This article contains strong language.
Meeting Pablo Escobar’s brother turned out to be one of the more disappointing moments of my life. In Medellin, Colombia, you can go to the Escobar house. In fact, there’s a whole tourism industry that’s sprouted up around Escobar and the old cartel. Much of this tourism is promoted and encouraged by the Escobar family themselves, as it’s ostensibly the only way they have to make much money these days.
When you meet him, Roberto Escobar is a short, hunched-over old man. He’s nearly blind and deaf from a letter bomb that blew up in his face years ago. His eye sockets sink into his skull leaving two golf-ball-sized craters in his face. His gaze is lifeless. It passes through you when he speaks to you, as though you were some sort of hologram.
There’s an emptiness when he speaks. His Spanish tumbles out of his mouth in a monotonous slur, sometimes indecipherable. Occasionally, when he speaks to you he reaches out and puts his hand on you in the way a politician might. Except the way he does it, there’s no emotion to it, no charisma. It’s as if he’s making sure you’re still there — that he’s still there.
When you meet him, there is a small table on his porch stacked with assorted DVD’s, postcards, and, of course, his book. You can purchase them and then pay double for an autographed copy.1
He reminds us of this multiple times.
For the uninitiated (or those who don’t have Netflix), Roberto’s more famous brother, Pablo Escobar, was the leader of the Medellin Drug Cartel and likely both one of the richest and most violent drug dealers in human history. Beginning in 1975, Pablo built a multi-billion dollar empire by introducing the world to the wonders of cocaine. His smuggling would inspire the drug craze in the US of the late 70’s and early 80’s, the crime waves that followed in its wake, the crack epidemic, and ultimately the US government’s draconian War on Drugs policies which are still in effect today.
At his peak, Pablo’s power was incomprehensible. He literally bought his way into Colombian parliament by building entire neighborhoods of houses and then gifted them to thousands of impoverished Colombians. He then ran in their district. In the 80’s, Forbes estimated him to be the seventh richest man in the world with a net worth of approximately $35 billion US dollars (that’s $82 billion in 2018 dollars). In his book, Roberto claims that at one point the cartel was making so much money that it spent $2,500 each month just on rubber bands to stack the bills.
To maintain his power, Escobar was ruthless. He didn’t just use violence to punish foes, he used it to send a message. He once had a man skinned alive and then tied him to a tree to bleed to death in the hot Colombian sun. Castration wasn’t an unusual punishment for enemies–nor, as we’ll see, a coincidence. When the government threatened to extradite him to the US on drug charges, he exacted terrorist attacks on thousands of civilians as a form of blackmail. Parliament called an emergency session and amended their constitution to make extradition illegal, just so Escobar would stop bombing malls and busy intersections. During his reign, Pablo slaughtered judges, paid off entire prison staffs, flew in the best soccer players in the world to play with him on his ranch, and leading up to his demise, wrought full-blown urban warfare in the streets of Medellin, killing almost 500 police officers in the process.
Thirty minutes into our visit, I conclude that Roberto Escobar might be the biggest sociopath I’ve ever met. In between regaling us with stories of Pablo’s smuggling heroin through Panama, and how he threatened to murder the families of any police who arrested him, he says he’s also willing to take pictures with us for a small fee.
Drugs, money, violence, drugs, money, violence — the afternoon repeats itself. Desperate to be convinced this man has any sort of humanity at all, I ask him what his favorite memory of Pablo is. I want to sense some sort of emotion from this man, some level of depth beyond simple cost/benefit analysis of the living and dead.
He meanders into a vague story about the time he helped Pablo escape from prison. I press further, “Por qué esa memoria?” Why? Why that memory?
He replies, “It was the first and only time he told me I did a good job.” The only time? Roberto was Pablo’s accountant, his most trusted employee for almost 20 years. His own brother. That’s it?
Roberto’s anecdote contained a sliver of emotion, but I still get the blank stare, the empty eyes. So I keep pushing. “What about your childhood? What were you and Pablo like when you were kids?”
