Dust to Dust

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit the beautiful city of Medellin in Colombia. And I was delighted by the warmth of its people, the richness of its colorful culture, the diversity of flavors in its gastronomy, the syncretic architecture of its buildings, and the natural beauty of its scenery.

However, there is another well-known aspect of the tourism in the zone regarding the controversial figure of Pablo Escobar, criminal, terrorist, politician and drug lord who reached international fame during the 70’s and 80’s, until his passing in 1993. It’s virtually impossible to visit the city of Medellin and not find yourself wrapped by Pablo Escobar’s culture, considering you’ll find souvenirs depicting his mugshot literally everywhere you go despite the efforts of the local government to eradicate him from Medellin’s history.

I can’t deny that for me, knowing his story from news and after watching Netflix’s Narcos series, it was quite interesting to submerge myself in the cult of Pablo Escobar to help me understand the phenomenon of his figure, his cultural and historical impact, but more importantly, ponder about his transcendence.

I agree with the notion that as part of the human process of individuation, the higher level of realization is the “transcendence.” Perhaps propelled by the ephemeral perception of our lives, humans across all cultures and creeds have always pursued the creation of a legacy, as a means of achieving transcendence and reaching the infinite.

As the American psychologist Abraham Maslow depicted in his theory “Hierarchy of Needs” humans have an innate desire to fulfil their need in a specific order of priorities, starting by the physiological needs of food, water, shelter, reproduction, etc. and moving up to safety, sense of belonging and love, esteem, self-actualization and finally to transcendence. And the concept of Maslow’s pyramid is that you can’t move up unless you have satisfied the needs of the previous steps. This is true for everyone and was true as well for Pablo Escobar.

And I bring this to context, because Pablo mentioned he started his criminal career like many other criminals, to satisfy the physiological needs that being born in a poor family, with his father working as a farmer and her mother as a teacher. He used to say, “mischief was born from hunger,” and “think like a poor person and you will live like a poor person.” If we follow his entire life, we can draw parallels between Maslow’s hierarchy and his criminal career.

I mentioned at the beginning that Pablo Escobar is a “controversial figure” because even if we can consider egotistical reasons as his main drivers for criminality, the truth is that everything in life have shades of gray, and Pablo was not the exception. He is famous for his altruistic acts, like building a neighborhood and giving away the houses to poor people who lived in unregulated settlement in a landfill and were displaced when a fire consumed their makeshift homes. We can classify this behavior as “Self-actualization” in Maslov’s pyramid, because his motivation was driven by a value-based system, summarized in his political phrase “Medellin sin tugurios,” which means to eradicate the unregulated settlements happening in the mountain slopes and providing proper housing for the poor. Many argue that Pablo’s intentions behind his political career as representative in the congress, were to help the poor people from Medellin, but it’s difficult to differentiate it from his need to justify his power and fortune created as a drug dealer.

And it’s when you visit the “shrine” built in Pablo Escobar’s neighborhood to honor his memory, when you realize how difficult is to untangle the two. The admiration for the altruistic acts versus the pain and suffering inflicted by the violence he created. And as having a relationship with a bipolar person, the feelings of admiration and contempt will intertwine, leaving all wondering if a good deed can cancel out a bad one, and if at the end of his life, Pablo had caused more harm to the people despite the good. And unfortunately, as you ask the locals, the consensus of the people of Medellin is the latter.

I had the opportunity to visit Pablo Escobar’s grave, and in epitaph can be read: “You were a conqueror of impossible dreams, beyond the legend that you symbolize today; few know the true essence of your life.” And even when I’m not certain who chose the words, I assume it was a close loved one who knew him well, what gives me the confidence to assert that “transcendence” played a key role in Pablo’s psyche, even more relevant than what history can reveal.

Maslow later wrote in his collection of essays titled “The farther reaches of human nature” and he transcendence like “[it] refers to the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos.” And I want to emphasize the part which reads: “behaving and relating, as ends rather than means”, and this is relevant because in his newer approach, Maslow basically flipped his pyramid of needs, considering that the human pursuit for meaning is what drives even the more basics of our instincts and needs.

