Saturday, October 16, 2010

Pablo's Colombia

Cash Rules Everything Around Me
Get the money
Dollar dollar bills, Y'all

C.R.E.A.M., The Wu Tang Clan

Last night as Alix and I went into the grocery store, an old bloke named Jorge introduced himself and asked where I was from, what my name was and so forth. He was a local man with a rich tan and a wonderfully toothy smile and he beamed with pride when he said he was Colombian and he wanted to welcome me to his country and his corner of it, and he beamed with pride when I told him in my pidgin Spanish that I thought his country was very beautiful. Alix was chatting amiably with the shopkeeper. We had been into his shop once before, so they were kind of like best friends by now.

How on earth does a country filled with such incredibly nice people end up with such a nasty reputation as a perilous and ugly place, I wondered? I have wondered this many times. Part of the answer when you skim the headline histories is embodied in one name synonymous with drugs and crime, and that name is Pablo Escobar.

In the Colombian capital of Bogotá, Alix and I visited the Police Museum, where a young, well-mannered and impeccably dressed police officer took us on a free tour of what used to be the Bogotano Police Headquarters. Curiosities abound in this place, where the history and operations of the Colombian Police are made vivid for the international visitor.

The highlights of the Police Museum are the displays showing the work of DIJIN, the Central Directorate of the Judicial Police and Intelligence, who investigate organised crime. In Colombia, this means narcotrafficking, and the walls of the Police Museum show photo-displays of some of the bigger scores DIJIN have made over the years.

DIJIN cops confiscate a boatload of cocaine

DIJIN cops confiscate a houseful of money

The centrepiece is the display detailing the gruesome hunt for Escobar, perhaps the most notorious criminal ever in the history of crime. At the height of his notoriety Escobar had a bounty on his head equalling $2,700,000,000 Colombian Pesos- enough money to buy, say, a city block with 100 apartments on it.

Escobar’s criminal career had a beginning and a middle, but at the Police Museum the Escobar story is all about the end. After years of warfare including a very public prison escape, the Colombian police had finally had enough, and Escobar had to go. They traced his telephone calls and located him in a nondescript middle class home in Medellín. He was found with his bodyguard and killed by gunshot on the tiled roof of the building as he attempted to escape. In the Police museum they have framed one of the tiles from the roof of the house, it is still stained with Escobar’s blood.

Pablo Escobar's death photo

December 2, 1993- Newspaper photomontage from the day Pablo was taken down

Bogotá is pretty rough and ready for the backpacker; the hostels are mostly all cramped together in the downtown and Alix and I were not going to stay there for longer than a day or two anyway. Our next destination was the city of Medellín, a wonderfully bright and cheerful kind of place that must have been unbelievably different when it was Pablo Escobar’s stomping ground in the 1980’s. Most people in Medellín don’t like to talk about Escobar. A lot of people suffered; everyone knows about the international reputation Escobar left Medellín with, and most folks want to put it all behind them. Nevertheless, Alix and I were curious, and a Pablo Escobar tour is the way the determinedly curious can learn the story in all its creepiness.

We jumped into the tour bus and our guide, a local Medellín bloke named Sergio, took us from place to place, unfolding the Escobar story as we went along.

From left to right: Graciela, Cliff, Alix, Jace and our guide, Sergio

The Escobar crime story goes back to his humble beginnings in working class Medellín. When asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, the young Pablo said “A millionaire” and he set about making that happen with uncommon single-mindedness. In his early days he was a scam artist, car thief and petty criminal, but the crime of choice in Colombia is cocaine trafficking.

Cocaine is a wonderful drug for the narco-trafficker. Using it makes you feel fantastic, but the effects are short lived and you need ever-increasing doses to get that fantasy feeling back, ensuring a ballooning market even with a stationary consumer base. In the the USA the cocaine market was growing rapidly, and plenty of disposable yuppie incomes were being spent on it. By 25 years of age, Escobar was transporting plane-loads of cocaine to keep U.S. disco music sounding good and murdering his rivals to eliminate competition. When he was caught he did a little prison time but the punishment for cocaine crimes were quite mild and he was soon free again. The cops who caught him, the lawyers and the judges who convicted him all started showing up dead.

We learned was that for a period of about 20 years Escobar, as leader of the Medellín Cartel, virtually ruled Medellín as a tyrant. He became so rich and powerful, and his influence was so widespread that it touched the lives of almost all Colombians in one way or another. For some people it must have been difficult to tell if he was a good guy or a wiseguy. At one point he threw his weight behind fighting Communist rebels. At another he worked his way into legitimate Colombian politics, and trying to find out which politicians weren’t connected to his cartel was more difficult than finding out which ones were. He heavily cultivated his public image, constructing churches in poor areas and building then giving away 2,000 homes to poor people in Medellín, guaranteeing his hero status amongst sections of the working poor. In the unstable 1980’s in Colombia, cash was king. When the police placed a bounty on Escobar’s head, he placed a bounty on theirs, and the general wisdom was that it was safer to kill a cop than it was to try to kill Pablo.