A pause. “We used to go fishing a lot.”
And we’re done. He turns around and reminds us that if we buy a DVD, the second one is half off.
Why are the Worst People in Human History Almost Always Men?
A question occurred to me as we toured the Escobar home: why are the most ruthless and violent people throughout history always men? If there’s ever been a mega-violent, drug-slinging dominatrix, I’ve sure never heard of her. Or what about a murderous dictator? Rebel military commander? Serial killer? Playground bully? Again and again, almost all men.
Men perpetrate over 76% of the violent crime in the US. Worldwide that statistic is likely much higher.2
Men are 10 times more likely to commit murder and nine times more likely than women to end up in prison.3 Men commit 99% of the reported rapes and sexual assaults.4 And boys perpetrate 95% of the violent crimes at the juvenile level.5
Anyone who’s grown up with a penis or around someone with a penis knows that boys can be cruel. When I was a kid, we used to steal matches from the kitchen and catch bugs and burn them alive and then laugh about it. Some boys would set fireworks off in people’s mailboxes to see if they would explode. There was a girl down my street named Cynthia. We once made her cry because we threw eggs at her. We were little assholes. And when I think back, I can’t comprehend any logic or reason behind it.6
But I wasn’t unordinary. Most of the other boys my age were just as mischievous and cruel.7 My older brother beat the crap out of me on the regular. And where do you think I got the idea for my shenanigans anyway?
Why are men such dicks? Even the word itself, “dick,” the male sex organ, refers to someone who is being rude and offensive. Why us? Why men? Is it in our biology? Did we evolve this way? Or is there some broader cultural force at work?
The answer, as with every nature versus nurture question, is: it’s both.
A Brief History of Male Violence
Human history is rife with competition and violence. There has pretty much never been a point in human evolution that we weren’t killing each other in one way or another.
This competition and violence existed for the simple reason that resources are scarce, and the advantages given to one tribe/society for conquering/controlling those resources were huge. Therefore, people fought over them. And they had to keep fighting over them because once you won the land or gold or sweet ass river with a lot of bananas growing by it, then you had to protect it.
Back before drone strikes and cruise missiles, the people most adapted for conquest and discovery were invariably young men. One, because they were physically the strongest and most able. But also because they were disposable. If you want a new generation of children, you need a full generation of mothers to birth those children. But you only need a couple men. Therefore, if you were young, broke, and unproven, then off you went to kill something and prove yourself.
The most successful societies were therefore generally those that developed cultures praising and rewarding young men for mastering violence and conquest. These young men not only served as purveyors of a society’s further growth and wealth but also acted as protectors. They protected the community from wild beasts, fought off invaders, and killed icky, icky spiders.
Masculinity has historically been all about the three P’s: protector, provider, procreation. The more you protect, the more you provide, the more you fuck, the more of a man you are.
For the most part, this is still widely considered masculinity today, although the 3 P’s look slightly different in different cultures. It’s why a frat bro who bangs half a sorority is a stud, while the sorority girl who blows the baseball team is a slut. It’s why a woman who speaks up at board meetings is seen as shrill and bitchy, and a man who talks over people and demeans them in front of others is seen as bold and a strong leader.
But this version of masculinity evolved for a particularly socially-beneficial reason — to protect us from invaders and protect the town and kill bears and stuff. We needed men to fuck a lot because something like half of your kids didn’t survive into puberty. We needed them to provide because you never knew when the next horrible winter was around the corner.
And the fact that this form of masculinity came at a cost — both to the men in terms of their own health and mortality, and to society in terms of violence and patriarchal dominance — was discounted. Who cares if men die, suffer, and lose their minds at startling rates? It’s simply the price we pay for protection and prosperity (and babies).
The problem is that today, things have changed:
Violence has largely been automated or outsourced or just plain eliminated. Factory farms provide our food. Small, specialized militaries protect our borders. But given how economically interdependent and wealthy the world has become, violence has declined.
