As I knew I would be entering Colombia, all I thought was about cartels, jungle and some interesting football players to have graced the English Premier League of the years.
Colombia has a unwanted attachment to being a place full of cocaine and drug cartels. That is the unfortunate stereotype people outside of Colombia have because of the recent history that has infiltrated the country. Of course Colombia is much more than that but with all the media coverage of the years of all gangsters and shootings, tough streets and unforgiven corruption, there isn’t another view to have on Colombia until you actually visit it. Colombia wouldn’t exactly be the first country you’d hear about on the news, it wasn’t exactly marketed to be a dream holiday destination or be known for its international hit music. You’d hear about Colombia on BBC World Service because of all the problems the country had. Because of this it causes you to create only one opinion about a country and back in the 70’s to the 90’s who can blame anyone for thinking that? Some of the events were absolutely extraordinary and probably never to be repeated in the same capacity again.
Nowadays though Colombia is a more reformed country (despite the peace talks between rebel groups and governments drastically failing only recently). Colombia’s innovation is being recognised and with a slogan of ‘Magical Realism’ Colombia’s tourism is on the up, despite Foreign Offices right now advising against this. Backpackers like myself are curious and keen to head to hedonistic areas. and with Colombia boasting many different settings, beaches, mountains and jungle it’s worth the adventure.
Meeting in Medellin
I was standing there in front of him. There was a big wanted poster behind him, bullet holes through windows and walls, I realised to myself at the time that I didn’t know enough about the recent history of Colombia, and about Pablo Escobar. The guy standing there of course wasn’t Pablo himself, it was his brother, Roberto Escobar. The once accountant for the Medellin Cartel, one of the few people closely connected to Pablo Escobar that is still alive. Soon I began to realise the huge deal this was within Colombia, and started to understand the magnitude of the Medellin cartel era.
Pablo Escobar was the wealthiest and most known drug lord in history. This guy made BILLIONS. He was on the Forbes rich list seven years straight, he bought soccer teams in Colombia, provided 80% of cocaine to the USA, owned zoo’s, multiple villa’s, condo’s, cars and planes you name it. He played the Robin Hood character to the poor people in the slums of Medellin and he even got into Congress for a short with his political aspirations. This guy killed many people of all kinds and it didnt matter on the title as no-one was exempt including presidential candidates, judges and cops. Man, he even blew up an Avianca airplane mid flight. He died in shootout on a Medellin rooftop after years on the run, in 1993.
So yeah, you get the picture. This guy wasn’t messing around.
As I was in a hostel in Medellin hungover, my ears began to prick up after hearing conversations of taking the ‘Pablo Escobar tour’ and as many travellers, I was keen to get involved. Bundled into a mini van in the morning, we took a tour around the City whilst the story of Escobar was told. We were warned that tours do not tell the same story, because its so recent, some guides are for Escobar and some against. There were so many people affected by the Medellin Cartels dominance of Colombia, many peoples families and friends were affected. In this case, our tour guide was for Escobar and defended him when possible.
We visited a building once destroyed during cartel wars involving Escobar. However as the guide told, it gave an insight of the seriousness that these cartels were, what was at stake and what lengths they were willing to go to. That kind of made me shit myself a bit. That area generally made me feel a bit wary just being next to it as anything could happen. Next up, we visited Pablo’s grave at Cemetario Jardins Montesacro. It was in good condition still and in an area of the cemetery out of the way, almost having its own privacy. Many people come to pay their respects everyday to the grave, both locals and tourists. The tour guide was adamant that Pablo wasn’t killed, that he shot himself through the ears. It is what he had always said he would do if he was cornered with no way out. That is one thing I remember sticking out from the whole tour.
We reached the house where Roberto stayed, overlooking Medellin. Up on a small mountain top, he seemed a little hesitant and in all honesty, weird. His eyesight looked poor, almost blind if I must say. He’d been hurt years earlier apparently from trauma to his face from a letter bomb. He’d obviously had surgery and other work done to attempt to fix it. He was smaller than I though, around 5ft 5inches. It’s crazy to think he would be involved in such a dangerous and controlling gang given his fragile state. Before he chatted to us in Spanish through a translator, he seemed a bit fed up. He gazed into the distance almost deep in thought as a life he was once was involved in. now, on house arrest all he does is talk about the past.
“Will you be in contact with Popeye now he has been released from jail?” I asked inquisitively. Popeye had been released a month earlier (August 2014)
From watching a DVD on Pablo Escobar as we drove around the City i’d discovered who he was. Popeye was his nickname, his real name is Jhon Jairo Velasquez Vasquez and he was one of Pablo Escobars main henchmen. When the tide was coming in on the capture of the remaining members of the Medellin Cartel, Popeye turned himself in. He had estimated to have killed between 200-300 people for Escobar. He killed his own girlfriend on the orders of Pablo and killed one of Pablo’s main dealers in the early 90’s, something that propelled the beginning of the end for Pablo Escobar.
I’m pretty sure he hadn’t been asked that before, so understandably he was a bit coy on the answer, which as all of his replies were in Spanish. He went on to say how he didn’t need to speak to Popeye, and it wouldn’t be an issue if he did. That if he came by, then he would see him. I remember thinking that was odd as if he didn’t care and nothing had happened. There would be no shots of agua calientes, a Colombia liquor, discussing old times and Pablo. I guess in the life of gang members, it isn’t as reminiscent as you see in the movies.
Roberto then told how had partied a lot in his time and slept with many stunning models. Despite his appearance, when you’re the brother of a man with so much power you couldn’t really argue with the point. They made insane amounts of money as you can imagine, stashing money all across Colombia and have no idea where some of it is today. He also insisted both him and Pablo been good friends with Frank Sinatra of all people and he was a regular to the ranches and parties of Pablo. The aura you got from him was slightly unsettling. You knew he had been many things in his life, he was a bandit. One could only wonder what that must of been like. Despite being Pablo’s brother he didn’t get as involved as other of Pablo’s henchmen. I posed for a picture with him by the the wanted sign of him and his brother that read SE BUSCAN and with a reward of over $2M. That wanted poster alone was so powerful. I found it unique to be in the presence of someone who can tell the stories of an incredible part of Colombia’s history when it was so recent and I took that all in as much as I could.
Roberto Escobar is on house arrest and does tours regularly now like this. He is 69 years old. He does not speak to the remaining members of Pablo’s family such as his wife, son and daughter. Unlike his brother, Roberto lives to tell the tales.