Outlaw Heroes, Drug Lords, and International Trade Part 1

Quenby Wilcox Having It All


My last blog, Mexican Drug Trade: A Look into the Future by Looking at Colombia's Past, examined the complexity of the Failed War on Drugsin the drug consumer countries, notably the USA. However, this is only half-of-the-story. The other half-of-the-story are the problems and issues created in the drug producer countries. First, it is important to examine how and why drug-producers and drug-traders get started—as drug-lords are made, they are not born! As explained in Penn's interview with El Chapo, most drug‑lords come from humble beginnings and extreme poverty (as has been the case since the beginning of recorded history). Additionally, Penn notes in his article, El Chapo Speaks, that the only thing separating Us from Them is simply luck of birth,

At four years old, in '64, I [Sean Penn] was digging for imaginary treasures, unneeded, in my parents' middleclass American backyard while he [Joaquin Guzman] was hand-drawing fantasy pesos that, if real, might be the only path for he and his family to dream beyond peasant farming. And while I was surfing the waves of Malibu at age nine, he was already working in the marijuana and poppy fields of the remote mountains of Sinaloa, Mexico.

And, Pablo Escobar was no exception, as explained by his son, Juan Pablo Escobar (aka Sebastian Marroquin), in an interview with Adela Micha. He too grew up in one of the poorest urban centers in Colombia and barrios pobres de Medellin.

It is no surprise to those who work in fields even remotely related to socio-economic development, that the economic factors which propel farmers to choose high-profit illegal drugs over low-profit crops is what is really propelling the production system. And, as El Chapo points out in his interview with Penn, not one lone drug-lord, no matter how rich or powerful he might be, is the real motor of the drug production. As long as the production of illegal drugs remains such a highly profitable business (for those at the top), then developing countries will continue to produce them. This part of the equation should be relatively simple for people from capitalistic countries to understand—particular at present where profit-at-any-cost in USA and Europe is the prevailing ideology amongst the ruling-class.

It is a rather hypocritical stance of developed countries, to take the moral high ground on the atrocities committed by drug-lords when corporate responsibility and ethics flew out the window with Reaganomics a very along time ago. I might add that corporate responsibility also flew out the window with much of the cocaine production which went up their noses with it! One of the jokes in the '80s was "The only place it snows in August in this country is on Capitol Hill!" One of the reasons I left DC and the USA in the '80s was my disgust at the partying and trashing of this country that was going. I saw all the cocaine that was being consumed in This Town back then. I was paying my way through college in the bars and nightclubs where all the partying and cocaine snorting was going on! I saw what everyone was doing! The streets of DC (and NYC, LA, Miami, etc.) were literally paved in cocaine amongst the elite. (This come backs to the complicity issues Penn raises in his article El Chapo Speaks.)

Economies around the world are collapsing from decades of rampant greed, corruption and lack of governance in the USA and Europe, exacerbating the poverty and violence (created under colonialism) of people in the developing world—This is Rome at its Final Hour all over again. However, when the developing world, by whatever means at their disposition, produce a product that is highly-lucrative and profitable, but damaging to the developed world. Again, and I stress, it seems rather hypocritical of the developed world to take the moral high ground when, quite frankly, they are, and have been for centuries, trashing the planet for the entire human race.

So in order to understand how and why legendary figures such as Pablo Escobar can, on the one hand be guilty of such atrocious crimes and violence, but on the other hand, be glorified by certain populations in his country; it is important to examine the sociological forces at work. Jenna Bowley in her thesis, Robin Hood or Villain: The Social Constructions of Pablo Escobar, explores the dynamics of the Robin Hoods throughout history,

Of course, one can't research drug violence in Colombia without finding Pablo Escobar's name everywhere. I was surprised to find that the central idea behind nearly every mention of him was the contradictory perception of his character as an evil, ruthless, murdering criminal and simultaneously as a benevolent, charitable "Robin Hood" figure admired to this day. That became my thesis question. Looking to Colombian politics and society as the source, I wanted to figure out how Escobar could be seen at the same time as an infamous criminal to many and a legendary hero to others. Pablo Escobar's most famous personality traits were his extreme ruthlessness and his great generosity, as attributed to him by his enemies and admirers, respectively....


...Robin Hood figures, like Escobar, are archetypes, purely social constructions. The same archetype can be found in figures all over the world among diverse cultures and time periods, such as the glorified outlaws of the American west like Jesse James and Billy the Kid, or the Mexican revolutionary leader turned folk hero Pancho Villa, who was also a personal hero of Pablo Escobar. The archetype has several descriptive titles such as outlaw hero, noble robber, and the social bandit that for the purposes of this thesis will be treated as the same. Eric Hobsbawm coined the term 'social bandit' in 1959 when he first published Primitive Rebels, which was the first study of such figures. He described social bandits as those individuals who engage in outlaw behavior as a form of social protest and are glorified as heroes among the people they represent, distinguishing them from those outlaws simply serving their own interests.