Service economies mean that women are just as capable (and perhaps even more capable) to work and earn a living than men are at most professions. Male advantages in strength and expendability are no longer necessary for a healthy society.
We have like, women’s rights and equality and stuff. Fact is, we’re much more conscious and moral than we used to be. Therefore, the drawbacks of masculine aggression and dominance present not just economic liabilities, but ethical ones as well.
Truth is, when all is said and done, the ancient bargain of strength, durability and expendability for prestige, dominance and tons of hot babes doesn’t evolutionarily make sense anymore. The male body is becoming outdated tech.
The Hidden Costs of Being a Man
When I was a kid, if I fell down on the playground and started crying, my cries would usually be met with some form of, “Get up. Be a big boy.” If I got beat up by my brother, my father admonished me to hit him back. The other kids at school would make fun of boys who were weak or were bad at sports. As a teenager, I was bullied at times in the locker room for being nerdy.
This stuff is normal. So normal that it feels stupid to even write because my guess is every single male reader can relate to one of the above experiences. It’s often written off as “boys being boys.” And it has a long cultural history.
Again, for most of civilization, young men were the ones responsible for protecting society. By the time they were adults, they needed to be battle-hardened and physically strong — the survival of the community often depended on it. As a result, brutal, physical violence among men (through organized sport) was celebrated (and still is today, although this is beginning to change). And men who weren’t able to make the cut were shamed for their physical weakness, for their emotional displays and vulnerable demands for affection. Men were meant to be ruthlessly competitive, and emotionlessly self-contained.
And this was the hidden cost for their physical, and later political dominance, in human society — as men, we are taught from a young age to hide from our emotions rather than to engage them.8
Well, this may not surprise you, but repressing emotions fucks people up. And shaming people for weakness and vulnerability can result in all sorts of mental health problems, not to mention encourage them to lash out in anti-social ways (i.e., shoot up a school, or ram a car into a crowd of people, sign up to be a militant in some crazy religious organization — sound familiar?).
Men commit suicide at a rate five times that of women while teenage boys commit suicide nine times more often than girls.9 They are also diagnosed with depression and ADHD at a rate of 4-to-1 to girls the same age.10 Men make up 2/3 of the homeless population,11 are more than twice as likely to become alcoholics and are approximately three times more likely to become drug addicts.12 It’s widely documented that men are far less likely to ask for professional help, medical or otherwise, even when experiencing significant health problems or depression.13
Men are the victims of the majority of violent crime, but also far less likely to report it for fear of appearing weak. One survey found that 40% of the victims of domestic violence are men, yet they were far less likely to report the violence and far less likely to be taken seriously by police.14 Men take on more dangerous jobs and are less likely to report any injury suffered at work. Men work far longer hours, take fewer vacations and sick days, and suffer worse symptoms of chronic stress and fatigue. Men even die on the job at a startling rate. In short, most men treat themselves as nothing more than a walking paycheck.15
And, in fact, it’s this objectification of their own lives that kills men faster. One research summary of emotional suppression went as far to say: “emotional restrictiveness is the leading cause to why men die earlier [than women].”16
Men are so emotionally incompetent without women, that getting married may statistically be the best thing a man can do to improve his longevity and mental health. Married men live longer and score higher on pretty much every quality-of-life metric there is, including happiness and life expectancy. Marriage is apparently so important for men’s emotional stability that some sociologists go as far as to state that simply being married can raise a man’s life expectancy by almost a decade.17 Elderly men who are in good marriages have lower rates of heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, depression, and stress than elderly single men.18
But then we’re often woefully equipped to handle that. Women initiate more than 70% of divorces and separations with the most common cause cited as “emotional neglect” from their husbands.19 Those divorces also hit men the hardest: recently divorced men are more likely to suffer depression, alcoholism, mental illness, and suicide than women are.20
Let me state that more clearly: Not dealing with your emotional baggage can literally kill you or make you go crazy.
