Hope Between Guns and Powder:
A Day in Pablo Escobar’s Homeland, and His Eponymous Neighbourhood

The author has traveled to Medellín and visited the neighborhood that the drug lord Pablo Escobar built in the 80s of the last century. This area was financed and overseen by Escobar himself, at the peak of his cocaine empire and as he began to cement his political ambitions, which he aimed to bolster by securing the support of those living in abject poverty.

Entrance to the neighborhood built by Pablo Escobar in Medellín. Photo by Nigel Burgher / Wikimedia Commons

THE STREETCAR IS ARRIVING. It is a calm afternoon, the Colombian sun overlooking the steep hills, heavily transited by motorbikes, their rubber tires whiff combined with the distinct smell of greasy arepas warming up in slow-motion portable heaters, which are simultaneously cooking plantain and baking empanadas. The clinks of Club Colombia or Cerveza Aguila glass bottles stemming from the many sidewalk bars, or cafés, or eateries, because everybody that’s not walking seems to be doing two things at a time, drinking and throwing the dice on yet another gamble. Sharply-uniformed students, blue-collar workers, entire families and jovial teenage girls scarcely dressed strolling to the tune of ‘ballenato’ all gasp for air as they make strides in the sharp cliff home, or as they descend away from it to board the San Antonio tramway that transits the lofty, mountainous streets of Medellín, Colombia, a city that despite its recent cultural renaissance and inclusive social policy and its government’s colossal efforts to position it as the innovation center of Latin America has not been able to eclipse its major call to fame: the motherland of a man that has divided Colombia, and America, a man that has been a hero to some and a villain to many, leaving behind a legacy so conflicted, that notwithstanding his philanthropic endeavours and his Robin Hood-like feats his name remains contorted, strangled just as the many bodies he and his troops – “sicarios,” as they are called in Spanish – mercilessly striped away from any sign of life and humanity in the height of Colombia’s drug war. A man named Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria.  

A mugshot of Pablo Escobar taken in 1977 by the Medellín Control Agency.

“Escobar, Escobar, come into the hangout of choice of Pablo Escobar,” hollers a moustached man, stepping in front of us with an intrusive gesture. The haunt, right behind him, is a turquoise blue-coloured canteen with fluorescent red signs and a paltry theatre-like display that barely makes room for the black letters that read: Renobar.

Noticing our initial skepticism, he doubles down, claiming that Escobar used to conduct business on that place, and therefore is a must-do landmark of our Medellín outing. 

“C’mon, c’mon,” he says, “and I’ll tell you more of Pablo’s history in this area.”

The truth is, after a long trek, we are simply looking for a drink, not for another tour guide, and having just come back from visiting his eponymous neighbourhood, we’ve had enough of Escobar-themed imagery for the day. We just feel the need for peace.

¡AQUI SE RESPIRA PAZ!, announce royal blue letters in caps, which together with a portrait of Pablo – drawn in a Che Guevara-resembling fashion – cover one of the graffittied walls marking the entrance to Barrio Pablo Escobar, initially called Medellín Sin Tugurios (Medellín Without Slums), located in the upper ridges that overlook the metropolitan region of the Aburrá Valley and the Medellín River.

Built in 1984, the neighbourhood’s construction was financed and overseen by Pablo Escobar himself, at the peak of his cocaine empire and as he began to cement his political ambitions, which he aimed to bolster by securing the support of those living in abject poverty, who were disenchanted with the then-incumbent government administration and he perceived as the potential main supporters of a radical change.

Thus, following its completion, the area became home to displaced families who were previously coexisting in a garbage dump in the Moravía region, among tonnes of junked carton and plastic, sickening rotten food smells, and the continuous risk of blazing fires.

Photo by Javier Ortega-Araiza

“The Postobon logo. It made us ill. We only used to see it in old, rusty soda cans that used to get full of insects. Now at least we see it in our Atletico Nacional shirts, even if they are counterfeit,” says an affable, lighthearted man, who is visibly one of the elderly faces in the community and proudly points to his green and white jersey. Green and white, the perennial colours of Atletico Nacional that festoon numerous brick blocks of Barrio Pablo Escobar’s half-finished structures just as they cover the chests of the crowd of youngsters that circle its streets with a soccer ball glued to their feet. These same kids who rejoice and fascinate when they see a foreign presence in their otherwise monotone territory.

“Gringos!,” whoops one of the cheering voices as the cohort groups around us as we set foot in the central park.

“¿De dónde son?,” asks one of them, seemingly eager to learn from our places of origin.

“Canada. Mexico. Argentina. United Kingdom. Netherlands,” each of us provides a different answer, hoping to explain that we come from different upbringings, some in more broken Spanish than others.