How many of his criminal deeds were perceived by Pablo just as “means” to attain a “higher end”? What was Pablo’s life essence and his “impossible” dreams he wanted to accomplish?

Most probably we will never know, as he never shared a manifesto. He compiled a “book” of political cartoons, adding some drawn personally by him, which work as window to see the world through Pablo Escobar’s eyes, yet this is inconclusive to define what his dreams were. Some of his phrases can shed some light on his psychological profile and beliefs:

 

“I’m a decent man who exports flowers.”

“Sometimes I feel like God . . . when I order someone killed, they die the same day.”

“There can only be one king.”

“Everyone has a price; the important thing is to find out what it is.”

“I can replace things, but I could never replace my wife and kids.”

“All empires are created of blood and fire.”

“God rules in heaven, I rule in Colombia.”

 

The recurrent theme in most of his phrases is without a doubt “Power”, not only the coveting for power, but on how to wield it to control the people in service of his desires (his impossible dreams?). But it’s clear Pablo fell in the trap of power, the insatiable pursuit to gather as much power as possible to cope with the underlying feeling of lack of control he experienced during his early life, as victim of poverty and subject to the mass control exerted by the government and ruling classes of Colombia at the time. But this fallacy of control, is most of the times, just a manifestation of an inferiority complex, or a “weakness” as Friedrich Nietzsche points out in his book “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” which reads “…the will of the weak to represent some form of superiority, their instinct for devious paths to tyranny over the healthy.”

And as I tried to uncover the man, the human being behind the myth, speaking with Pablo’s brother, Roberto Escobar, it’s clear that even for him, being participant of many of the happenings, it’s getting hard to discerns fiction from reality. I’m not saying this because of signs of dementia, but rather, how a story told a thousand times, starts to evolve as does the reality of the teller. Pablo Escobar lived in a hyperreality, not mainly because of his lavish lifestyle, but rather about the construction of the myth surrounding his persona, and how he forced reality to adapt and fit in the concept which could sustain his auto perception. Phrases like “I always get what I want, and when I don’t, it’s because I didn’t want it” speak about the narratives he fed to himself, and which usually all of us does at our level, but in the case of Pablo, got exacerbated by who he was. And this pattern is not unusual, considering that kings, prophets and other figures of power have experienced the same delusion through time.

The best analogy of this hyperreality is embodied in the last birthday present Roberto gave his brother Pablo, a piece of art that hangs in the wall of his living room. A tinted Swarovski mosaic depicting, side by side, Pablo Escobar and the fictional character of Don Corleone played by Marlon Brando, in Francis Ford Coppola’s film adaptation of the novel The Godfather of Mario Puzo. This piece of art probably encapsulates the conflicting “myth” and “essence” of Pablo as mentioned in his tombstone, a peek into his self-perception or at least an example of the stories he told himself and forced himself to believe to be able to sell it. Stories of greatness and fame, evidencing his pursuit for meaning and need to become greater than life… at any cost.

And we could consider that he did it. Pablo had accomplished his goal of leaving a story, a myth, a cult surrounding his persona despite his humble origins. But standing on his grave, the words of Genesis 3:19 came to my mind: “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” And as Pablo lies six feet under, and most of the empire he built had already crumbled, I can’t stop but wonder what would mean for him all this posthumous fame?

And the words of Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of Rome, who held a power on earth which Pablo Escobar could only dream about, come to mind: “Soon you’ll be ashes or bones. A mere name, at most—and even that is just a sound, an echo. Everything fades so quickly, turns into legend, and soon oblivion covers it.” And Marcus later asks in his Meditations: “What is ‘eternal’ fame? Emptiness.”

One of Pablo’s most puzzling quotes reads: “Don’t get used to anything, then you won’t need anything,” but this nihilist approach and the way he lived his life, confirms that his real problem was that he never got used to “emptiness,” that’s why he wanted to get everything in attempts to fill the bottomless hole which he only managed to make bigger. Big enough to attempt to swallow the entire world.

M. Ch. Landa

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