Why Is Pablo Escobar Having a Pop Culture Moment?

Wagner Moura as Pablo Escobar in Narcos.EXPAND
Wagner Moura as Pablo Escobar in Narcos.
Courtesy of Netflix

When Pablo Escobar’s beachfront Miami mansion was torn down earlier this year, some felt it closed the books on a bloody chapter of history that tied the city to the reportedly richest drug lord in History. The tale of the infamous narco king spanned two continents and claimed the lives of thousands of people during years of bloody fighting among the Medellín Cartel, the competing Cali Cartel, the government officials they bribed, and drug enforcement agencies from the United States and Colombia intent on cracking down on the trade.

But although Escobar’s old rumored crash pad is gone, the story of the man himself lives on in the popular American imagination. In the past year, audiences have seen a range of depictions of Escobar and the frightening drug empire he built come to life onscreen. Last year’s popular Netflix series Narcos gained a loyal following as it chronicled Escobar’s life. (Season 2 of Narcos premieres today.) This summer’s film, The Infiltrator, told the story of undercover special agent Robert Mazur, who posed as a corrupt Tampa businessman to break into the money-laundering ring that cleaned Escobar’s dirty money. Now the National Geographic Channel has come out with a true-crime look at the cartel head honcho in an hourlong episode dedicated to him as part of the channel's biopic series Facing.

So why is Escobar having a pop culture moment now?

One of the men closest to the manhunt for the drug kingpin is not quite sure.

“Over the years, people have told me and [my DEA partner] Javier Peña we should tell our story,” says Steve Murphy, who joined Peña to help the Colombian police force track down and eventually kill Escobar in 1993. “We didn’t think anyone would be interested, though... No one cares what happened 20 years ago.”

That belief was contradicted by the handful of directors over the years who contacted him about making a potential film — but the other issue was convincing Murphy that a director could properly tell the Escobar tale.

“Our greatest concern was that someone might glamorize Pablo Escobar,” he says.

Real-life Escobar nemesis Steve Murphy.EXPAND
Real-life Escobar nemesis Steve Murphy.
National Geographic Channel

Producer Eric Newman was the one who eventually persuaded Murphy to sign on as a consultant for Narcos, in which Murphy, played by Boyd Holbrook, is a main character.

That show was followed by the National Geographic series, in which Murphy was also involved. That show includes an exclusive interview with Gen. Octavio Vargas Silva, the director of Colombia’s National Police Force at the time. It also has more extensive interviews with other people who previously had not received much camera time, including “Popeye” Velasquez, the head of Escobar’s terror squad who is now a convicted murderer.

The episode doesn’t mince words about Escobar’s violence.

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“I always remember [Escobar] saying he wanted a body count — he wanted more bodies — so that way he could show Colombia that he was winning the war,” Peña explains to the camera.

Of course, this isn’t the first time pop culture has dove into the Escobar theme. The 2001 Johnny Depp film Blow told the tale of American drug smuggler George Jung, a major player in expanding the Medellín Cartel’s reach in the United States. And before that, there were the enduring film classics centered on the character of the American mobster — some real, some fictional — that remain seared in the popular imagination: Scarface, Goodfellas, and the Godfather series. More recently, we’ve seen the unhinged American crime lord come to life oncreen with another Johnny Depp movie, Black Mass, revolving around Boston’s notorious Whitey Bulger.

Maybe it’s that enduring fascination with these violent yet charismatic men who built brutally successful crime organizations that has found a new form of expression in these recent Escobar films and shows. Maybe Murphy’s brother, who helped persuade him to talk to Newman, was onto something.

“People are interested in Al Capone; they’re interested in the 'roaring '30s.' I think this is gonna be a big deal,” Murphy recalls his brother saying. Given the renewed interest in Escobar, it sounds like he was right.


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