Friday, March 25, 2011

Pablo Escobar's Medellín

I couldn't come to Medellin without paying a visit to it's most famous son. I didn't actually see him but his grave is one of the stops on the Pablo Escobar tour. A lot of you will have heard of Pablo Escobar, many may not, but prior to this trip my knowledge was drawn from the well written, and researched “Killing Pablo” by Mark Bowden, seeing Pablo depicted in the Johnny Depp movie Blow, and also that Pablo managed to make Medellin, and Colombia one of the most dangerous places in the world through the 80's and early 90's as a result of his management of the billion dollar Medellin drug cartel, trafficking cocaine all over the world. At one point, there was alleged to have been approx 1 million people directly working for the Medellin cartel, all under the rule of Pablo Escobar.

Since his death, a day after his 44th birthday in 1993, Medellin is a city transformed. No longer afraid of being shot down in the street or being blown up by one of the many car bombs of the period, the locals have taken to the streets and now can be seen in one of the cities many sidewalk cafes, bars and restaurants. I have to agree with the current tourist slogan about Colombia. “The only danger you face is that you may not want to leave”.

The tour was run by a local couple who run Paisa Road tours and do the twice daily tour (min 4 people) from the Casa Kiwi hostel in the Zona Rosa. Incidentally, a fantastic hostel, if you are in the neighbourhood. Picking us up at 10.30am, I had one of the most interesting 3 hours of my life. We got an unbiased take of the rise and subsequent fall of Escobar, straight from the mouth of a Paisa, a local of Medellin. I make this point as there have been numerous other books, painting Escobar in various lights from a Robin Hood type character who just tried to help the poor, to a worldwide criminal who was merciless in killing anybody who dared to stand in his way. With police, politicians and generally anybody who opposed him, his motto was “plata o plomo”, a Spanish phrase meaning silver (money) or lead (bullet), a simple choice in the world of Escobar.

We travelled around Medellin visiting various sites and buildings of interest. Escbar left a big legacy in Medellin in bricks and mortar. Always white buildings too, his homage to the white cocaine he traded in. As Tony Soprano cleaned his dirty money through a “waste management” company, Escobar had his own construction company. And most of his buildings remain, including the first apartment building he built solely for his family. Aside from his security, he only had his 5 family members living here. This was until a drug cartel from a rival city, Cali, planted a car bomb outside and destroyed a lot of the building. It was then taken over by the police but Escobar left a lasting reminder, paying a couple of guys to spray the building with machine gun fire as it was occupied by the police. The bullets hole sprayed across the outside of the building can still clearly be seen from the road.

Pablo Escobar came from humble beginnings but as a child always declared it was his ambition to be rich. It is fair to say that he achieved this. In 1989 Forbes magazine had him as the 7th richest man in the world. He once reputedly burned $2million in US dollars just to keep warm. At his peak, he offered to strike a deal with the president of Colombia. He would repay the national debt to the US in return for impunity against his drug trafficking. An offer refused.

An expert in people management he knew how to get the local community on his side. He built new houses for them and gave them away for free. He built new schools and football pitches. People from the street loved him. However, the other side to Escobar was how went about building his empire and disposing of his enemies. He is credited with inventing the concept of “sicarios”, hit men who prowled the streets of Medellin on motorbike, killing policemen. Reportedly paid $1000US for every policeman they killed, one year saw over 400 policemen murdered on the streets, often by corrupt colleagues who saw it as easy money.

The tide started turning against Escobar when he blew up a passenger jet on a domestic Colombian flight. His target was a high ranking politician, who incidentally didn't take the flight. The bomb on the plane exploded, causing the death of nearly 100 innocent Colombians. As well as at home, he was also attracting interest from the US due to the fact that 80% of the cocaine being used in the US was being sourced directly through Escobar in Colombia.

The net started closing in on Escobar in December 1993 with a task force of Colombian police and the CIA from the USA. A day after he celebrated his 44th birthday, police flooded the city of Medellin in the search for him, and using sophisticated telephone tracing technology, he was tracked down to his aunt's house in a middle class barrio of Medellin. The photos show the outcome as Escobar and his bodyguard, “Lemon” tried to escape by jumping out the window at the back and escaping over the roof. The guy in the red t-shirt is an American CIA agent.

Still in debate to this very day was how did he actually die? He vowed he would never be taken alive, preferring “a grave in Colombia than a cell in America”. Family of Escobar insist that he committed suicide, whilst the security forces took great delight in claiming the scalp of Escobar. However it happened, he was finally dead and Colombia could start the very long process of rebuilding.

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