Marching powder

Colombia’s dangerous reputation stems largely from the drug wars between two main cartels in the 80s and 90s. The Cali cartel was the underdog while the Medellin cartel controlled as much as 80% of the cocaine traffic at its peak. The United States was and still is, one of the main markets. Medellin’s jeffe? Pablo Escobar.

(*the below is based on the informative Paisa Road tour. Journalistic rigor has not been applied so no picking holes, k? Just a taster to give you some more Esco low-down.)

Pablo Escobar was born on 1st December 1949. The child of a poor family, when asked at school what he wanted to be when he grew up, he replied simply ‘a millionaire’.  He didn’t finish school. When he was found to have stolen the answers to a test and sold them to other students, he was expelled. With his cousin Gustavo, his right hand man throughout his life, he turned to petty crime, stealing gravestones and grinding the names off them to resell them. Some time later, he found himself dealing in the lucrative marijuana business and his life as a drug trafficker began.

Escobar. You just wouldn't.

The step to cocaine production and trafficking was all too simple. Soon he began buying cocoa paste from Bolivia and Peru, refine it and sell it to the States. Incidentally a process developed and patented by a German scientist in the late 1800s.

At the beginning of his narcotrafficking days, Escobar was, legal behaviour aside, a comparatively good egg. Outwardly, his money laundering activities made him appear to simply be a successful businessman, with real estate and entrepreneurial interests. In fact, he was filling the walls of these properties – literally – with cash and diamonds. Treasure hunters looking for booty ripped some of these properties apart in the aftermath of his demise, looking for dollar bills buried in walls.  At the height of his influence, he owned hundreds of properties in Medellin, Colombia and across the world. The properties he built in Medellin are distinctive in that they were nearly always white, contrasting with the red brick of most of the rest of the city, and often included his preferred palm trees, his Miami Vice signature.

He would spend this money on community projects such as school, hospitals, churches, sports stadiums and housing. Life in Medellin was relatively good. I met one man who used to import bottles of champagne for him, buying them for $200 and selling them on for $1,000. The people loved him. In fact, they loved him so much that he managed to get voted in as one of the country’s politicians in the mid-80s. But to some, this was his fatal move. With the political limelight came opposition from more honest (and less honest) statesmen who opposed what they knew or suspected to be criminal behaviour. Investigations began… Other leading nacro-players kept a lower profile and apparently continue to operate today, with the Black Widow rumoured to be among them, a lady who woos, marries and kills leading drug lords to relieve them of their cash and influence.

He was VERY rich. At one point, he was number 7 on the Forbes rich list. He offered to pay off Colombia’s national debt in its entirety, said to be a form of his particular brand of humour in that he found it amusing that the debt to America would be essentially paid off by drug money earned from the American market.

Power hungry, Escobar brashly continued. The cartel rivalry was reaching its height and when Pablo had the upper hand, he started to demand a 30% tax on Cali sales. The Cali cartel was not happy. To show this displeasure, they planted a massive car bomb outside Pablo’s enormous, plush Medellin home. The violence began.

Increasingly used to having his own way, Escobar ruled his cartel and city by a ruthless philosophy known as ‘plata o pluma’, literally silver or lead, but meaning ‘bribe or bullet’. Opponents, witnesses, anyone who got in his way would be bribed first, and if they refused, shot. Often their families would be shot as well. A culture of bribery led to a rotten police force too, with as many bent coppers as honourable ones. As Pablo later became more power crazed, he became even more ruthless. It is said that he once ordered a whole passenger plane to be blown up to kill one man. The man missed the plane. Over 100 people died.

Daily life in Medellin became hard. Going out at night was a gamble. People didn’t. The streets were silent, ruled by terror. Some people developed counter, vigilante groups but mostly served to exacerbate the violence. People are still sensitive to talk about the guilty Escobar past. When he died, half celebrated and half mourned. I met one lady whose husband had been killed in the line of police duty by the Paramilitares.

Me, I reckon he had classic small man syndrome. Measuring up at just over 5’5” (166cm for all you metrics), this whole enterprise looks like a lot of willy waving. As our able guide said ‘the most dangerous potions come in the smallest bottles’. Like Tom Cruise.

His orders were carried out by a pack of gun-wielding motorcycle assassins. One of the more gruesome methods of asserting power was known as the ‘Colombian necktie’, slicing the throat and pulling the tongue out towards the chest. These assassins would go and pray to the Virgin Mary at various shrines across the city before carrying out their hits. I really don’t think that’s the sort of thing the Holy Family is into.

Life was cheap and when assassins inevitably fell victim of their own game, their friends would take them out for a ‘last night’. Which entailed taking the corpse out on the town, giving it coke and whiskey and a night on the tiles before delivering it to the morgue. There is no law against having a cadaver in public in Colombia. Sincerely hope that I get a similar send-off.

