Life lessons from Roberto and Pablo Escobar

While in Medellin, my friend and I took the Pablo Escobar tour.  It was one of the most insane and surreal experiences I have had on this trip.  We went to his grave, the building where he was killed and finally to his brother’s, where we met Roberto Escobar.

We learned that when Pablo Escobar was 15, he decided that the most important thing in life was money.  He swore that if he was not a millionaire by the time he was 22, he would kill himself.  He started his criminal career by stealing grave stones, sanding off the names and then reselling them.  But, it was hard work and he did not make much money.  Next, he went into drugs.  He started selling marijuana.  He made some money, but since marijuana was common in Colombia it wasn’t enough.  Although he never used cocaine, he realized that it was the drug that would make him rich.  He started selling it in Colombia, but there was not much of a market for it.  Finally he decided that if he got his cocaine to the US, he could make some real money.  At the time cocaine was not well known in the states and airport security was lax so it was easy for him to flood the US market.  When the authorities finally caught on and cracked down on the flow of cocaine going through the airports, Pablo changed tactics and built his own airstrips in Colombia and the US.  He achieved his goal of becoming a millionaire by the time he was 22.

There is a famous mug shot of Pablo taken when he was first arrested at the age of 24.  He was caught with 20 kilos of cocaine, and for this massive amount he spent only four months in prison.  In his mug shot, he has a maniacal smile on his face.  He looks a little like Jack Nicholson in the shining.  His expression screams, “You think you got me, but I’m going to fuck this world up.”  And that is exactly what he did for the next 20 years.

Despite his brief incarceration, Pablo’s wealth and power continued to grow.  His ultimate goal was to have Antioquia province, where he grew up, break away from Colombia so that he could become president of the new country.  But first he would need to get into politics, so he built free housing and gave jobs to a poor area near Medellin; in return the people elected him to congress.  As Pablo’s public profile grew, people began to ask questions about where he got all his money.  He claimed that he got it by building houses, but soon many of his cocaine labs were discovered.  Two days after the discoveries the minister who was asking a lot of the questions was killed.  Pablo was forced to go on the run.  At one time he owned more than 2,000 safe houses around Colombia.  Finally he decided to turn himself in, but only under the condition that he would be able to do his time in a prison that he had built for himself, and that he could never be extradited to the United States.  In his prison, he got to pick the other inmates and the guards.  Also, the police were not allowed to enter the prison.  They could only guard it from outside.  The government agreed and Pablo went to his own private prison, where he continued to run his cartel.  He also had friends, family, business associates and under age prostitutes snuck into the prison.  When he found out that two of his associates were stealing from him, he had them brought to the prison where he personally chopped them into pieces.  Eventually, the officials found out about everything that was going on and told Pablo that he would have to go to a real prison.  To avoid this, he had a relative tip off the authorities that he was escaping through a tunnel that he had built in the prison.  The police stormed the prison and began searching for the tunnel.  While they were looking for the tunnel Pablo walked out the front door of the prison.  A day later the police found the tunnel and realized that Pablo had never used it, but he was gone nonetheless.

For the next year and a half, Pablo was on the run.  The Cali Cartel, his old allies, turned on him along with many of his former associates from the Medellin Cartel.  For the rest of his life Pablo was hunted by the police, the military, the Americans, the Cali Cartel and his former friends.  Things were so unsafe that Pablo sent his family to Argentina, which was the only country in the world that would take them.  He also told his brother, and right hand man, Roberto to turn himself in because he would be safer in prison.

On December 2, 1993, the day after he turned 44, Pablo was killed.  He was shot multiple times while running across a rooftop next to one of his safe houses in a desperate attempt to escape.  The bullet that killed him was fired at close range into his ear.  Some speculate that he killed himself to avoid being taken alive, but others say that he was executed by the police, the Americans or even his enemies dressed as police.

At the time of his death Pablo was waging a war on his own country and had killed thousands of his countrymen.  He eclipsed his goal of becoming a millionaire; he was the seventh richest man in the world.  But he was on the run and hadn’t seen his family in over a year.  His rule was to only speak on the phone for two minutes at a time because he knew that the Colombian government, with the help of the US was listening and trying to triangulate his location.  On the day he was killed, he spoke to his son for eleven minutes.  This mistake led to his death.  The monster was slain because he missed his son and talked to him for a little too long.  I wonder how many millions or billions of dollars he would have paid to give his son a hug on that day.

