30 for 30: The Two Escobars

“With my own hands, I’ve killed around 250 people,” says John Jairo Velásquez Vásquez. “But only a psychopath keeps count.” As he speaks, the camera pans slightly right to show the prison guards standing behind him, their figures shadowed and faces obscured. A cut to a photo shows Vásquez, also known as “Popeye,” in his younger days, an assassin comfortable with himself, performative and cocky. “I’ve dismembered many people,” he adds, as the camera zooms to a close-up of his photo-hand, then dissolves to a composite image, so that a gun now appears in that hand.

It’s a striking set of visual moves, and as such, characteristic of The Two Escobars, a documentary that pulls together several story strands, multiple historical events, and a collection of subjects who are variously cynical, self-aware, and determinedly romantic. Premiering 22 June as part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series, the film draws connections between Pablo Emilio Escobar (best known as Pablo), notorious head of the Medellín Cartel, and Pablo Andrés Escobar (called Andrés), star defender for Colombia’s Atlético Nacional when the team featured great players who were winning. This was also the time, former midfielder Alexis Garcia points, “When people saw our situation, they said but couldn’t prove that Nacional [was] backed by Pablo Escobar.”

As Jaime puts it, “Pablo wasn’t the only drug trafficker with a deep love for Colombian soccer.” As soccer was found to be an effective means to launder money, it was soon supporting a lucrative underground system, known as narco-soccer. And Pablo treated his team much like his primary business (drugs), spending vast amounts of money on players, facilities, and fans’ experiences. His sister Luz points out his efforts to “give back” to his community, building schools, medical facilities, and sports facilities. As well, his cousin and gang associate Jaime Gaviria remembers, Pablo was motivated by his own impoverished childhood. “He said, ‘No rich person in Colombia does anything for the poor.'” And so, Gaviria says, Pablo decided to “fix inequality in our country,” by “steal[ing] from the rich.”

That Pablo himself became unconscionably rich (and supported his family lavishly) is well known: his dealings with Russian and Italian mafias, as well as assorted governments, made him one of Forbes magazine’s “richest men alive” in 1987, with the Cartel bringing in some $60 billion per day, and his personal fortune close to $25 billion. The film makes clear that Pablo was the only criminal involved in the sport (or sports more broadly). Indeed, for all his excessiveness, he was also symptomatic, creating a veneer of success celebrated and exploited by many Colombians — including non-criminals.

Indeed, this is the primary argument made by Michael and Jeff Zimbalist’s documentary, that Pablo’s villainy allowed and even produced Andrés’ heroism, and vice versa: their trajectories are intertwined. For one thing, not only were they linked through Nacional, but also Colombia’s 1994 World Cup Team. For, of course, Andrés had his own ignominious moment — kicking the own goal against the lowly United States team, a goal that led to Colombia’s elimination during the first round. He was shot dead two weeks later. While most accounts blame gangsters who had bets on Colombia (or maybe loved the team), and some even blame Pablo’s absence. Jaime muses, “Imagine if Pablo had been alive: things would have been different. Pablo had rules.”

And yet the film makes a persuasive broader indictment, tracing the social and political moving parts that connected soccer, gangsterism, and money. Pablo’s empire built on murders and bribery, and his power stretched into so-called legitimate arenas, beyond soccer and into politics. Indeed, the film points out, when Pablo feared extradition to the United States (Jaime recalls that his “motto” was, “Sooner a grave in Colombia than a jail in the US”), Pablo campaigned for and won a seat in the House of Representatives — this owing to the loyalty he inspired among the apparently eager-to-vote lower classes.

The film smartly complicates the seemingly straightforward saga of Pablo as villain. If his many orders to kill were notorious, so was his support for accessible housing and the construction of infrastructure. As Pablo was simultaneously horrifying and beloved, throughout his life, his death also combined elements of the heroic and the macabre. Following a couple of high profile assassinations (including that of a political rival who was fighting Pablo’s efforts to eliminate extradition), at last the Colombian president César Gaviria took a public stand: “We have learned the hard lesson of tolerating this criminal organization and its deranged leader,” he announces on TV, enlisting the help of the U.S., whose war on drugs was in full swing. (Former DEA agent Tom Cash notes that, the rejection of the notion that cocaine was a recreational drug was impelled in part by the 1986 death of basketball star Len Bias of a cocaine overdose, alluding to the largely unspoken political context for another 30 for 30 film, Without Bias.)

When Pablo was shot dead by police in 1993 (his body appears here arranged for cameras, displayed on TV and in newspapers), the film goes on to trace some of the ripple effects. Pablo had famously waged a full-on war against the government. Over images of massive weapons and mutilated bodies, Popeye says, “We’d arrive with 10 or 15 armored cars and battle the authorities in the streets.”

The violent imagery — sensational and grim — helps Andrés to seem a hero by contrast. His friends and family remember his idyllic childhood, devout Catholicism, good work in school, and passion for soccer. “He would play all day and never get tired,” remembers Maria Ester Escobar, adding that when their mother died of cancer, “It was especially difficult for Andrés, but he never gave in to the pain: he turned to soccer.”

Such descriptions are accompanied by nostalgic, poignant, sometimes thrilling images of Andrés. He appears on the field, in pensive close-ups, shyly professing his faith in God. Throughout The Two Escobars, Andrés’ fiancée, his teammates, and his coach remember him fondly, and continue to celebrate on-field victories. Coach Francisco Maturana underscores the illusory nature of their memories, however, when he says, “We were living through a violent time in a country fraught with social problems that could not be divorced from soccer. The drug trade is an octopus. It touches everything. Is football an island? No.”

RATING 8 / 10