A long, strange trip to find Escobar
MEDELLIN, Colombia -- A soccer anniversary came and went on Sunday without notice: Twenty years ago, a sturdy and beloved Colombia defender named Andrés Escobar accidentally scored an own goal in the World Cup. When he got home, he was murdered outside a Medellin nightclub, the story told in the Zimbalist brothers' acclaimed documentary "The Two Escobars." Last week, the day after Colombia played its second match in Brazil, a former bodyguard for the Escobar family, who asked not to be named in exchange for his help, pointed to a mechanic's shop and nodded. My photographer and I walked across the busy highway.
"Right here," said Edgar Agudelo, a construction worker covered in paint.
The nightclub where Andrés spent his final minutes had been torn down, and the rubble was overgrown with jungle plants and trees. Looking at it from the construction site next door, it seemed like someone destroyed the bar as fast as possible, hoping that its ghosts would disappear with it. The old parking lot, where the shooting took place, was now an ATV repair place. When Alexander Urrego, 30, finished with a customer, we told him why we'd come. He was 10 years old that night. His father sat him down, because one of the many jobs of a dad, along with removing splinters and bandaging scrapes, is to tell a boy when one of his heroes is dead.
"Someone killed Andrés Escobar," his father told him.
Urrego took us around to the front of the shop, hidden from the road by a wall. Traffic rushed past on a busy highway built after the shooting.
There, he said, stopping just short of the corner where the ATV lot ends and the Texaco gas station lot ends, where a weathered cyclone fence and a few sagging strips of barbed wire meet. That's where Andrés Escobar died, because he had the misfortune of living in a city where cocaine money destroyed everything, even the ability to value a human life.
"What do you want to be when you grow up?" a poor yet hopeful mother asked her young child.
"A millionaire," Pablo Escobar said, and when he grew old enough, one of his first schemes was to steal gravestones, erase the names and resell them to grieving Colombians, monetizing death, which was basically what he did from then on, until he died in a gun battle on a desolate Medellin rooftop on Dec. 2, 1993.
All these years later, Escobar remains the center of gravity in this city.
On Friday, the morning after Colombia beat Ivory Coast, two men visited Escobar's grave. Working-class guys, likely from the nearby slum where he spread around his cocaine dollars. They walked across the soft grass to the black stone marker. Someone had placed flowers on the grave. The younger man leaned down and touched the stone, then kissed his hand, making the sign of a cross on his forehead. Standing at the marker, he accidentally stepped on one of the flowers, then yanked his foot back, as though he'd been burned, because even in death, Pablo Escobar exerts power over the living.
Pablo has been gone for 21 years, and Andrés has been gone for 20, and in those two decades, Medellin has been trying to heal itself, to restore concrete things like education and safety, and more elusive things like a sense of right and wrong.
Many newspaper stories and television reports detail the remarkable success of this struggle for healing. A rebirth, it's often called. Last year, the Urban Land Institute named it the world's most innovative city, because of a public works project that helped extend citizenship into the poorest parts of Medellin, which had been the prime recruiting area for Escobar's soldiers. The murder rate is down 80 percent. And, as a kind of civic reward for the hard work, the Colombian national team has returned to the World Cup for the first time since 1998, and returns with the kind of hope and potential not seen since 1994.
In Medellin, 1994 is a monster that hides in the dark.
"It's a brand they're never going to get rid of," said local correspondent Adriaan Alsema of Colombia Reports, standing at the chain link fence surrounding a slum soccer field. "Every time they say Medellin has improved, they are implicitly referring to the time Pablo Escobar was here. They always refer to, 'For the past 20 years.'"
The kids on the field kicked up dust, which hangs above the field like the heat from a mirage. Alsema explained the psyche of a place that's known so much violence, not only the drug war between the Medellin and Cali cartels, but the actual war against the FARC Marxist guerrillas in the jungle interior, a conflict entering its fifth decade. Watching the kids play, and being surrounded by World Cup fever, gave Alsema the appropriate metaphor. Colombia, he said, is the kind of country that would get to a shootout in the final match in Brazil, then miss its penalty kicks and lose.
There's a streak of fatalism in the national psyche.
