Entering Escobar’s Circle

“We will not refer to him by name.”

Our guide, Julio, sets some ground rules for the day. So far his sunny disposition has rivaled the beating sun aloft in the cloudless sky over Medellín. Now he takes on a more serious temperament, taking precautions to ensure we don’t start blabbering about the man in question, dancing around his name as if discussing Lord Voldemort himself.

Indeed, a seasoned cicerone like Julio already knows what to expect from tourists. Namely, questions and comments about Medellín’s prodigal son. The man who would come to define a country. El Patrón himself – Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria.

Julio explains that most Colombians have an aversion to discussing the infamous drug kingpin. Long has his shadow engulfed the perspective of their country, and products of pop culture like the hit Netflix series, Narcos, have done little to dissuade this. Passers by of our group would likely condemn the uttering of his name to us wide-eyed tourists. So Julio reels off the answers to some common questions about El Pablito before we begin our trek through Medellín’s old city centre.

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Julio regaling our group.

What do Colombians think of Pablo Escobar? The majority see him and his life’s work as a blight that has infested its influence deep within the country’s economy and culture. A man who raised an empire that would bring untold criminal activity to the country, incite violence, lead to the rise of gangs, promote underhanded politics, stifle social progress, and seduce Colombia’s youth to the world of drug trafficking and racketeering.

But didn’t he do a lot of good? Isn’t Medellín kinda built on drug money? This is a worthy question, but Julio scoffs at it. Yes, he admits, buildings were erected and businesses were founded on the backs of narcotic profiteering. Escobar built hundreds of homes and dozens of schools and hospitals, mostly in impoverished Colombian communities. One such apartment complex in downtown Medellín still bears his name. But Julio contends that this development is dwarfed by the violence and destruction wrought by Escobar and his Medellín cartel.

What are the lingering effects of Escobar’s reign? In my last post I illustrated how Medellín is shedding its troubled past to become a beacon of urban development. Julio echoes this sentiment, but adds that Colombia as a whole continues to suffer from the influence of drug culture. This is evidenced at night in the cities I visited, when a legion of cocaine-pushers take to the streets and sling their product for absurdly cheap prices. Today’s youth are still tempted by the lucrative nature of drug peddling, much like the young sicarios that Escobar employed as hired guns during his reign. Some were as young as 14. Generations of Colombia’s entrepreneurial minds have succumbed to the temptation of the gangster life instead of employing their talents elsewhere.

The effects of Pablo Escobar’s dominion are not easily quantified, Julio explains, and they go far beyond the cartel activity. As we walk through Medellín, he points out areas that are unsafe and riddled with prostitution and opportunistic pick-pocketers. Colombia’s military and police force is stretched thin, forced to contend with opposition on many fronts. Though things has gotten better, the rampant, many-faced crime still lingers and is a direct result of the chaos brought by the cartel’s influence.

An example of this is FARC, The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a rebel group founded in 1964 in opposition to Colombia’s oppressive government at the time. In Escobar’s attempt to eradicate all competitors, a power vacuum formed that, over time, was filled by the violent revolutionaries of FARC. Their insurgency persists to this day – they have hid in Colombia’s jungles and carried out guerilla attacks on Colombia’s security forces and also wield significant influence in the drug trade. That said, as I write this we are a year into a very fragile peace treaty that has, at least temporarily, silenced the guerilla’s guns.

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Escobar’s death, as depicted by Fernando Botero.

As suggested by this famous interpretation of his demise, which I saw at the Antioquia Museum in downtown Medellín, Pablo Escobar was larger than life.

Born to a farmer and an elementary school teacher in 1949 in Rionegro, Escobar would spend his 44 years of life becoming the most prolific drug lord the world has ever seen. Even after his demise at the hands of the Colombian police in 1993, Escobar’s figure still looms large.

Countless efforts have been made to tell his story, in countless mediums. I won’t attempt to rehash what you likely already know. Rather I will tell you about my experience entering his circle, rubbing elbows with those who kept his company.

It is a crisp morning in Medellín when I meet my guide outside a grocery store in the Poblado neighborhood of Medellín. Joined by a Dutch man and our driver, the four of us take to the Colombian highway bound for three different landmarks. The staff at my hostel, Wandering Paisa in the Estadio district, said this would give me the most authentic and raw understanding of Escobar’s life and legacy.

Our first stop is a hotel built by Escobar, now repurposed as a police building.

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One of his many housing projects, our guide explains that Escobar erected these as a way to shelter the homeless, and to gain their support for his political career. He would also house his extended family in these compounds so as to ensure their safety. However, safety was never a guarantee when hitching your wagon to the most dangerous man in  the world. Our guide probes us to look closely at the upper floors of the hotel.

The stone had been replaced due to a bomb detonation. Indeed, this was the site of an assault by the rival Cali Cartel in the late 1980’s, who thought Escobar was residing there at the time. He evaded death that day, as he did many other days. But his demise was inevitable.

Our next stop was Escobar’s final resting place. On the way our driver casually mentions that he served as a bodyguard for Escobar and the Medellín cartel for over 10 years. He asked for anonymity, so let’s refer to him as Javier.

