Pablo Escobar famously intimidated opponents of his cocaine empire by posing a simple question in Spanish -“Plata o Plomo” – which translates to, “Silver or lead?”
If he couldn’t buy your allegiance with his seemingly endless amount of money, he’d see that the person hindering his operation would meet their maker in a barrage of bullets whose “rattattattat” became the soundtrack for entire generations of people living in Colombia in the ’80s and early ’90s.
Popular culture isn’t exactly expediting his descent into the footnotes of history either. His likeness – portly like a boar, with coiffed hair and bushy mustache – remains an image ingrained in people’s minds on city blocks around the world as a symbol of how a brazen and lawless attitude could get a person whatever they wished for.
Although his name will probably always be synonymous with the wild coca plants from the northern jungles of Peru that he helped turn into a certifiable domestic product – and earned him a valued net worth of $30 billion USD – Pablo Escobar’s legacy also endures thanks to other natural occurring elements in nature like cotton and linen which have been used in a sartorial context to help keep his rags-to-riches story alive with pieces emblazoned with his face and mugshot.
“Pablo Escobar didn’t have especially good taste,” says Costume Designer for Narcos, Bina Daigeler. “He was not one of the ones that immediately show how much money they have because you can’t imagine how much money they have. Normally, he was a fan of white sneakers. He had 100 pairs of white sneakers and a pair of jeans. The only pair he wore to work were white sneakers; he had a whole room full of them.”
Pablo Escobar’s early life in Colombia was marked by a thirst for criminality. According to legend, he would steal tombstones, sandblast the names off of them, and resell them to crooked Panamanians.
In his teenage years, he sold fake high school diplomas with his cousin Gustavo Gaviria. Soon after, their nickel-and-dime operation was infused with more cash after graduating to stealing cars and robbing movie theater ticket windows. The cousins weren’t necessarily following a roadmap to kingpin status. Rather, they were piloted by an economic state at the time in Colombia which relied almost solely on the production of coffee as a means to improve one’s socioeconomic standing.
Although he was accepted to the provincial university, Escobar was unable to afford to stay enrolled, and dropped out in 1966. Soon after, he drifted into the marijuana-growing businesses where he eventually partnered with Jorge Ochoa – who would prove to be an instrumental figure along with Gustavo Gaviria in Escobar’s yet-to-be-forged empire.
Cocaine had been exported for years prior to Escobar’s involvement. But his interest in Colombia’s “unofficial” domestic product added a renewed energy to the plant which was cultivated in the upper jungles of the Andean region – where the countries of Colombia, Peru and Bolivia accounted for 98 percent of the world’s source of coca.
During this time, the United States and President Richard Nixon officially declared a “war on drugs,” identifying drug abuse as “public enemy No. 1.”
Two years later, and in response to the activities in Colombia, Nixon created the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to coordinate the efforts of all other agencies. Despite their initiative, Escobar and co. were so flush with the main ingredient necessary to produce cocaine that they could produce the illicit substance 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
In 1975, Escobar started building his powdered empire. Initially, he would personally fly shipments between Colombia and Panama to smuggle into the United States using carry-on luggage and checked bags. At that time, the United States was only equipped to search for and detect marijuana. According to PBS, “at that point, cocaine could be processed for $1,500 USD/kilo in jungle labs and could be sold on the streets of America for as much as $50,000 USD/kilo.”
Sensing just how much money could be made if they thought “bigger,” Escobar partnered with Jose Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha who had roots in Colombia’s emerald trade, the Ochoa brothers who were from a well-respected ranching and horsing family, and Carlos Lehder. The latter proved instrumental in convincing the newly minted “Medellin Cartel” that their best option was to use private transport in order to flood the U.S. market with cocaine.
Cocaine usage peaked in the United States in 1982 with 10.4 million users. This accounted for roughly 2.3 percent of the entire United States population.
The Medellin Cartel itself was responsible for smuggling in 15 tons of cocaine per day – earning Escobar and co. upwards of $60 million USD in a 24-hour period, and $420 million USD for the week.
According to Roberto Escobar – the cartel’s chief accountant and the kingpin’s brother – in his book, The Accountant’s Story: Inside the violent world of the Medellín cartel, Pablo was so flush with cash during that period that he stashed piles of it in Colombian farming fields, dilapidated warehouses, and in the walls of cartel members’ homes. The cartel even shelled out $2,500 USD each month for rubberbands to hold stacks of cash together.
“Pablo was earning so much that each year we would write off 10% of the money because the rats would eat it in storage or it would be damaged by water or lost,” Escobar wrote.
If the numbers reported regarding Esbobar’s true monetary exploits were true, $2.1 billion USD was simply “lost” with little care of worry.
