All photos by Karl Hess
I was staring through a window marred by heavy iron bars, with a large bullet hole in the thick glass.
“That is from when they tried to kill us,” said Pablo Escobar's brother. He looked tired, harmless, his one good eye shifting uncertainly behind his glasses. Once one of the most wanted criminals in the world, a critical part of an organisation responsible for thousands of murders and untold billions of dollars in drug traffic, he was now just an old man, standing awkwardly in his living room.
“Come, let’s have some coffee, you can ask me whatever you want,” he muttered and I followed him out to the porch, the city of Medellin sweeping away in the valley below.
Everyone knows the story and the man: Pablo Escobar and the Medellin cartel; a bloody, inexorable rise to power and dominance. By the late 80s, Escobar had accumulated billions of dollars and established himself as a Medellin folk hero, constructing housing and hospitals for the poor, publishing a newspaper, even opening a zoo for the public. Even as thousands were brutally killed and the excesses of his violence raged out of control (he famously once blew up a commercial airliner in an attempt to kill one man) Pablo was still a hero to the poor and dispossessed of Medellin society. When he died on that rooftop in 1993, he left behind thousands of mourners, a city ravaged and torn apart by violence, and his accountant: Roberto Escobar, his brother.
Roberto Escobar is now just a simple old man
Lugging my backpack into the hostel near Parque Lleras, the city's popular nightlife zone, Escobar and his bloody legacy were about the last things on my mind. I was dirty, exhausted, and judging from the rowdy Australians playing drinking games on the patio at 2 PM on Wednesday, not about to get the long sleep I so desperately required. I was hungover from drinking rum and aguardiente (literal translation: fiery water) on Colombia’s coast for the past two weeks, and had a weird half-body sunburn from the time I had vastly underestimated how much booze a coconut could hold and passed out beneath a beach table in the midday heat.
As I stowed my belongings in the dorm room and noted with some frustration that I was going to have to sleep on a top bunk that seemed to be two metres off the ground, a stout, red-faced South African dude in a rugby jersey stumbled out of the communal bathroom. To say that this gentleman had obviously just been doing cocaine would have been an grievous understatement: He looked like he had just head-butted a pastry chef. He snorted, slapped me on the back, and let me know in no uncertain terms that I had come to the right place to “fucking party.”
“This is the place, bruh,” he assured me. “You know a fucking guy died here last month? He went too hard. Fucking legendary, bruh!”
“Yeah… That does sound pretty great.”
At that, he laughed and pretended to punch me in the stomach, then laughed again and walked out, as my visions of rest and recuperation slid further out of reach. The death and horror of those bygone days of Medellin’s history may be past, but at street level, a tangible element of that time is still quite prevalent: Cocaine is everywhere. I would come to see that not only was it common, but it was used with a casualness I had not experienced. Bathroom stall? Not needed. Doing a bump at the urinal seemed to be a level of discretion that everyone was comfortable with.
I was only in Medellin for five days before I had to catch a flight to Argentina, and after my time on the coast I was looking to take it easy, apply aloe to the lower half of my back, go to the Botero Museum – and now, avoid that South African guy. But as I sat in the bar of the hostel, nursing a beer and listening to the Australians play a drinking game that apparently involved sporadically slapping each other in the face, something on the bulletin board caught my eye: the Pablo Escobar Tour. I asked the twentysomething Colombian girl behind the reception desk about it and she smiled.
“Oh, you gotta do it,” she said. When I pressed her for details, she helpfully added, “They, like, put you in a van and drive you around and tell you about Pablo Escobar, I guess.” With a finely honed sales pitch like that, how could I refuse?
Flowers on Pablo Escobar's grave
So the next morning, I piled into a beat-up van outside the hostel at 8 AM as a light rain fell from low-hanging clouds, still tired and bleary-eyed from a night that featured little sleep, lots of electronic music, copious beer, and shouted Australian phrases such as “argey-bargey.” I still didn’t really know what to expect from the day ahead. The first thing I noticed was that our tour guide, a nice Colombian lady, barely spoke any English. She seemed passionate on the subject of Medellin and knowledgeable about the life of Pablo Escobar, but was unable to convey this very well, and after a while just sort of gave up, put on a DVD, and turned her attention to texting on her cell phone.
The DVD turned out to be The Two Escobars, which is an ESPN 30 For 30 documentary that deals with Pablo Escobar and Colombian soccer star Andres Escobar, the rise of Colombian soccer due to a massive infusion of drug money, and the eventual murder of Andres, who was not related to the drug kingpin, after he accidentally scored on his own goal in the World Cup. It is a fascinating and well-made documentary, but a poorly ventilated van in downtown traffic packed with hungover, unwashed backpackers was not exactly the ideal viewing situation.
Still, the ride afforded me an occasion to observe the entertaining local trend of fast food, or comida rapida, establishments that featured colourful signs of either incredibly busty cartoon women or video game characters. My favourite was probably Mario Bross (a play on the Nintendo game, though spelled incorrectly), whose sign featured Mario’s warmly smiling disembodied head, a sure sign of quality. Not sure if that constitutes copyright infringement, but it did seem like an effective marketing strategy: “How can you save the Princess on an empty stomach?” “A plumber can’t live on mushrooms alone!”
