A Colombian television series about the life of the late drug kingpin Pablo Escobar is well on its way to becoming the most watched television programme in the country’s history, and perhaps its most controversial.
With around 11 million viewers tuning in for its May 28th launch, Escobar: Lord of Evil has already broken domestic records for a debut episode. That figure is all the more impressive when one considers that the entire population of Colombia stands at 45 million.
Colombia is known throughout the Spanish-speaking world for its garish telenovelas, or soap operas. But Escobar is not like other telenovelas.
TV Caracol, the programme’s producer, is banking on record ratings. The company said it poured an average of 130,000 euros (300,000 pesos) into each episode. With 60 episodes, and over 1,000 actors hired, it is easily the channel’s most expensive production ever.
The show, which airs daily, also enjoyed what Colombian writer Antonio Caballero called a “publicity campaign without precedents.” It included an unveiling ceremony attended by “the cream of the crop of Colombian society,” Caballero recently wrote in the renowned weekly magazine Semana.
Largely based on the 2001 novel ‘The Parable of Pablo’, the series traces Escobar’s life, from a timid youngster growing up near the northwest city of Medellín to the infamous drug boss who amassed unrivalled wealth and influence before his violent end in 1993.
Since its launch, the show has gained a massive following and gained near unanimous praise from critics for its writing and art direction, but it has also, unsurprisingly, piled on censure.
Robin Hood or remorseless killer?
The show’s creators, Juana Uribe and Camilo Cano, are respectively the niece of one-time presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán and the son of newspaper editor Guillermo Cano – two of Escobar’s most notorious hits. Uribe and Cano have maintained that their hope for the series was to tell the story through the eyes of his victims.
However, detractors say the show does little more than idolise the exploits and lifestyle of a remorseless gangster.
“The aim of the series, if one accepts the argument of its creators, is to tell Escobar’s story in all its dimensions. On one hand it portrays Escobar as a kind of Robin Hood figure, who takes from the rich to give to the poor, but also as an unscrupulous killer,” said Alberto Martinez, a journalist and Media Studies professor at the Universidad del Norte in the of city of Barranquilla.
Martinez also lived the Escobar story up close. He was a journalist at the El Espectador newspaper in 1989, when its offices in the capital of Bogota where partially destroyed by a car bomb. Escobar targeted the daily because it was one of the few at the time to fearlessly cover the crimes and devastating consequences of Colombia’s drug trade.
The academic, who admits to being a fan of the show, thinks viewers, especially younger ones, are not getting a balanced view of history, or of Escobar.
“I don’t think the stated objective is being met. I hear it from discussions I have with my university students and my own children. The show justifies Escobar and his actions much more than it sanctions them,” Martinez said. “Kids are seeing much more of the Robin Hood than the criminal”.
In a recent interview with Terra Colombia, a popular Spanish Internet portal, Escobar’s son, Sebastián Marroquín, joined a growing chorus of critics who say the show was sending the wrong message to young people.
“They are saying it is glamorous to be a drug dealer and that is a danger to new generations,” Marroquín, who changed his name to cut ties with his father’s legacy, argued.
Some opponents of the show have also come down on the producers for omitting some significant passages and names from Escobar’s story because they could prove embarrassing to certain well-known Colombians.
For example, Escobar’s romance with the once highly prominent journalist Virgina Vallejo is told in the series, but the character’s name has been changed.
In response to questions about this decision, the show’s creator Juana Uribe said that the character who many will identify as Vallejo is really “many of his lovers, and other personalities,” all wrapped up in one. “We are not trying to recount the lives of Escobar’s lovers, but his own life,” Uribe insisted.
In 2007, Vallejo wrote the bestselling book “Loving Pablo, Hating Escobar” in which she revealed her affair with the cocaine kingpin and repeated claims that Escobar had ties with some of Colombia’s former presidents, including Alvaro Uribe when the latter was Colombia’s civil aviation chief in the 1980s.
“The drug kings prospered in Colombia not because they were geniuses, but because the presidents were so cheap,” Vallejo wrote. Those accusations have never been proven, and were vehemently denied by Uribe after Vallejo’s book came out. Such allegations are of course skipped over in the new biopic.
Searching for Pablo
The criticisms and media attention – which seem to grow with every episode – have only increased the number of the show’s viewers. Escobar fever is perhaps hottest in Medellin, Escobar’s hometown, which has been forever marked by his epic rise and fall.
Tourists visiting the north-western city can treat themselves to an “Escobar tour”. The writer Caballero reminded his readers that the drug lord was still “venerated like a saint in the poor neighbourhoods” of the city with “pilgrimages organised to his grave.”
Maria del Rosario Escobar Pareja, Medellin’s secretary for culture, and who is not related to the late kingpin, admits that the city’s history “contains a chapter that Pablo Escobar was a part of”, but insisted the present was “full of projects that have left that past behind us.”
She defends the show, saying it “takes a critical look at the history of the country… which is fundamental to shaping public opinion.”
Colombians will not be the only ones revisiting, with both guilty pleasure and horror, Escobar’s tale. The US-based Spanish language television channel Telemundo will start airing the series across America starting in July – proof that Escobar is a profitable business both in life and death.