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Colombia’s Escobar resurrected in new telenovela

Almost two decades after he was gunned down on a Medellín rooftop, Colombia’s most notorious villain is being resurrected on national television. Pablo Escobar — the bloody and lavish drug lord who swamped the world with cocaine and left thousands of bodies in his wake — is getting his own biopic.

Since May 28, Colombia’s Caracol television has been showing its new series, Pablo Escobar: The Boss of Evil, to record-breaking audiences. Telemundo plans to broadcast the show, some of which was shot in Miami, in the United States later this year.

In a country awash in narco-novelas that glamorize the bloody exploits of fictional drug dons, Boss of Evil aims to be something different. The two creators of the show know Escobar’s violence firsthand.

Juana Uribe, Caracol’s vice president for programming, wrote and produced the series. Her mother, reporter Maruja Pachón, was kidnapped by Escobar. She later told her story to Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Márquez who used it in News of a Kidnapping. Uribe’s uncle, presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán, was murdered by the cartel. Her co-producer on the project is Camilo Cano, who was 20 years old when Escobar’s henchmen killed his father, the crusading director of El Espectador newspaper.

“We wanted to show the victims of this conflict and for the public to understand that there were brave people who stood up to the cartel, that these people also have stories worth telling,” Cano told The Miami Herald. “We’ve never been able to tell this story in Colombia, because in the midst of all the pain and trauma we never had a moment to step back and analyze the situation.”

In Cano’s case, he wanted to tell the story of his father, Guillermo Cano, the editor of one of Colombia’s leading newspapers who tried to raise the alarm about Escobar and his cronies. The scathing articles eventually drew the drug lord’s ire, and Cano was killed just days before Christmas in 1986, when his car was booby-trapped to explode.

Despite the satisfaction of sharing his father’s story to a new generation, the process was painful, Cano said.

“You can understand how difficult it might be to revive your father just to kill him again,” Cano said. “There was nothing cathartic about this.”

Based on the book La Parabola de Pablo by Alonso Salazar, the show traces Escobar’s rise from small-time thug and cigarette trafficker to becoming one of the richest and most powerful men in the hemisphere — traipsing through Miami, winning a seat in Congress, and famously offering to pay off Colombia’s foreign debt to avoid extradition to the United States. Along the way, Escobar’s largess — he built thousands of homes for Medellín’s poor — made him a Robin Hood figure to many.

But the producers say the show will highlight Escobar the sociopath: the man who ordered an Avianca airliner with 110 people on board to be blown up in hopes, it was said, of killing presidential candidate César Gaviria, who missed the flight.

Escobar tortured, kidnapped and maimed those who got in his way. Almost 1,000 policemen were killed after he put a bounty on their heads, Semana magazine reported. In all, Escobar is thought to be linked to some 5,000 murders.

“If people watch this and still think that he’s a hero, then that’s their problem,” Uribe said at Caracol’s sprawling headquarters in Bogotá. “We make it clear that Escobar didn’t care about the pain he caused and didn’t care about his victims.”

What is clear is that the audience cares about the show. The opening episode had more than 11 million viewers — a record for Colombian television. Its stars, particularly Andrés Parra, who embodies the pudgy, mustachioed Escobar, have been splashed across the covers of newspapers and magazines. Press calls have come in from around the globe, Uribe said.

In a recent column, Ómar Rincón, the television critic for El Tiempo, said the show was more revealing about Colombia than the nightly news and that it would likely be among the “great television programs of the 21st Century.”

But not everyone’s happy to see Pablo again.

Alvaro Morales is the curator of the Escobar museum at Hacienda Nápoles, the drug lord’s legendary ranch in Puerto Triunfo. During its heyday, Nápoles was a heavily armed pleasure complex that had a landing strip for cocaine-laden airplanes, its own zoo, complete with hippos and camels, and air boats. Today, the ranch is being run as an amusement park by the state and is trying to disassociate itself from its infamous owner. Producers said that Nápoles has lost so much of its narco-splendor that they decided to fake the ranch using several locations, including Zoo Miami in south Miami-Dade.

But Morales said he wouldn’t have let Caracol film there anyway.

While the show claims it will humanize Escobar’s victims, Morales said he hasn’t seen evidence of that in its opening weeks. And while the program claims to demonize Escobar, he fears that it’s turning him into a cult hero for a new generation of Colombians.

“Human stupidity has no limits,” Morales said, “and I’m sure there are people out there who think they will be able to do what Escobar couldn’t”— namely, not get gunned down at the age of 44.

Cabdriver José Iván Calderón, 68, has watched the show faithfully since it began airing. He said he remembers being worried in the 1980s and 1990s that he might be collateral damage in a cartel hit or bombing. (More than 50 people died when Escobar bombed the headquarters of the secret police in downtown Bogotá, near Calderón’s home.) But Calderón said so much has changed since those days that he can watch the show as entertainment.

“I’m learning a lot,” he said, noting Escobar’s early stint as a bank robber. “But it’s just a normal show now — it’s not making me anxious.”

While Colombia has come a long way in shaking off its dark past, there’s much about the show that’s still relevant. Cano said he and his family are still seeking justice for their father’s murder. The original trial was suspended after the cartel killed two judges and the prosecutor overseeing the case.

While the homicide rate in Colombia has dropped 50 percent in the last decade, drug-fueled violence has turned Central America into the most dangerous region on the planet. And parts of Mexico resemble Colombia during the height of Escobar’s reign, Uribe said.

“Drug-running hasn’t decreased and consumption hasn’t decreased — it’s just traveling different routes and there are other drug lords,” she said. The show underscores the cost of the drug war on Colombia, she added. “That’s not a price any other country should pay.”