When you say Medellin, it doesn't necessarily mean only cheap Cocaine and the best whore houses in the world. This metropolis also has one of the most violent pasts in the urban history of South America. I had a week left in Colombia before I moved further south so I decided to see with my own eyes what is this city, with a reputation worse than South Africa’s Johannesburg, all about.
Colombia has passed through its most violent years and long gone are the times when statistics told of approximately three thousands kidnappings a year. This number has slimmed down to one tenth and today gringos from all around the world come here to look for cheap entertainment and beautiful women for whom Medellin is plastic surgery capital numero uno.
The centre of cartel activity moved north to Mexico long ago (see new flick Sicario, or Mexico's own national anti-hero El Chapo), but those barely compare to the monstrousity of Pablo Escobar's Medellin cartel from the times of 80's and 90's of the last century.
Everybody knows the story: this man controlled the majority of the cocaine market and during the best times he shipped 15 TONS of white powder a day to the US alone and was able to pay the national debt of the whole country. His cartel was responsible for 3000-30000 murders, not to mention the fact he became a member of the Colombian senate and for a long time dictated his terms to government and even to the President.
I ignore the advice of tourist guides and avoid the rich gringo quarter, El Poblado, and check into a hotel in the grittier centre which looks like an anthill every time of day and from where it is recommended to stay away at night.
The internet is soaked with ads of agencies offering trips to Escobar's grave and to the house where he was gunned down by Colombian police teamed up with the American DEA, but I had a better idea: in exchange for an English chat I am looking for someone who would be keen to show me those places from the perspective of an ordinary Medellin citizen - take it or leave it.
Within hours, I have my first response and in the morning there is a guy waiting outside my hotel. We get some petrol and we head for Escobar's grave. During a 15 minute ride from the centre he shows me at least ten now deserted buildings which belonged to Escobar. Blogs mention 300 properties were owned by him altogether.
At the cemetery we learn 50 tourists every day visit Escobar's grave. My guide tells me he also has family members buried here. Among the others, his own brother, who at the age of thirty two was a witness to a gang murder and who, a couple of days later, was assassinated in front of his own house to prevent him being sub-poenaed. Thus, the everyday reality of the nineties in Medellin, Colombia.
We move back to the centre, to El Poblado and park the car next to the obscure concrete building of Escobar's former headquarters. We persuade the guard at the gate and so are able to sneak into Monaco. The broken interior appears really quirky in contrast with the luxury out there.
Only ruins are left from this six storey fortress where Pablo supposedly lived only with his family, surrounded by a fancy car collection and original paintings by world class artists – the destiny of most of his buildings, torn down by treasure hunters convinced they would find some leftover cash stashed in the walls of any of his properties.
I am looking down from the highest floor where Pablo supposedly had a room dedicated to cash bribes and I see the modern panorama of ElPoblado. My company points down at the street and tells the story about two unsuccessful murder attempts in 1988 when two cars set up by the competitive Cali cartel exploded just below us in what appears to be a quiet street now.
While we move further, to the house where they killed him, my guide continues and tells me there were about 2000 people involved in the Medellin cartel and most of them are dead now. The irony is that the city council doesn't officially support tours at all, but at the same time one of the few survivors, Escobar's most active Sicario (300 murders), Popeye, is still alive and well here in Medellin and in fact he became a celebrity and even has his own Youtube channel.
But the most bizarre thing in the whole Escobar story is the way he gave himself in to the hands of justice: he dictated his own conditions which were supposed to end the era of set up explosives, kidnappings and hunts for police officers and eventually let himself be jailed in his own privately built prison with his own guards, where normal police were not allowed to approach closer than three kilometers.
I insist and we set out for a journey up to the hills above the city. After about an hour of rambling around we finally reach La Cathedral – currently a community centre for elderly people of some Christian foundation.
After a little hassle at the gate they finally let us in. We walk on the remains of what seems to be a concrete football field and a short local guy, who claims his father used to work for Escobar, shows us the ruins of Pablo's room where he had a rotating bed and other 'cells' where mostly his closest accomplices and Sicarios lived.
I am overlooking a helipad and see the Medellin valley down in the background and I am almost fascinated - this man had style. Even though he was responsible for thousands of deaths, I understand he mesmerized so many people around the world.
After all, he was one of the few who were able to be so uniquely exclusive from the entire establishment and state and, at the same time, able to maintain his intangibility, even though the price others had to pay was way too high...
But I can't imagine this was possible in any other country. In this respect, Colombia is really unique and it is still recovering from its dark past.
While we look into the distance, my guide laconically adds that nothing really changed since then and white powder is still being happily exported from this magical country – it is just not so flaunted anymore... That is to say: dice are thrown but the rats have stayed. Viva Colombia!