Pablo Escobar's Twisted Stamp On Colombian Culture

Given the harm mobsters like Pablo Escobar inflicted on Colombia's image and society, how have they kept such a prominent place in the national culture 25 years after his death?

Kingpin on the skin
Kingpin on the skin
Andrés Osorio Guillott


BOGOTÁ — This week marks 25 years since the death of cartel boss Pablo Escobar, one of the 20th century's most notorious criminals. Beyond the criminal justice issue, this anniversary of his Dec. 2, 1993 death offers a good moment to rethink how Escobar in particular, and drug trafficking more generally, has affected Colombia's society and culture.

Months ago, I entered a souvenir shop in London, and the young attendant asked me where I was from. Colombia, I replied and he immediately said with a laugh, "Ah, Pablo Escobar." On another occasion, passing through the airport in Aruba, an agent asked me on which flight I had arrived. Bogotá, I said, which immediately prompted my being held up, unlike other passengers, and an inspection to check for drugs.

I only recount these to show this particular way Colombians have been viewed around the world for more than a quarter-century We may not need visas anymore to visit many countries, but we are still perceived as potential threats to the security of other countries, or somehow involved in drug trafficking.

Drug trafficking has become a part of mainstream culture.

Besides the dismay of being judged unfairly so far from one's country, there is also the consternation of watching certain people honor him. They sell T-shirts of his face around the world, while at home Escobar is remembered by some as a generous benefactor who built stadiums for cities and gave homes and money to those who had none.

The image of Escobar as a latter-day Robin Hood leaves out the 85 bomb attacks he orchestrated around the country in the 1980s and 1990s, and the 400 people he ordered murdered.

So how have we narrated this story, and transformed Escobar into a folk hero? The Mexican crime writer Élmer Mendoza recently told me that drug traffickers were good people, full of empathy for the working classes. One may find this vision puzzling, but his words make more sense as you examine how drug trafficking became a part of mainstream culture.

People like Escobar filled a void left by state institutions, offering acts of "goodness' to legitimize their evil deeds. The villain can thus begin to acquire heroic dimensions, and the gifts and handouts intended to make locals accept the presence of crime among them begin going further, penetrating culture and shared psychology.

Sectors of Colombian society have for example come to accept what we might term "drug architecture and aesthetics." Mobsters brought to Colombia big white houses with tinted windows, like private clubs one might see in the United States or Mexico. Escobar went further in building his estate and private zoo, though the idea behind the shameless opulence was to show big crime's interest in unconcealed, territorial occupation.

Literature and film have been prolific, both fictional and factual.

Use of ostentatious materials is a show of power and sign of identity. It is then emulated, as people start to aspire to live within the ornate façades to display their own prosperity. Then there were the objects gangsters came to love: Escobar reputedly accumulated art valued then at around $1.5 billion, including works by Dalí, Picasso, Rodin, or Colombian artists like Botero and Luis Caballero. The fact is many of these reports were never authenticated, the works never found, but anecdotes like one told by a former Escobar wife, María Henao, about a gallery owner declaring the drug lord's collection to be the most important in Latin America, confirm his desire to buy art to show his refinement, and power.

Literature and film have in turn been prolific, both fictional and factual, narrators of the various aspects of the mob world and its excesses. They have made Escobar's life visible, and turned him into an action figure who becomes a little immortal every time he smashes another opponent. Series like Narcos on Netflix, or Escobar the Boss of Evil, depict him as someone who loved his family and gave refuge to neighbors. He is eternally depicted as the hope of those who had despaired of the state and the law.

Their fates are recounted in an urban literature genre written by such novelists as Héctor Abad Faciolince, Fernando Vallejo or even Gabriel García Márquez. They depict youth placed at the service of death and crime, in a society living in the grip of fear. The Sound of Falling Objects ("El ruido de las cosas al caer"), News of a Kidnapping and Our Lady of the Assassins are three works that take us closer to this nebulous, fratricidal world.

These and other books convey Colombian literature's choice not to leave uncharted the truths and experiences of the violence perpetrated in Escobar's name. They also paint another reality, namely, as the television critic Omar Rincón said, of an entire society embracing the culture of anything goes.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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