On the background, a larger cohort of beaming children blissfully punt the rounded black-and-white sphere through the pavement, poorly-kept and hole-filled but not to the extent that it impedes a match, where the closest wall represents the net and the lightning posts surrounding it serve as the goal, a goal that, like the dreams of an alternate existence that linger on many of the jovial faces of the Barrio Pablo Escobar’s festive children, knows no upper limit.

Built in 1984, the neighbourhood’s construction was financed and overseen by Pablo Escobar himself.

But beneath those sweaty jerseys and illusions of greatness one can find precise replicas of Pablo Escobar’s internal DNA, versions-in-the-making of the future King of Cocaine that lie underneath those leery, wary eyes that indicate a lucid hope behind a broken spirit. Being a survivor of poverty himself, Escobar embodied the faith of millions of marginated Colombians that still fantasize about escaping a present bursting with ruthless gangs – which, ironically, he helped popularise – , a present awash with crushed possibilities, with dreams tarnished by the mixed smell of lead and white powder and the sound of gun barrels.

“Mucha plata,” are the first words echoed by one of the young boys who approach us, assuming an implicit material wealth linked to the fact of being a foreigner, and immediately speaks blithely of his intention to make millions of dollars as he grows up, pronouncing Pablo’s famous mantra, “Plata o Plomo”. He mentions that his goal is to export cocaine into the United States, articulating that his life will be better that way, that money will be able to provide for all that he wants, or needs, and at the very least, it will empower him to contribute to his loved ones. He’s twelve.

We attempt to make him aware of the risks that come with such an endeavour, yet he retaliates.

“There are only two exits from that. Either you get caught, or you die. Do you want to live afraid?”

“I don’t think I would be afraid.”

“What if they kill you?”

“At least my family will live well.”

LUZ ELENA M.* WAS PART OF PABLO ESCOBAR’S FAMILY. She is part of the group that suggested that the name of the neighbourhood was changed from Medellín Sin Tugurios to Barrio Pablo Escobar, and, back in the heyday of the Medellín Cartel, met Pablo Escobar personally.

“The first time I met Pablo was in Manrique Central, he was working closely with the public companies (operated by the Municipality of Medellín), and he was overseeing a project to bring new lightning installations to a school. But the time I remember the most was when he went to a pesebre – a traditional Christmas celebration in Colombia – in the barrio, he arrived dressed as Papa Noel. Can you imagine, Pablo Escobar dressed as Santa Claus?”

Luz Elena gets excited, her voice rising in both tune and enthusiasm as she relives the previously untold tales of an encounter with a man that still poses an inscrutable conundrum. “He used to stand in the streets. Right in the corner of a trafficked intersection. And if he would see someone struggling, say, a handicapped old man, he would go and hold their hand, and as he did, he would stick a wad of bills. One million pesos. He was not a saint, and he made mistakes, but I hope that God forgives him. He was very kind with us. With the poor. Because he knew he had been one of them.”

View of Medellín from Pablo Escobar´s neighborhood. Photo by Javier Ortega-Araiza

HOW THIS CONCEPTION OF PHILANTHROPY AND INCREDIBLE BENEVOLENCE contrasts with the factual numbers that indicate more than 4,000 murders, including police officers, journalists, and civilians and incidents such as the infamous bombing of Avianca flight 203, the demolition of the Colombian Congress building – and several other blocks – and random attacks to anyone suspected of being a whistleblower or the slightest trace of opposition might be one of the largest enigmas that tower above modern Colombian history, a living ghost that still opaques the image of dynamism and social transformation that the country has tried to project onto the world. Taxi drivers and waiters, businessmen and street food vendors, bartenders and security guards, practically anyone that you talk to in Colombia will have something to say about Pablo Escobar, a compilation of divergent yet belligerent opinions about the incoherent past he left behind. And yet, Barrio Pablo Escobar remains firm as Pablo’s last trench, an impenetrable fortress with a perpetual sense of gratitude towards the first person that acknowledged the residents’ until then contemptible existence.

Even though its dwellers were no longer living in a trash dump, the beginnings of Barrio Pablo Escobar were gloomy and dismal. Luz Elena recalls those dark times, where gangs took control of the neighbourhood and imposed a strict rule of law based on fear and violence.

“I remember I would call my kids, I would call them to the companies where they worked and say, please don’t come, I’m locked up. I won’t open the door. If you come, please do it before dawn. So they asked for permission at their jobs to leave early and come home. Because otherwise they would have been caught between the bullets,” recalls Luz Elena, who effusively imitates the sound of firing guns as she guides us through some of her toughest moments since becoming a resident of this place. “I remember myself numerous times lying down on the floor, hoping to protect myself from the shots going on outside until it was over. It was horrible.”