Pablo Esbobar was killed in Medellin in 1993 after a 20-minute shootout with hundreds of police and military officers who had been tracking him for 16 months.
Following his death, his wife, Maria Victoria Henao, and two children, Juan Pablo and Manuela, fled to Mozambique before being granted asylum in Argentina in 1995.
Four years later, investigators secretly began observing their apartment in the middle-class neighbourhood of Nunez for months as part of an investigation into money laundering in Argentina.
Although the family was still rumored to have a billion dollar pedigree – even after civil forfeiture to the Colombia government which included houses, cars and jewelry – the BBC reported that the family was living in fear of retribution from rivals or other criminals who looked to exploit their supposed wealth by kidnapping a member of their family.
Despite changing their names to Maria Isabel Santos Caballero and Juan Sebastian Marroquin Santos, respectively, there was no escaping their past. Rather than run from it, Pablo Escobar’s son decided to capitalize off his father’s notoriety by entering the world of fashion.
Founded in 2010, Escobar Henao – derived from Sebastian’s two birth surnames and featuring a family monogram as a logo – describes itself as “a company that designs and introduces clothing remembering facts of the past century, comformed by a group of solidary humans, pacifists, dreamers, artists, poets, philosophers, psychologists, publicists, graphic designers, ontology coaches, arquitects, fashion designers, ecologists… among others; who search to transmit the non-violence and cultural messages of peace to the youth of today through the fashion industry.”
Despite a mission statement that would suggest a harmonious aesthetic, the Escobar Henao line primarily uses Pablo Escobar-related imagery as its main selling point – ranging from the “house of representatives special permit shirt” which illustrates Escobar’s “diplomatic” status after he was elected as an alternate member of the Chamber of Representatives of Colombia as part of the Colombian Liberal Party in 1982, to T-shirts featuring his mugshot.
“We’re not trying to make an apology for drug trafficking, to glamorize it in the way that the media does,” Marroquin told Reuters.
The Escobar Henao garments became a favorite amongst those in Culiacan, Mexico, the capital of the western Sinaloa state, and the home turf of infamous Mexican cartel leader, Joaquin “Shorty” Guzman whose own odyssey was once again seemingly rewritten thanks to his daring escape and subsequent rearrest this January.
According to Reuters, “Analysts warn that the increasingly popular ‘Escobar Henao’ clothing line simply reinforces an already widespread fascination with the symbols of cartel culture such as marijuana leaves and AK-47s among youngsters in Mexico.”
Marroquin has insisted that Escobar Henao will never be sold in Colombia out of respect for the victims of his father’s reign. However, the clothing line’s sheer existence has enraged thousands.
“It’s like you went to Germany and tried to create a brand called ‘Hitler,’” said Jose Luis Londono, delegate of industrial property for the superintendent of industry and commerce in the Colombian capital Bogota.
“This brand threatens morals, public order and the law. It goes against the values of our constitution, which includes peace, freedom and the right to live,” Lodono said. “This brand communicates the anti-values of the state. It’s an ode to violence.”
“I agree with [the Colombian government’s] denial of the brand,” said Pablo Cordoba, a commercial law professor at Externado University in Bogota. “As a Colombian, I think this was very bad of [the family] to do, and they shouldn’t have done it. It would be like trying to emulate a person that was devastating for the history of Colombia.”
In response to the criticism, Marroquin barked back, saying, “I wanted to register my father’s name [as a brand] to protect it from bad usage, manipulation and profit-making by the Colombian government and the media who are making up stories.”
Whether or not Sebastian Marroquin’s goal with Escobar Henao is true to its mission statement or not, it’s clear that what transpired in the past is still a fresh wound for him.
“My father was like any other father — the only thing he didn’t do was get up early for work. When you’re very young you don’t know exactly what it is your father does for a living but as I got older I started noticing that he was in the news a lot, that my freedom was restricted and that I couldn’t lead a normal life. All this made me curious,” Marroquin told the The Forgiveness Project. “He was a man who found many excuses for using violence, whereas I have never believed in violence as a way of solving conflicts. The only thing that violence does is aggravate the problem. I have always felt that the solution should be through reconciliation, apology and frank discussion. There is a need to invest in the culture of ‘forgiveness’ and I have a lot of faith that the Colombian people are open to reconciliation.”
Even though Pablo Escobar has been dead for 23 years, his name is still a trending topic on social media and various news portals thanks to the recent discovery of a safe inside a renovated Miami mansion that was said to be a stash house for the late Colombia smuggler after he bought the property in March 1980 for $762,500, according to Miami-Dade County public records.
Whether or not the hundred-pound safe protects millions of dollars of cash remains to be seen. Perhaps it’s where they kept all the rubber bands.