"When they almost make it," he said, "that's when they screw up. You see it with everything. They always end up arriving late at their own wedding and screwing it up."
Some of the change in Medellin is real. New, affordable public transportation did provide isolated slums access to the rest of the city. The crime rate has been dramatically reduced. Boutique hotels, and cool urban galleries, give the city a vibrancy that, while hard to quantify, often exists in places rising from the ashes of war, like Belfast or Sarajevo. Young people drink in a crowded bar named Carpe Diem.
But some of the change is just public relations. The library, Alsema said, is already falling down, closed now for emergency repairs. I asked Alsema about "Medellin Rising," the popular narrative about the city.
"Oh, f--- off," he said. "If you put the word 'innovation' in your article, I'll send a few hit men to kill you. For f---'s sake. Especially here, things are always more complicated than that."
That night, we rode across the city, looking for long, straight streets to score another glimpse of the startlingly beautiful lights of Medellin, which turn the valley into a blanket of tiny yellow dots.
During the drive, Alsema narrated.
"They sell bad-ass weed in this car wash," he said, cackling, then pointing out the young kids trying to look tough, standing across the street. "These boys there are the soldiers."
Gangs still control the geography of the city, cutting it into fiefdoms. Crossing the wrong invisible line means near certain death, even with Escobar gone. Medellin is better but not fixed, and if the job isn't finished in the next few years, there are all sorts of forces conspiring to erase the progress of the previous 20. Believing in the city requires a hope not unlike the beautiful lights surrounding the city.
Televisions dotted the city as we crossed it, hung in city parks, and outside corner bodegas, and in every restaurant and café. All of them were tuned to the World Cup, and huddled around them, fans in semicircles sat in the plastic bar chairs so common in Medellin. The vivid green of the high-definition screens clashed with the muted, exhaust-stained tones of the urban streets.
This game mattered deeply.
If Japan and Greece played to a tie, then Colombia would advance to the second round for the first time since 1990, the height of what "The Two Escobars" called narco-soccer. It would be yet another triumph of the new Medellin over the old.
We parked and found a table for dinner with a view of the game.
The clock ticked down.
Both teams fired shots at the beleaguered keepers, who kept making magic saves. Finally, the game ended, and when the referee blew his whistle, neither team had scored, a 0-0 tie, which meant that Colombia would advance. In the morning, the papers would gush with Japan-Surrenders-sized headlines, but in the streets of Medellin, in the moment the game ended, nothing happened.
Alsema looked around, confused.
Nobody around him cheered, or even clapped, and no cheers or claps echoed from the half-dozen other bars and restaurants on the same street. Whether a display of confidence, or a protection from the familiar fatalism, people just went about their night.
"No one is giving a s---," he said, stunned.
The next morning, I paid $30 to have coffee with Pablo Escobar's brother.
Roberto Escobar doesn't do anything for free. He's out of prison, after serving 12 years following Pablo's death, because Roberto was "allegedly" the accountant for the Medellin cartel, moving around billions of dollars in cash, hiding it in real estate investments, burying it in holes all over Colombia. There's a reason the one person to survive the extermination of Pablo Escobar's inner circle is the accountant, the one person who knows what happened to all that money, hypothetically of course, if it still exists.
Roberto is the star of a strange tourist attraction that makes many in Medellin angry. Escobar remains a dirty word, and while people claim that he no longer holds sway, the desire to never hear his name is itself proof of the power that name still carries. But locals bristle nonetheless at the macabre fascination with the violent cocaine baron. The tour always sells out, once or twice a day, and it is given only in English.
So last week I took it.
For two hours, a van drove tourists through Medellin, showing the most bloody and important places from Escobar's past, but all that was just prelude. Finally, the driver turned off a Medellin street, up a steep private driveway, through two separate security gates, manned by people who may or may not have been armed. A nice but modest house came into view around the last turn, a middle-class home with a spectacular panoramic view of the city. This was the house Escobar bought his mother, who kept it in her own name, which is why it didn't get seized. The night before he died, Escobar hid out here. It was his birthday, and his mother baked him a cake. Roberto got the idea for the tour after he and Pablo took an Al Capone tour of Chicago once. There's a photo of Pablo on a jet ski, and parked below the picture is the actual jet ski, which you can sit on. In the garage, next to a Porsche Cayenne, is an old blue Wartburg 311, the actual car Escobar used to bring the first cocaine base into Colombia, the bedrock relic of decades of death and suffering. The tour guide, named Doris, let us sit inside and pose for pictures behind the wheel.
