Interest in the life of Pablo Escobar, the richest and most successful criminal in history, has increased lately thanks to his portrayal by actor Wagner Moura in the Netflix original crime drama series Narcos. And it’s just as well: Escobar’s journey from the son of a poor Colombian farmer to all-powerful drug lord reigning over a global cocaine smuggling empire is a harrowing and fascinating tale. At his peak from the 1970s to the 1990s, the billionaire Escobar was one of the seven richest men in the world and practically ran the global drug trade; everyone in Colombia feared and respected him.
As the head of the Medellin Cartel, Escobar’s thirst for power and money was insatiable. He proved to be a formidable opponent to the U.S. and Colombian governments and one of the most elusive criminals in history, despite being hunted by the Colombian police, U.S. Special Forces, and vigilante groups like Los Pepes. Unlike many criminals who like to lay low and live in the shadows, Escobar lived a lavish lifestyle and loved to flaunt and spend his wealth. Due to his rebel image and the money he spent in the poor neighborhoods of Colombia, he was powerful and popular, and anyone – even state officials, presidential candidates, and judges – who stood in his way would surely end up dead. Though he was shot and killed after what was described as the largest manhunt in history, his legacy remains.
Here are 15 unbelievable facts about Pablo Escobar, the staggering figures of his wealth, his global drug empire, and the long shadow of his criminal legacy.
15. From Humble Beginnings
Pablo Escobar was born in Rionegro, Colombia on the first of December, 1949 as the third of seven children. His father was a farmer and his mother was an elementary schoolteacher. He’s thought to have begun his criminal career as early as his teens by sandblasting and re-selling stolen tombstones to local smugglers, though this was denied by his brother Roberto Escobar, who claims the gravestones were legitimately acquired from cemetery owners.
Escobar also made money as a teen selling counterfeit high school diplomas for the Universidad Autónoma Latinoamericana of Medellín, where he studied for a period but dropped out. This eventually led to other petty crimes like stealing cars and selling fake lottery tickets and contraband cigarettes on the street. The young Escobar had a childhood ambition to be a millionaire by the time he was 22 and told his mother he would be “big” someday.
14. The King Of Coke
If the name Pablo Escobar is synonymous with anything, it’s cocaine. At the height of his power in the 1980s, Escobar’s Medellin Cartel supplied 80 percent of the global cocaine market (largely over the Florida coast into the U.S.), smuggling 15 tons of cocaine each day – that means four out of every five Americans doing cocaine were snorting Escobar’s product.
The sudden popularity of cocaine in the U.S. was a great boost to Escobar’s wealth and power as head of the Medellin drug cartel, and he quickly became the most powerful man in Colombia. Escobar’s drug empire had extensive infrastructure for smuggling, including 142 planes, 20 helicopters, 32 yachts, and 141 homes and offices, not to mention countless cars and trucks, and even two remote-controlled submarines specifically set aside or transporting cocaine to the United States.
13. Who Says Crime Doesn’t Pay?
Pablo was the richest criminal in history, with an estimated worth of $30 billion. Escobar made the Forbes list of billionaires seven years in a row from 1987 to 1993, and in 1989 he was estimated to be the seventh richest person on the planet. By the mid-1980s the cartel was bringing in an estimated $420 million a week, an absurd sum amounting to $22 billion annually.
Pablo was earning so much that each year his accountants would write off 10 percent of the money (about $2.1 billion) because rats would eat it in storage, or it would be lost to water damage, mold, or would just disappear. He also spent $2,500 a month on rubber bands to hold the bills. Escobar purchased a Learjet specifically to transport his cash. While in hiding, Pablo’s daughter Manuela got sick and he burned about $2 million to keep her warm.
12. Owned Lavish Properties
Escobar spent lavishly– he owned over 800 homes and villas, living a life of luxury. His extravagant holiday getaway of Hacienda Napoles was a palatial estate spread over 5,000 acres with pools, bullrings, a garden with 100,000 fruit trees, gigantic cement dinosaurs, and a private zoo filled with hippos, elephants, and giraffes. Escobar was known to host both family vacations and cocaine-fuelled parties with the Colombian elite.
