Paramilitaries to Paradise: The Revitalization of Medellin

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In the late ‘80s, Pablo Escobar turned Medellin into the world murder capitol. Today, it’s a travel hot-spot. Don’t believe me? Get ready to have your mind blown (though not literally, anymore).

Sprawled along the wide expanse of the Andes’ populous Aburra Valley, the city of Medellin has long been known as Capital de la Montana, Ciuded de las Flores and, perhaps most appropriately, Ciudad de la Eterna Primavera: “The City of Everlasting Spring.” Medellin lives up to these monikers. Cerulean mountains ring the city, bearing down on lush parks, wide open spaces and a stunning array of both modern and colonial architecture. Thanks to its mountainous and tropical locale, the city maintains a nearly constant year-round temperature of 72 degrees Fahrenheit.

Medellin’s natural beauty, friendly people and vibrant culture and cuisine make it a natural tourist destination– if but for the fact that Medellin, for many years, had another appellation: Most violent city in the world. The story of Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria, legendary Colombian drug lord and narco-trafficker, has been retold and recontextualized many times over. Opinions on Escobar vary: to the United States, he was a scourge; to some of Medellin’s poor, he was a folk hero. But there is no shade of gray that can paint over the violence this man raised in Medellin in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.

At the height of his power, Escobar’s pitiless control of Colombia’s cocaine market led to the assassination and murder of government officials, hundreds of police officers, and many, many citizens. By 1991, Escobar’s profligate and unwaveringly violent cartel had consigned to Medellin a homicide rate that stands, perhaps, as a world record in modern times: 380 per 100,000.

To put that figure in its appropriate context, consider that in the same year, notoriously dangerous Washington DC had a murder rate of 81 per 100,000. An even more striking observation: Medellin’s murder rate in 1991 was more than 5 times that experienced by New Orleans in 2006, the year after hurricane Katrina submerged the Big Easy in previously unknown levels of poverty, crime, and violence.

Like many criminals, Escobar came from humble circumstances. Born in Medellin in 1944, the drug-lord-to-be faced a challenging life. His mother was a teacher and his father was a peasant who traded livestock. The couple earned enough to feed and educate their family, but just barely. Money was an abiding concern. As a young man, Pablo initially studied political science, an interest that, perhaps, presaged the ingenious manipulator he would come to be. To make money, he started stealing gravestones, sanding them down and selling them to be reused.

Escobar progressed further into criminality when he went to work for Alvaro Prieto, a multi-millionaire contraband smuggler who trafficked alcohol and cigarettes. Pablo dedicated himself to the trade and, according to his brother, was a millionaire by the age of 22. Escobar did not remain a contraband smuggler for long. He switched his operation to cocaine production and trafficking after realizing that he could make 40 times the profit. At that time, there were no cartels and few drug lords in Colombia, leaving a gap in the market for Escobar to fill. He built his organization from the ground up and, in short enough order, money poured into the cartel in barely conceivable fashion.

At one point, Escobar was spending $2500 per month on rubber bands to hold cash together. The cartel took in so much profit that it could not all be laundered through legitimate investments. Wads of cash were stored in warehouses and secret compartments. They lost 10% of it to rot and didn’t blink an eye. By 1989, Forbes magazine ranked Escobar as the seventh richest man in the world, estimating his personal wealth to be about $24 billion, all of it profit earned with disregard for the suffering of the citizens of Medellin.

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By the early ‘90s, the Colombian and United States governments had had enough. The concerted effort they launched to bring Escobar down amounted to all out war and what followed was an astounding game of cat and mouse that eventually led to Pablo’s imprisonment, subsequent escape and ultimate, inevitable death on a Medellin rooftop in 1993. A bullet entered his skull through the ear, ending Escobar’s life on December 2nd of that year.

The crime rate in Medellin began to decrease soon after Escobar’s passing, although it remained quite high throughout the ‘90s due to the continued operation of other cartels and paramilitary groups. In October of 2002, Colombian president Alvaro Uribe attempted to put a final stop to the violence by ordering the military to complete “Operation Orion,” an initiative aimed at disbanding the militias of the FARC and AUC. The operation elicited controversy, but produced results.