Eyes wide, I begin to probe Javier. He is understandably short, but does give me an idea of his life serving alongside El Patrón, and the things he was made to do. With a thick, Argentine-esque Paisa accent, Javier regales me with stories that I’m not at liberty to share.

“I had a license to kill…”

Javier had the good fortune of not being on duty that fateful afternoon of December 2nd, 1993. When we visit Escobar’s gravesite, Javier goes on a walk. For obvious reasons he does not join us. If the events did not occur exactly how they did that day, he could have been buried in the very same ground beneath our feet.

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For all his wealth and accomplishments, Escobar’s grave is surprisingly modest. A simple tombstone alongside his parents and siblings, there is little in the way of elaborate decoration in his memory.

When we arrive back at the van, Javier has laid out some iconic photos of his former boss. He begins to open up more as we flip through the pictures, sparking his memories. He is shorter than me, but very stout, built like a fullback. Despite his good conditioning, he appears far older than his actual age. His voice is tired and face riddled with age marks. This is a man who has seen and done unimaginable things. I pepper him with questions as he does most of the talking, regaling me with stories.

A criminal mastermind with an everyman’s posture, Escobar was often seen amongst the masses, currying favor with the poor by handing out money and denouncing Colombia’s political establishment. Javier explains it was this that drew him into the Medellín cartel.

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Indeed, Escobar’s charisma and cunning were unmatched. His “Robin Hood” persona was cultivated so well that decent, god-fearing men like Javier were compelled to join his ranks, in an effort to support his family while also making Colombia a more just, inclusive country.

…or so he thought. Over time this perspective of Escobar changed, but there was little Javier could do to exit the cartel.

Escobar knew how to win loyalty, and keep it, from those who followed him. In many ways his death was the only release for many of his henchmen. Any defection prior to that meant they faced the bullet, per Escobar’s famous saying “Plata o Plomo”. Javier’s impassioned words speak not just for himself, but for so many good men who served and died at the behest of Escobar.

“I only wanted a good life for my family. Thanks to God, I have that now. I am at peace.”

Our final stop that morning was a house still owned by the Escobar family, a former residence of Pablo himself, now serving as a museum, sitting on a hill outside Medellín.

While crawling up the hillside, we pass through several towering gates equipped with thick, spiraling barbed wire and manned with armed policemen. The cops give a head-nod to Javier as we pass through. Soon enough we have arrived. As our van pulls into the driveway, I see a man standing in the open garage whom I immediately recognize from pictures.

Roberto de Jesús Escobar Gaviria, Pablo’s older brother, awaited us. I knew there was a chance that he might be there per the staff at my hostel. When my hand meets his, I feel a crushing sense of urgency. “What do I ask him? What should I avoid? How do I make the most of this moment and toe the line between generic inquisition and pushiness?” 

Roberto welcomes us and invites us to take a walk through the house. He said he would join us later for some coffee and takes his leave.

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Some of Pablo’s vehicles.

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Bullet holes in the windows, kept in tact by Roberto as a reminder of their war with the Colombian police force.
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Pablo through the years.
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Windows from a drug trafficking van that saw heavy assault.

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The house’s backyard, from which Pablo and Roberto could watch departing planes that carried their product to the United States.

I never got a chance to probe Roberto further. After perusing the house, our guide informs us that he felt sick and is lying down in one of the guest rooms. Roberto is 70 years old, a shell of his former self, dealing with health issues largely brought on by a combination of old age and the injuries he suffered during a bombing while in jail in 1993. The attempt on his life left him blind in one eye and with serious brain trauma.

I never got a chance to ask him about his time as the cartel’s accountant, about the rise and fall of the Escobar empire, about Pablo’s final days. I never got the opportunity to probe him on his various oddities, including a claim that he has the cure for HIV, or his infamous $1 billion suit filed against Netflix for misrepresentation in the hit TV series Narcos.

As a token of his apologies, Roberto signs a picture for me.

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Roberto, right, with Carlos Valderrama, second from left, a Colombian soccer star.

Days later I attended my first soccer match in Latin America at the Atanasio Girardot Stadium in downtown Medellín.

The matchup featured Atlético Nacional against a rival coastal team from Barranquilla. Nacional is the most popular and successful team in Colombia. Their trophy case is filled with championships both within Colombia and from other tournaments in South America.

And they were largely funded by Pablo Escobar himself.

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Donning my Nacional jersey, alongside friends from the hostel and hundreds of animated Colombians, it was hard not to be drawn into the energy. Soccer is like a religion in this corner of the world. When Nacional scores a game winning goal in the 90th minute, the raucousness increases tenfold.

Much like the buildings he erected, the drug trade that still thrives to this day, and the people in his circle like Javier and Roberto, Atlético Nacional serves as a relic to Escobar’s bygone empire.

It is this conundrum that Colombians contend with, that Escobar built wonders and lifted countless people out of poverty, but also brought unseen death and destruction to his people. After spending a week in Medellín, it is abundantly clear to me where most Colombians stand.

Man of the people, or murderous kingpin? You decide. Best done by adding Colombia to your travel list, and going there with wide eyes and an open mind, like I did. You never know who you’ll see or meet.

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