Depending on your age, you’re likely to at least have heard of Pablo Escobar if you aren’t acquainted with his history and its inseparable relation to that of Colombia. A drug lord whose fame in the 80s and 90s was both worldwide and notorious, Pablo lived, reigned and died in Medellin. As the 90s kids who knew little about the ins and outs of Escobar’s days, we decided to take one of the many Pablo Escobar tours during our time in Medellin to learn more about him and how he affected Colombia during those decades.
When Tom and I first decided that we would add Colombia on our list of places to visit during our time in South America, the responses back home ranged from ‘Cooooool!’ to ‘Please tell me you’re joking’. Beyond the continent itself, most people around the world associate Colombia with two things: Pablo Escobar and cocaine. Oh, and the crime and violence that have resulted from both. Medellin in particular was one of the most dangerous cities in the world 20 years ago. However, since the drug lord stopped hitting the headlines in the years after his death, few have heard little else in the media to alter these perceptions of the country.
Arriving in Colombia it was clear that this isn’t the same troubled and degraded place that we had been cautioned so strongly against visiting. Firstly, we were amazed by the beauty of the sweeping landscapes and luscious greenery that bless the countryside all around. Medellin itself was a thriving cosmopolitan hub with an infectiously happy vibe and much to boast about. Everything was clean, organised and modern, the people were obviously proud of their city. As we embarked upon the tour, the passionate Colombian woman who would be our guide for the next few hours spoke of her anger of the reputation that Escobar and the drug industry has given their country, and suddenly the illusion of all Colombians as coke-happy hippies was put to rights.
The tour took us around Medellin, stopping at important buildings and sites that tied in with a very detailed insight into Escobar’s life, Colombia during the 80s and 90s, and how he and the drug trade affected the lives of local Colombians during that time. We heard of how Pablo began as a hero to the people, using his money at the start to fund local improvement projects and gain popularity. This allowed him the gain the votes to enter Colombian politics, giving him political immunity for the time being, until he was thrown out of his position when it became apparent that he was in fact a drug lord, not your average entrepreneur. Nevertheless, Escobar’s riches grew, as did his list of enemies. Most people who spoke out against him would be assassinated shortly after, yet he still faced resistance. By the late 80s this had grown into a full blown drugs war between him, the Cali cartel, the authorities, and other high-power people who tried to unhinge Escobar’s power. In the years 1989-1992 tens of thousands of people died, mostly civilians, from the violence. Car bombings, even plane bombings, were regular occurrences to target people and places of strategical importance; evidence still subtly marks the modern facade of Medellin today.
Pablo Escobar’s death in 1993 was highly symbolic, but of course a drug empire wouldn’t end with just one more fatality. However it did enable Colombia to take gradual steps towards changing its course, with such a big player out of the way. Travelling around Colombia today it is at first a little disconcerting to see so many stop-and-search points on the road and armed guards in the streets, but when you see the happy Colombians living a rich and successful life in this new generation, you understand. Nightlife, that was non-existent a few decades ago, is now thriving in Medellin and elsewhere, as is business, culture and, at last, tourism. As the new era of South American Gap Yah kids invade Colombia, it is only a matter of time until the word spreads that this is the hottest new country to visit on the continent…