Inland to Medellin

Flights from Santa Marta to Medellin are very reasonable and it is one of the major cities in Columbia with a notorious history, at one stage having the dubious title as the most dangerous city in the world..

For us it was a chance to see something of the interior of Columbia rather than just the coastline. It is now a much safer place to tour than in recent years.

Medellin city from one of the cable cars

One of the notorious residents of the city was Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria who was born in December 1949. He was raised in the city of Medellín and is thought to have begun his criminal career as a teenager, eventually becoming involved in many criminal activities running petty street scams, selling contraband cigarettes, fake lottery tickets, and stealing cars.

In the early 1970s, prior to entering the drug trade, Escobar acted as a thief and bodyguard, allegedly earning US $100,000 by kidnapping and holding a Medellín executive for ransom. He began working for Alvaro Prieto, a contraband smuggler who operated around Medellín, aiming to fulfil a childhood ambition to have COL $1 million by the time he was 22. Escobar is known to have had a bank deposit of COL $100 million (more than US $3 million), when he turned 26.

Street Art in Communa 13

Beginning in 1975, Pablo started developing his cocaine operation, flying out planes several times, mainly between Colombia and Panama, along smuggling routes into the United States.

In May 1976, Escobar and several of his men were arrested and found in possession of 39 pounds (18 kg) of white paste, attempting to return to Medellín from Ecuador. He tried to bribe the Medellín judges who were forming a case against him. After many months of legal wrangling, he ordered the murder of the two arresting officers, and the case was later dropped. This began his pattern of dealing with the authorities, by either bribery or murder.

As there were no drug cartels then, and only a few drug barons in Peru, Pablo would buy the cocaine paste, which would then be refined in a laboratory in a two-story house in Medellín. At first, he smuggled the cocaine in old plane tyres, Soon, the demand for cocaine increased, and Escobar organised more smuggling shipments, routes, and distribution networks in South Florida, California, and other parts of the country developing a new trans-shipment point in the Bahamas, an island called Norman’s Cay about 220 miles (350 km) southeast of the Florida coast. We had visited here when we’re in the Bahamas! Escobar and Robert Vesco purchased most of the land on the island, which included a 1 kilometre airstrip, a harbour, a hotel, houses, boats, and aircraft, and they built a refrigerated warehouse to store the cocaine.

Nightlife in current day Medellin

From 1978 to 1982, this was used as a central smuggling route for the Medellín Cartel. With the enormous profits generated by this route, Escobar was soon able to purchase 7.7 square miles of land in Antioquia for several million dollars, on which he built the Hacienda Nápoles. The luxury house he created contained a zoo, a lake, a sculpture garden, a private bullring, and other diversions for his family and the cartel.

At one point it was estimated that 70 to 80 tons of cocaine were being shipped from Colombia to the United States every month. In the mid-1980s, the Medellín Cartel was shipping as much as 11 tons per flight in jetliners to the United States (the biggest load shipped by Escobar was 51,000 pounds mixed with fish paste and shipped via boat. Roberto Escobar, his brother, also claimed that, in addition to using planes, two small submarines were used to transport the massive loads.

Escobar was the official representative of the Colombian government for the swearing-in of Felipe González in Spain. He quickly became known internationally as his drug network gained notoriety; the Medellín Cartel controlled a large portion of the drugs that entered the United States, Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and Spain. The production process was also altered, with coca from Bolivia and Peru replacing the coca from Colombia, which was beginning to be seen as substandard quality than the coca from the neighbouring countries. It is alleged that Escobar backed the 1985 storming of the Colombian Supreme Court by left-wing guerrillas from the 19th of April Movement, also known as M-19. The siege, a retaliation motivated by the Supreme Court studying the constitutionality of Colombia’s extradition treaty with the U.S., resulted in the murders of half the judges on the court. M-19 were paid to break into the Palace and burn all papers and files on a group of cocaine smugglers who were under threat of being extradited to the U.S. by the Colombian government. Hostages were also taken for negotiation of their release, thus helping to prevent the extradition.

View from the top of Peñol Rock

During the height of its operations, the Medellín Cartel brought in more than US $70 million per day (roughly $26 billion in a year). Smuggling 15 tons of cocaine per day, worth more than half a billion dollars, into the United States, the cartel spent over US $1,000 per week purchasing rubber bands to wrap the stacks of cash, storing most of it in their warehouses. Ten percent of the cash had to be written off per year because of “spoilage”, due to rats creeping in and nibbling on the bills they could reach.

