Crime may not pay, but for Pablo Escobar, the man synonymous with the Colombian cocaine trade in the 1980s, it certainly did. By 1979, two years after Eric Clapton released his hit cover of the song “Cocaine,” twenty-two million Americans were using the drug, a fourfold increase from five years earlier. Clubs in Miami—just a two-hour flight from Bogotá—and New York drove the demand that launched a billion-dollar industry. Although various cartels competed to satiate Americans’ newfound obsession with the glamorous white powder, Escobar emerged as the dominant supplier, controlling 80 percent of the business.
While other cartel bosses preferred to work in secret, Escobar cultivated celebrity, becoming the figurehead of the industry, as his hero Al Capone had been the front man for Prohibition-era bootleg booze. In 1989, while Escobar was still in his thirties, Forbes magazine listed him as the seventh-richest person in the world. Public attention only fed his megalomania. Since the dawn of mass media, photographs have functioned as a measure of fame, but for the criminally inclined, one’s visual record primarily corresponds to one’s degree of infamy.
For The Memory of Pablo Escobar, written with journalist Rainbow Nelson, photographer James Mollison assembled seven “collections” of photographs and ephemera to tell the story of the cocaine capo’s rise from a street-smart teenager selling stolen tombstones to the notorious head of a criminal empire, and of, finally, his inevitable fall. With sources ranging from Colombia’s police and newspaper archives to the albums belonging to Escobar’s personal photographer, this material forms an episodic, Rashomon-like narrative of a surreal, brutal, and painfully unsettled chapter in Colombian history. Mollison’s decision to keep these groupings intact, instead of reassembling them chronologically, offers insight into how the information was originally gathered, assembled, and processed and how it was put to use in criminal investigations and trials. Historical context is rounded out with extensively researched texts drawn from secondary sources and with interviews with the story’s pivotal players, who function like talking heads in a documentary. Pablo’s mother, interviewed shortly before her death, staunchly defends her son’s reputation; “Popeye,” his former head of security, describes him as godlike; General Hugo Martinez blames the foreign press for inflating his importance; his former associate “El Profe” suggests that he was blamed for more than he was actually responsible for.
Escobar paradoxically sought visibility while spending most of his life in hiding and while erasing information that might come back to haunt him. Sanitizing his background became critical after he entered the political arena, when his invented biography as a successful entrepreneur who sold used cars, lottery tickets, and real estate was questioned. Ivan Restrepo, a press photographer working for the newspaper El Tiempo, covered the crime boss’s successful run for a seat in Colombia’s congress in 1982. (Escobar was elected as a deputy representative.) Escobar’s campaign slogan—“Man of the People! Man of Action! A Man of His Word!”—is emblematic of the populist platform he cynically adopted, and in Restrepo’s shots of various stage-managed photo ops, Escobar mimes the actions of the typical political aspirant, such as posing with soccer players on the Medellín playing field for which he had purchased lights. His growing fortune enabled him to go further than the average would-be politician hoping to curry favor with his country’s underclass. By enacting a series of philanthropic efforts, including the construction of Barrio Pablo Escobar, a housing complex for Medellín’s homeless, he delivered more than rhetoric, helping him win the support of people frustrated with politicians’ hollow promises.
To ensure that he received favorable campaign coverage, Escobar began funding Medellín Cívica, a newspaper edited by his uncle, while he paid for the archives of El Colombiano, another Medellín paper, to be destroyed. But as wealthy and powerful as Escobar was, he could not buy the loyalty of all press outlets. El Espectador actively investigated his connection to the drug trade, and the stark images from its archive illustrate how the paper was targeted by Escobar’s henchmen, who had evolved from lethal motorcycle assassins into full-fledged urban terrorists. El Espectador’s outspoken editor, Guillermo Cano, was murdered in 1986, and a bomb destroyed its Bogotá offices in 1989.
“Drugs and contraband: they go hand in hand with gunfire . . . it’s for warriors,” Escobar once remarked, and his visual record, though fragmentary, supports his typically self-aggrandizing observation. Plata o plomo (silver or lead) was the choice offered to anyone brave or crazy enough to stand in his way—whether they were competitors, police, congressmen, or those for whom he held his deepest enmity, members of Colombia’s judicial system, who supported the extradition of narco-traffickers to the United States. In 1985, the year Medellín earned the dubious distinction of murder capital of the world, with 1,698 homicides, Escobar played a key role in one of the country’s darkest moments of collusion between cartels and political insurgents, a pernicious pattern that continues today with rebel groups like the FARC and the ELN. The storming of Colombia’s Palace of Justice, home to the Supreme Court, by the leftist guerilla organization M-19 was a twenty-six-hour bloodbath that left eleven of twenty-four justices dead. Among the rebels’ demands was the government’s renunciation of the 1979 extradition treaty that had prompted Escobar to go to war against the state. Thousands of criminal case files were destroyed in the siege, including, conveniently, those related to an investigation of Escobar’s enterprise. Although the facts surrounding the tragedy are still debated, it is widely believed that he paid the M-19 millions to execute the attack.
