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Why Colombia says #NeverAgainEscobar

The story of Pablo Escobar, “the patron of evil”, has two faces. One of fiction, played, among other actors, by the charismatic Andrés Parra, the Brazilian Wagner Moura with his exotic accent, or the cinematographic version of the Spanish Javier Bardem. In this story there are also unusual restaurants with his name, t-shirts with his face and books of all genres.

The other one, the real one, is painful and bloody. It happened here, in the streets of Colombia, and it wasn´t glamourous at all. On the contrary, it was suffered by 34 million people, the population of the country back then, that stumbled with fear around the corner.

How did those over 25 years old survived such dramatic situations? How to explain to those under 25 years old what happened? It’s hard to find answers. We can tell the story for a stroke of luck and for the courage of a society that never gave up and moved forward.

In the times when Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria (Rionegro, Antioquia, December 1st, 1949 – Medellín, December 2nd, 1993) reigned, trivial facts as going out to the streets implied risks. People used to change of sidewalk in the face of a parked vehicle, out of the fear of it being a car bomb. More than a hundred exploded in a calculated way, as it happened on the eve of Mother’s Day in 1990 before dozens of children who went with their parents to shopping malls: two in Bogotá and another one in Cali.

Everyday life was lived heart in hand. Innocents died in the most unlikely ways. Just like that, among others, 111 people lost their lives on a commercial flight of Avianca airline, on the Bogotá-Cali route. The HK-1803 exploded after taking off from El Dorado airport (Bogotá). The fuselage, the remains of the victims and their luggage were scattered over the Canoas hill, in Soacha, shredded among an undergrowth of light greens.

The capo’s obsession was to generate panic. Once, on Valentine’s Eve, the rumor spread that the cities’ water was poisoned. Few in the country dared to open the tap and check if it was true.

It was believed that nothing could be worst than that act of terror during the cold morning of Monday November 27th, 1989. But one-week later Escobar and his partner of misdeeds, José Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha, alias the Mexican, blew up the DAS (Administrative Department of Security) building in Paloquemao, in Bogotá’s center, with a bus bomb of 500 kg of dynamite. How to forget what was seen there at 7:30 in the morning? 66 people killed, shattered, on the asphalt, a deep crater with an 80-meters radius, glasses falling from the buildings one by one; a trail of dust rising from what once were 300 commercial premises; in the streets, drivers accelerating to escape and hundreds of injured claiming for help, some of them amputees, trying to cover with their hands the streams of blood from their own bodies.

The capo´s obsession was to generate panic. Once, on Valentine´s Eve, the rumor spread that the cities’ water was poisoned. Few in the country dared to open the tap and check if it was true.

But when did this man started such barbarism against the whole society? It was April 30th, 1984, in the 127 street of the north of Bogotá, when two young hired assassins – one of them, Byron

Velásquez Arenas, had just turned 18 – killed from a motorcycle in motion the Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, who was on his way home in an official vehicle. The death of the brave and young official – he was only 37 years old – led Belisario Betancur’s government to approve the extradition law, a legal tool feared back then by the mafia´s barons. To violently counterattack the measure, they created a group under the leadership of Escobar, baptized “The Extraditable” (“los Extraditables”). Their slogan was: “We prefer a grave in Colombia rather than a jail in the United States.”

Until then, Escobar had been an insipid politician, a newcomer to the House of Representatives as a substitute that presented himself in Antioquia as an “altruistic businessman”: he gave away money in poor neighborhoods, promoted beauty contests and called himself a soccer lover. That generosity, of course, was not for free. It was the façade of the lucrative business of drug dealing. Lara publicly denounced him, and Escobar left the Congress from the back door and with his US visa cancelled. The mobster showed his mood and killed him.

“We will not be silenced”

For him there was never an in between. On the other side, however, there were also countless brave citizens who faced him from legality as the honest director of El Espectador newspaper, Guillermo Cano Isaza. Wise man with a prodigious memory. He was one of the first to glimpse Escobar’s bad steps. When he began his bizarre appearances on political stages, along with leaders from the Liberal Party, and receiving preferential treatment from celebrity figures like the TV anchor Virginia Vallejo, Cano thought he had seen Escobar before. He remembered a picture of his face in a news piece about his capture, years back in the Colombian border with Ecuador, when he was a petty criminal. He searched the image, published it again and since that moment devoted himself to denounce him without any concession, with a vehemence that only stopped when he was murdered, with eight shots to the chest in front of the newspaper’s bureau, the night of December 17th, 1986.