When questioned about the essence of the cocaine business, Escobar replied with “the business is simple: you bribe someone here, you bribe someone there, and you pay a friendly banker to help you bring the money back.”

In 1989, Forbes magazine estimated Escobar to be one of 227 billionaires in the world with a personal net worth of approaching US $3 billion while his Medellín Cartel controlled 80% of the global cocaine market. It is commonly believed that Escobar was the principal financier behind Medellín’s Atlético Nacional, which won South America’s most prestigious football tournament, in 1989.

While seen as an enemy of the United States and Colombian governments, Escobar was a hero to many in Medellín. He was a natural at public relations, and he worked to create goodwill among the poor of Colombia. A lifelong sports fan, he was credited with building football fields and multi-sports courts, as well as sponsoring children’s football teams.

He worked hard to cultivate his Robin Hood image, and frequently distributed money through housing projects and other civic activities, which gained him notable popularity among the locals of the towns that he frequented. Some people from Medellín often helped Escobar avoid police capture by serving as lookouts, hiding information from authorities, or doing whatever else they could to protect him.

The Colombian cartels’ continuing struggles to maintain supremacy resulted in Colombia quickly becoming the world’s murder capital with 25,100 violent deaths in 1991 and 27,100 in 1992. This increased murder rate was fuelled by Escobar’s giving money to his hitmen as a reward for killing police officers, over 600 of whom died as a result.

Eventually, the government negotiated with Escobar and convinced him to surrender and cease all criminal activity in exchange for a reduced sentence and preferential treatment during his captivity. Declaring an end to a series of previous violent acts meant to pressure authorities and public opinion, Escobar surrendered to Colombian authorities in 1991. Before he gave himself up, the extradition of Colombian citizens to the United States had been prohibited by the newly approved Colombian Constitution of 1991. This act was controversial, as it was suspected that Escobar and other drug lords had influenced members of the Constituent Assembly in passing the law. Escobar was confined in what became his own luxurious private prison, La Catedral, which featured a football pitch, giant doll house, bar, jacuzzi and waterfall. Accounts of Escobar’s continued criminal activities while in prison began to surface in the media, which prompted the government to attempt to move him to a more conventional jail 1992. Escobar’s influence allowed him to discover the plan in advance and make a successful escape, spending the remainder of his life evading the police.

Following Escobar’s escape, the United States joined the manhunt for Escobar. They trained and advised a special Colombian police task force known as the Search Bloc, which had been created to locate Escobar. Later, as the conflict between Escobar and the governments of the United States and Colombia dragged on, and as the numbers of Escobar’s enemies grew, a vigilante group known as the”People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar”) was formed. They carried out a bloody campaign, fuelled by vengeance, in which more than 300 of Escobar’s associates, his lawyer and relatives were slain, and a large amount of the Medellín cartel’s property was destroyed.

After becoming wealthy, Escobar created or bought numerous residences and safe houses, Escobar also owned a home in Florida and a massive Caribbean getaway on Isla Grande, the largest comprising Islas del Rosario, located about 22 miles from Cartagena.

Just one of Escobar’s many past residences – left untouched since his death

16 months after his escape, Pablo Escobar died in a shootout on 2 December 1993, amid another of Escobar’s attempts to elude capture he was hiding in Los Olivos, a middle-class barrio in Medellín. He was shot and killed by Colombian National Police whilst trying to escape. Soon after Escobar’s death and the subsequent fragmentation of the Medellín Cartel, the cocaine market became dominated by the rival Cali Cartel until the mid-1990s when its leaders were either killed or captured by the Colombian government.

We were interested to learn more about what it was like during this period. The people we spoke to preferred to not give notoriety to Escobar, as they felt this was funding his family.

The cathedral

Medellin had much to offer, it is build in a valley and expands up many hillsides. To help residents get to work, various transport systems have been built, including cable cars and escalators. It was fascinating to ride them and explore the different regions of the city.

The escalators in Comuna 13 – helping residents return to work after a hard day

After a couple of days exploring metropolitan Medellin we ended by heading out to Guatapé (Pueblo de Zocalos), home to the magnificent Peñol Rock (La Piedra del Peñol) on a 12-hour tour.

Peñol Rock

As well as ascending the 742 steps leading to the summit, we visited traditional villages such as Guarne and Marinilla, and enjoyed a sightseeing cruise on Lake Guatape.


Colourful Guatape

Many of the houses are painted brightly often with scenes depicting the trade of the inhabitants

The zocalos (paintings) often depicted the trade of the inhabitants

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