“Magical realism is defined as what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe. There’s a reason magical realism was born in Colombia.”
The first episode of the Netflix series Narcos starts with these lines. Considering how surreal the story of Pablo Escobar is, it would not be surprising if there was some magical realism involved. This is the man who, at the height of his career, supplied 80% of the cocaine that was consumed in the United States. He is also the man who built his own prison. In addition to being surreal, his story has also made him seem powerful and awe-inspiring, especially after Narcos gained popularity. Fans of the show are proudly wearing t-shirts with his words “Plato or Plomo” written on them.
So really, who was Pablo Escobar? A charismatic drug lord with an army of sicarios who earned the love of the people? Or a criminal who ruined the country’s economy and the lives of thousands of civilians? While most people think of him as a gun-wielding powerhouse of awesomeness, Colombians detest him. And a lot of them think that Narcos is portraying him as a hero of sorts.
“The year I was born, two terrible events occurred. The first was a natural disaster where a volcano had erupted close to my hometown, and the second was the siege on the Palace of Justice, which is the Supreme Court,” says Valentina Macías Isaza, who was born and raised in Medellin, the city that Pablo Escobar operated out of. She explains that 15 days before and after her birthday, there was chaos, and Pablo was responsible for it.
“To this date, nobody knows exactly what happened that day when the Court was attacked; nobody can account for the missing people. The violence went on for three days. You can never get over that kind of violence. They dumped parts of people’s bodies into the rivers. Years later, people’s bodies are still being found,” she laments. Valentina lived through the years when Pablo was at the height of his power. Even though she and her family members were not involved in drug trafficking, their lives were still deeply impacted by it.
Why then did people perceive him positively? “At the beginning, nobody thought he was that bad. When he started making a lot of money, people started calling him Robin Hood. They thought he would take from the rich and give to the poor,” Valentina explains. He helped rebuild one of the slums in Medellin. The people from this slum which was renamed the Pablo Escobar neighbourhood praised him and saw him in a different light. But not many knew that he was undertaking this social work with an ulterior motive. After all, he needed to get rid of the information that the government had on him and bring down the stringent extradition laws.
“When you live in a community, what one person does affects the lives of everybody else. Just like genes get passed on from one generation to another, the consequences of actions too last beyond one generation,” says Valentina. One of the lasting memories she has of her childhood is the image and sound of windows rattling when bombs exploded a neighbourhood away. She distinctly remembers listening to the news about bombings and seeing posters of wanted criminals and of rewards offered for their capture.
What Pablo has left behind is more a train wreck rather than a legacy. The export of cocaine by his cartel has led to the rise of the “narco-culture” in Colombia. Along with narco-culture, there was the growth of the sicarioto, or an army of hitmen and a deep-seated fear of them, which exists even today. “In Medellin, there are these invisible frontier lines between neighbourhoods. If you are new to a particular area, you could get killed just because you entered it,” says Valentina.
But the impact of his decisions and actions does not end there. It also changed the way prostitution functioned in Colombia. When drug trafficking reached its zenith in the eighties and nineties, there were big parties to celebrate the export of cocaine to Miami, and prostitutes were invited to them. The parties got grander, and the types of prostitutes one could hire increased in number. “Prepaid prostitution existed then. Pamphlets and brochures would be passed around, and even university students were on offer,” Valentina recalls.
People began second-guessing the source of their neighbours’ and acquaintances’ money. “When we learn that someone has made a lot of money overnight, we directly assume that they are involved in trafficking drugs,” Valentina explains. Narco-culture also seeped into religion; the Virgin Mary gained a negative connotation during the eighties and nineties. Hitmen would have her figurine incorporated onto their guns and pray to her.
Reminders of Pablo’s life still exist. His tomb gets a large number of visitors every week, and his largest property, which has been turned into a park, is considered an exotic tourist destination. Colombians, however, don’t care much for it. “But Narcos is definitely the biggest reminder,” Valentina says with a chuckle.
Did life change after Pablo died? Even though the fear in the minds of the people reduced, circumstances did not change radically. Indiscriminate bombing reduced and life had become more peaceful. But drug trafficking is still a rampant issue. In fact, Valentina is of the opinion that it has only gotten worse, because it is now controlled by a group of militants. As she puts it, “With this type of business, whenever they cut the head, another one rises.”
Valentina has experienced the consequence of Pablo’s actions first-hand. But children who were born a generation after her know about him only from reference. “They don’t have the same kind of memories that my generation does. In a sense, even they are foreigners to history. For them, the story of Pablo is just an urban legend,” says Valentina. They probably know only a little more than the viewers of the TV series.
Narcos has impacted the way people all over the world perceive Colombians and the city of Medellin. Most people are impressed by the fact that Valentina hails from the same country as the famed drug lord. But she has also been discriminated against because of her nationality. “When I lived in the United States 15 years ago, it was terrible. I remember this one guy who would bully me in the corridors by saying, ‘Hey, Colombian! Where’s the coke? How much did you bring?’ For a 16-year-old, that can be traumatising,” she recalls.
But even the friends she made in the US weren’t always sensitive. “I love Pablo! I can’t believe I met a person from Medellin. You’re actually from his country!” they’d say. This seems to be the case for most people she meets; they are amazed that the story of Pablo is not fictional. They also ‘exoticise’ it. And this is where the problem lies: For non-Colombians, he is an anti-hero. For the marketing department of Narcos, he is a great symbol to use for branding. But for Colombians, he is a monster; an unfortunate reality. This is why many Colombians think that the creators of the TV series could have handled the subject in a more delicate and respectful manner. “For me, it’s as bad as selling products with Hitler’s mottos on it. They’re abusing a piece of history. But as a show in itself, I think it has been made well,” Valentina says.