Sunday, April 04, 2010

The Two Escobars: Fierce History in the Futbol Fields

by tatiana de la tierra

I was on a farm in Colombia when I heard the news on the radio: Pablo Escobar was dead. A living legend, the richest and bloodiest drug dealer in the world had been gunned down on a rooftop in a middle-class neighborhood in Medellin. The news on that day—December 2, 1993—was stunning. Escobar was at the epicenter of Colombia’s violence during the time that he was king of cocaine. Under his rule, presidential candidates were assassinated, airplanes were bombed, cops were hunted down and politics spun out of control. Yet he was also a family man, generous with the poor populace of the slums he came from, and complicated and eccentric as hell.

Hip to the grisly headlines, I hesitated when I took my first trip to Medellin, Escobar’s hometown. I discovered a new age mecca in Medallo as I lived in a raw foods commune and encountered Bach flower remedies, crystal healing, rebirthing, energy work, yoga, oxygen chambers and cell therapy. But I noticed a strange thing while taking taxis throughout the city—taxi drivers swerved away from policemen or anyone on a motorcycle. Eventually I figured it out. Escobar’s hit men were on a campaign (and were rewarded) to kill policemen and two men on a motorcycle, a driver and a shooter, was the modus operandi. Getting out of the way of potential gunfire—that was a good thing.

Dangerous, daredevil, kooky, charismatic and visionary, Escobar intrigued me. He is the subject of books, movies and popular art. Colombian painter Fernando Botero memorialized Escobar’s rooftop death dance in a portrait that shows him tottering on top of the world as he dies. Tourists and locals visit his gravesite at Jardines de Montesacro in Medellin. Seventeen years after his death, his name resonates. As I read in the New York Times recently, descendants of the hippos from his private zoo continue to roam around Hacienda Nápoles on the outskirts of Medellin, where he had an impressive collection of exotic animals, including rhinos, kangaroos, elephants and giraffes. (Most of the animals starved to death after Escobar was killed.)

When I saw a listing for the movie The Two Escobars, I raced to the theatre expecting an exposé of the “good” Pablo Escobar versus the “bad” one. Directed by Jeff and Michael Zimbalist, The Two Escobars was not what I expected. It is a documentary about the role that Escobar’s (and other dealers’) drug profits played in elevating Colombia’s soccer teams to international acclaim. The other Escobar in the movie is Andres Escobar, the soccer star who accidentally scored a goal for the opposing team while playing for the World Cup in 1994 in Pasadena. That play cost him his life; he was gunned down in the streets of Medellin at 3:30 A.M. on July 3, 1994.

Watching the Two Escobars took me back to those days of bombings, bloodbaths and the repercussions of Colombia’s agreement to extradite drug dealers to the United States. Pablo Escobar and other cocaine kingpins—Los Extraditables—fought fiercely against this. The slogan of that campaign still rings in my ears: “Preferimos una tumba en Colombia a una carcel en Estados Unidos” (We prefer a tomb in Colombia to a jail in the United States).

While The Two Escobars includes some mention of this and other similar instances, the focus of the movie is Pablo and Andres’ lifelong affinity for soccer, the rise and fall of the country’s soccer industry and Colombia’s unsuccessful struggle to sanitize its image. Thoroughly researched and at times riveting, the movie is a collage of interviews and footage from soccer matches, the news media and Escobar’s family and friends. Among those interviewed are Colombian fútbol players and managers, Andres’ fiancé, Pablo’s sister and his jailed head of security, “Popeye” (Jhon Jairo Velásquez Vázquez) and officials from the United States who were involved in President Bush’s effort to extradite Colombian dealers to the U.S.

In Colombia, soccer is ubiquitous and the country’s fervor for the sport is notable. I’m one of the few Colombians who doesn’t get heart palpitations about fútbol matches (or any other sport) and I was never interested in the teams or the players. But now I am, due to the sports’ narco-history. Pablo had the fútbol bug in his veins all through his life. As his fortune rose, he built soccer fields in poor neighborhoods and owned the Atlético Nacional team. Other cocaine kingpins also had their own teams; for instance, José Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha, known as “El Mexicano,” owned Los Millonarios and the Cali Cartel had the América de Cali. Soccer was the perfect vehicle for money laundering and the cash flow allowed the purchase of topnotch homegrown and international players. Pablo Escobar and others placed huge bets on matches that involved cutthroat competition, bribery, politics and murder. (In 1989, Escobar ordered the assassination of a referee who ruled against his team.)

While Pablo Escobar’s passion for the sport is tinged by his status as a ruthless drug lord, Andres Escobar is depicted as a clean-cut defense player whose talent for the sport was evident since childhood. Also from Medellin, the saintly Andres came to be known as “El Caballero de Fútbol” (The Gentleman of Soccer). He was a professional player by the time he was eighteen. Pamela, his fiancé, claims he hoped to help the country’s image with his performance on the field and that he wanted to use his money to help the poor. While Pablo Escobar built entire neighborhoods for the poor with his fortune I didn’t hear any similar anecdotes about Andres. But he was young, dead at twenty-seven. After his death, his teammates feared for their lives and beefed up on bodyguards; eventually, many of them quit the sport. Thus, the lives and deaths of the two Escobars played out like a Greek tragedy on the fútbol field.

The Two Escobars puts a lot of pieces together in order to tell the story of how cocaine met soccer and fell in love and how the two tragically crashed. I appreciate the interview with Pablo’s sister, who both benefited from her brother’s fortune and suffered for the violence he brought on. Popeye’s interview is fascinating, as he professes to have personally executed 250 people yet feels remorse for being a coward and not dying alongside his boss. Also moving was Pablo’s funeral procession, which was packed by the poor people he helped in Medellin. An elder woman wails, “What will we do without you?” Soccer fans will likely dig the historic fútbol footage and the mention of soccer stars such René Higuita, el Pibe Valderrama, Freddy Rincón, Tino Asprilla, and el Tren Valencia. The Two Escobars is a documentary about sports, crime and Colombian history. Thanks to directors Jeff and Michael Zimbalist, a non-sports lover like myself can now appreciate the multi-layered Colombian passion behind a black and white soccer ball.

While there is little information about the movie at this time, it is being screened at select theaters and will premier on Monday, June 21 on ESPN. See for more information.


sonora y matancera said...

buen ensayo, tatiana... tú, bandolera admiradora de aventureros... dale, un abrazo

Viva Liz Vega! said...

Tatiana, This was so well done and so informative. From the first line you grabbed my attention.

Itza said...

Los politics y amor del futbol. What an intriguing sports story!