November 11, 2003

Medellín, Colombia

The influence and infamy of Pablo Escobar is evident just about everywhere in Medellín. Though ostracized and later hunted by his own country, people here still speak of him as a hero. Using the profits from cocaine production, Escobar raised the income of Colombia in the late 1980's from one of the world's poorest countries to 7th highest in the 1990's. The leaps in infrastructure, education and healthcare are astounding. Eventually jailed in Colombia under pressure from the US, Escobar escaped through a secret tunnel (it was he who had the jail commissioned years earlier), and remained on the run until gunned down by police years later.

Raised to legendary status, many here doubt he was actually assassinated in 1993. Assassinations and murders are common here, and I have to admit that the more I learn about it, the fishier the circumstances surrounding Escobar's death seem.

Since 1993, Escobar and the cartel that bore the city's name are no longer operating. The drug profits that were Escobar's incentive are more lucrative than ever, so not surprisingly many newcomers have take his place. Unfortunately for Colombians, many of newcomers are from other countries and so funnel drug profits out of Colombia. The country no longer benefits as much from the industry that is tearing it apart.

The city itself seems a bit exotic if only because it is only nationals who are here. I have yet to see a single tourist! I suppose this shouldn't surprise me. Outside of Colombia, I received nothing but stares from cab drivers, customs officials and the like who learned I was coming here. Nobody thought it was such a good idea. Now that I'm here, while I haven't made up my mind about how safe it is, it's quite interesting to see the locals' attitude toward visitors. Many who live here are light-skinned of European decent, and I don't stand out nearly as much as I have elsewhere. People here are very friendly, and speak to me at a mile a minute assuming I'm a local. Understandable: They don't see many tourists. I have to slow them down in order to speak with them, and once I do, they are extremely curious about the North American who has come here. They want to know what I think of their country: the people, the music, the food, etc, and what opinion Canadians hold of their country. They offer tons of great advice about what to see and do, and what to avoid.

It's easy though, to see the mark that the drug violence has left on this city. I've become accustomed to guards with firearms outside businesses in Latin America, but they don't mess around here. The guards in and around banks carry automatic weapons, fully locked and loaded. Their sidearms are drawn at all times. To get into the bank I used to cash a traveller's check, I was frisked with a metal detector, then sent through a bulletproof mantrap. Once inside, you are presumably safe, so it's there that the businessmen waiting in line for the tellers begin to take money out of their socks and belts.

Heavy rain here has kept me from seeing as much of Medellín as I'd like to. It has caused fatal mudslides in nearby villages, but here it's intermittent, so I've been able to get out and about between downpours.

Posted by dhuska at November 11, 2003 09:11 AM