Taxi drivers and waiters, businessmen and street food vendors, bartenders and security guards, practically anyone that you talk to in Colombia will have something to say about Pablo Escobar.

She acknowledges that the neighbourhood has improved, yet, admits that many facets of the day-to-day life are still controlled by the gangs, their preeminence largely propelled by the inaction of the state’s security forces such as the police.

“The gangs will check carefully who lives in the vicinity. And if they see someone that doesn’t, they will stop them. Then they will ask for a ‘vacuna’ (extortion). And to those who don’t comply with this extortion fee, they will kidnap them and likely kill them, throw them in the hills, very, very far. My sons have been extorted when they come visit. I have had to speak to some of the members of these mobs to ensure they don’t stop and frisk randomly. To make sure that they ask first. And they have listened because I am very close to the neighbourhood council. And because even if it is distant, I am part of Pablo’s family.”

Contradictions, according to her, are prevalent in the community, an ironic resemblance of Pablo Escobar’s life. “He gave us these houses. But there is also so much cruelty in the area. One time, they asked a woman if she wanted a sancocho (local Colombian soup). They said they would bring the meat. And it turned out the meat was from her dead son’s body. So they asked her, ‘Did you like the sancocho, wasn’t it good?’ And then they said, ‘Well, you just ate your own son.’ That drove the woman crazy. There is so much evil around. I was often treated as a guerrillera for standing up. My husband was killed by them.”

She also talks about how the neighbourhood council efforts are focusing on providing opportunities for resident kids in other fields, such as sports, to prevent them from falling into addictions that can reduce the amount of youth that join the ranks of the gangs. “Drugs are what’s killing youth now. I have a grandson. He’s ten. And he’s already smoking weed. At age ten it is normal here for kids to get them started on drugs. They start on drugs, and then they join the criminals. That’s how they get their need for acceptance met. There are kids aged fourteen, fifteen years old, and they are killing in the neighbourhood and drug dealing. They will likely not make it past the teenage years,” states a preoccupied Luz Elena, adding that the gangs presence is reinforced by the lack of provision of security services by the government. “Police do not help much. They flag innocents and pretend to make them look bad. But they don’t mess with the really bad ones.”

Photo by Javier Ortega-Araiza

DARWIN T.* is an energetic, driven youngster who lives in Barrio Pablo Escobar and has lived there for the past twenty years, since he was five. He, also, has noticed the changes that have taken place in the neighbourhood since he arrived.

“When I first got here, at five P.M. you would need to be locked down, already, because the fights would start. Not street fights, fist fights, but gun fights. I got caught in them a few times, and when you do, you just run for dear life. You throw away everything that you are carrying because you just want to survive. It used to happen when I came back from school, because there was no good school in our area, so we went to one that was far away. Many times I saw schoolmates get killed on our way back. It was horrifying.”

Darwin says that it is this lack of opportunities that exposes them to organised crime as a way of making a living and what drives them into addiction. “I started drinking at age fourteen. I saw a friend get pulled from a bar where we were, and they shot him, right there, boom, boom, boom.” He smiles as he articulates, his hands creating shapes of guns, visibly transporting him to relive these fights, vividly, his grin reflecting a nervous tick like those you get when telling a story you weren’t sure if you’d be able to live enough to relate it again.

“There are many invisible barriers between neighbourhoods that one can’t cross just like that. One time, when I was twelve, we went to a river to have a swim. And a group of young men started following us. A lady saw us and grabbed us in the street and got us into her house. At that age you are innocent. You don’t think someone would kill you at age twelve just like that. But they were going to do it to us. From the lady’s house we saw them running past it, they were looking to get us. I will never forget this woman, Paulina, was her name. She saved our lives. After that I never crossed into a foreign neighbourhood again. Imagine, seven years ago, cars would not come here. Even delivery trucks that were supplying groceries for corner stores, they would park the car outside and walk the hills to deliver their merchandise. It was that bad.”

“He might be a villain to many, and they might have their reason. We understand that. But we don’t talk badly about him here.”

He remains hopeful, even though, from his perspective, the government needs to work harder if they want to reduce the prevalence of gangs in the area. “Police is not really helpful. They have always been corrupt. They are demanding and insensitive with the ones who are trying to make an honest living. People selling vegetables on the street. The police will shut them down, to make everyone believe that they are doing their job. But the true criminals, no one will touch them. They ruin many honest young lives by sending people to jail to lead the public to believe they are making arrests and thus enforcing order, although by experience one knows that one thing is not correlated to the other. Perhaps that is why many admired Pablo. He and his people were ruthless, but they would call a spade a spade, and they would look at you in the eye. I will tell you something, many businesses in this neighbourhood are currently under extortion. The people who own buses, they are extorted too. The ones who own motorcycles, you own a motorcycle, and they will charge you a fee if you want to leave it on the street. But one thing they do, if you pay them, and they promise protection in return, you can rest assured that nothing will happen to you.”

