Colombians mark Dec. 2, 1993 as a historic day.
On the rooftop of a home in Medellín, notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar was gunned down by police. His death gave hope to a country that believed it had finally buried not only the brutal war against the most feared capo in history but his iconic image as a Colombian Robin Hood.
The country has spent decades fighting the international image of a nation bloody and overcome by drugs. “Pablo Escobar and cocaine,” is the answer that most foreigners give when asked what they know about the South American country.
Escobar is said to have controlled up to 80 percent of the global cocaine business. He was the seventh richest man in the world in 1989, according to Forbes magazine, turned Medellín into the most dangerous city anywhere in the world and has been blamed for at least 4,000 murders.
El Patrón, as he was popularly known, threatened the Colombian government with brutal narco-terrorist attacks, such as the bombing of an Avianca airliner that killed 107 people, a bomb at the government's domestic intelligence Administrative Security Department that left 70 dead and more than 40 car bombs. His cruelty knew no limits.
Yet today, nearly 25 years after his death and despite his bloody legacy, the Medellin Cartel boss is remembered with both repugnance and fascination. For some he has even become a sort of popular legend.
His name has become the focus of an entire entertainment industry that generates millions of dollars in Colombia and other countries. Many are profiting from movies and TV novelas and series, while others sell T-shirts, jackets, paintings and key chains or guide “narco-tours” — all clear evidence that the once dangerous drug trafficker is now more popular than ever.
The name is so commercially valuable that many businesses in countries like the United States, Argentina, Australia and Colombia and in parts of the Middle East and Asia have embraced the name of Escobar, once the most wanted man in the world.
In Kuwait, for example, there's a Pablo Escobar Ice Cream Shop. Employees wear T-shirts with a notorious image of the drug lord, when he smiled for the cameras after his 1976 arrest in Medellín.
In Brno, the second largest city in the Czech Republic, a bar named after the Colombian capo sells articles with his image, such as baseball caps, lighters and even Pablo Escobar Coffee at $10 a bag. And in Samara, Russia, the Pablo Escobar Generation strip club plays up his well-known love for beautiful women.
Far away in Melbourne, Australia, the 10-year-old Pablo Honey Bar invites clients to join the “cartel” and enjoy the paintings of the capo that line its walls.
Even Gualeguaychú, Argentina, has a Pablo Emilio Bar, opened in June amid controversy and decorated with images of Escobar, including a poster that shows him smiling as he fires two handguns. Emilio was the drug-trafficker’s middle name.
From criminal to Saint Pablo
Escobar-mania, which has expanded around the world in the past two years because of the success of the Netflix series Narcos, goes far beyond bars, and surfers on the internet can find hundreds of articles linked to the drug lord.
Shoppers on Amazon and eBay can find books, paintings, posters, caps, jackets, shorts and even cushions and cell-phone protectors — everything with the Escobar name or image.
Walmart's web page alone has more than 20 different styles of T-shirts and jackets with Escobar's image, priced from $15 to $30. One shows him in a red Santa hat over the words “Let it Snow.”
The fad has even reached baby clothing, and occasionally his face has replaced the traditional image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
As if Escobar had been some sort of philosopher, there are also articles with his most famous phrases, like plata o plomo — take my bribe or take my lead. Other articles show how to make an Escobar disguise for Halloween parties.
On Miami Beach, tourists can buy clothes with Pablo Escobar’s smiling mug shot after he was arrested. In Colombia, they can book guided tours to some of the places where he lived and died.
Excursions, priced from $60 to $750, offer visits to places like Hacienda Napoles, the farm where Escobar kept a collection of exotic animals from Africa; the Monaco apartment building where he lived; and the house where he was gunned down in 1993.
Escobar, the Colombian Robin Hood
Most Colombians remember Escobar as the worst criminal in the country's history. Yet others, like some residents of a neighborhood where the drug trafficker donated 443 houses to poor people who had been living in a Medellín garbage dump, venerate him almost like a saint, putting flowers on his tomb and offering up prayers in his name.
The entrance to the area is marked by a mural that says, “Welcome to the Pablo Escobar neighborhood. We breathe peace here.”
And common comments about Escobar from those who live there: “He did nothing bad, and if he did, it was the government's fault because it attacked him;” “Whatever he was, he did very good things;” and “He was a benefactor for us.”
Escobar also donated soccer fields, food, money and medicines to the poor. He once denied that he was any sort of Robin Hood, but added that the nickname was “interesting because he fought for the poor people.”
Many observers wonder when one of the worst criminals in history turned into a popular idol.
Alejandro Herrero, a Latin American studies professor at the University of Michigan, said there's a kind of “historic amnesia” that has turned Escobar into a criminal hero and popular legend.
“The programs that commercialize the image of the drug trafficker as a man who is outside the law, who breaks the rules, generate fascination among the audience, but erase all of the political, social and historic context in the background,” Herrero said.
Juliana Martinez, a Colombian professor at American University in Washington, D.C., has stated that programs like Narcos “turns Colombia's recent violent history into a good-enough product for the entertainment of a ‘preexisting fan base.’
“...despite what the show's creators may think, Pablo Escobar is not a science fiction character, and Colombia is not a Disney version of Persia,” Martinez wrote in an academic article titled Netflix Narcos: ‘Cultural Weight’ or Cultural Maquila?
“The violence unleashed as a direct result of US polices and its inability — or unwillingness — to curb domestic consumption of drugs is nothing like eating too much chocolate,” she wrote. “So if you are in need of a guilty pleasure, or are looking for something not-so-boring to do on a lazy Sunday afternoon, perhaps you should just go for ice cream.”
Follow Catalina Ruiz Parra en Twitter: @catalinaruiz