After his death, Hacienda Napoles was torn apart by people looking for legendary stashes of drugs and money. Ownership passed to the government in 2006. Escobar’s hippos have escaped and become feral, still roaming the grounds to this day. The Hacienda was converted into a theme park in 2014 with an Escobar museum, a water park, a guided safari, replica caves, and aquariums. Pablo’s ruined house and burned classic car collection are still accessible to the public.
11. Worked As A Bodyguard & Was A Millionaire By Age 26
In his younger years, Escobar got his start in organized crime as a racketeer and a dealer (and smoker) of Colombia’s potent marijuana. Prior to getting involved in the drug trade though, the legendary Pablo Escobar worked as a bodyguard and part-time thief. During this time, he allegedly made a quick $100,000 in ransom for the kidnapping of a Medellin executive. Soon after, he began working for contraband smuggler Alvaro Prieto, who operated around Medellin.
It was during this time the 26-year-old Escobar deposited $100 million Colombian dollars (around US $3 million) in his bank account, finally accomplishing his childhood dream. Pablo would use his shrewd and hard-working ways to climb the hierarchy of the cartel until becoming its boss. Pablo married Maria Victoria Henao Vellejoin 1976, when she was 15 and he was 27.
10. He Was Nicknamed “Robin Hood”
Even though Escobar’s actions led to the destruction of countless lives, including the working class communities of Colombia, some of the populace still idolize him to this day. There’s a solid reason for this: Escobar pumped millions into local communities. He handed out massive sums of cash to the poor, built housing for the homeless, constructed 70 community soccer fields and even a zoo, earning him the nickname “Robin Hood.”
Escobar also gave money to and helped build hospitals, churches, parks, and schools, and funded a number of social programs to help Colombia’s poor, including food programs and building 1,000 electrified brick houses with indoor plumbing and gardens (residents only had to pay for water and electricity). Escobar became something of a folk hero, and residents of the poorer regions of Colombia still make pilgrimages to his grave in the style of a saint.
9. He Offered To Pay Colombia’s National Debt
The unprecedented success of Escobar’s global drug empire birthed his biggest fear – being extradited to the United States. Escobar famously vowed that he would rather die than spend time in an American jail cell. He was so concerned with changing the laws of extradition to eliminate any chances of this that he attempted to strike a jaw-dropping deal with Colombian authorities. Escobar offered to personally pay Colombia’s entire foreign debt of $10 billion – in cash – to change the laws. Needless to say, they declined the offer.
Pablo supposedly made the offer after fleeing to Panama when he was tied to the assassination of Colombian Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, who was trying to prosecute cocaine traffickers. The fact that it was even considered a possibility says something about Escobar’s power and wealth.
8. Developed The “Silver Or Lead” Policy
Escobar’s criminal empire was a well-oiled machine that had shady dealings with the Colombian system. Its main tools were corruption and intimidation, a policy for dealing with law enforcement and government which Pablo himself referred to as “plata o plomo” – literally “silver or lead,” but colloquially meaning that you can either accept money or face bullets. As a policy it proved effective; Escobar’s cartel bribed countless Colombian state officials, judges, and police. Of course, many also refused to cooperate, which led to the deaths of hundreds of police, politicians, and civilians.
The death toll for the long-running drug wars between Escobar’s Medellin Cartel and its rival, the Cali Cartel is estimated to be in the thousands. Overall, it cost Colombia around $1 billion per year both for army, police, and counter-terrorism operations and to repair buildings leveled by the cartels’ bombings.
7. Ordered Assassinations, Bombings, And Possibly A Siege
Escobar was allegedly responsible for the 1989 assassination of presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan, an enemy of the cartels who was leading in the polls until he was shot to death by hired gunmen. He was also connected to the bombings of both Avianca Flight 203 and the DAS Building in Bogota. Though the extent of his involvement is disputed, the Netflix series Narcos makes reference to the fact that Escobar allegedly bankrolled the 1985 Palace of Justice siege, in which members of the left-wing 19th of April Movement, a guerrilla group also known as M-19, broke into the Supreme Court.
M-19 was paid to seize the building and burn all the papers related to cocaine smugglers who were under threat of extradition to the U.S. for trial (of which one was Escobar). The siege resulted in the murders of roughly half of the Court’s judges.
