He revolutionized the international drug trade, earned billions by smuggling cocaine into the USA and is said to be responsible for the deaths of thousands of people: Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria. On December 2, 1993, the powerful head of the Medellín cartel was shot while fleeing the police. Since then, a lot has changed in the Colombian underworld.
"There are no longer any large, visible and powerful drug cartels that are commanded from above and whose leaders are known," said retired director of the Colombian National Police Óscar Naranjo to the German Press Agency. The 66-year-old led the authorities' search unit that tracked down and killed Escobar.
"The criminals have learned that it is dangerous to show themselves," explains Naranjo, who was also vice president of Colombia. "And today there is a criminal fragmentation that works in small groups, and those who profit on a large scale are invisible."
Escobar came from humble beginnings. He dropped out of school because his family couldn't pay for his education and worked as a petty criminal. In the 1970s he entered the cocaine trade and founded the Medellín Cartel.
From the city of over a million people he built a huge cocaine empire. During its heyday in the 1980s and early 1990s, Escobar controlled almost the entire cocaine supply chain: He moved shipments from Peru and Bolivia to Colombia, stored them, and then coordinated the transport of the drug by plane to the United States. An estimated 15 tons per day were shipped.
At the height of his power, Escobar, also known as "El Patrón", is said to have had a fortune of more than five billion dollars. He liked to brag about his wealth, had a private army several thousand strong, a fleet of aircraft and magnificent villas in Miami and Colombia.
He defended his business with brutal toughness. His sicarios – contract killers from the slums of Medellín – are said to have killed up to 6,000 people. After declaring war on the Colombian state, he was shot dead in 1993 following a chase on the rooftops above Medellín. Members of the police special unit posed with the blood-covered body.
"Pablo Escobar was the most fearsome and criminal mind in Colombian history, who deliberately and indiscriminately killed civilians, police and military personnel to bring Colombian society to its knees and create a narco-state," says Naranjo. In a narco-state, institutions are steeped in the power and wealth of the illegal drug trade.
"The new drug traffickers who emerged after Escobar's death changed their social dynamics to remain unnoticed: they are now less violent, less boastful," says the former police director. Drug trafficking no longer takes place in a hierarchically managed environment dominated by a few key players, but in a highly fragmented underworld.
"There is no relationship of domination or subordination, but rather a very horizontal trading relationship with Mexican, European, African or North African mafia groups," explains Gustavo Duncan Cruz, a political scientist at the private EAFIT university in Medellín. "The drug business controlled by the cartels in Colombia's major cities no longer works today."
Now there are many more actors who no longer exercise the same level of violence, "but there are still violent clashes between the groups fighting for control of the various coca-growing areas," says the drug trafficking expert.
Despite his brutality, Escobar is still considered a hero by many people today. He built hospitals, schools, soccer fields and social housing and distributed cash in the slums. A few years ago, his former home was blown up because tourists from all over the world made a pilgrimage there and posed in front of it.
"The figure of Pablo Escobar is revered today by young people who were not born in this time of violence," says Naranjo. "They think he is a god, a kind of Colombian Robin Hood - and that is absolutely wrong. Because in reality he was a murderer and a madman."
Escobar was very intimidating. "He scared me because he even scared his own people," Naranjo says. However, the social sanction against him did not prevail in society. "It makes me angry to think that this guy got away with it even after he died. This is a cursed legacy," Naranjo says.
"It is time for the international community to look for ways to regulate the use of substances in order to put an end to the lucrative business of drug trafficking," says former police director Naranjo.
There is now an overproduction of coca cultivation: According to the UN, between 600 and 900 tons were produced in the Andean region in 2015, today it is estimated to be 2,500 tons. "The death of Pablo Escobar brought relief to the country and showed that Colombia will not capitulate to terrorism," says Naranjo. "Even if in reality the drug trade has not ended."