Today’s Medellin, though not perfect, is a far cry from the city that suffered the drugs and violence of the Escobar years. It is, crucially, a modern city, a beautiful city, a city full of life. Although its residents remember Escobar vividly, they are eager to embrace Medellin’s bright future. Gustavo Franco, a native paisa–citizen of Medellin–who now lives in Miami, described just this sentiment. Mr. Franco was blunt about the dangers of the Escobar years “Trying to carry out a normal life in a war between drug gangs and the government was almost impossible. In a regular week, there were 200 violent deaths, more than in a formal war.” But, he praised the current quality of life in Medellin. “Life in Medellin today is like any other city in full development,’ he says. “We have excellent things. Its people are friendly, the city is green by nature, public services are good as well as the medical services, climate in general is very bearable and for those who enjoy good food and rumba there is something for each person.”

Another paisa I spoke to, Elli Sharef, 24, echoed Mr. Franco’s pleasure at the reclamation of Medellin: “I think the biggest change in Medellin has been how safe people feel now versus in the ‘90s. It has always been a beautiful city, but now we can enjoy it so much more. We used to be scared of going out. Now we can walk around town safely.”

Ms. Sharef’s comment on Medellin’s abiding beauty kept cropping up in my conversations with paisas: Medellin had always been brilliant, that Escobar was, really, in the eyes of history, just a temporary blot to be wiped away. Mr. Franco seemed to believe that. “It is important to note there were always good government authorities and that the inhabitants of Medellin who loved their city knew that someday we would come forth from the nightmare,” he says.

Colombians of all stripes have certainly embraced Medellin’s newly reclaimed vibrancy. Nationally, the city has largely shed its violent reputation and, increasingly, foreign media is taking note. In 2008, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain visited the city for an episode of his travel show No Reservations and spoke very highly of Medellin as a travel destination. It was a moment of triumph for many paisas.

Today, visitors to Medellin will be struck by many facets of the city– its natural verdant beauty, its residents’ hospitality and gregariousness, its rich artistic heritage, and its richer cuisine. Although internationally known as the birthplace of Pablo Escobar, Medellin, is also the birthplace of Fernando Botero, world famous painter and sculptor. Botero, who is famous for his whimsical depictions of obese forms, recently supervised the construction of The Botero Museum, which opened in Medellin in 2004. Every detail, down to the color scheme and lighting, was chosen by the great artist, making it one of the most purely auteurist artistic expressions in the world (see his work above and below).

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Equally expressive is the rich cuisine to be found in Medellin. Colombian food varies to a phenomenal extent from region to region, but is, on the whole, a mouth-watering pastiche of European, African and indigenous dishes. A perfect example of this blend is the popular dish bandeja paisa, or “paisa platter.” The massive meal combines dishes from all three cultures: red beans cooked with pork, white rice, ground meat, pork rind, fried eggs, plantain patacones, chorizo with lemon, arepa (a type of bread made from corn), hogao (a sauce made from onions, tomatoes, garlic, cumin, salt and pepper), black pudding and avocado.

Other popular dishes include sancocho, which is a stew of plaintains, potato and yucca. A nationally favored alcoholic beverage is aguardiente (“firewater”), which is sweet and licorice flavored, made from sugarcane. For dessert, there are ostias con arequipe: cookies slathered with dulce de leche.

Though Medellin is filled with astonishing visual sites, there are two that are particularly recommended. First, the metrocable–a gondola lift system, similar to a ski lift – should be experienced for its stunning views of the city. There are several lines to take, all of which climb over the poor and middle class barrios that line the hillside of the mountains that ring Medellin. If you hop on a metrocable in the evening, you’ll be treated to a fantastic vista before night has fallen and then enjoy a city of lights as you descend after dark.

Second, the Peñón de Guatapé, or “Guatape Rock,” is not to be missed. Located on the shore of a reservoir in Guatapé–a resort town 90 minutes outside Medellin and a former haunt of Pablo Escobar–Peñón de Guatapé is a massive rock formation 660 feet high. Visitors can scale a wooden staircase built into the side of the rock and, on the top, find themselves greeted by restaurants and a spectacular view of the lake and surrounding countryside. It’s fitting that Pablo Escobar’s former resort is now, not even two decades later, becoming a draw for international tourists.

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So, you see, Medellin, in the years since Pablo Escobar, has not so much reinvented itself as it has rediscovered itself. It has always been a beautiful city, and now, with the dissolution of the paramilitary groups, with investment in education, health care, and the communities, with the positive attitude of paisas, it has gone a long way towards reclaiming its true spirit.

Today’s Medellin still has issues – just last month, Time filed a report on the resurgence of drug killings in the city – but it is undeniable that it has made incredible progress. As with any major city, visitors should keep their wits about them. But for travelers seeking gorgeous weather, friendly people, world class art, and inspired cuisine, Medellin is not to be missed.