6. He Cleverly Hid Money And Drugs
Like a good pirate, Escobar was crafty when it came to storing away his ill-gotten money. According to people in the cartel’s inner circle, it was common to see literal truckloads of cash on a daily basis; at his children’s birthday parties he had a habit of stuffing the pinatas with money instead of candy. Storage units were rented to store it all and when they ran out of space there, Escobar used to pay people to store his money in the walls and basements of their homes.
There were hundreds of these Caletas surrounding Escobar’s compound, containing upwards of $5 million each. Pablo was said to have smuggled cocaine in the tires of cars, and later the tires on the landing gear of planes. They also liquefied and smuggled cocaine in jeans, liquor, coffee, and even Coca-Cola.
5. He Was Elected To Congress
When he was a boy, the young Pablo would often say he would grow up to be President of Colombia. While he fell short of achieving this goal, his popularity and extraordinary wealth did get him elected as an alternate member of the Chamber of Representatives of Colombia. He ran as a candidate for the Liberal Renewal Movement but had to leave because of strong opposition from the campaign of Luis Carlos Galan. Escobar then became part of a small dissident faction called Liberal Alternative.
During his time in parliament, Escobar oversaw construction of houses and football fields in the towns he frequented, which earned him some popularity among the locals. However, Colombia soon became the murder capital of the world in part thanks to Pablo’s drug network, and he eventually had to resign due to political pressure.
4. Built His Own Luxury Prison
After assassinating a presidential candidate in 1991, Escobar was on the authorities’ radar more than ever. Eventually, they convinced him to surrender under the conditions that he could help design his own prison. Escobar was incarcerated in his own self-designed luxury prison known as “La Catedral,” or the Cathedral, which was equipped with patios, a casino, a nightclub, a soccer field, a barbecue pit, and a spa. He also built another nearby compound for his family and was even allowed to receive visitors.
Colombian authorities were not allowed within three miles of the prison, and Escobar himself got to choose who was imprisoned with him and who worked there. He continued to run his cocaine empire from within by phone, after which the government tried to forcefully move him to a “real” prison – Escobar quickly escaped.
3. Involved In Professional Football
Escobar’s pitch projects led to him developing friendships with athletes who would go on to become professionals. A lifelong fan of soccer and gambling, the drug kingpin allegedly became the chief financier of the Atletico Nacional in the 1980s. Escobar helped bankroll the team and buy many of the country’s top players in preparation for the championships. Atletico Nacional went on to win the Copa Libertadores, the most prestigious football tournament in South America, in 1989.
Referees were threatened in the league, including at the Copa Libertadores itself. Eventually, the South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL) sanctioned Colombian clubs in the 1990 championships. Although Atletico Nacional was allowed to play as the previous champions, they had to play their matches in Chile to avoid further incidents. The 1989 Campeonato Profesional was canceled after the assassination of referee Alvaro Ortega in Medellin.
2. Responsible For Over 4,000 Murders
Pablo Escobar was responsible for killing an estimated 4,000 people, including a presidential candidate, a Justice Minister, an attorney general, more than 200 judges and over 1,000 police officers, government workers, and journalists. While Escobar may have been generous in giving shares of his wealth to his local communities, he remains one of the most notorious and bloodthirsty crime lords of all time.
Though the exact figures will likely never be known, anyone who stood in Escobar’s way ended up massacred or assassinated. In 1989, a truck bomb exploded outside the headquarters of the Administrative Department of Security (DAS), killing 52 people and injuring about 1,000 more. The explosion levelled several city blocks and damaged more than 300 buildings. It was widely believed to be the work of the Medellin Cartel, who was trying to assassinate the director (he escaped unharmed).
1. His Death Remains A Mystery
Pablo Escobar’s reign of terror was brought to an end when he was gunned down at the age of 44. Cornered by Colombian National Police in 1993 after an electronic surveillance team tracked his radiotelephone transmissions to a barrio in Medellin, a fierce firefight between Pablo and his bodyguard and the police ensued. They attempted to escape by running over the rooftops of houses into a nearby alley, but both were shot dead.
To this day, no one is entirely sure who fired the shot into Escobar’s left ear. It may have been the result of the firefight or a possible execution-style scenario. Some, like Pablo’s brothers, believe that the wound was self-inflicted since Pablo had vowed to shoot himself in the ear should he ever be captured. Whatever the case, his funeral was a mass event and 25,000 people attended his burial in Medellin.
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