Narcos-football: When Pablo Escobar controlled football in Colombia

Notorious Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, featured in Jeff and Michael Zimbalist's documentary THE TWO ESCOBARS, opening on SFFS Screen at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas August 27.

Written by El-Khoury

Cartel, cocaine, money laundering, murders, discrimination. Pablo Escobar is perhaps the most notorious criminal in the world, the “father” and drug dealer who brought tons of narcotics to thousands of people in Colombia in the 1980s and 1990s.

In fact, Escobar at his peak reached a fortune of close to $50 billion and was the 7th richest man on the planet, with America being his biggest victim. 80% of the cocaine on the continent was of his own production and distribution! Of course, money could have easily been made from elsewhere. And football in Colombia would have been his best solution. Therefore, football could not be left untouched by this whole situation in Colombia. The involvement of Escobar and the drug lords in the sport was what brought about its temporary development and then its destruction.

How did Escobar bring the evolution of football to Colombia?

Pablo Escobar claimed that he loved football, the Colombian National Team and Deportivo Independiente Medellin. Escobar is a rich urban legend compared to the poor Colombians who benefited from his social contribution. Escobar, came from a poor family, however when he started earning money and power, he began to build schools, houses and small football fields for the poor community in the favelas.

Strong examples of great Colombian footballers who benefited from Escobar’s contribution to football were Rene Higuita who learned to play ball in the small fields of Marlborough where he grew up, Chondo Herrera who commented in his interview due to the face that the football tournaments he played helped him forgot the poverty and every problem he was facing in life, but also Leonel Alvares, who considers himself lucky to have had the opportunity to play in these stadiums. However, Pablo Escobar’s goal was not just to help his country’s football, but to control and win various cups.

When Escobar becomes a major shareholder in Nacional

Money laundering, fraud, match-fixing, bribery, and virtual transfers were easy in football. So, Escobar decides to interfere in the administration of Mendellin’s Nacional Atletico. El Patron creates a fantastic team, first because he pays the good players of the team well, therefore they did not have to leave with a transfer. In addition, he can get the best players in Colombia. In fact, for the first time in its history, Nacional will win the Copa Libertadores with Escobar as the team’s major shareholder.

Andres Escobar and the Copa Libertadores final

In another parallel story, Andres Escobar (simply synonymous with Pablo’s surname) also plays for Nacional. The footballer, who was to be the symbol of the change against violence in football due to losing a family member, had played football with Pablo in the huge villa – the personal prison owned by the wholesaler called “Cathedral” (El Catedral). Although he did not want to go, Andres confesses to his fiancée that he cannot do otherwise.

He is the player who scores in the final of Libertadores from the penalty spot, when Olympia and Nacional reach the penalty shootout. Atletico Nacional won the 1989 title and became the first Colombian team to do so. Pablo Escobar celebrates in the stands like a child. Of course, Escobar had made sure beforehand to send a warning to the referee of the match, by telling him to play well and correctly. Whatever that means…

“Find and kill the supervisor”

All football fans in Colombia remember the tragic event when Pablo Escobar’s Nacional faced America de Cali, the team of his opponents both in football and selling narcotics, Narcissus Brothers Rodriguez of Cali Cartel. Escobar’s team needs the victory against America to win the title. The game ends 0-0, with supervisor Alvaro Ortega cancelling a regular goal in Medellin. When the game is over, Pablo Escobar gives clear instructions. “Find and kill the supervisor.” Alvaro Ortega is murdered.

The command of “Narcos-Football”

Of course, Pablo Escobar was not the only or the first drug dealer to get involved in football. All of Colombia’s football is moving at the pace of “Narcos-Footbal”.

In 1973, Eduardo Enrique Davigia, a marijuana dealer, bought at the time the champion, Union Magdalena of Santa Marta. In the late 1970s, the Oruhuella brothers bought America de Cali, despite being fanatical supporters of its rival, Deportivo de Cali. Suddenly, and while America had bad relations with its rivals, cocaine dealers with money come to the team, such as River Plate’s Gareca, Roberto Campanas and Julio Uribe, who in turn won titles and brought success to the team. Cartel drug money is being laundered into football until 1983 when the Colombian Minister of Justice banned the mixing of cartels in football.

That would not last long, as Pablo Escobar is starting to play in the country and the Justice Minister is being assassinated. Medellin cartels can invest in Nacional and Bogota Mignonarios. Along with the cartel teams, the country’s national team is flourishing. In fact, Colombia will reach the 4th place in the world rankings in 1994!

The decline of Colombian football

But things soon began to change. Pablo Escobar is being targeted by law enforcement. The assassination of politicians and the political intervention of the United States, then, President George W. Bush (the Father), makes Pablo Escobar the No. 1 wanted man in Colombia.

In the fight against the drug dealer, his people are caught. With the dilemma “either you help us, or we kill you”, the Police learns all the secrets of the “Cathedral”. The Los Pepes team is formed and they are sworn enemies of Escobar who will chase him along with the Police and kill him in 1993 in Medellin aged 44.

After the end of the “Medellin Cartel”

After the death of Pablo Escobar, nothing is the same in Colombia. “Don Pablo”, the so-called “Medellin Cartel” may have killed thousands of Colombians, but he was also the one who controlled crime in the city and could stop any attack. Now, Medellin was like the laws of the jungle and became the No. 1 dangerous city in the world. Crime is in the danger zone, with cartels gradually leaving football free in Colombia. The stadiums are emptying and the players still refuse to play in the National team. Colombia dropped from 4th in the world rankings to 34th.

In 1994 came the total decline. Colombia’s Andres Escobar’s national team loses with the player’s own goal in the World Cup and the player is murdered cowardly. This marked a new era in Colombia. Violence has been decreasing for years and now we have reached the point where the organized fans of the teams have excellent relations and communication for the good of football. Who would say that this would happen? In Colombia everything happens!