From this single city, the Medellín Cartel controlled the export of cocaine with domination, controlling 80% of the cocaine market across the entire world. Escobar built his Medellín house in the expensive suburb of El Poblado, a block away from the country club to which he would never be granted membership. The house is an 8-storey concrete fortress, with two basements, one floor for security, another floor dedicated for throwing parties, another floor for his gym equipment, yet another for his mother to live in, and so forth. He named the building “Monaco”, and he installed a huge satellite dish on the property and could control his empire from within its walls.

Pablo's house, 'Monaco'. Kind of ugly, really.

Escobar ran the Medellín cartel as the sole voice of authority, and he decreed that all other cartels would kick up 30% of their profits to him. When the Cali cartel refused to paid this protection money, they did so by detonating an 80kg car-bomb outside Escobar’s house, missing Escobar but killing the two security men downstairs and permanently damaging his young daughter's hearing. Sergio showed us a photo of the street taken shortly after the bomb went off; the bomb crater was big enough to park a bus inside. Escobar’s retaliation was not pretty. Escobar knew that the Cali cartel owned the biggest pharmacy chain in that city, and that this is how they laundered their money. He organised 46 individual car-bombs sent to Cali, methodically destroying every strategic business interest the Cali cartel had, killing and maiming scores of innocent people in the process.

In a quiet moment of the tour, as our bus went down a nondescript section of road, Sergio explained that right where we were driving a car-bomb ordered by Escobar had been detonated in order to assassinate one or another of his rivals. Another car that was on the road that day and was caught in the blast was driven by Escobar’s best friend in childhood and had his best friend’s mother inside. In Medellín, the locals had a wry joke they would say around Christmas time. “What did Escobar get for his daughter for Christmas this year?” the riddle went- “The Barbie Car-Bomb” was the answer.

Medellín, a beautiful, relatively safe and enjoyable city today, was then in the grip of an increasingly out of control cycle of narco-terrorist violence. Escobar had a loyal army of local assassins, trained by ex-Israeli special forces instructors to ride motorcycles beside their targets while they were driving and put a gun through the window, a few quick shots and they would ride away leaving their targets dead in their cars. Colombia is a Catholic country, and Catholics are, by and large, a superstitious lot. Before a hit, these men would pray to the Virgin to bless their actions and bring them good luck.

The Rosa Mistica in Medellín, widely believed to grant good luck to the faithful

Escobar’s personal fortune was estimated at around $80 billion US dollars, but with so much money laundering and shady dealing it was impossible to tell how much money he really controlled. Before the United States DEA mobilised massively to combat the cocaine traffic, Escobar had bought his own Caribbean island to transform into one big cocaine production factory and even had his own submarines to enable clandestine shipping.

Back in Medellín, Escobar’s cousin was busy keeping accounts, laundering money through legitimate enterprise in big business construction contracts and a myriad of other businesses. This building, named Ovni, was built by Escobar as the central office for his money laundering operation. It was repossessed by the government after Escobar’s death and it is now used as a rehabilitation clinic for recovering drug addicts.

'Ovni' building- once Escobar crime HQ, now a big rehab clinic

And still, the bombs kept dropping. Escobar’s great fear was that an extradition treaty would be signed between Colombia and the USA, putting him right where he did not want to be, in U.S. hands. The Liberal government was close to such an agreement and the noose was tightening on Escobar; he was becoming increasingly desperate. In a single year, 150 police officers were killed in Medellín alone, after Escobar offered $1-$5 million Colombian Pesos to anyone who killed a cop. Stop and think about that for a minute. Imagine that in your city a police officer was shot dead for money, then another two were killed the same way that week. Then imagine this continuing every week for, say, a whole year. When Sergio was a kid, his mother didn’t let him outside after dark, it was just too dangerous.

Pablo car-bombed police stations and military installations. At one stage a presidential candidate he didn’t like was known to be taking a flight between Bogotá and Cali, so Escobar blew up the plane, killing all 107 passengers aboard. As it happened, the candidate had decided not to take that flight after all.

Probably the creepiest thing about the tour was the lingering sense of chaos that was ‘not so long ago’, and the sense that now no one wants to touch these relics of the past, as if they are cursed. The house where Escobar was killed was vacant for years, until an unsuperstitious buyer moved into it.

Escobar barrio- he was shot on the roof of this house

Buildings that were being financed by Escobar and built in the ‘concrete-block’ Escobar building style but were unfinished remain that way today. Light aircraft used by Escobar to traffic cocaine were seized by the police and parked at the back of the airport- uncertain what to do with them, their rotting hulks remain there now.

Unfinished- the remains of an Escobar building project

The remains of a few of Pablo's light aircraft

We wrapped up the tour with a visit to Escobar’s grave and it rained on us in a sudden downpour. Sergio liked my wristwatch and he told me so, he used to have a similar one but the display was a little bit different. Sergio was a law student when he wasn’t tour guiding. We played some table tennis back at the hostel before we parted ways.

1 comment:

  1. He should rot in hell for all of the innocent lives that were taken and all the families that had to suffer because of it.