drug trafficking created a new regional elite, the product of an accumulation of capital that achieved what Escobar could not achieve. Many of them entered politics, whitewashing their drug trafficking past, and arriving at the highest platforms of power. In President Uribe’s administration, that new class of outsiders was close to Olympus. In spite of the fact that many members of the circle closest to the then-President ended up extradited or linked to “parapolitica”,[2] and that they negotiated with the paramilitaries while knowing full well that most of them were the drug traffickers they had inherited from Escobar, Uribe left power carried on the shoulders of the people, with one of the highest approval ratings in recent history.

People thinking Escobar was nothing but a narco are making a mistake; they fail to recognize his political connotation. Escobar was a very peculiar drug trafficker, who saw in politics not just a vehicle for legalizing the fortune he made, but also to exercise power in his own way. In fact, he has been the only narco that managed to have a popular base in the neighborhoods of Medellin, a phenomenon that also exists today in some regions where other of his heirs are living, like the Clan del Golfo. His death, and the way he ended up being gunned down, converted him–unfairly—into a rebel, into a person who confronted a government that for many was just pie in the sky and a fallacy, because it was never present in the places where the people most beaten down were living. It’s hard for us victims to recognize that Escobar represented anything.

It’s true, Colombia didn’t turn into a narco-democracy, but his heirs were able to climb up the social ladder, whitewashing their fortunes, until they turned into the most important representatives of current politics.

Escobar was also the first narco that decided to be engaged in the armed conflict and use his drug trafficking money to assemble a parallel army for political purposes. If he didn’t do it personally, his partners did it, like El Mexicano, who put together a laboratory of war in Magdalena Medio, who forged the creation of a private army whose mission was to stop the expansion of the guerrillas and, at the same time, protect and expand strategic sites for planting, processing, and shipping the cocaine. That army, whose hit men were trained by Israeli mercenaries, organized and led the worst massacres, was behind the extermination of the UP, and assassinations like the killing of Luis Carlos Galán and of my sister Sylvia.

A lot of things have changed since Escobar died on that rooftop in the Olivos neighborhood in Medellín. There aren’t any visible Capos now, the world of the cartels has changed. The war on drugs that killed a generation of courageous and brilliant leaders failed, and the business continues intact. Pablo Escobar is dead, but we didn’t win the war.

[1] MAS (Muerte a Sequestradores – Death to Kidnappers).

[2] “Parapolitics”, referring to the connections between politicians and the paramilitaries.

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