...The outlaw hero is almost always found in cultures that perceive themselves a being oppressed or unfairly exploited by a more powerful, vilified group, whether a foreign authority or a corrupt regime. The figure of the outlaw hero, almost always male, usually shares several characteristics across different legends. He is usually forced to break the law or is somehow justified in doing so by oppressive unjust forces. He always holds support and sympathy from the social group that he represents. Legends also usually attribute him with some extraordinary skill or ability and tell of how he repeatedly outsmarts the authorities trying to capture him. Even the death of the outlaw hero is prescribed; he usually dies as the result of a betrayal and always dies defiantly. ...'


Very often the legends suggest that he may have escaped at the end. Finally and perhaps most importantly, he always follows a moral code, or is at least perceived to do so. This can include behavior such as righting wrongs, settling disputes, being polite and courteous, distributing wealth among the poor, and only killing when it is perceived as being justified. The outlaw hero cannot be seen by his support base as being ruthless or cruel and typically takes action to ensure his reputation is not tarnished....


...As Seal and others who have explored the topic have pointed out, the social construction of the outlaw hero is rarely an accurate historical representation of the actual individual. Outlaws that meet some of the given criteria and that operate in places where the right social conditions exist can be transformed into heroic figures by the stories told by those who support them. However, the outlaw hero absolutely must be seen as a friend of the poor. Even if he does not actually go around sharing his loot with the commoners, he must at least not hurt or steal from them.... Beyond that, his social identity can be selectively constructed to fit the model. Some examples of cruelty or viciousness can be ignored and stories of the outlaw's integrity or special talents may be exaggerated or even invented.


Folklorist, Kent L. Steckmesser, argued that the social constructions of outlaw heroes, specifically those of the American west, can become very distinct from their original character, transforming the individual into a figure of legend. Jesse James, for example, is an iconic figure of the American Wild West that became famous for robbing banks and trains. While the media of the time portrayed him as a violent and savage murderer, the "Robin Hood principle" worked to mold his identity to one befitting of an outlaw hero. As a former soldier for the Confederates during the Civil War, Jesse James's crimes against rich bankers and businessmen would have been interpreted as a sort of social rebellion against the Yankees in the north, giving his actions a noble justification....


What is clear is that each construction of his character was influenced by the social, economic, political and cultural context from which it emerged. Medellín's history and the expansion of urban poverty influenced the image of Escobar was that held by the Antioqueño masses, while the elites in the Colombian government saw a different picture influenced by the image exported by Washington and its intelligence agencies...


Escobar's life and personal development as well as his social construction as Robin Hood can be explained, at least in part, by the social and political conditions in Colombia during his lifetime and decades before his birth. Escobar's own inherent personality can account for the rest. Escobar the man and Escobar the myth are both products of Colombia's violent and troubled history. During the 1930's and 40's, political and social tensions mounted until they erupted into a period widespread partisan conflict, chaos and banditry referred to simply as la Violencia. Successive repressive administrations did little to restore balance and the violence continued for decades, mostly in rural areas outside the central government's control. It displaced thousands of peasants, who migrated from the countryside into urban centers like Medellín, creating pockets of poverty within the city and expanding outward into slums...


Escobar, born in 1949, was a child of la Violencia and grew up during the worst years. By the time he was an adult the violence had calmed, but it had created a generation of Colombians who were accustomed to violence and murder. Many of them, especially the lower classes, felt alienated and distrustful of the government that they saw as corrupt and unjust. This created the appropriate conditions for a Robin Hood figure to emerge, someone to steal from the rich and redistribute the wealth and power among the poor. Escobar did just that, except he did it on a global scale by funneling billions dollars away from wealthy American consumers and into to Colombia. Then the end of the Cold War in the 1980's caused a dramatic shift in the United States' policy towards Latin America. When the threat of communism began to fade away, it was replaced by the threat of drugs and drug traffickers. Being the most powerful drug trafficker alive, Escobar became the natural enemy of the United States. What ensued was one of the most dramatic and bloody games of cops and robbers ever played, as the world's most powerful outlaw faced off against the world's most powerful sheriff.

Unfortunately, as Penn states in El Chapo Speaks,

Not since Osama bin Laden has the pursuit of a fugitive so occupied the public imagination. But unlike bin Laden, who had posed the ludicrous premise that a country's entire population is defined by – and therefore complicit in – its leadership's policies, with the world's most wanted drug lord, are we, the American public, not indeed complicit in what we demonize? We are the consumers, and as such, we are complicit in every murder, and in every corruption of an institution's ability to protect the quality of life for citizens of Mexico and the United States that comes as a result of our insatiable appetite for illicit narcotics.

Instead of expressing one's opinion about the "ethics" of Sean Penn meeting with a drug-lord, shouldn't people start looking at the morality (or rather Lack of morality) in our social structures which is continually, and perpetually creating, and glorifying violent criminals, particularly when it appears they are the only ones to stand up to the abuses of power in governments.

[1] Bowley, Jenna, "Robin Hood or Villain: The Social Constructions of Pablo Escobar" (2013). Honors College. Paper 109.