Edgar Jimenez, or El Chino, a classmate from Escobar’s youth, was trusted to photograph his life as a family man, and curiously, this intimate album is the only section of the book with no allusion to criminal activity, suggesting that Escobar compartmentalized his life. Many of El Chino’s snapshots are compelling for their ordinariness: Here, the drug czar appears as an average-looking portly dad, dancing with his wife or doting on his children at a birthday party, despite the fact that, as a caption reveals, he had recently risen to the top of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. However, El Chino’s bizarre images from Hacienda Nápoles, Escobar’s self-styled Xanadu and the nerve center of the cartel’s operations, remind readers that Escobar’s life was far from ordinary. El Chino himself performs slapstick for the camera, posing as he’s lifted by an elephant trunk or while straddling a rhino.
Nápoles sprawled across more than ten square miles and was equipped with two runways, multiple helicopter pads, and, most famously, a zoo stocked with smuggled exotic animals. Escobar superstitiously believed that rabbits were lucky, and had hundreds introduced to the estate. “El Poeta,” a public-relations adviser from Escobar’s campaign days, describes Nápoles as the incarnation of Macondo, the fabled town in Gabriel García Márquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. After Escobar was killed, in 1993, by an elite unit of the Colombian police working with the US Drug Enforcement Administration, the estate was ransacked by peasants searching for the loot rumored to be buried there. Mollison’s own photographs show how the once-luxurious compound has devolved into ruins, reclaimed by the surrounding jungle. A swimming pool, for instance, has transformed into a swamp, and Escobar’s car collection decays in the garage. (Like many of his former properties, such as a Medellín town house that now houses a state prosecutor’s office, Nápoles has been repurposed; it was reopened this year as a theme park.)
It is a testament to the pervasiveness of Escobar’s mythology that the police who closed in on him made numerous trophy photographs of the things they confiscated, as if to give tangible form to the individual who had consistently eluded capture, embarrassing authorities at multiple turns. Of course, law enforcement photographed and collected images for official purposes: constructing charts of criminal hierarchies, cataloguing techniques for smuggling drugs, documenting seized contraband. But there is something peculiar, personal, and unofficial happening here, too, an act closer to the tourist’s reflexive souvenir collecting. Javier Peña, a DEA agent assigned to work in Bogotá, is pictured with items related to Escobar and his associates, including a golden gun belonging to José Gacha, Escobar’s main partner, and smiling in front of the welcome sign at the entrance to the Nápoles zoo. The biggest trophy of all, though, was the wanted man himself. General Martinez, who spearheaded the campaign that resulted in Escobar’s death, collected, among other items, a series of photographs of law enforcement posing with the bloated, bloodied body, like hunters who have hauled in a formidable creature and desire an image that incontrovertibly proves they got him.
Escobar once told a journalist that the epitaph on his grave would read “I was everything I wanted to be: a bandit.” In an image culled from Colombian police files, he is seen playing the part, dressed as Pancho Villa, the Mexican revolutionary, who in the early twentieth century was hunted by the United States. Savoring parallels between himself and Villa, Escobar would have this portrait framed and hung in his cell in La Catedral, the luxurious private prison he escaped from in 1992, serving just over a year after he brokered a very favorable plea bargain in exchange for his surrender. Although Escobar’s violent reign came close to destabilizing his country and included the murder of a leading presidential candidate, the image of him as a man of the people lives on in his hometown, where he remains something of a folk hero. Mollison concludes the book with a selection of his own photographs, taken during his stay in Colombia. These pictures highlight the lingering affection for Escobar in Barrio Pablo Escobar, where his likeness hangs reverentially in people’s homes, earnestly placed alongside portraits of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.
Viewing the industrialized cocaine trade as the work of an individual makes for a tidy story of an outsize, seemingly omnipotent criminal—the stuff of legend. But Escobar was one man, albeit an extremely powerful one, in a vast network, and despite his importance, cocaine trafficking did not cease with his death; in fact, it grew, though no cartel leader has since emerged as the personification of the trade. Subsequent bosses regarded Escobar, with his penchant for publicity, as an example not to follow, so those unknown players haven’t fed popular culture’s appetite for a rough-and-tumble bandit yarn. Escobar is currently the subject of three films in production, one based on journalist Mark Bowden’s exhaustive book Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw (2001); another—based on Escobar’s brother’s autobiography—will be produced by Oliver Stone, a filmmaker attracted to individuals who have metamorphosed into icons. Such treatment is fitting: Escobar’s life was modeled, in part, on gangster-film tropes, and one can safely guess that he would appreciate the posthumous notoriety. As a friend of his recalls, “From a very young age he was convinced of his status as a myth, alive and after his death.”
Michael Famighetti is an editor at Aperture Foundation.