Once famous for emeralds and gold-now notorious for drugs and violence-Colombia is a soccer mad country whose troubles have taught it the value of compromise. This is the introduction given about the country in Reader’s Digest’s Guide to Places of the World, 1987 edition.
He was born in 1949 in Rionegro, Colombia, to a peasant father. As a teenager, he started indulging in car thefts, starting a life of crime in Medellin (pronounced Me-de-yin). By the 70s, he ventured into drug trafficking and started smuggling drugs to USA. In 1975, he started Cocaine operation, murdered his Boss and became the Number Uno drug lord in his country. He spoke about himself being a decent man who exported flowers and had a simple policy, plata o plomo (“silver or lead”, figuratively, money or bullets). This made him out of reach of the law. He was the most accomplished assassin of the 20th century, having killed 5,500 people. Killing was his day job. His passion was soccer. So passionate he was about the game, it made him build a number of small stadia across Medellin. He was Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria aka Pablo Escobar.
From one of the hamlets in Medellin came Andres Escobar Saldariago aka Andres Escobar, born in 1967, in a devout middle class Catholic family, whose passion was soccer. So passionate he was about the game, he started playing it with vigour. As a teenager, he lost his mother to cancer. When it came to a choice between studies and soccer, he chose the latter and was spotted by Fransisco Maturana, the coach of Atletico Nacional, in 1987. Atletico Nacional was owned by Pablo Escobar.
Pablo Escobar was at the peak of his powers in the late 70s and 80s. But his origins were mediocre. He was very poor that he couldn’t afford fee and dropped out of school. He’s supposed to have told his brother Jamie, “Jamie, look at all the rich people. They move around in cars. They don’t give us a penny. Why don’t we steal them to be as rich as they are?” Thus began his criminal life. In 1976, he established the Medellin Cartel, a powerful drug lobby that dominated by either bribing or killing officers. The same year, he was caught by two officers for smuggling and had them killed. He was a billionaire in no time and in 1987 was listed by The Forbes as the 7th richest person in the World. But on another side, he was sympathetic to the poorest in Colombia, especially Medellin, having suffered the same neglect of the system. The system created him. He took it on. He converted a dump yard that was home for 2000 families and built hamlets, promoted social gatherings and sponsored soccer stadia. He was the poor’s Messiah, their Robin Hood. But he was wanted by the US and in order to gain diplomatic immunity, contested the elections and was elected to the House of Representatives from Medellin in 1982, using enormous goodwill from the poor. He started investing in football, his passion, and had a major stake in the club, Aletico Nacional. By investing in the club, he could launder money, converting black money into white, something that’s happening to Cricket in India with the IPL. It was called “Norco-soccer”. Soon, other drug lords followed suit. The game was cash-strapped and the sudden influx of huge money was welcomed by the Football Federation. Football in the country was so passionate that once, a referee on account of been bought by a rival drug lord’s club and having defeated Atletico Nacional, was killed by Pablo’s men. He was the Boss. “There can only be one King”, he used to say. The result of such massive currency was that the game in Colombia took off. Andres Escobar was in such a time when the clubs could afford to keep the best of the local footballers and buy the best foreign talents. This took the game to an altogether different level. In 1989, he was captain of the club and led it to its first and so far only Copa Libertadores success, similar to Champions League in Europe. They were the champions in South America. Andres Escobar wasn’t a fan of partying but Pablo Escobar used to organize parties for the footballers. He considered them his pals. It was heady days for Pablo and football in Colombia.
However, in 1989, the voice for his extradition was growing and the Presidential candidates promised to extradite him. Three of them were murdered. “Sometimes I’m God, if I say a man dies, he dies the same day” was his quip. In 1990, the new government under Cesar Gaviria Trujjilo started to hunt for him. They had had enough. But they weren’t prepared for the retaliation. With the poor behind him, the streets of Medellin and Bogota burnt. Pablo is said to have killed close to 5000 people during this period, the worst in Colombia’s history. “Better a grave in Colombia than jail in the united States” was his motto. He bribed the legislators who voted to ban extradition. Having done that, he surrendered and was put into La Catedral, The Cathedral, a prison he built for himself with all the facilities and ran his empire from inside. However, he was still glued to soccer. When he was on the run with his associate Popeye, they were hiding in a ditch and the latter could feel the army moving in. He tensed his Mac-10 pistol and turned to Pablo who screamed with the radio in hand, “Popeye, Colombia has just scored a goal”!!!
