‘Vamos Limon!’ screamed Medellin and the world’s most notorious drug cartel as the middle class estate he had been hiding in was finally tracked down as the result of a combined effort between pretty much every anti-drug authority around at the time. El Limon was Pablo’s body guard, the two of them fled over the rooftops of Medellin in the consistently spring like weather amid the backdrop of dark green mountains which cascade around the city.
Pablo & Limon were fatally gunned down on that crisp December morning in 1993. Rumours circulate as to whether Pablo, knowing the end was near, took his own life as a matter of principle but we will never know. As the crimson blood trickled down onto the dangerous streets so ended a very lucrative 18 year career in cocaine smuggling, hospital and community building and very nearly politics. Popular with the poor for the charitable Robin Hood image he worked hard to maintain, can he therefore be forgiven for the violence he brought to the streets of Medellin?
Before Escobar had rolled up his first bank note, Medellin, as a city was already very prosperous. Colonised by Basques, proud, hardworking people who were to name themselves Paisas. The Paisas first took to gold mining, after which they found their climate and mineral rich soil would allow for year round coffee harvests. Forward thinking they used some of their gold from centuries of mining to build a railway to export said coffee, providing also infrastructure and a means for new ideas and technologies to enter the country.
The murder of the important political figure head Jorge Eliécer Gaitán Ayala in 1948 sent Columbia and Medellin into a state of civil war for around 15 years, with extremist groups forming on either side the FARCs (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias Colombianas) on the left (which are still a present force to this day) and the paramilitaries on the right.
The disruption and civil unrest of ‘La violencia’ paved open great avenues for crime in Columbia and in particular Medellin, creating the environment in which Mr. Escobar grew up and began to thrive.
Public opinion on the drug lord is very much divided. Roberto, Annamarisa and Silvia – residents of The Santa Cruz barrio were very much in favour of his character and contributions, claiming that much of the violence had already existed before he was around. Hector, an old tango teacher who lives towards the North of the city was extremely frustrated that all his great city was known for was a man who moved powder over an imaginary line.
After Pablo’s death Medellin remained a very dangerous city as smaller cartels, hungry for power and extremist groups continued to battle it out with the government for control of drug trafficking and the state. It wasn’t until the ‘iron fist’ Álvaro Uribe increased national security to alarming levels that the government eventually had a safe platform on which to rebuild a tarnished city.
Two pillars, or two ideas, play central to the success of Medellin’s resurrection these are ‘Democratic Architecture’ or Socio-urbanism a scheme in which destitute areas, are converted into stunning pieces of art. As is the case with Bosquez de luz (forest of light) which literally lights up Cisneros Square which was once a hub for Medellin’s criminal underworld. The second pillar is ‘education with dignity’, it is recognised that the children are the future of this vibrant city – they need to be inspired by education rather than the appeal of gangland status (which still presents a problem). Which is exactly the reason ‘Library parks’ were built in 6 of Medellin’s notoriously dangerous neighbourhoods. Well maintained, clean and modern these buildings are extremely successful and represent a bright future for the unfortunate city of Medellin.
Medellin’s fighting spirit is captured perfectly in San Antonio Park where in 1995 a bomb placed under a Fernando Botero bird sculpture exploded during a music concert, killing 31 young people. All of the extremist groups for some reason claimed responsibility for the brutal attack. Rather than removing the sculpture it remains there as a reminder of the dark history the city has suffered and now placed to the right is a new identical sculpture, symbolic of the reincarnated city which has rose from the ashes of continued hardships.
Walking around the trendy affluent North and indeed the poorer South of Medellin you would never consider that 20 years ago a tourist would have been gunned down by any one of three organisations. As they fought between one another with no concern for those caught in the fire.
The Paisas have battled down a long and lonesome road yet the problem of drugs and gangs are still looming ever present. Medellin and Columbia are still the largest exporters of cocaine in the world and supply does not come without demand. This is an industry fuelled by Western societies’ need to binge on cut up cocaine as we try to escape the humdrum of the working week. When we consider the murder and bloodshed which has resulted from this trade to sometimes innocent victims we realise there is a whole new meaning in the term ‘bag for life’.