The wounds that Pablo inflicted on his country have only just begun to heal.  On this trip, we met several Colombians who remember clearly the days when they would not leave the house because there were so many bombings that it wasn’t safe to go out.  Our friend’s boss’s father was killed by Pablo because he was running for president and said that if he won he would take on the cartels.  Another friend’s father was a pilot on the Avianca flight that Pablo blew up in an attempt to kill the other presidential candidate.  The candidate was not on the flight but everyone on the plane was killed.

Pablo’s grave is in a beautiful green private cemetery.  When we visited it, we learned that on the day of his funeral the massive cemetery was filled with Colombians, not because they were mourning him, but because they wanted to see and touch his body to make sure he was really dead.  The rules of the cemetery state that all the grave stones must be small and simple.  In the Escobar family plot is a stone with a different name than Escobar but the same death date as Pablo.  It is the stone of his most trusted body guard who was killed as the police stormed the safe house where Pablo died.  For his loyalty he was buried near Pablo.  The grave stone we saw was labeled “Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria” but it is not the original.  The original was stolen several years ago, which only seems fair.

I as I looked around the rolling green hills of the cemetery I was amazed at the beauty and serenity of the place.  In the distance the dark green Andes rose into grey clouds that would soon poor rain on the city.  I stood at the head of Pablo’s grave and looked through some manicured trees at the city below and the mountains rising again beyond.  I wondered if Pablo had some kind of spirit or residual consciousness that was looking at the same view as me.  I thought that it was too pretty of a view for him.  I quickly decided that I didn’t believe there was anything left of Pablo, at least not there and walked back to the van.

The grand finale of the tour was a trip to Roberto Escobar’s house.  Roberto is partially deaf and blind because a mail bomb went off in his face when he was serving his 11 year prison sentence.  He only got 11 years because he supposedly only dealt with drugs but had nothing to do with any of the thousands of murders.  He is a short and extremely intelligent old man.  He has always been interested in bicycle racing and science, and has a degree in electronic engineering.  When he was in high school, he built the first radio and TV that his family owned.  He was also a world class cyclist and cyclist trainer before he went into the family business with Pablo.  Roberto is also an extremely charming man who warmly welcomed us into his home, which he had turned into a weird shrine to Pablo.  He loved to flirt with the girls on the tour, girls who were only a few years older than one of his daughters.  He had jokes and stories that he tells to two tour groups a day, five days a week, but they were new to us and I laughed out loud several times.

There are bullet holes in Roberto’s house because a year ago four men attempted to kidnap Roberto for ransom.  A few minutes before the kidnappers arrived he received an anonymous tip and ran into the woods near his house to hide.  The cops arrived and a shootout ensued.  While Roberto hid in the relative safety of the woods the police killed all four would-be kidnappers, but several police officers were wounded.  The idea of the police storming Roberto Escobar’s house and shedding their blood to protect him seemed more than bizarre to me.

Several times we were told that Roberto doesn’t have any money and that most of the proceeds of the tour go to charity.  But at one point we were taken into the formal dining room where one of the walls was completely covered with a mural of a giant brown horse.  The tour guide explained that it was a painting of the family’s prized horse who was kidnapped and castrated.  It bled to death so Roberto had the horse cloned.  The new horse is healthy and is a year and a half old now.  Roberto has no money, but he is able to clone his dead pets.

Near the end of the day, Roberto’s three children, two teenage girls and a ten year old boy stopped by to visit him.  It was extremely strange to see this old man who was once the second most wanted man in Colombia and part of the most powerful crime syndicate in the world, affectionately talking with his lovely and apparently normal children.

Before we left, we got a chance to ask Roberto a question.  We were told that nothing was off limits.  My friend wisely chose not to ask him a silly or specific question but instead asked him what advice an old and an experienced man such as himself would give to a young man.  Roberto’s face lit up.  He loves to talk, so he thought for a second and then issued his five rules for success.

  1. Study hard
  2. Think before you speak
  3. Do what you say you are going to do
  4. Always do business at your place because it gives you an advantage because you are the boss at your place
  5. Never do business with alcohol in your system

After getting this sage advice it was time to leave.  My head was swimming with all the strange, dramatic and surreal things I had learned that day.  And then Roberto told us the most bizarre thing we had heard all day.  He claimed that he, along with the help of several doctors, had invented a cure for HIV.  In one to two years it will be approved and then no one will ever die from AIDS again.  Although I seriously doubt it is true, inventing a cure for AIDS might be the only way that Roberto could atone for the destruction and terror that he and Pablo unleashed on the world.

A crack in the bullet proof glass of Pablo's Chevy truck from police gunfire when Pablo ran a check point. The truck was a gift from the Cali Cartel to Pablo when they were still allies.

A picture of Pablo on a motorcycle given to him by Frank Sinatra

A hiding place in Roberto's house

Tim and Roberto Escobar

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