Doris made a long, extended point that the police didn't kill Escobar, that he killed himself, that even at the end he maintained power. She took us into the house, into the dining room where Pablo ate his last birthday cake, and down a hall lined with family photographs. Nearby hung big portraits of his mother and father. She made a few winking references to all the money that was never found.
Then Roberto Escobar came out and met the tour in the backyard.
He wore a John Deere hat and a Polo shirt. His right eye is fake, the result of a letter bomb exploding in his face. Making small talk with Leo, my photographer, he told about watching the World Cup, and how excited he was that the Latin American teams are performing so well, listing off the sides exceeding expectations. We poured ourselves coffees, and he welcomed us to Medellin, and to his family home. He agreed to autograph the book he wrote, or any of the pictures for sale, including one of a grinning Pablo bounding down the stairs of a Learjet.
Pablo Escobar is gone.
The world he created, and the world that created him, both remain.
His fortune is out there, somewhere. Rumors fly about Swiss accounts and dozens of different law firms and corporations slowly but steadily converting billions of dollars of dirty cocaine money into an untraceable, clean legacy for future generations. Even his Medellin empire is still alive, some parts run by the paramilitary enemies who hunted him down, and others taken over by new, modern gangsters. Cocaine sales haven't gone down, and killing Escobar didn't kill the demand. It just changed the route.
The survivability of the drug trade offers a frightening possibility in Medellin. Escobar wasn't born a monster. As a child, guerrillas came to his village and killed his neighbors; only a strong door saved Pablo and his family. The fighters set his house on fire before being finally chased away by authorities, and Roberto escaped the flames, carrying a tiny Pablo in his arms. Years later, Roberto would still remember how tightly his baby brother gripped him as they ran. Pablo Escobar didn't invent violence, he merely evolved it. His anger wasn't conjured from thin air, but born in a country plagued with inequality, where he felt trapped in poverty.
Pablo Escobar was evil, but he didn't become evil all on his own. Colombia somehow made him evil, and although he's dead, someone else evil will certainly be created to replace him. Maybe he's already been born, living in a Medellin slum, angry and hungry, ready to topple a fragile, half-finished reinvention.
Something happened in Medellin, and I'm going to be intentionally fuzzy on the details, for what soon will be obvious reasons. We had hired a driver, thinking he was just a normal driver, and when he found out we were journalists, and that we were in town doing a story about the ghosts of the Medellin cartel, he revealed his former identity: one of those ghosts, a bodyguard for the Escobar family who escaped jail and death. In a book about the kingpin, our driver is identified by nickname as a mail courier for Pablo. We didn't know whether to believe him, until he proved it. Standing by his vehicle, he pulled out a worn, frayed photo album and whispered for us to lean in.
He opened the cover.
The pictures are all taken at Escobar's famous Napoles ranch, which was stocked with exotic animals from Africa. In the photos, the driver is a young man, relaxing with his family. One of his kids rides an enormous turtle. There's our driver, or his family, with an elephant, then with a zebra. There's a peacock, and a camel.
Point made, he started vaguely threatening Leo in Spanish, and while I couldn't understand the words, anybody would recognize their impact on Leo's face. The driver gave "advice," as he called it, asking for an extra tip. A bull of a man, with a thick torso and a wide face, he wore a tank under his white V-neck, arms pouring out of the sleeves.
Leo, looking for any common ground, mentioned that he had photographed Escobar's son, who now lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina, under a new name, which is now common knowledge in the Argentine city. The driver's demeanor changed, and now he asked for a favor: a contact, a way back into the circle. He wanted a message passed to Escobar's son, and he requested that afterward we call him to confirm delivery. Don't use the son's name on the telephone, he said, then he gave us this message.
"Tell him," he said, "'I was with your father Nov. 26, eight days before.'"