The legend of a South American drug lord lives on as the film industry perpetuates tales of his sordid deeds. But his attendant mayhem lives on too.
What sounds like the formula for a gripping Hollywood thriller is in reality the backdrop of a bizarre legal case centered on an infamous criminal figure…
In a remote rural region of Mexico in September 2017, local police came across the lifeless bullet-riddled body of Carlos Muñoz Portal slumped over in the driver’s seat of his car. In a country that registered more than 14,000 homicides in the first seven months of that year, the death would ordinarily have attracted little notice if Portal had been somebody else. However he was actually one of the country’s most respected location scouts for Hollywood moviemakers, with a track record that includes Fast & Furious, The Legend of Zorro, and the James Bond film Spectre. At the time of his death, Portal had been searching for locations for a new season of the Netflix hit Narcos. Based on the life story of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar (1949–1993), the first three seasons were shot in his native Colombia.
Not long after Portal’s corpse was discovered, Pablo’s brother Roberto Escobar issued a statement: “I have survived many assassination attempts and kidnappings,” he’d said. “Netflix should provide hitmen to their people as security.” The CEO of Escobar Inc., Olof K. Gustafsson, added: “We tried to contact Netflix to speak about their security issues. I think it is important that they take care of this soon.” At the time these statements must have been most unsettling: Portal’s murder was only the latest skirmish in a legal battle that had been brewing for quite some time between Netflix and the self-appointed “administrator” of the Pablo Escobar estate. Roberto was not pleased at the prospect of anyone making films about his brother in Latin America without his permission: “It’s very dangerous—especially without our blessing,” he warned. In 2016 he attempted to sue Netflix for $1 billion for using his brother’s name and story without permission. The 74-year-old remains a resourceful businessman, having realized long ago that he could
make a lot of money off his brother’s name even decades after Pablo had passed away…
THE ESCOBAR CULT: A LUCRATIVE BUSINESS
Pablo Escobar’s reputation for killing more than 5,000 people has made him something of a tourist attraction in his native Colombia. The late drug lord has long been revered in the slums of his hometown of Medellín. Elected in 1982 to the Chamber of Representatives, he had been responsible for a number of community projects, including the construction of football fields, and he provided employment for many young men. But he owes his popularity among foreign admirers, who come from around the world to lay flowers at his grave, to the many films and TV series based on his life. The best example is the Netflix series Narcos, which is based on the rise and fall of the drug kingpin. The first three seasons were set and filmed in Colombia. These were followed by Narcos: Mexico, which ended up as a companion series rather than the fourth season of Narcos and focused on that country’s illegal drug trade. Tour operators in Medellín now offer a variety of Escobar tours that trace the steps of the infamous cartel boss. Pablo’s brother Roberto also makes money off the tourists: For a relatively modest admission fee they can visit the Casa Museo Pablo Escobar and hear details of the drug lord’s life and death as recounted by Roberto.
Founded and operated by Pablo, the Medellín Cartel was trafficking cocaine all around the world by the 1980s, earning up to $60 million per day. As the cartel’s chief accountant, Roberto struggled to handle all of the funds. Having largely exhausted the world’s capacity for numbered bank accounts to launder all the profit, he had to stash it as cash, spending a reported $2,500 per month on rubber bands just to bundle the bills together.
After the death of Pablo Escobar in 1993, the government of Colombia announced the $6.2 million bounty on his head would be shared by the men who hunted him down and the widows and orphans of his victims. Pablo had been shot and killed on December 2nd of that year, when his brother was still behind bars. Pablo had recommended that Roberto turn himself in because prison seemed to offer the best chance for his survival. Only two weeks after Pablo’s death, Roberto was blinded in one eye by a letter bomb that was sent to his prison cell. He was firmly convinced that the government was behind this attack, but the attacker was never identified.
Since his release from prison in 2003, Roberto has been managing the company Escobar Inc., which claims to control all the rights to the Pablo Escobar story. In 2016 Roberto sent a letter to the content platform and production company Netflix in which he had demanded $1 billion in compensation for the “mistakes, lies, and discrepancies” in the company’s portrayal of Pablo in Narcos. “Nobody else in the world is alive to determine the validity of the materials but me,” he said. “I don’t think there will be any more Narcos if they do not talk to me. If we don’t receive our billion dollars, we will close their little show.”
THE LATEST ESCOBAR VICTIM IS APPLE
Roberto Escobar claims to know nothing about the murder of Carlos Muñoz Portal. “If you have intellect, you do not need to use weapons. If not, you have to,” he says with a smile. In early 2018 his company Escobar Inc. abandoned efforts to trademark the name “Narcos” as part of its effort to sue Netflix. It does not appear that Netflix has made any payments, and the company has continued filming without incident. Meanwhile Roberto has found a more promising target: Apple Inc. He is suing the technology giant for $2.6 billion, alleging that someone named “Diego” hacked his iphone X by way of the Facetime app, found his address, and sent him a life-threatening letter, even though the X was supposed to be completely secure. If he wins, Roberto plans to share the money with other iphone users and ultimately “donate it all.”