Narco Nabobs

Malcolm Deas on Pablo Escobar

Pablo Escobar, the world’s most famous drug smuggler, was finally found and killed by the Colombian police on 2 December 1993. Among journalists everywhere he was popular to the end. Most of the reports of his death invoked Robin Hood, and spoke of the mourning of the Medellín poor; and many local people did indeed turn out for his funeral. It was reported and photographed – cries of ‘Pablo, Pablo’, vengeance in the air, grieving sister dressed in black with elbows on coffin – so as to make Medellín appear as much as possible like some people’s idea of Sicily. Most of the expressions of admiration for Escobar, however, should be attributed to a willingness to live up to the questioner’s expectations, or to the Colombian habit of mamando gallo, or keeping one’s end up by saying and doing disrespectful things. The funeral was obviously an occasion not to be missed. A good turnout was not necessarily evidence of grief, but of a readiness to keep in their place authorities who might otherwise think that they had achieved something for which they should be congratulated. Congratulating governments has not figured much in the local political culture, and the national government has not been particularly popular in Medellin in recent years.

In any case, Escobar ended up much more like the Sheriff of Nottingham than Robin Hood – with much more murder to his credit and much less largesse. His victims can be split into a number of groups: rivals, intransigent officials and politicians, over four hundred members of the Medellín police, guerrillas, revolutionaries and peasants who got in the way and were massacred by mercenary paramilitaries, and several hundred innocent bystanders. The largest group, however, is of those killed less directly by the drug trade and the increasing violence that accompanies it. There are no precise figures for drug-related homicide in Colombia, but there is a clear correlation, both chronological and geographical, between the development of the trade and the statistics of violent death. To take a recent example, the spread of amapola, a poppy grown for heroin, has turned a number of previously somnolent small highland towns into miniature Medellíns. Most of the victims are unimportant people, many of them unnamed. In Medellín there are thousands of such casualties. These people had families and friends, who are probably not now mourning Escobar.

For a time Escobar seemed to have a political project in mind. He figured on a local Liberal Party list in the not very glorious position of substitute member of the Chamber of Representatives. The Medellín cartel’s leading figure in the central Department of Cundinamarca, Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha, known as ‘the Mexican’ because of his liking for that country, actually had himself elected to the municipal council of Pacho, the centre of his operations. Perhaps it is a heartening feature of the Republic’s politics that even such grandees of the drug-trade felt that they had to start near the bottom. Apart from their tendency to gratify every caprice, it is not clear why they bothered: these positions gave them no additional power and precious little respectability.

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