“It’s a tour about Fidel Castro. We actually meet his brother!” I can already tell the new New York girls in my dorm room are super impressed at my cultural immersion in Medellin, Colombia. I know his name is practically synonymous with this country, having been responsible for turning it into the cocaine trafficking capital of the world, at one point controlling 80% of the world’s cocaine traffick. His motto “plata o plomo” (literally, silver or bullets; your two choices if he approached with an illegal deal) secured his place as the world’s most feared drug lord. It’s taken two decades for the country to make a semblance of recovery. There are still policeman with dogs checking the boot of every car entering any mall in Bogota.
“But… Why is his brother living in Medellin? Wouldn’t he be in Cuba?” asks the blonde one sitting on the floor. Confused pause. “You don’t mean Pablo Escobar do you?”
Pablo Escobar. Yeepp. There I go again, getting my mafia bosses confused. With the New Yorkers now convinced the rumours of Australians riding to school on kangaroos must be true, I wander out to the tour van repeating the initials PB in my head to prevent another slip up.
We begin at the five story concrete office block that was the home of his wife and kids. Pablo was born a street urchin, the poorest of the poor and began his foray into illegal goods by selling contraband – electricals, stolen stuff etc – in his teens, before moving onto cocaine; a drug new enough it wasn’t even illegal yet. By the time the authorities caught onto the fact that Someone was smuggling millions of dollars worth of cocaine into the United States every day, and causing some serious social upheavals, Pablo had the resources and systems in place to get around them, complete with guerrilla henchmen and private jet planes. Cue power play.
His grave sits above the city, in a cemetery of completely flat tombstones. A stocky man in a leather jacket is stooped over Pablo’s Escobar’s plaque, next to plaques for his parents and bodyguard, all four laid out in a neat line on the slightly raised platform nestled in a corner. The man rises and goes to sit on a bench facing the grave, hands clasped in prayer and head bowed. The candle he has just lit in honour and gratefulness for the memory of Escobar flickers slightly in the wind.
“Before it became known that Pablo was a drug lord, people thought he was simply a very wealthy businessman.” Explains our (notably typically exotically beautiful female) Colombian tour guide, “He claimed his money came from cattle and farming and used it to help the poor people of Colombia, particularly those in Medellin.“
One afternoon at a soccer game Pablo heard a news update about people living literally in the rubbish dump. Leaving the game early with his brother, Pablo swooped in and pledged to build every single family a new house, complete with running water and refrigerators. The thousand homes, and the people affected by them, are still in Medellin today. One of them is depicted at his funeral, an old lady, sobbing and tearing her clothes with grief. Pablo also funded new soccer fields particularly in the poorer areas of Medellin; soccer fields which, when combined with his support for salaries, produced the greatest Soccer Team Colombia has ever known… Nacional.
By the time the team made it to the World Cup in 1994, Pablo had turned the country into chaos. Alfonso, the Colombian dad I stayed with, shows me videos of bombs exploding, burning buildings with people trapped inside and regular civilians running through the street, pushing an inured man on a trolley. More shots ring out and the men dive for cover, the trolley tipping over spilling the man onto the pavement. Claudia, the 30 year old Administrator at my University tells how, at 10, she couldn’t leave the house with her family for fear of being bombed. A lack of cell phones made every day a hell of anxiousness as to whether loved ones were still alive. 20 years after Pablo’s death, I am warned against using my iPhone in public and getting in a taxi without jeans or long pants on. Soccer, and its star players, brought the people together at the time, providing unity and pride as Colombians dreamed of winning the World Cup; a temporary anaesthesia during the darkest hours of the country’s Nightmare. Ironically, a symbol of hope made possible by the same man now destroying them.
Arriving at a white house on the side of a hill, we hop off the bus and prepare ourselves for what we have all agreed is a seriously intimidating activity; meeting the brother of a drug lord. This guy was the accountant, a numbers dude so, having technically never committed the sort of crimes his brother is responsible for, can live a fairly normal life. We walk past a gardener sitting on a park bench towards the front door entrance. I, personally, am seriously looking forward to meeting a mafia boss. He’ll probably be smoking a cigar. And maybe have a husky voice like off The Godfather. If there’s piles of cash on the desk, I’ve resolved to siphon a couple just to test his reflexes.
The guide calls us back and introduces us to the gardener; Roberto Escobar. He’s wearing jeans and a misshapen baseball cap and stoops forward slightly. He could be my uncle. There’s an awkward silence before we remember our manners and shake hands, dealing with a little bit of disappointment. Its like that moment you hear a notification on your iPhone and think “A message! For me??” before realizing its just “person-you-have-no-idea-why-they-are-in-your-phone-book just joined app-you-forgot-you-downloaded-three-months-ago“. Its not their fault you’re disappointed but you kinda feel a bit of resentment anyway.
For the rest of the tour, I don’t know what to do with my eyebrows. Everything is presented with an exclamation mark and they just aren’t responding like they should. Although the secret hidey hole behind the bookcase and space for 2 million dollars in tightly rolled cash inside the legs of the desk is impressive, I walk away with a sense of… normalcy. These are just people. Trying to rise above the crippling conditions they were born into, trying to protect their family then trying to protect their lives.
It doesn’t reduce the heinousness of the crimes committed. It just reflects my shadow into the background.