Already a father, Darwin confesses he is afraid for the fate of his kid, that soon will be entering an age where children begin to be targeted by criminal groups for recruitment. “They have offered it to me, too. Several times. But I was never truly interested. I would talk to them. We would get along well because it was impossible not to cross our ways. But I do believe there is hope for a different future. A new path.”

Photo by Javier Ortega-Araiza

MOST OF COLOMBIA WILL NEVER FORGIVE PABLO ESCOBAR. The mothers, the fathers, the husbands and wives of the thousands of victims of the ruthless assassinations of El Señor and his hitmen. Neither will the families of those murdered by the numerous – and exponentially callous – cliques that still live staunchly adhered to the Plata o Plomo creed, a mantra that reflects the cruelty and barbarism that the Medellín Cartel and the Escobar image helped incite. And yet, for people like Wberney Zavala, the President of the Neighbourhood Council (Junta de Acción Comunal, in Spanish), who has a picture of Pablo hanging on the wall together with diplomas of appreciation for his community work, Escobar represented a path to a new life. “Here we don’t speak badly about him. For us, he’s a hero. He might be a villain to many, and they might have their reason. We understand that. But we don’t talk badly about him here. Because you don’t trash someone who looked at you when you were living in a trash dump, and gave you the keys to a new house, a roof to sleep under.”

THERE IS NO REBUKE TO THE STATEMENTS that, from the heights of the war, Medellín has gained a tremendous amount of peace, albeit it might be far away from the peace that the signage in the entrance of Barrio Pablo Escobar claims. It is hard to tell whether this relative sense of calm would be possible had Escobar prevailed, but whether is for the gangs that his legacy inspired, or for the numerous tourists that extract all the possible information about any of Escobar’s bearings, or for the opportunistic swarms of men that stand outside the hundred hangouts-of-choice of El Patrón to lure them in, or for the multi-million-dollar Netflix productions and sidewalk empires of stickers and t-shirts that have capitalised in Colombia’s most profitable product, or ultimately, for the people that now live in the neighbourhood that bears his name, and that its residents have refused to change, there is one plain fact that emerges unscathed from all the civilian and political discourse and from the hero-or-villain dichotomy: Pablo Escobar didn’t die when they killed him, and most likely never will.

THE STREETCAR IS DEPARTING. We are making our way from Buenos Aires station, having declined the offer to take the so-called obliged selfie with Reno Bar’s Escobar memorabilia and his numerous portraits hanging on the canteen walls. Dusk begins to make its way. The number of human bodies boarding the tramway decreases drastically. And only the clinks of Club Colombia and the rolling of the dice continue, perpetually, in a corresponding increase of loudness, or so it seems, and in a relative sense of peace, or in the illusion of it, and people don’t want to talk about tomorrow, because tomorrow might be as bad as yesterday, or worse, so they refrain and engage in a pure sense of bliss, and today everybody loves Pablo, and tomorrow everyone will hate him as they dream that there will come a time when his name is finally carried by the wind and life will go on as the city night lights begin to shine and illuminate the skies that can be seen from atop Nutibara Hill, and the kids playing football in the cusp of it will run away and secretly whisper about someone whose name can’t be remembered, and then remember that they want to be footballers, like el Pibe Valderrama, or James, or writers, like Garcia Marquez, or sculptors, like Botero, or even politicians, like Sergio Fajardo and not like many of those corrupt dicks, and sooner than later they will shed away those fake dollar bills and Plata or Plomo t-shirts and plastic gun replicas, and wake up from their wet dreams of luscious women and cocaine and keep playing in the parks where they let the children play, as if the bullets had been wiped out, and none of it had ever existed.

*Additional reporting done by Douwe Den Held.
**Names have been changed to protect people’s privacy and safety.

Javier Ortega-Araiza
Born in Mexico, re-born in Canada, and a global citizen and part-time digital nomad, Javier Ortega-Araiza is a serial entrepreneur who has founded companies in the tourism, education, and financial technology space, always with the intent of building bridges and increasing the social impact engagement of the business community. He is also an engaged community leader serving on the Board of Directors of several not-for-profits in the GTA and abroad and a Visiting Professor in Social Entrepreneurship in Universities in Canada, the United States and Colombia. Javier Ortega-Araiza is a lifelong traveler, writer and documentarist who contributes on business & innovation, politics, travel, sports, and stories of people being people.