Our first stop turned out to be the grave of the man himself, Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria, which is located on the outskirts of the city. Meticulously kempt, and wreathed with colourful floral arrangements, the grave offered everyone the opportunity to slowly file past and take photos of the headstone and then stand awkwardly in a cemetery for a while. Stop one complete. Once back in the van, our intrepid group pushed onward as the documentary continued to play and a contingent of four Australians alternately complained of their hangovers, made plans for the night, and hit on some French girls who sat in the front.
The second stop, for which we didn’t even get out of the van, featured a building that the rival Cali cartel had bombed once, trying to kill Pablo and his associates. It was pretty much just a regular building in an unassuming commercial district; no evidence remained that anything exciting had ever happened, and even the guide seemed to tacitly agree that this was the low point of tour. Group morale was on the decline, and although no one brought it up, it became clear that someone had farted in the van. Again, we pressed forward.
The glorious culmination of the Pablo Escobar Tour was Pablo’s old house – or a hideout, really – where he lived with his brother in his final months, stored cash and vehicles, and eventually met his bloody end. The van wound its way up to the hilltop residence, through the gates, and parked outside the garage that still held Pablo’s dirt bike and the old blue truck he had first used to smuggle cocaine paste over the border. As we piled out into the blessedly fresh air, our guide told us that here we would meet Roberto Escobar, Pablo’s brother, who through a deal with the government, operated this house as a museum and used the proceeds to fund this tour and the medical foundation he had set up. My first reaction was that maybe this tour could use just a little more funding, or at least a cooler van, but I kept my opinions to myself and followed the group into the house.
Pictures of young Pablo adorned the walls along with news clippings, old trophies, and a large wanted poster that offered $10 million for information about Pablo or Roberto. The same poster listed their main associates along with their photos: men with alternately grim or smiling visages with nicknames in Spanish such as Pitufo, El Pollo, and La Garra; Smurf, The Chicken, and The Claw, respectively. Overall, it was a real solid-looking group of capable henchmen. La Garra, particularly, struck me as the type of gentleman you wouldn’t really ever want to fuck with.
In the living room, amid various bullet holes left over from when the house was attacked, we finally found Roberto Escobar himself, short and soft-spoken, both partially blind and partially deaf from a letter bomb that exploded in his face years ago. Coffee was offered, and he then sat on his porch and opened the floor to questions. He spoke only Spanish, and enlisted a gregarious Irish guy in our group to translate for him. One of the Aussies was quick to jump in.
“You ever, like, kill a guy?” he asked, a little too enthusiastically.
“I’m not fucking asking him that,” the Irishman quickly responded, looking back and forth between Roberto and the group, as most people suppressed laughter. Just imagine an exceedingly Irish accent as you read that – it’s funnier that way.
Escobar nodded and seemed to understand though, as he had probably received a similar query from similarly excited twentysomethings over the years. He told us that he had been the cartel’s bookkeeper, and that he’d stayed far away from the killing, bombing, and torture end of their business venture. “I criticised my brother many times for the violence he caused,” he claimed, conveniently never addressing the fact that he used the billions of dollars gained through that bloodshed and devastation to lead a lavish life beside his sibling, above the law.
So many billions, in fact, that the cartel had to spend $2,500 on just rubber bands every month, to keep the currency together in neat stacks. So many billions that 10 percent of their profits were lost every year to rats eating the money and it rotting away in the ground where they buried it for lack of storage space. A lot of that hidden cash, rodent-chewed and mildewed though it may be, is still out there, he claimed, his one good eye blankly tracing the clouds in the sky as he spoke of the old days.
“That’s all behind me now, though; I do good now,” he continued. He then launched into a lengthy speech about how since he was released from prison in 2003, he has gained valuable medical knowledge while caring for expensive horses, and used that knowledge to find a cure for HIV.
Everyone politely listened, sometimes quizzically glancing at each other to see if this was some kind of mistranslation, but it wasn’t. For a man claiming that he used equine expertise to conquer AIDS, he was pretty matter-of-fact about the whole thing. And if there’s one thing stranger than hearing a half-blind ex-cartel accountant tell you he’s made a world changing medical breakthrough, it’s hearing it translated through a hungover and somewhat bewildered 21-year-old Irish kid.
And with little to no follow up to the whole “I cured HIV because horses” thing, besides him noting that “soon we will release our breakthrough medicine and suffering everywhere will be ended,” the Q&A section was over. Roberto stood awkwardly against the wall in front of a picture of his brother’s ranch, so the group could once again slowly file past and record this crowning moment via digital camera. He posed stoically for the photos, unsmiling and stiff as he shook all our hands in turn, as he had done hundreds of times before and would again. The last we saw of Roberto Escobar was his back as he slowly shuffled down a hallway to his room, past smiling photos of his dead brother and old, yellowing headlines of the carnage they had wrought together, faded artifacts of a fallen empire.
In the van on the way back, as everyone silently asked themselves if this venture had, in fact, been worth $30, I suggested that we all go to Mario Bross for hamburgers and fries – so we did, and it was delicious. Now, I’m not saying I singlehandedly saved the entire tour, but I’m also not saying that I didn't.
Back at the hostel, as I headed for the bar, I felt a slap on my back and turned around to find my South African friend, beer in hand, already quite drunk.
“How was the tour, bruh? What’d you learn?”
“Welp, turns out, the world’s favourite Italian plumber grills a mean burger; there’s uncounted, rat-eaten millions buried all over this city; and Pablo Escobar’s brother is a pretty weird dude.”
Follow Karl Hess on Twitter.
More stuff about this kind of stuff: Memories of MedellÍn
WATCH – Cooking with Cocaine