Colombia, 1980s: Pablo Escobar

World Today

ESCOBAR: Visiting the White House Escobar took his son Marroquin to the White House in 1981. (PHOTO: Marroquin Santos Family)

Part of the CGTN special series Rediscovering the New World

To understand the celebrity of Pablo Escobar – and his impact on Colombia – you need to go back to his roots. 

Born into a poor family in 1949, Escobar’s life was a rags-to-riches story in a country with deep social inequalities.  Drug and Armed Conflict Expert, Ricardo Vargas explains; “Pablo personified the excluded population of Medellin – those living in a marginalized social sector – that with ‘street smarts’ is able to succeed.”

Escobar’s life on the streets led to cocaine trafficking. At the top of his game, he controlled more than half the U.S. cocaine trade, and made the Forbes Billionaires list seven years in a row.

Pablo Escobar Mug Shot

Pablo Escobar Mug Shot (PHOTO: Policia Nacionale)

His reputation spread along with his product. His celebrity, and cocaine, helped put Colombia on the map.  Anthropologist of the Rosario University, Maria Victoria Uribe said “In terms of an identity for Colombians in the world, Pablo Escobar did leave a strong mark, because there are countries that only know of Colombia associated with Pablo Escobar. It is a reference. Just like ‘Chapo’ Guzman for Mexico. They become a symbol, and a very commercialized one. ”

When the government cracked down, Pablo Escobar pushed back. He killed ministers, bombed the Colombian capital, and even called for the death of policemen who didn’t accept bribes. “For some sectors in Medellin, Pablo is a hero, a recognized person and when he confronts the government even more, because it is a government that has always negated people access to health, education and good living conditions.

Pablo personified all that,” added Vargas.

As you might expect, most Colombian citizens rejected the violence. Still, drug trafficking-shaped society.  Even the definition of beauty changed…to one that suited the drug gang.  Colombian beauty queens became more voluptuous.  Demand for augmented breasts fueled a boom in plastic surgeries. 

“I did a study about this and the women don’t do this for themselves. They do it because the men like this are looking for that. And that generation is marked by this Narco-culture,” said Uribe.

Members of Search Bloc celebrate over Escobar's body

Members of Search Bloc celebrate over Escobar’s body on December 2,1993. His death ended a 16-month search effort, costing hundreds of millions of dollars. (PHOTO: Policia Nacionale)

Pablo Escobar’s reign came to an end on December 2, 1993, when the Colombian National Police shot and killed him in Medellin.  “Narco-traffickers began to see how that lifestyle gets them in trouble and is counter-productive, and they started to change. They become more selective about their use of violence. They now use silence, bribes, extortion in the territories and routes they want to establish,” explained Vargas.


DIGITAL EXTRA: Drug and armed conflict expert, Ricardo Vargas on Pablo Escobar

Drug and armed conflict expert, Ricardo Vargas, talks to CGTN about the use of violence by Pablo Escobar in the 80s and early 90s.


Twenty-five years after Pablo’s death, gone are the larger-than-life drug lords.  Colombia’s drug syndicates no longer resemble the flashy cartels that once monopolized the drug trade.

The criminal empires Escobar inspired have changed so much, that were he alive he might not recognize them.  One thing hasn’t changed—cocaine remains one of this country’s biggest exports.

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