Dust you are and to dust you will return

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit the beautiful city of Medellín in Colombia. And I was enchanted 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 landscapes.

However, there is another well-known aspect of tourism in the area regarding the controversial figure of Pablo Escobar, criminal, terrorist, politician and drug trafficker who achieved international fame during the 70s and 80s, until his death in 1993. It is practically impossible to visit. the city of Medellín and not be enveloped by the culture of Pablo Escobar, considering that you will find souvenirs depicting his mugshot literally everywhere despite the local government's efforts to eradicate him from Medellín's history.

I cannot deny that, for me, knowing his story from the news and after watching the Netflix series Narcos, it was quite interesting to immerse myself in the cult of Pablo Escobar to help me understand the phenomenon of his figure, his cultural and historical impact, but more importantly, reflect on its significance.

I agree with the idea that, as part of the human process of individuation, the highest level of realization is “transcendence.” Perhaps driven by the ephemeral perception of our lives, human beings of all cultures and faiths have always pursued the creation of a legacy, as a means to achieve transcendence and reach the infinite.

As American psychologist Abraham Maslow described in his “Hierarchy of Needs” theory, humans have an innate desire to satisfy their needs in a specific order of priorities, starting with the physiological needs of food, water, shelter, reproduction, etc. and moving upward to security, to a sense of belonging and love, to esteem, to self-realization and finally to transcendence. And the concept of Maslow's pyramid is that you cannot move up unless you have satisfied the needs of the previous steps. This is true for everyone and it was also true for Pablo Escobar.

And I put this in context, because Pablo mentioned that he began his criminal career like many other criminals, to satisfy the physiological needs that come with being born into a poor family, with his father working as a farmer and his mother as a teacher. He used to say: “Out of hunger was born mischief” and “think like a poor man and you will live like a poor man.” 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 although we can consider selfish reasons as the main drivers of crime, the truth is that everything in life has shades of gray, and Pablo was no exception. He is famous for his altruistic acts, such as building a neighborhood and gifting houses to poor people who lived in unregulated settlements on a landfill and were displaced when a fire consumed their makeshift homes. We can classify this behavior as “Self-Actualization” in Maslow's pyramid, because his motivation was driven by a value-based system, summed up in his political phrase “Medellín without slums,” which means eradicating the unregulated settlements that occur on the slopes of the mountains and provide adequate housing to the poor. Many argue that Pablo's intentions behind his political career as a congressman were to help the poor of Medellín, but it is difficult to differentiate this from his need to justify his power and fortune created as a drug trafficker.

And it is when you visit the “shrine” built in Pablo Escobar's neighborhood to honor his memory, that you realize how difficult it is to untangle them. Admiration for altruistic acts in the face of the pain and suffering inflicted by the violence he created. And like being in a relationship with a bipolar person, the feelings of admiration and contempt will intertwine, leaving everyone 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 people despite of the good. And unfortunately, when I asked the locals, the consensus of the people of Medellín is the latter.

I had the opportunity to visit Pablo Escobar's tomb, and on his epitaph you can 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 sure who chose the words, I assume it was a close loved one who knew him well, which gives me the confidence to claim 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 Farthest Reaches of Human Nature" and described transcendence as "[it] refers to the highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends." instead of 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 that says, “behave and relate, as ends rather than means,” and this is relevant because in his new approach, Maslow basically inverted his pyramid of needs, considering that the human search for meaning is what drives even the most basic aspects of our instincts and needs.

How many of his criminal acts were perceived by Paul simply as “means” to achieve a “higher end”? What was the essence of Pablo's life and the “impossible” dreams he wanted to realize?

We will most likely never know, since he never shared a manifesto. He compiled a “book” of political cartoons, adding some drawn personally by him, which function as a window to see the world through the eyes of Pablo Escobar, but this is not conclusive to define what his dreams were. Some of his phrases may shed some light on his psychological profile and his beliefs:


"I am a decent man who exports flowers."

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

"There can only be one king."

"Everybody has a price; The important thing is to discover what it is.”

"I can replace things, but I could never replace my wife and children."

"All empires are created by blood and fire."

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


The recurring theme in most of his phrases is undoubtedly “Power”, not only the greed for power, but the way to exercise it to control people in the service of his desires (his impossible dreams?). But it is clear that Paul fell into the trap of power, the insatiable quest to accumulate as much power as possible to address the underlying feeling of lack of control that he experienced during his early life, as a victim of poverty and subject to control. massive exercised by the government and the dominant classes of Colombia at that time. But this fallacy of control, most of the time is just a manifestation of an inferiority complex, or a “weakness” as Friedrich Nietzsche points out in his book “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” which says “…the will of the weak to represent some form of of superiority, his instinct to follow devious paths towards tyranny over the healthy.”

And while trying to discover the man, the human being behind the myth, speaking with Pablo's brother, Roberto Escobar, it becomes clear that even for him, being a participant in many of the events, it is becoming difficult to discern fiction from reality. I don't say this because of signs of dementia, but because a story told a thousand times evolves as does the reality of the person telling it. Pablo Escobar lived in a hyperreality, not mainly because of his luxurious lifestyle, but rather because of the construction of the myth that surrounded his person, and how he forced reality to adapt and fit into the concept that could support his self-perception. Phrases like “I always get what I want, and when I don't get it it's because I didn't want it” speak of the narratives that he fed to himself, and that normally we all do at our level, but in Pablo's case, it was exacerbated by who was he. And this pattern is not unusual, considering that kings, prophets, and other figures of power have experienced the same deception throughout time.

The best analogy of this hyperreality is captured in the last birthday gift that Roberto gave his brother Pablo, a work of art that hangs on 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 Mario Puzo's novel The Godfather. This artwork probably sums up Pablo's "myth" and "essence" conflict as mentioned on his tombstone, a glimpse into his self-perception or at least an example of the stories he told himself and forced himself to believe in order to sell them. Stories of greatness and fame, which evidence his search for meaning and the need to be larger than life... at any cost.

And we might consider that he did. Pablo would have fulfilled his objective of leaving a story, a myth, a cult around him despite his humble origins. But standing over his grave, the words of Genesis 3:19 came to mind: “You will earn your bread by the sweat of your brow, until you return to the same land from which you were taken. For dust you are, and to dust you will return.” And as Paul lies six feet under, and most of the empire he built has already collapsed, I can't help but wonder what all this posthumous fame would mean to him?

And the words of Marcus Aurelius, emperor of Rome, who held power on earth that Pablo Escobar could only dream of, come to mind: “Soon you will be ashes or bones. A mere name, at most, and even that is just a sound, an echo. Everything fades very quickly, it becomes a legend and soon oblivion covers it.” And Marcus later asks in his Meditations: “What is 'eternal' fame? Empty."

One of Paul's most disconcerting quotes says, “Get used to nothing, then you will need nothing,” but this nihilistic 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 it all in an attempt to fill the bottomless hole that he only managed to make bigger. And make it big enough to try to swallow the whole world.

M. Ch. Landa

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