We have mere days before we cross our eighth border and leave Colombia behind for Ecuador. It’s virtually impossible to express just how much Colombia has snuck her tentacles around our feet so they drag with palpable weight. We’re coming down to the wire on the time we can legally be in the country. We’re about 90 miles from the border and will cross on Friday August 4th, one year to the day that we began this trip.
Colombia is many things. It’s a country that was brand new to both of us, so big that after months in countries that could be traversed in one day that when I saw the first sign indicating Bogota was 800 kilometers away I was floored. So we spent our three months in cities and wild campsites. We went on tours and drove the winding roads through the Andes, a death defying feat to rival anything we’ve encountered so far. We’ve talked about coming back, maybe renting a house for a few months so we can see the things we missed.
There’s so much I can and will say about Colombia but I think I want to start this series with my observations on the legacy of Colombia’s most infamous citizen. Before “Narcos” I think most of us knew who he was but not the extent of his power or the ferocity with which the CIA and the DEA went after him. However, Pablo Escobar and his rise to power was a symptom of much larger problems that had been taking place in Colombia for some time, and when the US becomes involved things rarely work out.
I’m no expert, but I’ve paid attention, asked questions, read books and magazine articles, and thought about the man and the country who loves to hate him and these are my stories.
When Does Violent History Become Entertainment?
When “Narcos” first hit Netflix we were still living in Mexico. The fact that show became a huge hit was not surprising; we all love stories about anti-heroes who won’t hesitate to blow up a plane but shed a tiny tear of compassion when they buy a soccer field for a poor neighborhood. One of our biggest questions was, how long does the mainstream media need to wait to dramatize true events in history, especially those that see a direct involvement by the United States? We decided 20 years seems to be the norm. M*A*S*H* came out in the 1970’s, about 20 years after the Korean War. The slew of Vietnam films in the 80’s and 90’s were also at about the 20 year post-Vietnam mark. Maybe it just takes a generation (20 years) for the wounds to sting a little less and the misguided glory to shine a little more bright.
I also find it very interesting that the two television shows targeting US audiences and focusing on the cocaine smuggling trade in the 1980’s are “Narcos” and “Miami Vice”. The polarity is astounding.
Capitalizing on Terror
Speaking of “Narcos” I’ve found it to be no surprise that Colombia has seen quite the uptick in “Pablo Tourism”, and many of the locals and some members of the Colombian government are not too happy about it. Pablo had estates all over the country, many of which are tourist sites now like Hacienda La Manuela, his bombed out villa in Guatape. You can go play paintball there if you want, or you can stay the night, like we did. We also took a Pablo Escobar tour of Medellin which was about as disappointing as it can get. It was basically a rerun of the television series while being crammed in a van. Seeing his gravestone was an interesting experience but when we pulled up to the curb of the residential home where he was shot on the roof I didn’t even get out of the van. I felt badly for the people who live here now and how their street is one of the most visited places in Medellin. There’s serious talk about these kinds of tours being banned. I’d tend to agree. You’re better off just watching the show if you want the sensationalized version or read one of the many accounts of his life and death in Colombia.
When the Landscape is Your Biggest Foe
The Colombian Andes are no joke. I had no idea what to expect when we found ourselves in the thick of them, sheer drops of thousands of feet, headaches from the altitude, and narrow roads that are the only route through. But they’re impossibly beautiful, filled with thousands of different kinds of trees and plants, all of them indescribable shades of green. But as Will likes to point out, topography wins and loses wars and Colombia is very similar to Afghanistan in that regard. These mountains hide the remote enclaves of guerrilla and paramilitary groups like FARC, ELN, and M 19. The government and the military have been dealing with them for more than 50 years. A civil war of nearly half a decade creates the perfect scenario for someone like Pablo Escobar to slip in and take advantage while everyone is scrambling to keep up with everyone else with guns, drugs, and landmines who can quietly disappear into the Andes and be nothing more than a shadow in a matter of seconds.
The Court of Popular Opinion
Depending on who you talk to in Colombia you’ll get vastly different opinions about Pablo. When we were at Hacienda Napoles we met a Colombian-American man whose family emigrated to the US in 1973. His remarks were dripping with hatred and he gloated over the many photos of Pablo’s corpse on display there. Then, a few minutes later, I asked our tuk tuk driver how old he was and what he thought of Pablo. He is 25, told me both his parents worked for Pablo in some capacity, and if Hacienda Napoles was not there or if the government had closed it to the public the little town he lived in would have nothing.
The doctor I saw in Medellin was a very smart, well educated woman in her mid-thirties. She told me that when she was growing up her well to do family had a ranch near Hacienda Napoles. One day, as a young girl, she cut her thumb open pretty badly. The only doctor in the area was Pablo’s personal physician, so he stitched her up. I asked if she remembers meeting Pablo and she said no, but that her parents were frequent guests at Hacienda Napoles.
Then I was talking with an older Colombian woman and told her I was reading a book by Colombia’s beloved Gabriel Garcia Marquez. She assumed I was reading Love in the Time of Cholera but when I told her I was reading News of a Kidnapping which is about the journalists kidnapped by the Medellin cartel to protest the fact that the US was demanding extradition of its members she gasped and put her hand to heart and told me to never say his name. I felt like I had just been slapped by my grandma.
Obviously I can’t speak for everyone in the country nor would I dare to but my observations indicate that younger Colombians have a very different and somewhat positive view of Pablo Escobar and older Colombians see him as a stain in the fabric of their nation that may never wash out. And Colombians who live in or have spent significant time in the United States? Their opinion seems to be something like he should have been culled at birth.
Oh, and even though they hate the show they also hate the fact that a Brazilian actor who had to learn Spanish for the role was cast as the lead in “Narcos”. Our tour guide in Medellin was particularly incensed by that.
When Pablo Tourism Becomes a National Embarrassment
If “Narcos” had never been made Colombia might be a different place today. Yes, tourists might still visit his grave but there would be no Pablo tourism industry and there would be nothing like what happened a few months ago.
To better illustrate how many residents of Medellin and the country itself have nothing but loathing for Pablo Escobar we can look at the reaction sparked by Wiz Khalifa when he played a show in Medellin back in March of this year. He later posted photos on Instagram of himself at Pablo’s grave smoking a blunt. All of this ended up on the rapper’s Instagram feed and Colombians lost their shit. Even the mayor of the city demanded an apology and Twitter in Colombia blew up in outrage. If Pablo tourism in Medellin and elsewhere are nice things this is why we can’t have them.
It’s hard for a country to distance itself from influential figures who have helped shape a nation’s identity, and Colombia is no exception. Like it or not Pablo Escobar will be aligned with Colombia for years to come and that would have happened even without the success of the show or the rise in Pablo tourism. But while other countries deal with moronic presidents who clearly have no idea what they’re doing there’s no denying that Pablo Escobar was the tipping point on an already listing boat, he was in the right place at the right time, and he was a shrewd and ruthless businessman who would stop at almost nothing to create a product that was in high demand.
And where was that demand in the 1980’s and 1990’s? That’s a question that answers itself.