“The drug trafficker was not me”: the story of Pablo Escobar’s personal photographer

July 22 marks the 30th anniversary of drug trafficker Pablo Escobar’s escape from the Cathedral, the jail where he was being held with his henchmen, after voluntarily surrendering to the Colombian government. Just over a year later, he would end up shot dead by authorities on a rooftop in Medellin, his hometown.

This July the book “El Chino: The life of Pablo Escobar’s personal photographer” was also published, an account and photographic album of the life of Edgar Jiménez -written by Alfonso Buitrago- who met the future capo from an early age and years later captured with his camera the most intimate moments of the powerful head of the Medellin Cartel.

Edgar Jiménez, nicknamed “El Chino”, recently spoke with the BBC World Service Outlook program about those first years of friendship in adolescence and how as an adult reconnected with Escobar who hired him to photograph his spectacular ranch and zoo and his personal and family events.

That relationship spanned from the “golden age” of the drug trafficker (as the photographer calls it) when he was considered a benefactor of the poor, to the campaign he launched to be elected to Congress and finally the bloody wave of violence he unleashed against the Colombian state. .

Despite having accompanied one of the most wanted men by justice for several years, having penetrated his inner circle, sharing drinks with his ruthless hitmen and knowing the atrocities they had committed, Jiménez has no qualms about his closeness to Escobar. “The drug dealer was not me,” he told the BBC. “I was doing a legal activity that was photography.”

This is the story of that photographer who had access to one of the most famous and infamous characters of the late 20th century, during a dramatic period in the history of Colombia and the world.

one of the bunch

Edgar Jiménez and Pablo Escobar met in 1963, while they were in their first year of high school at the Liceo Antioqueño, a public institution for popular classes and middle sectors, but considered to be of very good quality.

They were 13 years old and forged a friendship typical of classmates in the same room; there was camaraderie, they played sports together and chatted during breaks. “We were very close friends,” says Jiménez.

At first, Escobar was not a person who stood out much. “Pablo was an average student. Neither good nor bad”, recalls Jiménez. “It doesn’t mean that he wasn’t smart, that he was, but his concerns were of a different nature.”

More or less from the age of 16 it was noticeable that both he and his cousin Gustavo Gaviria -who was also studying at the high school- “they were very restless to get money” and they began to deal in contraband cigarettes.

“We students were from low to medium economic resources, Escobar and Gaviria too, but they were the ones who had the most solvency due to their activities of that nature.”

Due to lack of academic discipline, Pablo Escobar failed the fourth year of high school and had to repeat it in a parallel institution. No longer being in the same room, nor the same year, friends started drifting apart and lost touch.

Edgar Jiménez had become interested in photography thanks to a very well set up laboratory and a photography club in high school. When he graduated and entered university to study engineering, he dedicated himself to photographing social events to pay for his studies.

For his part, Escobar graduated from high school a year later, but supposedly frustrated by not being able to get a job, he told his mother that he would not try anymore, but he swore to her that before he turned 30 he would get his first million.

“That’s where he made the decision to become a bandit and a criminal… at around 19, 20 years old,” Jiménez explained.

It wasn’t until 1980 that the two former teammates ran into each other again. Jiménez, already a professional photographer, was covering an event in the municipality of Puerto Triunfo, about three hours from Medellín, when a friend of his who was a public official invited him to see a splendid farm that was in that region.

Was the Hacienda Napolesnow famous internationally as Pablo Escobar’s extravagant country complex, with a small plane at the entrance with which he supposedly “crowned” his first shipment of cocaine in the United States.

Getty Images
This file photo shows the iconic entrance of the Hacienda Napoles with the plane in which Escobar “crowned” his first shipment of cocaine to the United States.

“Like an African safari”

Jiménez says that he was amazed by the magnitude of the farm -about three thousand hectares- with a jungle area through which an important tributary of the Magdalena River passed, the largest in Colombia. It also had some 30 lakes, a bullring, a large landing strip, a heliport and a hangar.

But the most memorable was the spectacular zoo with “the most representative fauna of all continents”. From Australia, for example, he had cassowaries, emus and kangaroos; from Africa, zebras, rhinos, antelopes, hippos, elephants and giraffes.

He had an aviary with lots of wonderful birds. In addition to parrots, peacocks and pheasants there were “macaws of all colors, some black parrots that had cost a hell of money, a blue macaw with yellow eyes for which she had paid US $ 100,000.”

