Napoleon of Medellín

Edward Luttwak

  • Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the Richest, Most Powerful Criminal in History by Mark Bowden
    Atlantic, 387 pp, £16.99, June 2001, ISBN 1 903809 00 2

Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria (1949-93), the most talented and richest of Colombian drug bosses, lived his contradictions. A gold-framed portrait of the Virgin Mary hung over the bed in which he slept with teenage prostitutes, but he was devoted to his wife and family in the properly unconditional Latino manner. ‘Whether his concern for his parents or his children would overcome his stringent security consciousness is not clear,’ reads an excessively cautious CIA profile quoted by Mark Bowden: by then, Escobar was a hunted man, pursued by what might have been called a ‘binational, multi-agency task force’ had the Colombian and US drug police, signals-intelligence, national police and military units been better co-ordinated. With the many millions of dollars at his disposal, Escobar could easily have left Medellín and Colombia altogether: in South America there are still many places where one can live without papers and not too badly either, there are first-class plastic surgeons who will produce a better new face, and officials who will sell genuine identity cards and passports to fit it. But Escobar would not abandon his wife and children, whose lives were being threatened by a special Colombian police unit that was after him, acting by way of a convenient gang of supposedly volunteer vigilante terrorists. Escobar remained nearby so that he’d be able to protect them with his remaining network of gunslingers, lawyers, publicists and money-men. It took the most elaborate and costly manhunt ever mounted against a mere criminal 15 months to find him. He was immediately killed: his American and Colombian pursuers would trust no court to convict him, no prison to hold him, or indeed any politicians to administer the process. In 1991 he had surrendered voluntarily after successfully negotiating the passage of an anti-extradition law and his right to be held in a new prison built to his own design with all mod cons and a bit more, whose guards immediately became his servants, procurers, runners and agents.

Medellín, in the departemento of Antioquía in western Colombia, also lives its contradictions. Imagined by some as a landscape of slums and shacks in which pistoleros shoot it out over bags of cocaine – it does have a world-record murder rate – Medellín is one of the most attractive cities in Latin America, or anywhere, with its wonderful tropical-mountain climate (22 degrees year round), and its profusion of flowers, flowering bushes and flowering trees that embellish slums and new quarters alike. Even the commercial centre, of skyscrapers and office towers, has its imaginative architectural elements. As Colombia’s second largest city, with two million inhabitants, and commercial centre of the region’s industry, mining, ranching and agriculture, Medellín has rather more than its share of banks and even a local stock exchange, as well as an abundance of restaurants, nightclubs and hotels. There are some thirty non-stop and direct flights a day to Miami alone, a good indicator of the high level of economic activity even at a time of acute depression, and even now that Medellín is no longer the capital of the world’s drug trade, as it was in the 1980s, when Escobar was the boss of the eponymous ‘Cartel’.

Money alone is enough to provide office blocks, hotels and air traffic, whether it is flower money or drug money; but there is much more to Medellín than its money. The international poetry festival organised every year by the local literary magazine Prometeo ranges all the way from the upper reaches of folklore to experiments in Post-Modernism. Medellín’s thirty or so museums are not all well kept but neither are they inert: along with the several universities, and all sorts of other institutions, including the chamber of commerce, they serve as venues for a great many cultural associations large and small. Many cities of two million people elsewhere in the world can envy Medellín’s cultural dynamism. The people of Medellín and Antioquía are far removed from the siesta-Latino stereotype, being equally dynamic in work, crime and culture.

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