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."
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar has been dead for almost 20 years. He terrorized his country in the 1980s and made billions of dollars until he was killed by police in 1993. Well, now Pablo Escobar is again the talk of Colombia, this time as the subject of a TV drama. It aims to show how he flooded American cities with cocaine and nearly brought his own country to its knees.
NPR's Juan Forero reports on how Escobar is being brought back to life.
(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE)
JUAN FORERO, BYLINE: A small plane lands on a remote air strip in southern Colombia and a camera crew begins to film.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)
FORERO: Three, two, one, action, a director calls out. A drug trafficker has flown into the ranch owned by the cocaine cartel chief Pablo Escobar. And the two begin to argue.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "PABLO ESCOBAR: BOSS OF EVIL")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)
FORERO: And then it's a wrap and the actors celebrate after the scene.
FORERO: Since his death in 1993, Escobar has fascinated historians and journalists, but as fiction, he's been taboo. The subject has been just too painful a memory here. Now, half of the country's TV viewers are tuning in every night to "Pablo Escobar: Boss of Evil."
Andres Parra plays Escobar and says the series is having an impact.
ANDRES PARRA: We have all type of reactions with the project, good and bad ones. You know, it never happened before with any other TV show. Everybody's talking about this - politicians, people from the army, victims.
FORERO: With an army of hit men, Escobar detonated car bombs and ordered an airliner blown out of the sky. He also had thousands killed, including the progressive politician, Luis Carlos Galan, who died at a 1989 campaign event captured on film.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE AND SCREMAING)
FORERO: Galan's niece is Juana Uribe and she is one of two creators of the Escobar series on the Caracol Television Network. She said it was vital to show the Escobar years from the victims' perspective. She and co-creator Camilo Cano, son of the famous editor slain by Escobar's hit men, also wanted the series to be as real as possible.
JUANA URIBE: (Foreign language spoken).
FORERO: History sometimes mixes with art, Uribe says, and in this case, we emphasize that by using archival footage in the series. The series is also full of real-life events, like the 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.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PABLO ESCOBAR: BOSS OF EVIL")
FORERO: His mannerisms and accent, his frantic breathing and nervous ticks. The actor, Andres Parra, also had to reconcile the Escobar who is the good father with the sociopath.
PARRA: I couldn't understand how Pablo Escobar was able to be this wonderful father that he was for his two sons, you know, and at the same time, practically in the same scene, being able to blow up a commercial plane full of people, you know.
FORERO: It was, Parra says, a huge challenge in a country where everyone knows who Pablo Escobar was.
PARRA: 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, so I think it's a very rich character.
FORERO: Indeed, Parra says, the fascination with Pablo Escobar will never end. Juan Forero, NPR News, Bogota. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.