So much for being one of the world’s most wanted. If you were evil before the dawn of the internet, you usually had to rely on a single, iconographic photo – of the Wanted poster variety – to cunningly prove to the world your skills in dodging the camera.
It’s fitting then, that very few visual records of Pablo Escobar exist online – a handful of images duplicating that Wanted poster and a couple of videos reinforcing his outlaw status, in hiding, flanked by compadres, Wild West style – only on motorbikes casually cruising through the jungle.
Too many contradictory stories abound about who Pablo Escobar really was for any one account to be entirely reliable. His reputation spawned a multiplicity of fictions all laced with as much surreality, human absurdity and simple horror as any of the magical realist novels that his homeland, Colombia, is equally famous for. Given this slippery fiction of a man, Mollison attempts to expose a different angle about this complex figure by examining the hard, documentary evidence.
It’s an extremely ambitious journalistic exercise in a country where procuring a simple document can result in labyrinthine complications. Here is a 350-page compendium of scribbled notes, photographic evidence of roadside shootings, assassinations, bombings and cocaine production outfits that act as roughs of the author’s research as much as chart a partial, incomplete but fundamentally intriguing picture of the drug lord himself.
There’s a lot to weigh up. Though Escobar started out as a hard-working entrepreneur determined to rescue his family from a life of poverty, at 15 he was reportedly selling stolen tombstones, before becoming a car thief, a hired assassin, working later as a courier, then smuggler of cocaine imported from Peru and Bolivia. In a series of small steps, Escobar evolved rapidly from petty criminal to billionaire drugs baron at the head of a global cocaine empire, with an extraordinarily lavish lifestyle to match.
In its heyday, the Medellin Cartel reportedly distributed 80 per cent of the world’s cocaine supply. Despite becoming the “visible figurehead” of a gargantuan operation (US business magazine Forbes declared him the 7th richest man in the world in 1989), Escobar largely evaded the law and dramatically took it into his own hands. His crimes unfold here at an alarming pace, pinging from episode to episode like a stray bullet in a bar. The bombing of a passenger aeroplane and Department of Security building in Bogota, the assassination of presidential candidates and ministers, high court judges and police too numerous to count, kidnappings, death threats, the storming of Colombia’s Supreme Court…
There’s Escobar’s other side too: his fervent nationalism, building homes and football pitches for poor neighbourhoods, funding chapels which curried favour with the Catholic Church. While hiding from the authorities, Escobar assiduously propagated a charitable public face – as a uniquely South American Robin Hood figure, concertedly meting out justice to the poor at the expense of the landed classes, politicians and judiciary.
Approaching Escobar as a cultural and political icon is problematic given the immense catalogue of his social crimes (he is an undisputed folk hero to many in Colombia and beyond). Mollison side steps this by literally putting all the evidence down in front of you.
It’s unsettling reading. Though finally gunned down by marksmen aged 44, Escobar crammed an unbelievable amount of mafia lunacy into his short life and the pictures struggle to keep up. The photographic evidence is never quite enough; something always slips out of the frame. This is why the history of Escobar suits the speed of film so well; both Oliver Stone and Joe Carnahan are producing Hollywood features due for release in 2009.
That said, Mollison dramatically recreates the chaos that Escobar controlled during his terror-driven reign, his photographic testament acting as a series of stills, capturing the madness in slow-mo. You’re left reeling in wonder at how one man could have so swiftly and violently become king of all that he surveyed. For Escobar’s story really is, in the end, the stuff of picture books…