Episode Two: The Sword of Simón Bolivar

Read the episode one guide here

“…no one’s crazy enough to kidnap drug dealers right? But if you’re thinking that it’s because you’re not familiar with M-19” — Steve Murphy v.o. The Sword of Simon Bolivar.

The Murphy voice over accurately introduces M-19: they were crazy. They were a fraction of the size of FARC-EP, but with a much bigger presence in cities and a good sense of drama they got disproportionate media attention. They once took large group of foreign diplomats hostage in the Dominican Embassy in Bogotá where they held out for 61 days before getting $2.5 million and safe passage to Cuba for their trouble. Another time they humiliated the national army by stealing 5000 arms from a barracks in Bogotá.

Murphy goes on to the explain that they’re a communist guerrilla group who’d “read too much Karl Marx for their own good”. M-19’s manifesto might have been a bit broad and vague in an Occupy Wall Street kind of way, but we do know what they didn’t say. They were the only significant Colombian guerrilla group that couldn’t be called easily be called communist or Marxist. The FARC were the traditional Marxist-Leninists, with an eye on Moscow and connections to the Colombian Communist Party. The ELN aimed to follow Castro and the Cuban revolution and the EPL were Maoists. But the M-19 were something like populists with a revolutionary socialist aesthetic, and they certainly never called for state ownership of the means of production.

Ivan Ospina and Carlos Pizarro

Ivan Ospina, who was indeed nicknamed Ivan the terrible, was leader of the M-19 for a few years, but died before The Palace of Justice siege (we’ll deal with that when we get to it) and it was Alvaro Farad, not Ivan, that stole the sword of Simon Bolivar. They did really leave that note behind though. Actor Aldemar Correa looks a lot more like later leader Carlos Pizzaro than the real life Ivan Ospina, but the creators seem to have decided the m-19 needed some sexing up generally.

[Small season 2 spoiler ahead]

Pablo’s affair with Valeria Velez is based on real Colombian news anchor Virginia Velez, who wrote a memoir called Loving Pablo, Hating Escobar, got political asylum and now lives in the U.S. Her memoir and later testimony will be important the guide to episode four The Palace in Flames.

For all the sex in this episode the creators seem to have decided to gloss Pablo’s sexual interest in young girls. His wife was 15 years old when they married and he had to get special permission from the local archdiocese to go through with it. According to US surveillance transcripts* he maintained an interest in sex with young teenagers throughout his life.

A summit of traffickers in a Medellín hotel, called by the Ochoas with Esocbar’s support did establish the Muerte a Secuestadores (Death to Kidnappers) organization, although some irony is lost by the omission of Escobar’s long stint as a kidnapper before he got into contraband. The conference also, according to the former director general of the Colombian national police, consolidated “the links between the traffickers and confirmed the leadership and the others from Medellín”.

The ensuing decimation of M-19 guerillas is also accurate, although the rapprochement was a lot more complicated than the leaders turning up at Pablo’s house with the sword of Simón Bolivar. In reality the negotiations took months and might have involved mediation by the Cuban government. Pablo might have been given the sword at some point by a later leader

The end of the episode correctly identifies Pablo’s obsession with becoming a political hero (he used to dress up as Pancho Villa) as a turning point in the story.

Other Notes:

The M-19 were partially inspired by the Uruguayan Tupamaros, who were named for Tupac Amaru II, the same Tupac that rapper Tupac “2pac” Shakur was named after by his mother.

Since M-19 demobilised in the late 80s a lot of ex-guerrillas have become legitimate and not so legitimate politicians. Including Gustavo Petro, a controversial recent mayor of Bogotá.

*Centra Spike transcripts accessed by Mark Bowden


Whitewash: Pablo Escobar and the Cocaine Wars, Simon Strong.

Death Beat: A Colombian Journalist’s Life Inside the Cocaine Wars, Maria Jimena Duzan

The Palace of Justice: A Colombian Tragedy, Ana Carrigan

Killing Pablo, Mark Bowden

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