Filmmaker Jeff Zimbalist on how a sports star’s wrong-direction run led to his violent murder, at TheWrap’s Awards Screening Series
What type of an environment would allow for an athlete to be murdered for a mistake that he made on the playing field?
“In order to understand that,” noted documentary filmmaker Jeff Zimbalist says, “one needs to understand this very secretive phenomenon known on the streets as narco-futbol,” laundering illegal money through professional soccer.”
Zimbalist and his brother Michael have been living and working in South America for 14 years, producing such films as “Favela Rising,” about the rehabilitation of a Rio slum through music. He was on hand to discuss his film “The Two Escobars” with TheWrap’s Editor-in-Chief Sharon Waxman at a special screening Wednesday at the ArcLight Sherman Oaks. (Photographs by Jonathan Alcorn.)
The two Escobars are Pablo and Andres. The former was, until his death in 1993, the notorious kingpin of Colombia’s Medellin drug cartel which Zimbalist said is responsible, along with other underworld operations, for building the Colombian national team into a powerhouse of South American soccer.
Formerly uncompetitive, an assembly of the best players money could buy blazed an undefeated in the run up to the 1994 World Cup in Los Angeles.
The other Escobar, Andres, was the unfortunate captain of the team who 33 minutes into the scoreless Cup game accidentally kicked the ball into his own goal, scoring one for the other team and incurring the wrath of fans in every corner of his home nation, even receiving death threats.
Colombia went on to lose 2-1, returning home in shame. Less than a month later, on the night of July 2, Andres was shot 12 times by three assailants in El Indio, a Medellin bar.
“The Two Escobars” isn’t a sports movie so much as an incisive look at the intersection of sports, crime and power in the South American nation. What started as a TV piece for ESPN on Andres quickly turned to Pablo as it became apparent that soccer and drug money had become inextricably linked.
A lot of the players knew they were the last hope to redefine the national image — and ultimately their efforts had the opposite effect.
“They turned a blind eye to the influence of Pablo Escobar and the Cali cartel,” said Zimbalist. “They made a deal with the devil, and it backfired.”
“Any conversation about Pablo Escobar must begin with a recognition that he was a sociopath who killed over 5500 people, many of whom were innocent victims of random acts of terrorism,” the filmmaker said. “But once you get past that there’s a real person there. It’s our goal to approach that subject with objectivity. It’s not our place to judge.”
Indeed, Waxman noted that Pablo and friends come off as heroes in the movie by financing homes, medical centers and other facilities for the poor of Medellin.
And the players were reluctant to talk with Zimbalist about narco-futbol, drawing a line on the subject before agreeing to sit down for an interview, the filmmaker said. Several minutes into the interviews, however, the subjects broke down.
“It’s like talking about the Chicago Bulls in the 1990’s without mentioning Michael Jordan,” he quipped.
“Once you get started, you notice their complete persona change. All of the subjects were either teary-eyed or crying. It becomes cathartic and therapeutic to revisit.”
“The solution of taking down the head of the Medellin cartel, taking down one gang or another, it’s a publicity stunt,” Zimbalist said. “Going after the head guy and making it front page news only to act surprised when a new head guy pops up, that’s what we’re seeing in Mexico.”
Indeed, following Pablo’s 1993 death at the hands of his enemies, chaos broke out in Medellin as competing drug lords vied for primacy. Among them were the Gallon brothers, who are believed to have put the hit on Andres after losing a fortune gambling on the game. Zimbalist believes that had Pablo survived, the chaos following his death and the climate that led to Andres’ death may have been averted.
Perhaps, he said, Andres Escobar’s death wasn’t in vain. Today, narco-traffickers have a looser grip on Colombia, making the South American nation a popular travel destination. In fact, Andres’ fiancé told Zimbalist that when Andres approached his attackers that fateful night, he might have felt that “if it’s a country that needs someone to blame, I’ll take the blame because then maybe we can start over.”