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Colombian ex-cartel city revived

By Jeremy McDermott
BBC News, Medellin

Tourists visit Pablo Escobar's tombstone in Medellin, Colombia, 1 December 2008
Pablo Escobar's grave has become a tourist attraction

Fifteen years ago Pablo Escobar, the head of the Medellin drug cartel, was killed as he tried to flee across a rooftop in what officials say was the most dangerous city in the world.

But today Medellin is a boomtown that is safer than some US cities and has tourists queuing up to learn about its violent past.

The "Pablo Escobar" tour starts in the lobby of a swish hotel in the fashionable El Poblado district of Medellin.

There are Colombians and foreigners, among the latter Phil Chanel, who works for a leading UK travel company setting up the infrastructure for a major influx of British tourists.

"As it is becoming more secure, it is somewhere we are looking to promote more to our clients," said Mr Chanel.

"The story of Pablo Escobar is incredibly interesting. I have come to learn about the history of Escobar and what happened to him."

Fashion hub

The first stop on the tour is the graveyard where Escobar is buried along with family members and his loyal bodyguard, known as "Lemon", who stood alone as the police closed in trying vainly to buy his boss a few precious minutes to escape.

The good thing is how this city came through all this madness
Andres Pudlain
"Pablo Escobar" tour designer

From here in the neighbourhood of Itagui you can see many of the factories that have turned Medellin into an economic powerhouse for the country.

Textile factories predominate employing tens of thousands of people and turning Colombia's second city into a world centre for fashion, particularly lingerie.

The second stop is a nondescript middle-class house in the neighbouring district of Envigado where Pablo Escobar grew up.

On the corner is the school where his mother taught.

It all looks so normal, lending no clue as to why a football-mad boy who kicked a ball along this street would turn into one of the world's most famous criminals.

Violent past

Cristina Jimenez, 38, now a teacher, was a student in the days when Escobar and his men were murdering policemen and setting off car bombs across the city.

"There were bombs every single day and also there was a curfew and almost all of us we were home before 7pm," she said, keeping a close eye on her three children playing nearby.

Barrio Pablo Escobar, Medellin
Barrio Pablo Escobar was built on what was once a rubbish dump

"Those days were so dangerous. Since then all of us who were young at that time learned to appreciate life much more."

In 1991 Medellin was the most dangerous city in the world, with 6,349 murders - a rate of 381 per 100,000 inhabitants - according to the Medellin mayor's office.

Eighteen corpses were being picked off the streets every day. Last year there were 653 murders - 26 per 100,000 inhabitants.

Moving up the side of the bowl in which Medellin sits, the tour passes under one of the cable car systems that link the poorer neighbourhoods on the hillside with the metro train that travels the length of the city.

This is a justifiable source of pride for the people of Medellin, known as "paisas", as not even the capital Bogota can boast an equivalent public transport network.

The destination is a former slum known as Barrio Pablo Escobar, where the drug lord in one of his social programmes that was to generate such support among the city's poor, built houses on what had been a rubbish dump.

Here people have pictures of the drug lord on their mantelpieces.

Crime used to be endemic in this neighbourhood and it would have been unthinkable for tourists to venture anywhere nearby.

We were greeted not by muggers but children practising their English.

'Veil of illegality'

Among the Colombians on the tour was Juan Guillermo Bedoya who works for city Mayor Alonzo Salazar.

He says that the city has changed beyond recognition, but admits that drug trafficking still pervades much of society.

File photo of Pablo Escobar
Escobar left a lasting imprint on Medellin

"There are still shadows from the epoch of 1993, those of drugs trafficking which deeply penetrated culture here.

"There is still a veil of illegality in some of its behaviour. Whereas before it was not unusual to hear the explosion of car bombs, the gunfire from battles between the drug cartels, now that does not happen."

However, for the first time since Escobar's death murders have begun to creep up.

Part of the reason is that in May this year Diego Murillo, alias "Don Berna", Pablo Escobar's successor, was extradited to the US.

With his iron grip now gone, other players have sought to achieve the same hegemony over drugs trafficking and criminal world, and this has provoked mob killings.

Yet nobody believes that Medellin will ever return to the bad old days.

The tour's designer, Andres Pudlain, who includes the Pablo Escobar tour in his "Medellin Experience" package, admits that the drug lord did leave an indelible imprint on the city.

"There is no way we can erase it," he said, standing outside the last stop of the tour, the boarded-up house where Escobar was shot dead by police in December 1993.

"It is part of the past… we still live today the marks that he left. Most of them are not good.

"But the good thing is how this city came through all this madness, and you come here today and you are not going to believe how modern and prosperous Medellin is."

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SEE ALSO
At home on Pablo Escobar's ranch
02 Jun 08 |  Americas
Colombia wins drug baron's house
30 Aug 04 |  Americas
Colombian homeless eye Escobar estate
13 Apr 98 |  Despatches


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