A generation ago, he terrorized Colombia with a wave of bombings and assassinations that nearly brought the state to its knees.
Now, nearly 20 years after Pablo Escobar was shot dead following a long manhunt by Colombian and American agents, the flamboyant chief of the Medellin cocaine cartel is being resurrected by Colombian television.
These days, Colombians are mesmerized by a dramatic series that re-creates the kingpin's rise and fall: how he went from stealing cars to running the world's biggest cocaine-trafficking operation, which flooded American cities with cocaine and nearly made Colombia a narco-state.
Since his death in 1993, the Medellin cocaine cartel chief has fascinated historians and journalists.
But as fiction, he has been taboo; the subject has just been too painful a memory here. Until now.
Beginning in late May, Pablo Escobar: Boss of Evil, the most expensive and elaborate program ever produced by Colombian television, has been attracting more than half of the country's viewing audience to its prime-time slot each night on the Caracol TV network .
"The TV show is a big hit and we have all type of reactions with the project, good and bad ones," says Andres Parra, the 34-year-old actor who is playing Escobar. "It never happened before with another TV show. Everybody is talking about this, politicians, people from the army, victims. Everybody is talking about the project."
Telling All Sides Of The Story
The period they are remembering is the darkest in Colombian history. In one conversation intercepted by authorities, Escobar pledged to create chaos for the state — and he delivered. He blew an Avianca airlines jetliner full of passengers from the sky. He also ordered bombs to be detonated across Bogota. It is estimated that his cartel killed 5,000 people, many of them street cops.
At his height of power, Escobar ran a cocaine-trafficking empire that employed an army of hit men who liquidated the cartel chief's adversaries. Among those casualties were Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, high-ranking police officers, and Luis Carlos Galan, a progressive politician who was poised to win the presidential election in 1989 when he was gunned down.
The series' creators, Juana Uribe and Camilo Cano, were among the many families directly affected by the violence. Galan was Uribe's uncle, and her mother was kidnapped by Escobar's henchmen. Cano's father, Guillermo Cano, was a crusading editor of the newspaper El Espectador and was shot dead on Escobar's orders.
Uribe says she and Cano felt the time was right to fictionalize the cocaine cowboy's story.
She explains that Colombia has been awash in recent years in soap operas about narco-traffickers, so-called narco-novelas that are loosely based on real people but frequently glorify traffickers and sometimes make caricatures of those who are hunting them down.
Uribe says she and Cano wanted to use their series to provide as detailed a picture of who Escobar had been and what Colombia had been like. It was especially vital to them to show the Escobar years from the victims' perspective — and that of the heroes who hunted him down.
"It's very important that people who are growing up now, who are watching these shows, learn that there were important people who had courage and confronted traffickers and died," Uribe says.
Getting Escobar Right
History sometimes mixes with art, Uribe says, and in this case the show's creators emphasized that by using archival footage in the series.
The series is also full of actual events, such as a police raid on a huge, industrial-sized lab that churned out cocaine for American users.
The creators say the biggest trick was getting Pablo Escobar right — his mannerisms and accent, his frantic breathing and nervous ticks — all of which are familiar to Colombians who've seen news clips of the cartel chief.
Parra, the actor, also had to reconcile the Escobar who was a caring father with the sociopath.
"I was very confused with that at the beginning, you know. I couldn't understand how Pablo Escobar was able to be this wonderful father that he was with his two sons and at the same time, practically in the same scene, being able to blow up a commercial plane full of people," he says.
It was, Parra says, a huge challenge in a country where everyone knows who Pablo Escobar was.
"It's definitely the toughest character you can have in your life because Escobar is a whole world of emotions and thoughts and actions and everything," he says. "So I think it's a very rich character. It never ends."
Related NPR Stories:
- After Taint Of Drugs, Colombia Reinvents Itself
- From Mafia Soldier To Cocaine Cowboy
- Escobar's Son Seeks Atonement For Father's Sins
- In Colombia, Tourists Flock To Drug Kingpin's Ranch
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