Medellín, Colombia — Pablo Escobar was one of the world’s most infamous and enigmatic drug lords. Decades after his death, there have been numerous movies, tv shows, books, documentaries, and legends spun around his complex personality and the legacy he left behind.
To the millions of Colombia’s impoverished citizens, Pablo Escobar will always be remembered as a patron saint. He was one of them — the son of a dirt poor farmer who rose to become one of history’s most wealthiest and powerful men.
But in the eyes of Colombia’s government, Escobar was vilified as “Public Enemy # 1“. He was deemed a narco terrorist who wreaked havoc on society by waging a 13-year war against the country’s political, law enforcement, and military establishment.
Do you want “Silver or Lead”?
Escobar used intimidation and death as strategic tools to instill and enforce widespread corruption in Colombia’s government institutions. His business mantra was “Plata o plomo” which literally translates to “silver or lead” or colloquially “[accept] money or [face] bullets”. What difficult decisions indeed, especially when given those two choices.
It is difficult to say exactly how many people total died at the hands of Pablo Escobar. But John Jairo Velasquez, who was Escobar’s top hit man during the 80s, says he alone killed 300 and masterminded the deaths of 3000 others.
By the 1980s, the Colombian kingpin became the leader of the notorious Medellín cartel that would become the world’s biggest cocaine supplier of that era. Both US and Colombian law enforcement officials believe that as much as 80% of the global cocaine trade went through Escobar and his cartel.
By the age of 35, Escobar was among the world’s wealthiest men, with estimates putting his weekly income close to $420 million — in cash. This puts Pablo Escobar as the richest drug lord ever in history. While it is difficult to determine exactly how much his fortune was truly worth given that it was illicit drug money, it’s widely thought to be as much as $30 billion.
Here are 10 mind-blowing facts about Escobar’s ridiculous wealth:
1By the mid-1980s, Escobar and his cartel brought in $420 million in cash every week
This would come to about $22 billion annually — easily exceeding the total annual revenue of some of the world’s biggest Fortune 500 corporations and even the GDP of some sovereign nations. Escobar was making so much money, he even offered to pay off Colombia’s $12 billion national debt only if the government agreed to not interfere with his business. The government politely declined that offer.
2From 1987 to 1993, Escobar was featured in Forbes’ annual “International Billionaires List” for an incredible 7 years straight
In 1987, Forbes launched its very first International Billionaires List and Escobar made that list. He easily outranked dozens of real estate, pharmaceutical, retail, textile, and media tycoons from around the world. His highest ranking on the list was in 1989, when he was named the 7th richest man in the entire world.
3By the end of the 1980s, Escobar and the Medellin Cartel were responsible for 80% of the global cocaine market
In the 1980s, one kilo of cocaine would cost the cartel $1000 to refine, and the finished product could be sold in the United States for $70,000. Escobar’s mastery of global logistics and his understanding of market forces propelled the Medellin cartel to the very top of the cocaine trafficking business.
4The cartel delivered 15 tons of cocaine into the USA each day, usually by flying it over the coast of Florida
The drugs were transported by planes from Medellin, Colombia to Norman’s Cay — a small island in the Bahamas where cartel co-founder Carlos Lehder owned property. From there, the drugs were divided up and packed into floating waterproof duffel bags then flown to Miami where they were dropped into Biscayne Bay.
Norman’s Cay was a critical stopover in Escobar’s smuggling operation. His smuggling planes could refuel there and stay under the radar of the US Coast Guard and DEA. Smugglers faced great risk of a hefty prison sentence if caught by US law enforcement authorities. But Escobar paid his pilots $1 million (USD) per delivered shipment, so there there was no shortage of pilots who were willing to take that risk.
According to journalist Ioan Grillo:
“It was a nine-hundred-mile run from the north coast of Colombia and was simply wide-open. The Colombians and their American counterparts would airdrop loads of blow out to sea, from where it would be rushed ashore in speedboats, or even fly it right onto the Florida mainland and let it crash down in the countryside,”
5To put that figure into perspective, for every American consuming cocaine, four in every five were buying it from Pablo Escobar and his Medellin cartel
Pablo Escobar and his Medellín cartel held a large majority of the world’s cocaine market by 80%. This gave him control of a monopoly, putting him in power to pull the purse strings of every-single-person who was tied to the cocaine business in one way or another.
This included all of the big-time distributors and wholesalers who had no other choice but to buy from Escobar — at any price he wanted. And of course, this would trickle down to the street-level dealers and the millions of desperate coke/crack addicts who were more than eager to hand over cash for their next fix.
6“The King of Cocaine” was making so much money that he factored in $2.1 billion in lost profits each month and it made no impact on his bottom line
Given the difficulties of laundering so much drug money, Escobar would store immense piles of cash in warehouses or bury them in farm fields across Colombia. To this day, no one knows for sure how much of Escobar’s money is still hidden and waiting to be discovered. According to his brother and chief accountant Roberto Escobar,
“Pablo was earning so much that each year we would write off 10% of the money because the rats would eat it in storage or it would be damaged by water or lost,”
7He was spending $2,500 each month on rubber bands to keep all his cash counted and organized
Making so much cash resulted in a rather unique problem for Escobar — keeping so many bank notes counted and organized. His brother Roberto revealed that the cartel spent an incredible $2,500 every month just on rubber bands to help keep the notes together.
8He burned $2 million just to keep his daughter warm
Escobar’s 38-year-old son Juan Pablo, who has since changed his name to Sebastián Marroquín, has described what his life was like on the run with a notorious drug kingpin.
In one interview, he spoke of how his family had moved to the Medellin mountainside to evade capture. His sister Manuela had become hypothermic, and Escobar decided to burn a staggering $2 million in currency notes to keep her from freezing.
9A keen philanthropist, he was nicknamed “Robin Hood” by poor Colombians that he would give cash to
Escobar had a mastery of public relations and self promotion. Despite his immense wealth, he showed that he never forgot his humble roots. He reached out to Colombia’s poor who lived a hand-to-mouth existence in urban barrios across the country, showering them with cash. He financed the construction of numerous housing projects for the homeless, built churches, and created 70 soccer fields for local communities. He even built a city zoo to share his love of animals with the people of Medellín.
Escobar understood the importance of gaining the grassroots support of the common people and maintaining a positive public image — despite the illicit nature of his business. If he wasn’t in the drug business, he’d probably make a great career politician.
10Even after his arrest, he managed to cut a deal with the Colombian authorities where he would be imprisoned in the opulent “La Catedral” prison he had constructed
By 1991, Escobar had been captured and sentenced to imprisonment. However, he would be sent to his self-designed prison known as “La Catedral” — the cathedral. In an agreement made with the Colombian government, Escobar had the final say on who he was imprisoned with and who would work there. Visitors were always permitted, and Escobar was even allowed to continue running the cartel all from within the protected walls of the prison.
And unlike any other prison, La Catedral contained luxurious amenities which included a disco, bar, barbecue pit, a soccer pitch, patios and even a nearby compound where his family stayed — all under the watchful eye of Colombian army soldiers who acted more like his personal bodyguards than prison guards. In an agreement with Colombia’s government, no law enforcement authorities were allowed within 3 miles of “La Catedral”.