Colombians have wanted to forget Pablo Escobar since his reign of terror in the 1980s.
But in what some are calling a form of catharsis, a Colombian television network is examining the darkest episode in the country’s tumultuous history with a true-life series about the flamboyant drug lord’s rise and fall.
“Pablo Escobar: Boss of Evil” is mesmerizing television viewers in this country of 46 million. But it is sparking a debate over whether the series does too much to humanize Escobar, who won legions of admirers by building homes for the poor but also blew up an airliner and coolly ordered the killings of thousands.
“It’s a false and paltry version that will end up converting the worst criminal into an idol,” said Rodrigo Lara Restrepo, whose father, Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, was assassinated on Escobar’s orders in 1984.
The creators of the biopic, though, come from families victimized by Escobar.
Juana Uribe, a producer of the series, is the daughter of Maruja Pachon, who was kidnapped for seven months by Escobar’s henchmen, a saga memorialized in Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “News of a Kidnapping.” Uribe is also a vice president at Caracol, the network behind the series.
Her co-producer is Camilo Cano, whose father, Guillermo Cano, was the crusading editor of the newspaper El Espectador who was killed by the Medellin cartel’s hit men in 1986.
The producers say that 19 years after Escobar was gunned down on a rooftop in Medellin, it is the right time to tell his story in a fictionalized but largely true-to-life account.
“This is a way of doing a little bit of catharsis because this is what we went through, and there is no Colombian who doesn’t understand that,” Uribe said. “I had the possibility to analyze and had an open door to tell the story. I felt like we had a responsibility to do this.”
From the beginning, the producers and scriptwriter Juan Camilo Ferrand planned to explore Escobar from all sides.
The series, which first aired at the end of May, started out showing a headstrong boy raised in a close-knit family. He grows up to be the charming neighborhood dandy, winning the prettiest girl’s heart. Escobar later veers into Medellin’s criminal underworld, stealing cars and moving contraband before building a cocaine-trafficking empire like no other.
Andres Parra, 34, an actor who has played drug traffickers before, plays the cartel chief.
Taking a break from filming a scene on an airstrip on Colombia’s southern plains, Parra said the role has been a challenge because the Escobar in Ferrand’s script is not only a trafficker and killer but also a loving son and father. It is a side of Escobar that does not neatly line up with his popular image.
“I couldn’t understand how Pablo Escobar was able to be this wonderful father that he was to his two children and at the same time, practically in the same scene, being able to blow up a commercial airliner full of people,” Parra said. “How does this guy not feel any guilt? How can he blow up a building and just go back to his home and celebrate his 14-year-old’s birthday?”
Parra said he interviewed psychologists to understand how Escobar created his own moral and ethical codes. He also studied reams of news footage of Escobar, which helped him copy the drug boss’s peculiar voice, his odd, agitated breathing and his tendency of looking away as he spoke to people.
The actor is portly, as Escobar was, and bears a close resemblance. “I decided to get very obsessed with the character,” Parra said, “hearing audios of his voice the whole day for three months, watching movies every day, trying to see all his ticks, the way he walks, the way he sits down.”
In recent years, Colombian television has unrolled one telenovela after another with the central theme of narco-trafficking — “narco-novelas” that revel in the colorful lives of drug lords and sometimes create caricatures of the police officers and public officials who pursue them.
With “Boss of Evil,” the creators said they wanted to remind Colombians about the heroes who fought Escobar and the chaos the kingpin wrought upon this country. So as the series begins, the philosopher George Santayana’s famous saying flashes across the screen: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Camilo Cano said Caracol was especially careful to accurately depict the ordeals of Escobar’s most intractable enemies, among them Justice Minister Lara Bonilla and another who lost his life in the fight, the reformist presidential hopeful Luis Carlos Galan, who was shot dead in 1989. The actors who played those slain leaders met with their children and widows to determine how best to portray them, which led to some uneasy moments.
And Cano recounted how he — as well as his siblings and mother — had to go through the reenactment of his father’s death.
“I bring my father to life to have him killed once more,” said Cano, 46. “Twenty-five years ago, we went to a clinic where he was dying. Today, we re-create his death. We see how two hit men go up to his car, shoot him, kill him — things that we had never seen.”
Not everyone believes that the creators have accomplished what they set out to do.
Television critic Omar Rincon praised the acting, the scriptwriting and the elaborately staged scenes that have made the series the most costly in Colombian television history. But he said the series has a flaw in that viewers see Escobar’s life from start to finish while the heroes appear suddenly and briefly.
“People don’t accept that Cano and Lara are the good guys,” said Rincon, explaining that viewers do not connect with the heroes the way they do with Escobar.
Perhaps not surprisingly, other detractors hail from Escobar’s family in Medellin.
His sister, Luz Maria Escobar, said the portrayal of her mother as a woman who encourages a young Pablo to be good at being bad is distorted.
“The producers say this is so history does not repeat itself, but their only concern is making money and not producing a balanced review of an era that was so painful for the country,” she said.
Like the series or not, people such as Carol Ochoa, an engineer in Bogota, are watching, with “Boss of Evil” garnering about a 50 percent share of television viewers for its prime-time slot.
“I like it because what happened back then affected Colombia, and I want to know how it all happened,” said Ochoa, who is 30 and was a small girl during Escobar’s heyday. “It’s not all real, of course, but I think it gives a good perspective of who was Pablo Escobar.”