The lakes were filled with all kinds of swans, geese, ducks, pelicans, even pink Amazon river dolphins.

“For someone who wasn’t used to it, it was like being on an African safari, because the animals roamed freely and were very well cared for,” he recalls.

Pablo Escobar immediately recognized his old schoolmate and greeted him warmly with a hug. When he found out that he was dedicated to photography, he hired him to take pictures of all his animals. I wanted to have an inventory with everyone’s images, which were about 1,500.

“That’s where my new relationship with Pablo began. From the year 80 until his death, ”said Jiménez.

It was a long task, which involved numerous visits to the farm, since he took photos of between 50 and a hundred animals and then returned after 15 or 20 days to continue photographing.

He is very proud of the photos he took, particularly early hippopotamuses that they arrived at the hacienda and that now they are “the parents, grandparents and great-great-grandparents of those hippos that are now scattered throughout a large area of ​​Colombia” and that they are considered an invasive species.

Hippos in the Hacienda Napoles theme park

Getty Images
These hippos are descendants of the originals that Escobar imported to his hacienda. The species has spread throughout the region and is considered invasive.

He recalls hilarious moments, like the time an ostrich pecked out a cigarette from his assistant and portrayed her as if the bird was smoking.

But there was also moments of risk. Jiménez took photos of a cassowary, one of the most dangerous birds in the world that has hooves as sharp as knives, capable of splitting a human being. “I didn’t know, and I took pictures of him from a distance of one meter. He was staring at me. If he attacks me, he kills me.”

The same thing happened to him with some ostriches -also powerful kicks- that chased him and he had to escape moving in a zig zag, until a worker intercepted them and he was able to escape unharmed.

Cover of the book "El Chino. The life of Pablo Escobar

Universe Center
The book “Chinese. The life of Pablo Escobar’s personal photographer”, includes all the details of the task of photographing the animals of the zoo at Hacienda Napoles.

Between 1980 and 1984, in addition to compiling the photographic catalog of the animals, Jiménez recorded the social and family events of Pablo Escobar and his relatives. He penetrated his innermost circle and rubbed shoulders with his lieutenants and hit men.

He also accompanied him in civic activities, the distribution of money among the poor and the construction of houses, actions for which members of the popular classes adored the capo, ignoring his illegal activities.

The photographer was “paid very well” for his work and although he was aware of the origin of the money, Jiménez assures that he has no nothing to regret of the relationship during those years that he calls “the good facet, the noble and kind side of Pablo Escobar”.

It indicates that in the late 1970s and early 1980s it was known about the “mafiosi” who had a lot of money, but were well seen in Colombian society, not only in the lower strata of society, but also in the upper echelons of business and policies.

“There was collusion with the drug traffickers. They generated jobs, businesses, helped a lot of people”, he pointed out. “And the politicians whose campaign Pablo financed never wondered where that money came from either.”.

Outside of that, he states: “The drug trafficker was not me, I was doing a legal activity that was photography.”

Opposing loyalties

In 1982 Escobar entered politics, seeking a seat in the House of Representatives. At that time, although there was talk that he was a mobster, “he was not questioned nor had anything been proven against him at all,” explains Jiménez, so he agreed to accompany him and be coordinator of his campaign.

“I considered that if Colombian politics has been full of bandits for 200 years, why then can’t one more bandit reach the Chamber, in addition to a bandit who did social work?”

Sergio Jiménez’s experience in politics came from his career with the ANAPO (Popular National Alliance), a leftist party that fractured after losing the disputed presidential elections of 1970 and some of its members ended up being part of the M-19 guerrilla movement. responsible for some of the most spectacular coups against the Colombian government.

Sergio Jiménez was a member of the M-19 since its inception. A delicate situation for the photographer since simultaneously the M-19 was in a violent conflict with the Medellín Cartel.

A few months earlier, a cell of the guerrilla group had kidnapped Martha Nieves Ochoa -from the Ochoa Clan, partners of Pablo Escobar in the drug trafficking business. As a result of that kidnapping, the Medellín Cartel sponsored the armed group MAS (Death to Kidnappers) -which was part of the origin of paramilitarism in Colombia- and unleashed a bloody war.

“I was between two warring and opposing sides. Two very strong sides”, recognizes Jiménez.

Carlos Pizarro Leongómez (left), leader of the M-19 and the legal representative of the Ramiro Lucio organization, in 1990

The M-19 was a powerful urban guerrilla that came into conflict with the Medellín Cartel in the 1980s. In this photo, its leader Carlos Pizarro Leongómez (left) discusses with the press the possible disarmament of the group in 1990.

