The Surprising Truth Behind The Pablo Escobar White House Photo

Published November 18, 2023
Updated November 25, 2023

Being a notorious Colombian drug lord didn't stop Pablo Escobar from visiting the White House in the early 1980s and taking a photo with his son.

Pablo Escobar White House

XPablo Escobar and his son, Juan Pablo Escobar, in front of the White House. Circa 1981.

“Pablo Escobar” and “White House” don’t seem like they belong in the same sentence. Yet there’s a surprising photo of the infamous drug kingpin posing in front of the White House with his son, looking like a tourist in his white shirt and blank pants. So what’s the story behind the Pablo Escobar White House photo?

Read on to learn how Pablo Escobar came to pose in front of the White House — and, around the same time, take his family to Disney World.

The Rise Of Pablo Escobar

By 1981 — the year that most believe that the Pablo Escobar White House photo was taken — the drug kingpin was not as notorious as he would later become.

Born in 1949 in Colombia, Pablo Escobar grew up in a suburb near Medellín. After starting as a petty thief stealing cars and reselling stolen tombstones, Escobar became involved in the nascent Colombian cocaine industry. It was a family affair — Escobar’s cousin Gustavo Gaviria and brother Roberto were also involved — and Pablo soon consolidated power.

In the 1970s, Pablo Escobar helped establish what would become the Medellín Cartel. By the mid-1980s, Escobar’s cartel would dominate the drug trade and pull in some $420 million a week. This would eventually give Escobar the eye-watering estimated net worth of over $30 billion.

But in the late 1970s, Escobar was not as wealthy and powerful as he’d later become. In addition to growing his cartel, Escobar was focused on his growing family. Escobar married his wife, Maria Victoria Henao, in 1976 and had two children with her: Juan Pablo Escobar and Manuela Escobar.

Pablo Escobar And Family

YouTubePablo Escobar with his wife and two children in an undated photo.

And like any well-off family, the Escobars planned a trip together in the 1980s. They would go to the United States and visit famous landmarks. There, Maria would snap a photo of Pablo Escobar at the White House.

The Story Behind The Pablo Escobar White House Photo

By the time Pablo Escobar and his family traveled to the United States, the drug kingpin was on a mission to legitimize himself. He was on Medéllin’s city council, and would go on to win an alternate seat in the country’s Congress in 1982.

Pablo Escobar In A Suit Jacket

PictureLux / The Hollywood Archive / Alamy Stock PhotoPablo Escobar was trying to legitimize himself in the early 1980s and was, indeed, seen as a “Robin Hood” figure to many Colombians.

Escobar may have used a diplomatic passport — or possibly even a fake passport — in order to get into the country with his family. That said, the United States didn’t view him as a great threat at the time. The War on Drugs was unofficially launched in the 1970s under President Richard Nixon, but not expanded until President Ronald Reagan took office in 1981.

At the onset of the decade, Escobar and his cartel weren’t yet seen as an important enemy. So Escobar, his wife, and two children were able to enter the United States without much difficulty in 1981. There, they acted like tourists.

Though details of the Escobar family trip are somewhat murky, they appear to have made at least two stops: in Washington D.C. and in Orlando, Florida. In the nation’s capital, Maria took a photo of Juan Pablo and Pablo Escobar in front of the White House. Juan Pablo is seen hanging off the railing as his father casts a protective glance down, one hand on his son’s arm.

The family also made their way to Disney World in Orlando, where Pablo Escobar was photographed looking like any other dad dragged to the theme park. Newsweek reports that Escobar even agreed to face his fear of roller coasters in order to go on certain rides with Juan Pablo.

Pablo Escobar At Disney World

RedditPablo Escobar at Disney World in 1981.

The Escobar family’s trip to the United States passed without serious incident — Newsweek reports that Escobar made sure of that by hiring a bodyguard — and they returned to Colombia. There, Pablo Escobar’s drug cartel would soon grow dramatically more powerful.

But it wouldn’t last.

The Downfall Of The Infamous Drug Kingpin

After his trip to the White House, Pablo Escobar’s power and wealth grew. Living by the mantra of plata o plomo, which roughly translates to “silver or lead (bullets),” he and his cartel murdered police, politicians, journalists, and innocent citizens in order to consolidate their hold on the cocaine trade.

Escobar eventually controlled about 80 percent of the world’s cocaine trade, which brought him great wealth. He had a sprawling, opulent home called Hacienda Napoles, where Escobar kept his infamous pet hippos. And when Escobar went to prison in 1991, he did so on his own terms.

Then, Escobar entered a prison in Medellín that he had designed himself called La Catedral. Unlike most prisons, La Catedral had a sauna, a jacuzzi, a billiards room, and a disco. And unlike most prisoners, Escobar was able to continue conducting cartel business from behind bars.

Cocaine Hippos

JOAQUIN SARMIENTO/AFP via Getty ImagesOne of Pablo Escobar’s infamous hippos.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that Escobar managed to escape from La Catedral in 1992. His flight triggered a massive, nationwide manhunt. Escobar was pursued both by a group called the Search Bloc, a Colombian police unit, and Los Pepes, which was comprised of Escobar’s enemies.

The Legacy Of Pablo Escobar

Pablo Escobar was finally cornered 16 months after he escaped from prison. The drug kingpin was killed on Dec. 2, 1933, while fleeing from Colombian authorities along rooftops in the Los Olivos barrio of Medellín.

With that, Escobar’s life ended. But his legacy has continued to loom large. Not only has his story been dramatized in films and television shows like Netflix’s Narcos (2015-2017), but Escobar remains a fascinating figure. It’s no wonder that the Pablo Escobar White House photo is a subject of interest to many.

In the picture, there’s little sign of who Escobar actually was. He looks like a tourist and a dutiful father, keeping one eye on his young son as they stand before an American landmark. In the photo, the truth of Escobar’s identity — as cartel leader, murderer, and more — is difficult to discern.


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Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.