Let them eat coke..? (Part II)

As if the fact that you can go on a tour of the life of Pablo Escobar, deceased majorly wanted druglord, is not strange enough, I am now on a friendly visit to his brother and former partner in crime. An audience with the Godfather, just with posed pictures

My perplexity quickly gives way to a wave of excitement. This old familiar face, greeting tourists with handshakes and warm smiles, has  been on the wrong side of the tracks, having been a celebrity for that back in the 90s. I feel like I am in a Coppola movie, maybe the “Godfather.” Mr Escobar has opened his door to me, and I have come to pay tribute to him, though not on the day of his daughter’s wedding. Hopefully he will not make me an offer I cannot refuse.

Inside, we admire assorted memorabilia of the Patron’s megalomania. Bikes and bulletproof cars, huge pictures of Pablo behind bars or wearing cowboy outfits. Our attention is drawn to some bullet holes in the wall, result of a recent attack on Roberto’s life. One of at least 40 attacks so far, he is proud to report. The places where the cartel members hid from the police are now a photo opportunity, as are the “Wanted” posters for Roberto and Pablo. Hard to believe that this fragile figure’s life was once wanted for ten million dollars. You can also take a picture with Roberto wearing the cap that Pablo wore in jail. Finally, I get the chance to ask Roberto some questions. It comes as no surprise that he is proud of his life and the things he has done for the people of Medellín. “We built houses for 3000 people, with all the conditions, all the equipment. And we included food for a month. No one has ever done that !” Does everyone here agree? “Some people love us, others hate us. But in a war, you have to have enemies.”

As much as I want to just go with it all and yield to the temptation of simplicity, finding the drug lord ‘cool’ and taking thumbs up photos next to his picture, I cannot help but feeling uncomfortable with this guy being humanized, glorified as some kind of modern Robin Hood. Even more so when I think of the angry old man in Medellín. To him, the Escobars were criminals, nothing more. With this, I decide to go to Bogotá, the capital. I figure that there, where the central administration is, I should find a different perspective, maybe another side of the story. 

On the bus, I meet Marina, born in the capital. She’s a brunette, frail, petite girl in her late twenties who reminds me of a foxtrot dancer of the Belle Epoque. When I tell her about my impressions so far, she gets really upset. “Escobar fue un asesino!” She cannot help being a bit mad at me. And she shows me that. I soon find out why. She tells me that a neighbor of hers was killed in the cartel war back in the day. For her, elevating Escobar is of bad taste, to say the least. ” He killed so many people, especially when he got in a war with the Cali Cartel. It is ridiculous that people actually go and admire him.”

In Bogotá, I visit the National Police Museum which has a section entirely devoted to Escobar’s capture. The drug lord’s confiscated weaponry arsenal is proudly displayed,  including the small revolver he always carried and actually called his “second wife.” But this is not the creepiest part of the exhibition. In another section, I encounter a number of Escobar puppets, mustache and everything, some behind bars, others in his office, and one dead in an acrylic coffin. A true celebration of the “National Police greatest accomplishment.”

In the end I am still torn between the two ends of this weird moral spectrum.The extreme glorification of Escobar I saw in Medellin was matched by the intense demonization I witnessed in Bogota. Two opposite poles of a society. Same intensity of feelings. I leave Colombia with a strange feeling. A beautiful country, yet at the same time one where people suffer of guerrilla wars and drug trafficking. But also a country of people intensely enjoying the best things that life has to offer. At places like the Cafe Saint Moritz, the oldest in Bogotá, I see people laughing, cracking jokes – I see a happy people. The same laughter I found in the people of Sapzurro, in the rhythms of Cartagena or in the slums of Medellín. Just as if they just wanted to forget and chase away all the rundowns that their country has passed. Escobar’s life has touched the good and the evil, the poverty and the riches of this country. Which is why my aftertaste is both bitter and sweet. Nevertheless, my time in your arms, Colombia, was truly memorable! Thank you for your kindness, warmth and making me feel like one of you.


Let them eat coke..? (Part I)

In Colombia, I trace the footsteps of the man, the myth, Pablo Escobar. For people here, the drug lord is either a saint or a demon. For travellers, the “cool outlaw” is a tourist attraction. My visit becomes a challenge, and attempt to understand and reconcile these extremes.

