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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 December, 2003, 11:11 GMT
Legacy of a Colombian drug lord
By Jeremy McDermott
BBC correspondent, Colombia

Pablo Escobar
Pablo Escobar was killed during a shoot-out with police in 1993

Pablo Escobar, the head of the Medellín drug cartel, was shot as he tried to flee security forces.

A decade later, Escobar's reputation is undiminished and Medellin is still one of the most dangerous cities on earth.

Someone has placed new flowers on Escobar's grave to mark the anniversary of his death.

As I stand to one side of the cemetery I see people coming to pay their respects to the man known in Medellín as "El Patron".

To his supporters, he was as generous as he was dangerous. He could afford to be, as conservative estimates put his earnings from illegal drugs at almost $5bn.

In the slums of Medellín, Escobar is still a role model.

Born in 1949 into a poor family, Escobar started as a car thief, then smuggled marijuana.

But in the 1980s Americans discovered cocaine and the United States couldn't get enough of it.

Escobar saw his chance and cornered much of the drug trade, killing those that stood in his way and building the Medellín cartel into the most powerful crime syndicate in the world.

In Medellín, he built a housing estate, still known as the Escobar barrio and gave the houses to poor people, developing an almost fanatical following in some parts of the city.

Even the shoe-shine boys were paid in $10 bills. The drug lord's coffers and power seemed to know no limit.

Today, sitting in a pool hall in Escobar's barrio, the residents waxed lyrical about the drug lord who had graced the portals of this humble establishment, shooting a few frames with some of his cronies.

But in other parts of the city his victims remember him differently.

One electrician who had worked for Escobar told how the drug baron reacted when he found out one of his foreman was smuggling drugs behind his back.

"Escobar never shouted", said the electrician, "but you could feel his rage. He called one of his burly henchmen and told him to make an example of the foremen."

Better a grave in Colombia than a cell in the US
Pablo Escobar

"They dropped him from a helicopter into a field, making sure it was not high enough to kill him - just break his legs. Then they rode over him with motorbikes until he died."

When it seemed Colombia would do little about the drug lord, the United States demanded Escobar's extradition.

He replied by declaring war on the Colombian state, demanding that extradition be banned.

With the motto "better a grave in Colombia than a cell in the US," he terrorised the state, blowing up airlines, detonating car bombs, and unleashing his sicarios or hit men.

He put a bounty on the head of every policeman and young toughs from the Medellín slums went on the rampage killing hundreds of officers. Then they went to collect their money from the Patron.

The government capitulated and extradition was banned.

Colombian coca market
Coca paste from a local market will be processed into cocaine

The US authorities devised what they called the "kingpin strategy". Kill the cartel leaders and you will do away with the drugs trade.

They finally got Escobar as he fled across a Medellín rooftop, his last bodyguard vainly trying to cover his escape.

Yet many others have stepped up to take his place and Medellín remains one of the centres of the drugs trade, with almost 800 tons of cocaine being exported every year.

Most of this goes to the United States to satisfy the superpower's $60bn a year drug habit.

The trade has gone underground, but for those of us who live here it is not hard to see.

When I first moved to Medellín in 1998 I got a flat in an apartment block.

During the afternoons one of the residents of the block kept playing music very loud as I tried to work.

I knocked on his door and asked him to turn it down or stop altogether. He looked stunned but acquiesced.

My neighbour later accosted me in horror. She asked: "You didn't go up to 604 did you? He is a drugs trafficker."

The traffickers have a tradition of setting off fireworks when a shipment arrives safely in the US.

I once asked a hit man how much it cost for a contract killing

Most weekends across the richer parts of the city the penthouses of the most exclusive apartment blocks are illuminated as the fireworks are set off.

Medellín is still one of the most dangerous cities in the world.

Escobar's hit men still exist but now sell their services to anyone who can pay.

In one of the slums I once asked a hit man how much it cost for a contract killing.

"Depends on who it is", he said "but a nobody starts at around a million pesos, which is $300."

He added with a smile: "You, gringo, would be a bit more expensive. Foreigners always are."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 6 December, 2003, at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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