Medellin's Legacy of Drugs and Know-How
MEDELLIN, COLOMBIA — Medellin, the capital of Antioquia Province, has a superiority complex. The city was settled in the 1600s by Spanish Jews and remained isolated in the Andes Mountains until this century's coffee boom.
People from Antioquia call themselves "Paisas" and have a different accent, a different cuisine, and even their own national anthem. Paisas have a reputation for hard work and ingenuity.
The reputation is well-deserved. Medellin, the country's second-largest city, boasts Colombia's only metro-railway, and is home to its biggest mills and factories. The city is cleaner than most in Colombia, and as any taxi driver will tell you, the people are "nicer."
It was the same "Paisa know-how," however, that produced the city's greatest shame. Local boy Pablo Escobar started his criminal career stealing tombstones. He later moved on to car theft.
By the mid-1980s Escobar was better known as the king of cocaine and perhaps one of the world's richest men.
Escobar won the love of Medellin's poor by building soccer stadiums and helping out the residents of the of the city's hillside slums. In the beginning of the cocaine boom in the early '80s, Escobar even got himself elected to Congress, before the public learned the source of his fortune.
Soon after, Escobar opened one of the bloodiest chapters in Colombia's history. Declaring that he preferred "a tomb in Colombia to a jail cell in the US," Escobar and his cartel set out to coerce the government into outlawing extradition.
They killed judges and presidential candidates, blew up planes and newspaper buildings. In Medellin, car-bombs exploded regularly. Escobar's war ended with the new Constitution of 1991, which banned extradition.
He surrendered and went to jail, where he continued to command the drug trade. He casually escaped from prison in 1992, but was shot dead by police the next year as he fled across a Medellin rooftop.
With Escobar's death, the cocaine trade dramatically decreased in Medellin. But the cartel years left a legacy of drug-using, uneducated, and violent youth. The city may be in recovery, but it still lost more than 1,300 males between the ages of 9 and 25 to homicide last year.