For all of our strength and power, we sure do die quickly and often. For all of our cunning ambition, we regularly end up miserable, violent, and even suicidal. And for all of our self-sufficiency, we rely on women for our emotional and physical well-being to a startling degree.
Ironically, manhood does not seem very manly.
What’s So Wrong With Getting Rich and Killing Things?
Later on in the day, we’re touring the old Escobar home. It’s filled with pictures and memorabilia from the 90s. In between prattling on about Pablo’s exploits, Roberto mentions he competed in the Tour de France when he was a young man. A quick Google search on my smartphone shows this to be false. Earlier he tried to convince us that he had found the cure for AIDS in the 1990s, but the U.S. Government suppressed his research. I didn’t bother to look that one up.
For all of his power, his wealth, his domination over a country and a culture and a people, Roberto struck me as something pathetic. On the surface, this is a man who had experienced as much power as anyone in the world. Yet his attempts to impress us bordered on the delusional. How could a man who was this powerful be so insecure?
And yet, as we walk through the corridors of the Escobar house, riddled with triumphant family photos and bullet holes, the home that bore a thousand broken lives and left a billion-dollar bloodstain across two continents, I find myself trying to empathize with the man.
It’s easy to look at the results of a man’s life and judge without looking at the process that led him to those results.
Perhaps Roberto Escobar wasn’t always so heartless and delusional. Perhaps investing his entire life and identity in a brother who couldn’t even be bothered to tell him he was proud of him pushed him to accept a sicker fate. Perhaps growing up a poor boy in rural Colombia with a dozen siblings and absent father made him feel more alone than he could handle. So he shut down. He shut down and chose to see the world in the only way that made sense — as a bunch of numbers and profitable opportunities. Perhaps that letter bomb that exploded in his face so many years ago stole more than just sight and sound.
The problem with the traditional masculine formula – protection, providing, procreating – is that they require men to measure their self-worth via some external, arbitrary metric. They require men to mortgage their emotional health for the sake of their physical safety. But in a cushy first world where security is more or less guaranteed, those interest payments start adding up.
Men don’t just do this to themselves though. They do it to each other. Hell, women do it as well. Educated women will complain that men are superficial and only want to date women who look like a Victoria’s Secret model. Yet ladies, how many of you are running out the door to date a janitor?
We unfairly objectify women in society for their beauty and sex appeal. Similarly, we unfairly objectify men for their professional success and aggression.
But the biggest problem with these external metrics – making more money, being stronger and more domineering than the competition, having sex as much as possible – is that they never end. If you measure yourself by how much money you make, then whatever you earn will never be enough. If you measure yourself by how strong and dominant you can be, then no amount of power will ever satisfy you. If you measure yourself by how much sex you can have, then no number of partners will ever be enough.
These are metrics that, while on a population level, were good for society for thousands of years. On an individual level, they fuck a man up, destroying his self-esteem and encouraging him to objectify himself, to see himself not as a human with strengths and weaknesses, virtues and flaws, but rather as some vessel with no other prerogative than to accumulate as much power and prestige as possible.
And what do you end up with?
A former billionaire drug lord, trying to lie to a group of strangers, claiming he was a world-class athlete and a world-class medical researcher. It’s like, “Dude, what more do you need?” And the answer with men like Escobar is: more. Always more.
And it’s this “more” that ultimately destroyed his own family, aside from an entire country and millions of lives. It removed a father from his children. A husband from his wife. It removed a part of him from himself.
In the 21st century, we need to evolve our definition of masculinity. Yes, we’re still protectors and providers. And you’re damn right we want to keep pro-creating.
But there need to be new internal metrics for a man’s worth as well — his honesty, his integrity, his emotional openness and ability to remain strong in the face of vulnerability.
Some lament the “pussification” of men happening today. But dropping the bullshit tough-guy act isn’t the same as weakness. On the contrary, it’s an even deeper form of strength.