The national team was the pride of the people and they were out to show Colombia was not all about drugs. They finished first in the South American qualifiers for the 1994 World Cup in the United States. They beat Brazil and hammered Argentina 5-0 in Buenos Aires, 1993, and were given a standing ovation by the Argentine crowd. They brought a style of play thought to be lost from South America. Their game was an art to behold; so much so that Pele thought they were the favourites. Andres Escobar was Colombia’s captain and one of the best defenders in the world. He was “El Caballero del Futbol” or Football’s gentleman. He was an inspirational role model people looked up to and was the President’s and Pablo’s favourite. During a qualifying game, Pablo’s guerrillas and the Colombian armed forces watched the game together and celebrated. Remember India vs Pakistan in the 1999 world cup where in the midst of the Kargil War, armies from both sides watched the game together and resumed hostilities later? Sport does that to men. It binds us and football in Colombia made the rich and poor, the ruler and the criminal; Colombians inside the stadium. The football team was the national ambassador set to repair national image at the international stage. A few months prior to the World Cup, Rene Higuita, their maverick goalkeeper, visited Pablo in prison and played football with him. He was hounded by the Press and a visibly enraged government that wanted to portray football as the squeaky clean side of the nation was embarrassed beyond measure and had him arrested on charges of kidnapping.
They were sadly mistaken. Football owed its rise to drug money in Colombia and the two were interdependent; the former on the latter for money and the latter on the former to legalize it. They were just two levels in the tree of the Colombian society helping each other off due to neglect from the higher echelons; they were the middle class and lower classes. The root was rotten. The lower class were the roots. What the system tried to do was polish the outer surface for the world to admire. But the rotten roots would pull it down for the world to laugh at. Pablo was the King. When the King calls, the subjects go. Andres wasn’t keen on going but had to. So had Rene and the rest of the team. Only Rene was caught. He was persecuted. Pablo in prison shot two drug lords because they peddled drugs unknown to him. Anyone had to ask him to break law. That was his law. Exceptions were not entertained. Soon the government, for the nth time, thinking was enough was enough, went after him. He escaped. The government disbanded the ban on extradition and allied with the US to form Los Pepes or the PEPEs, People pErsecuted by Pablo Escobar, to persecute those with him. His brother was gutted. Another brother was shot. His people, the poor, were threatened with dire consequences and were forced to ally with The PEPEs, who did the dirty work for the government; much like Osama did for the US against Russia. PEPE comprised of Pablo’s rival drug lords and his former allies, led by one Carlos Castano. Pablo was asked to show up on Dec 2 1993 or was threatened that all his family would be killed. Pablo Escobar ventured out on December 3 1993. He was shot to death.
The wealthy celebrated, the criminals cried in prison and the poor went to Pablo’s burial. The wealthy were anyway only a few. Without the head, each one was their own boss and Colombia sank further into the abyss. Pablo had banned kidnappings. There was order in the Underworld under Pablo. Now there was none and the roots began to die. The tree was falling apart. Days before the World Cup, a national footballer, Chonto Herrera’s son was kidnapped. He was rescued after the ransom was paid but the rot had set into football. The favourites went into the tournament disturbed.
In the prelude to the event, a witch had called a few players to curse the team. They were shocked in their first game by Romania, 1-3, with the Romaninan legend Gheorghe Hagi scoring one of the best goals ever. In the aftermath, another team member’s brother was murdered for the team having lost. Drug lords had placed huge bets on the team and were seething. They too are from the system. They want the fruit from the tree. They don’t mind chopping it if there’s none. The next game literally was do-or-die with many team members getting death threats. They looked up to Andres, their captain and he strung himself to play the USA in the next game, whom they had beaten in tons of friendly games. But that day, a dark force had entered their psyche. They attacked from all angles but couldn’t score. Then in a routine attack from the USA, their forward angled the ball into the 18 yard box. Andres, as was his routine, tried to deflect it away. He ended up deflecting it into the net. Colombia had lost and was out of the World Cup. It was a tragedy. Andres, by his own goal, had pushed his country out. Back home, people were coping up. The favourites were back. Wanting to show his face to the people, Andres Escobar ventured out on July 2, 1994. He was shot to death. He was the scapegoat for what happened. He was their favourite son and had written in a newspaper after his own goal: Whatever happens, we must not let anger cripple us. It’s been a rare and exciting journey that I’ve had the privilege of being a part of. But life must go on. The rich, poor and the criminals mourned his death. Two drug lords were found to be responsible and their bodyguard was arrested and imprisoned for 43 years and let off 11 years later due to good conduct. The drug lords were Gallon brothers and their escape was mediated through Carlos Castano.
Pablo and Andres Escobar were portrayed by the system to be the villain and the martyr. They were verily two sides of the same coin that was Colombia. One’s life mirrored the others’. The system created Pablo. He took the system on. With him rose football. It raised Andres. He was a part of the system and played along. The system created Carlos Castano to destroy Pablo. With Pablo fell order in the underworld. With it fell law in Columbia. Someone had to pay. It was Andres. The rise of Pablo Escobar mirrored the rise of football and Andres Escobar. His death mirrored the death of football and Andres. Today, 14 of the 18 clubs are bankrupt. Colombia has not been represented in any further World Cup. Heads rolled. The football federation President was arrested for allowing drug-money. The higher echelons didn’t want anything to do with the roots that were now exposed. The system said Andres Escobar was killed for being a soccer player. He was a soccer player killed by the system.
“The difference between a good and a bad man is and will always be the one who does not get caught”: Pablo Escobar.
P.S. This note was inspired by a documentary I watched with my friend Swaroop on the two Escobars.