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…