Pablo Escobar, the drug lord is dead. But his myth lives on, fanning out from his hometown of Medellin to conversations around the world
Medellin, Colombia – Colombia’s infamous drug baron Pablo Escobar was arguably the greatest gangster of the modern era. During the height of his fame in the late 1980s, he was shipping over 100 tonnes of cocaine a month to the United States, and was listed by Forbes magazine in 1989 as the seventh richest man in the world with a fortune of around $24 billion. Meanwhile, in evading arrest and possible extradition to the US, he unleashed a full-scale war against the Colombian government. His Medellin drug cartel was behind the assassinations of two presidential candidates; a justice minister; an attorney general and state governor; supreme court justices; and scores of police commanders and officers. An entire airline was also bombed in 1989, in the hope of killing a presidential candidate who was supposed to be on board. By the time Escobar was finally captured and shot in 1993, with the help of American Delta Forces and the CIA, his beloved hometown Medellin had a strikingly high homicide rate; it is still a modern-era world record: 380 per 100,000.
Today, however, Medellin, Colombia’s second largest city, has made a remarkable turnaround from its violent, drug-riddled past. With the dismantling of paramilitaries like FARC (‘revolutionary armed forces of Colombia’) and AUC (‘united self-defence forces of Colombia’), and narco-mafias in the early 2000s, and an expanded police presence, the city is now as safe as Washington DC. Dubbed the ‘city of eternal spring’ for its pleasant climate, it has become a prosperous commercial and cultural hub, with a spanking new metro line, spacious parks, renovated buildings and modern art museums. Tens of thousands of Colombians descend on the city during its famous Festival of Flowers in early August, celebrating the city’s most successful industry: Colombia now supplies 70 per cent of all flowers imported by the US. From narco power to flower power in less than two decades is quite an achievement, as Medellin’s vivacious natives—known locally as paisas—are proud to point out to visitors.
However, despite its turnaround, Escobar’s legacy still colours the city, just as a slight dusting of snow recalls winter during spring’s first heady, sunlit days. There’s even a neighbourhood, Barrio Pablo Escobar, so named because he built 2,500 houses there for the city’s impoverished. For all his misdeeds, Escobar was something of a Robin Hood, donating lavishly to the Church, schools, hospitals, orphanages and other humanitarian causes. His palatial five-storey 1960s-glam high-rise, Monaco, still stands in a quiet neighbourhood of Medellin. Built of reinforced steel, its penthouse was decorated with sculptures and paintings of Picasso, Botero and numerous other famous artists. Its grounds include a swimming pool, whose shape is suggestive of one in Scarface, basketball courts, and other toys that now stand abandoned. Monaco is the first stop on the city’s Pablo Escobar tour, organised by travel agencies seeking to cash in on the great gangster’s legacy.
Most foreigners still visit the city for a whiff of Escobar, after all, and not the flower festival. While there on a crowded tour this January, with tourists from all over Europe and America, the guide described how the building was bombed in the late 1980s by the rival Cali Cartel. Although Escobar was not at home, his wife and two children got trapped in the rubble, and had to be freed by rescuers. In a final irony though, the building, which has been empty for almost 20 years, is about to be converted into a police station. The cops, who lost thousands of their recruits to his cartel’s bullets (Escobar used to pay thousands of dollars to anyone who shot a policeman), can finally have the last laugh.
The tour also takes visitors to the humble, two-storied house where Escobar was finally apprehended and shot on the shingled roof while trying to escape. It was on 2 December 1993, just one day after his 44th birthday. It was the use of a satellite-linked global positioning system (GPS, rare back then) that helped the police pinpoint his exact location. After a brief firefight in which his bodyguard was killed, the police stormed the building, forcing him to flee to the roof. The circumstances of his death are still disputed. His admirers claim that he fired the fatal bullet himself, with a gun to his own ear, committing what he’d always said he would if captured—suicide.
In a modest area of the city, the humble stone-and-cement house where he spent his final birthday evokes the alienation of his last days better than any biography could. His massive entourage, which once numbered in the hundreds, was whittled away in the final year as the massive manhunt gained momentum. The police, who tortured Escobar’s close family members for information on him, went all out for his network of associates as well. Even more furious, though, was a vigilanté group formed by Escobar’s victims, Los Pepes, which hunted down and killed anybody who was vaguely associated with him. Thus, he spent his final birthday with just his bodyguard and a maid. It was his loneliness and consequent need to communicate with his son, mother, and others close to him by telephone that finally gave him away.
While standing by his house, we were witness to a curious incident. A man in a tinted Range Rover stopped next to our guide, rolled down his window, said something in Spanish, and then drove on. Later, the guide explained that the man had berated her for taking foreigners to this spot, saying that Escobar’s death isn’t some tourist attraction that should be exploited for money. His attitude reflects how the drug lord’s legacy still divides the city, with many believing that Medellin should bury the hatchet and move on, disassociating itself from its turbulent past. With Oliver Stone set to release a biopic Escobar in 2012, that seems unlikely. Like with Al Capone’s Chicago, worldwide interest in the city’s sordid past need do its future no disfavour. Whether the people of Medellin see it this way, though, is unclear.
Medellin’s love for Escobar is evident at his gravestone, in a gorgeous cemetery on a hillock, blossoming mango trees overlooking the busy city. To his credit, his tombstone is rather plain, just a square granite block set in the ground, with an etching of his face and a tiny inscription. It’s nothing like the grandiose tombstones of Russian mobsters, depicting them drive a Mercedes through the countryside. It’s a modest resting place for a man whose word was once life and death for most of the city’s citizens, and who is said to have burnt tens of thousands of dollars just to keep warm in the woods. Buried next to his mother and other family members, Escobar seems to have found peace in death. Fresh flowers had been placed on his stone when we visited, and it’s said that people come often to make offerings at the site.
After the cemetery, we were driven to a graveyard for the DC-40s and other planes that he used to fly cocaine from Colombia to the US from an airfield in the centre of the city. Pilots were paid as much as $500,000 for flying one load over. A Dutch girl in the group exclaimed aloud, “How did he get away with so much. He was like a minor god!”
Born in the countryside to a peasant family, his meteoric rise saw him become the King of Coke in just a decade. Even more than 15 years after this death, his presence can be felt everywhere. The lavish farm, Napoli, a two-hour drive from Medellin, which once had a zoo with rhinos, elephants, and other exotic animals—a Colombian version of Michael Jackson’s Neverland—still belongs to his family and is open to the public. His brother, Roberto Escober, still gives tours of the farm to visitors. However, he is not entirely safe. Just recently, he was attacked and had to be hospitalised.
Old scars obviously run deep. While Escobar’s hometown has moved on from its violent past in most visible ways, it’ll take more than a generation for scores from those dark days to be settled. Meanwhile, outside Colombia, Escobar’s fame is still on the ascent, with a slew of books on his life on the shelves now, and Stone’s biopic drumming up interest before its release next year. It is advisable to visit Medellin now and explore his life and legacy before it is overtaken by a profusion of kitsch.