Heading to Colombia from the Caribbean, the landscape around me changes, slowly but continuously. For fourteen hours, my bus follows narrow roads winding up and down hills. Towards the end, dramatic cliffs rise to my left and right  and dense woods with scattered houses flash by. As we approach Medellín, the country’s second largest city, the reefs of vegetation are replaced by urban ones. Authentic ridges of slums, as far as the eye can see. As a first timer in South America, I have of course prepared myself for this city. But no theoretical background information has prepared me for this impressive sight, for this monumental scale and density. The “city of the eternal spring,” quiet and restless at the same time, greets me with soft winds, smiley people and its prominent shantytowns.

When I went to university, the name Medellín was one often mentioned. I studied at the social sciences college where everyone had an opinion and the left hand definitely had a lot more weight. Of course, one of the great habits of the college’s raised fist intelligentsia was to enjoy the sun of Lisboa, sipping beers, puffing away and scrutinizing current  world affairs. In the 1990s, Colombia’s name was often changed into Cocalombia. As a joke, yes, but also due to all the cartel wars blitzing the country. And, above all, it was due to one man who stood out and whose reputation crossed the Atlantic: Mr. Pablo Escobar, aka “El Patron,” aka “El Doctor,” or just simply “Pablito.” I remember well that in my college days, Mr. Escobar enjoyed great popularity and had sort of a fan club. The big question is: Why?

Faustino, my first Medellín cab driver, has an answer: “Escobar should’ve been president of this country! He was the only one to help those in need!” To a lot of people in Medellín, “El Patron” is still a hero, despite his well known history of violence. “He killed a lot of people, people that stood in his way,” says Isabel, a Colombian college student I bumped into on the street. “But that was the only way… Good or bad, no politician helped the people like he did.” I try to understand. I try to see through her eyes. I need to find out more. What’s Medellín like now, almost 20 years after Escobar’s hunting and killing by the police? How do people see him? What’s his legacy?

Walking past a hostel in Poblado, what seems to me a higher class district of the city, I come across a noteworthy aspect of this legacy. A huge, golden poster announces in capital red letters: Pablo Escobar Tour. Looking at the poster, I have to pause for a second and rub my eyes. OK, so the man had more 20 dollar bills than the US Federal Reserve in the late 80s and was the first to import cocaine into the United States. Well, he also built an open air zoo at his house and chose his own prison, which included a nightclub. And yes, he was said to have ordered the murder of a soccer referee who didn’t help his team win a game. A myth of Colombia’s modern history! But does that make him a tourist attraction? The existence of the tour suggests that yes, and it seems to be very popular among travellers. But I can imagine that many Colombians might see it differently… I decide to do the tour the following day, not really knowing what to expect.

I am joined on the tour by the usual backpacking tourists. Brits, Australians, one Icelander. One of them informs me about his massive hangover but adds: “I just had to come on this tour, though. Escobar was really cool.” Entering the van I cannot help but think about these words. As the guide  passionately tells Escobar’s story, I realize how weird I feel about all this. The drug capo actually has an aura of heroism around him. It seems like if you are going to do something outlaw, just do it at an immensely large scale, and it will become cool. Our first stop is Escobar’s headquarters and coke labs that were bombed by the government in the 90s. Tourists take pictures next to graffitis saying “Pablo Lives” while passing locals look at us in a strange way. I approach one of them, an old man walking slowly supported by his cane. At first he doesn’t talk. I detect this slight tension between us. My Spanish helps break the ice, and suddenly he just says “Que pasa? Son locos? Pablo era un criminal!” and walks away. I’m the only one to hear this, as all the others are still “rocking the Pablo thing.”

The next stop of the tour makes me feel even more weird and divided. We head to the outskirts of the city to see Pablo’s grave. I see some locals approaching the tomb. They don’t come close, though, as the grave is completely invaded by foreigners, taking pictures, paying their strange tribute to the “Patron.” We also pass by the site of Escobar’s death. Nothing special, but more stares from locals, and even some disbelieving head shakes. The most incredible part of the tour is yet to come. Up in the “Beverly Hills” of Medellín we visit one of his former mansions. As I step out of the van, I cannot believe my eyes. We are greeted by an old man wearing a cap, shouting: “Bienvenidos, my name is Roberto Escobar.” I almost lose it. Oh man, I thought I recognized him. A sudden flashback: I am about eleven years old, having lunch at my grandma’s place, and on TV I see that man on the news. Pablo Escobar is turning himself in to the police and his brother is with him. The same old man who is now shaking my hand. I feel a chill running down my spine…