Modern Mexico has taken on this grisly mantle. It seems to be the traffickers that fall into the deadliest dog fights and modern Colombian producers have distanced themselves from this (to a point), leaving the dirty border work to the Mexicans. It is estimated that 45,000 people have been killed in drugs-related incidents in Mexico in the last three years.  Recently a submarine with a 30 tonne capacity (that’s millions of dollars of cocaine) was discovered ahead of a run. It is said that these $3million machines only make one run before being dumped. This remains an enormous business.

His private life was different. Escobar married his wife when he was 26 and she was 15. His penchant for young girls continued throughout his life and he allegedly took a string of barely-legal mistresses, giving them a scooter when he’d had his wicked way. Some say the same scooter, which he would have stolen back to give to the next mistress. Dirty old paedo pervert. If the young girls got pregnant? Get rid or get topped. Nice.

But with his wife, he had two children who he doted on. They live on today; the son is an architect in Argentina (and is every bit as feo as his Dad). These kids wanted for nothing. Just ask and it was given. Pablo bought an expansive ranch out in the Colombian countryside near Rio Claro. It boasts a huge villa and a five-pool complex that today is a water and safari park. He would throw lavish parties here and in his Medellin pad too; he was famous for them. On the entrance gateway to Hacienda Napoli, he brazenly mounted the aeroplane used in his first successful drug run.

Hacienda with drug plane ornamentation. Tasteful.

Fond of exotic animals, he filled the ranch with safari creatures from all over the world, including giraffes, zebras, big cats and hippos. The lady on the tour reckoned that the authorities didn’t know what to do with the hippos post-Escobar so they were left at the ranch to ‘pass away in the natural environment’. Only they didn’t. They thrived in the jungle and two have become over 30. Another bloke I spoke to reckoned this was tosh and that they’re in a pen in the park. I prefer the idea of a happy hippo colony in the Colombian jungle.

The net started to close in on Escobar in the 90s and the Yanks started pushing for his extradition. He proposed an alternative. He would turn himself in for a five-year jail term, provided he could build his own prison. For whatever reason, the Colombian government agreed. La Catedral was his home for more than a year, featuring a Jacuzzi, waterfall, full bar, arsenal of weapons, full security system and football field. He would host guests in his prison and continued to run his empire from inside.

It was only when in 1992 he was discovered to have called some disloyal workers to the prison to be tortured and killed that the Colombian government decided that enough was enough. When they tried to move him to a normal prison, Pablo went on the run and hid in his aunt’s house in a local barrio. A manhunt was launched. When they finally tracked him down, a gun battle ensued that saw the man meet his maker on the roof as he tried to do a runner. Whether he was shot by special forces or put his gun to his head himself is a subject of debate. The Medellin cartel crumbled.

Dead Pablo.

He is buried in a graveyard in Medellin. His headstone is the second cos in a delicious irony, someone nicked the first one. Some tourists like to come here and do a line off the headstone. Wish I’d thought of that.

View from Pablo's last resting place.

Today, much of Colombia’s coke trade is controlled by FARC, who use the narcotrade so-say to fund their political ambitions. Mostly, this activity is contained in the Eastern region, abutting the border with Venezuela. This is also where a lot of the oil activity is located and recently a spurt of kidnappings has been reported, focused on co-located oil workers.

Enormous efforts have been made to restore peace and safety to Colombia. Drug trading is restricted to a naughty few. It’s a country rich in minerals, agriculture, history and beauty. If any country less needed an illicit trade, it’s this one. Money is a capricious mistress. The American government pumps hundreds of millions of dollars into Colombia every year to fund the anti-guerrilla military action aimed to stifle the production. The French too provide a lot of dollar.

But the problem is not just one of production.

What do I think? Fighting a drug war of this scale seems to me like American prohibition of the 20s. Like King Canute trying to hold back the tide. Sure, Colombia bears much of the bad press for producing much of the world’s coke, but it produces it to supply a global demand. Every person who does a cheeky line at the weekend is implicated. And if the people want it, why does the government strain so badly to prohibit it?

From an economic stand-point, it doesn’t make sense. The illegality pushes gargantuan profits into the hands of these ruthless and violent drug lords. International governments spend millions trying to hold back an inevitable tide. What are the economic costs of dealing with the problems caused by coke, health, policing, security and otherwise? Are they higher than those caused by alcohol and smoking? That’s an old argument. Would some of the current cost burden be removed by a controlled supply of quality-controlled white stuff? Would the costs be outweighed by potential tax earning of a legitimate drug trade? Would people even want it so much if it was readily available?

The debate over legalisation is a long-standing, complicated one. I don’t wholly advocate it but I do recognise its advantages.

I don’t know the answer. As it stands, the War on Drugs seems a costly, fairly ineffective affair. But neither it, nor the narco-trade are doing Colombia any favours.

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2 thoughts on “Marching powder

  1. Jo says:

    Interesting!

  2. Jill Patience says:

    Loved the life story of Puablo Whatshisname! Your comments reminded me of the book I am currently reading by Ben Elton entitled High Society. It is set in the UK amongst various decrepit drug users, about a politician fighting to introduce a bill to legalise all drugs, for the same reasons you mentioned. Interestingly, well, to me at least, the picture of Puablo looks the spit of my brother – before his hair went grey.

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