Our Escobar pilgrimage fittingly ends in a graveyard. On December 2nd, 1993, Pablo made a phone call to his son to wish him a happy birthday. Pablo didn’t normally make phone calls himself, but on this occasion, it seemed justified. He then sat down to eat lunch with his mother. “He was always a family man first,” Roberto claimed, without any irony. Minutes later Pablo received a tip-off that the police had tracked him and were on their way to raid his house. He escaped, but only for a few hours. That afternoon, Pablo was shot hopping across Medellin rooftops, one last ditch effort to escape himself.
Whether Pablo was shot by the police or he shot himself is still disputed. Either way, a bullet entered Pablo’s skull behind his ear and killed him instantly. He fell to the ground below, where police took pictures posing with his corpse. Not just another death, not just another achievement—one of the cruelest and richest men in modern history taken down by the ricochet of his own violence. The photo would be sickening had it been anyone else: piles of debris and guns waving, all smiles between the flow of blood.
In the graveyard, we’re led to a small grove. The landscaping is clean and well-kept. Gravel is spread out in a square framing a plot of earth containing half a dozen gravestones lined up in a row. Two stones are bigger than the others. It’s the Escobar family plot. There is no defacing or signs of tampering. Death is unprejudiced.
One of the larger headstones reads Pablo’s name. The stone is humble: just a name and some dates. Next to him are his mother and his sister. Further down are his other siblings and lost family members.
The only one missing is his father.
Roberto’s book is called The Accountant’s Story: Inside the Violent World of the Medellin Cartel.↵
U.S. Department of Justice. “Criminal Victimization in the United States, 2008 Statistical Tables.” National Crime Victimization Survey.↵
“Sex Differences in Crime.” Wikipedia.↵
Greenfeld, L. A. Sex Offenses and Offenders: An Analysis of Data on Rape and Sexual Assault. U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1997.↵
Kindlon, Dan; Thompson, Michael. Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys. Ballantine (2000).↵
Cynthia, if you’re somehow reading this, I’m sorry.↵
Yes, girls can be very cruel too, but even though a lot of people think girls are more “relationally” cruel while boys are more direct and physically cruel, some studies suggest that might not actually be the case: boys might just be crueler than girls all around. See: Orpinas, P., McNicholas, C., & Nahapetyan, L. (2015). Gender differences in trajectories of relational aggression perpetration and victimization from middle to high school. Aggressive Behavior, 41(5), 401–412.↵
The exception here often being anger.↵
“Suicide Statistics” From Suicide.org.↵
Parker-Pope, Tara. “Suicide Rates Rise Sharply in U.S.” The New York Times Online, 3 May, 2013.↵
“Who Is Homeless?” National Coalition for the Homeless.↵
“Differences in Patterns of Drug Use Between Men and Women.” European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction.↵
Addis, Michael E. Mahalik, James R. “Men, Masculinity, and the Contexts of Help Seeking.” American Psychologist. Vol. 58, No. 1, pp. 5-18.↵
“More than 40% of Domestic Violence Victims are Male, Report Reveals,” The Guardian. 4 September, 2010.↵
For an exhausting list of statistics like this, check out Warren Farrell’s brilliant The Myth of Male Power, Berkley (2001).↵
Jansz, Jeroen. “Masculine Identity and Restrictive Emotionality.” Gender and Emotion: Social Psychological Perspectives. Cambridge (2000), pp. 167-186.↵
“Marriage Linked to Better Survival in Middle Age; Study Highlights Importance of Social Ties During Midlife.” Science Daily, 10 January, 2013.↵
“Study: Married Couples Live Longer.” CBSLocal Cleveland, 14 November, 2012.↵
Meyer, Cathy. “Why Most Divorces Are Initiated By Women.”↵
Morrison, Kyle. “Men After Divorce: Ego, Self Esteem, and Recovery.” The Huffington Post. 1 May, 2013.↵