TV series rekindles narco's allure
A largely true and visually stunning Colombian account of the rise and fall of the late cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar has drawn millions of viewers, sparking debate about whether it goes too far in humanizing a ruthless killer.
On U.S. television"Pablo Escobar: El patrón del mal" ("Pablo Escobar: The Boss of Evil") can be seen in the Seattle area on Telemundo at 7 p.m. Spanish only.
The actor's comb-over, the mincing walk, the flat speech cadence and murderous, reptilian glare are all too reminiscent of one of the most powerful criminals who lived.
The large number of Colombian eyeballs glued to a new prime-time telenovela about the life and times of Pablo Escobar, highlighted by actor Andrés Parra's bravura performance, has resurrected interest in the late drug narco more than 18 years after he died in a shootout with police on a rooftop in his hometown of Medellín.
And the sale of the series to U.S. Spanish-language broadcaster Telemundo, plus the increasing number of foreigners taking "Pablo tours" in his hometown, suggests the interest extends far beyond Colombia's borders.
Caracol TV, the broadcast channel broadcasting the series, said "Escobar: The Boss of Evil" has pulled in near-record numbers of viewers since its premiere in late May. It's even approached — but not quite surpassed — ratings of Colombia's most popular soap ever, "Betty La Fea," whose plot was exported and reproduced in the United States as "Ugly Betty."
The writers are exploiting a rich vein of dramatic material. Early episodes were concerned with Escobar's entrepreneurial rise from car thief to billionaire cocaine magnate. Later ones have focused on his bloody campaign to force the government to revoke extradition.
To do that, he ordered the slayings of Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara and presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán; offered 1 million-peso bounties that produced murders of hundreds of policemen, and planted a bomb that brought down an Avianca jetliner in 1989, killing 110 crew and passengers. The target, presidential candidate César Gaviria, missed the flight.
While mesmerizing television viewers in this country of 46 million, the series also has sparked a heated debate over whether it does too much to humanize a man who coolly ordered the slayings of thousands.
"It's a false and paltry version that will end up converting the worst criminal into an idol," said Rodrigo Lara Restrepo, son of the former justice minister who was assassinated in 1984.
Yet the series is co-produced by relatives of two of Escobar's high-profile victims: Camilo Cano, son of Guillermo Cano, editor of El Espectador newspaper, whom Escobar had murdered in 1986; and Juana Uribe, niece of Galán, who was gunned down at a campaign event in 1989.
Both say it was the right time to tell Escobar's story in a fictionalized but largely true-to-life account.
"This is a way of doing a little bit of catharsis because this is what we went through and there is no Colombian who doesn't understand that," Uribe said. "I had the possibility to analyze and had an open door to tell the story. I felt like we had a responsibility to do this."
The good and the bad
From the beginning, the producers and scriptwriter Juan Camilo Ferrand decided Escobar would be explored from all sides.
The series has proved to be a visual treat: It's been filmed at 450 locations across Colombia, including a ranch that resembles Escobar's pleasure palace Hacienda Napoles, where Colombians once flocked on weekends to see his exotic collection of lions, giraffes, zebras and hippos. The real ranch is now home to a prison and public park.
The soap also covers elements of the Escobar legend that have made him out to be a Robin Hood, including his building hundreds of housing units for dwellers of the Medellín city dump. As the telenovela makes clear, the largesse was electorally motivated and helped him get elected to congress as an alternate in 1982.
Parra, 34, said his role has been a challenge because the Escobar in Ferrand's script is not only a trafficker and killer but also a loving son and father. That side to Escobar does not line up neatly with his popular image.
"I couldn't understand how Pablo Escobar was able to be this wonderful father that he was to his two children and at the same time, practically in the same scene, being able to blow up a commercial airliner full of people," Parra said. "How does this guy not feel any guilt? How can he blow up a building and just go back to his home and celebrate his 14-year-old's birthday?"
Parra said he interviewed psychologists to understand how Escobar created his moral and ethical codes. He also studied reams of news footage of Escobar, which helped him copy the drug boss' peculiar voice, his odd agitated breathing and tendency of looking away as he spoke to people.
"I decided to get very obsessed with the character," said Parra, who is portly as Escobar was and bears a close resemblance, "hearing audios of his voice the whole day for three months, watching movies every day, trying to see all his ticks, the way he walks, the way he sits down."
The creators said they wanted to remind Colombians about the heroes who fought Escobar and the chaos the kingpin wrought upon this country. The actors who portrayed those slain leaders met with their children and widows to determine how best to portray them, which led to uneasy moments.
Cano recounted how he himself — as well as his siblings and mother — had to go through the re-enactment of his father's death.
"I bring my father to life to have him killed once more," said Cano, 46.
Not everyone believes the creators have accomplished what they set out to do.
Television critic Omar Rincón praised the acting, the script and the elaborately staged scenes that have made the series the most costly in Colombian television history. But he said the series has a flaw in that viewers see Escobar's life from start to finish while the heroes appear suddenly and briefly.
"People don't accept that Cano and Lara are the good guys," said Rincón, explaining that viewers do not connect with the heroes the way they do with Escobar.
"Pablo tours" popular
Indeed, evil can exert a strange attraction.
Recently, a group of 14 German, Irish, Australian, French and American tourists — mostly backpackers — piled into a van to tour Escobar's grave site, the now-abandoned and bombed-out high-rise that was the nerve center of his criminal enterprise and a onetime "safe house" that is now occupied by his brother Roberto.
It's one of half a dozen Pablo tours in Medellín but the only one that includes an audience with a blood relative of the narco.
Though scarred and partly blinded by a letter bomb that exploded while he was serving an 11-year prison term for his role in his brother's cartel, Roberto Escobar, 65, cheerfully signed photos and books and told anecdotes about his younger brother. He pointed out bullet holes on the entry wall of the house, remnants of a gunfight during a kidnapping attempt two years ago.
He gave the group a sanitized version of his brother's rise to notoriety, insisting he had all the ability to make a success in legitimate business but that a "lack of capital" forced him into a life of crime. Pablo Escobar took up violence solely in self-defense, and his generosity was limitless, Roberto said.
Debate among Colombians
Some Colombians old enough to remember Pablo Escobar's reign of terror have mixed feelings about his continued allure. Some would prefer to bury the past and focus on Colombia's improved security and economy, while others agree with the George Santayana maxim flashed at the beginning of each show: "Those who ignore history are destined to relive it."
Like the series or not, people such as Carol Ochoa, an engineer in Bogotá, are watching.
"I like it because what happened back then affected Colombia, and I want to know how it all happened," said Ochoa, a young girl during Escobar's heyday. "It's not all real, of course, but I think it gives a good perspective of who was Pablo Escobar."