He was able to get out of that crossroads because, as he explains, Escobar knew of his militancy in the guerrilla groupbut “he was very fond of him” and knew that the M-19 was a compartmentalized guerrilla group and that an independent cell had carried out the kidnapping of Martha Nieves Ochoa without authorization.

On the other hand, Edgar Jiménez told the guerrilla leadership about his work in Escobar’s campaign, which seemed appropriate and favorable to their interests.

“Both sides knew where I was, what I was doing and what my loyalties were. That is why absolutely nothing happened to me, ”he assures, adding that in part, was decisive in the approaches of the M-19 and the Medellín Cartel to stop this war that had cost so many lives.

Before and after

But that did not mean the end of the bloodshed because, starting in 1984, a war broke out between the Medellín Cartel and the Colombian state and the country entered one of the most convulsive periods in its history.

The trigger was the assassination ordered by Pablo Escobar of the then Minister of Justice, Rodrigo Lara Bonillawho was leading a crusade against drug cartels.

Edgar Jiménez says that this event was the “break in Escobar’s life, the before and after.” The before being what he calls the “golden age” of the drug trafficker, around his activities that were not associated with violence but with “social benefit.”

What came later were years of bomb attacks, assassination of journalists, magistrates, soldiers and policemen. “With that excessive violence, with those murders and crimes, I could not agree. Never,” he expressed. “But I couldn’t do anything either, because I wasn’t part of the Medellin Cartel, I didn’t belong to that structure.”

He assures that he could not file a complaint either. because it was certain that they would kill him.

After the murder of Lara Bonilla, Jiménez went to the Hacienda Napoles a couple more times. The visit he remembers most was in 1989 -the most violent year in the recent history of Colombia– when he went to photograph the 13th birthday of Escobar’s son, Juan Pablo. There she took a photo of the capo that she says is the most significant because it reveals so much about the moment he was going through.

Escobar had separated from the party and was completely lost in thought, looking at the floor and it was there that Jiménez pressed the shutter. “I think that at that moment he was thinking about all those violent events that were coming his way. I relate that photo to what came after.”

What followed was the assassination of presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán, the blowing up of a passenger plane, and the bomb attacks against the facilities of the Administrative Department of Security and the newspaper El Espectador.

Persecuted by the Colombian army and police and the so-called Search Block, demanded in extradition by the DEA and CIA agencies of the United States, Pablo Escobar decided to surrender to the Colombian authorities after reaching an agreement whereby he would pay a few years in prison while the State would guarantee his safety and not extradite him.

It was a cunning coup by the capo. The prison was built on a mountain, according to his specifications, full of luxuries, including a Jacuzzi, a pool room, a bar, televisions, imported furniture and a soccer field. Since there he continued to commit crimessummoning his minions and even killing some of them.

Under pressure from the Prosecutor’s Office, the government ordered Escobar and his fellow inmates to be transferred to a “real jail,” but they easily escaped through a purpose-built plaster wall on July 22, 1992.

From there, the relentless hunt for the head of the Medellín Cartel begins again, which ends with his death by shooting on a roof in the city of Medellín, on December 2, 1993.

sadness and relief

At that time, Edgar Jiménez was in his photography laboratory in the center of Medellín, when he heard the news on the radio that was going around the world.

He confesses that he had mixed feelings. On the one hand, he felt sadness for someone who, despite being a criminal who did so much damage -as he well knew- he did not stop preserving the affection that he had in his childhood for Escobar and Escobar for him.

“Pablo always behaved very well with me, personally and as a friend,” he assured. “He hurt me that someone with his ability and intelligence, who would have been very useful to society, would have taken a different course.”

But on the other hand, he acknowledges that he felt relief “for Colombian society, because the country was in a state of anxiety” due to the constant bomb attacks in which policemen and many innocent people died, including women and children. “At least all that violence was over. I saw that as a positive.”.

Jiménez continued in contact until the early 2000s with the Escobar family; his mother and brothers, and the Henao family of his wife, covering social events. But his life will always be linked to the disappeared head of the Medellin Cartel.

“He is the most famous bandit in history, his life made him a legend and his death a myth. I, in some way, am part of that myth.”

“El Chino: The Life of Pablo Escobar’s Personal Photographer”from the Universo Centro publishing house, will be released this July.All photos are copyrighted.

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