The next day there was an unprecedented protest in the world. Colombian journalists silenced themselves, marched together with the motto of don´t giving up and, despite their ideological and business differences, integrated their investigative units into one team, called “The United Front” (el Frente Unido), to denounce Escobar and the other drug lords. “We will not be silenced” was the message.

Escobar’s reaction was, once again, brutal. He began killing journalists, one by one; then he kidnapped another group of notables, among them Francisco Santos, editor in chief of EL TIEMPO, and Diana Turbay, director of the television newscast Criptón and editor of the magazine Hoy por hoy, who died during a failed rescue attempt.

Why do you care so much about Escobar? Rather, find out about the young people to whom he is teaching all his tricks

Escobar was also faced by anonymous and brave investigators from the Judicial branch and hundreds of cops, even though he had chosen to pursue a hunting against them by offering economic rewards for each dead agent. It was a real genocide. Only in January 1990, 400 police officers were killed in the streets of Medellín. Yes. 400. “It’s not a typing error. That’s what happened”, would confirm later to a journalist the former President César Gaviria Trujillo about what he had to face during his administration.

“It has been perhaps the darkest chapter of our recent history. A brutally criminal mind, supported by a limitless fortune, a diabolical intelligence and a complete lack of scruples, challenged for a decade all the combined forces of the state, the DEA, the CIA, the Cali Cartel, the ‘Pepes’ (persecuted by Pablo Escobar), the British and Israeli intelligence services… It was something not to believe. That’s why, even though I find it repulsive, I understand why the figure of Pablo Escobar has been the subject of so many books, movies and TV shows, both nationally and internationally”, wrote the journalist Enrique Santos Calderón in his memoir book “El país que me tocó” (“The country I had to live in”).

Escobar’s deeds still gravitate in different areas of the society. One afternoon, speaking with a paisa matron in her warm living room in Medellín, she surprised the special envoys from EL TIEMPO, who were investigating his power.

Cursed inheritance

“Why do you care so much about Escobar?” she told us. As the journalists were perplex by the unusual question, she warned: “Rather, find out about the young people to whom he is teaching all his tricks. For example, Carlos Castaño. That one, I think, is going to be worst”, she forecasted. It was the first time we heard the name of the man who would become the head of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), an extreme right army responsible for much of the violence in the country for the last two decades. His brother, Fidel, was one of Escobar’s allies, though he later betrayed him and fought as one of the founders of the “Pepes”, a group of murderers that organized themselves to kill Escobar, after concluding he had lost it.

Escobar not only changed the family values of the grandparents who instilled the belief that results were to be achieved after a life of dedication. Instead, he showed the new generation that it was better to amass a fortune overnight, regardless of the means. “The day you do something bad, do it well done, don’t be stupid enough to let yourself get caught”, thought him his mother, Hermilda de los Dolores Gaviria Berrío.

It also impacted on a model of social groups known as lobos or traquetos. It’s easy to distinguish them, not only for the music they listen to, their fashion and the aesthetics of the women who follow them. The cursed inheritance, at a macro level, was creating a symbiosis between the delirious economy of drug trafficking and the organized violence that still has sequels in several levels of the country.

It also, and this is very serious, cut in one single gash a whole generation of honest political leaders who would have probably built a different country if they had reached their goals. Colombia, for example, was never the same after Luis Carlos Galán’s crime, Friday August 18th, 1989. The day before, a survey for EL TIEMPO and Reportajes Caracol showed him with a positive perception of 81,1%, a number that augurated he would be elected President. “Of course, is the mafia doesn’t kill him”, was heard in every conversation.

“With facts like this, Colombia will be a country so abhorrent that not even yourselves will be able to live, nor your children and grandchildren

Precisely, Galán had been in Medellín some days before, on August 4th, when it was discovered that he was about to be assassinated with a missile launcher during a conference in the University of Antioquia. Colonel Waldemar Franklin Quintero, responsible for the Police in Antioquia, saved his life, pulled him off in a rush and took him to the Olaya Herrera airport (Medellín). On the road, they spoke about not giving up before the drug lords. “Why don´t you have bodyguards?” asked Galán. “I can´t risk other people’s life to protect mine”, answered the officer. At 6:18 a.m. also on Friday August 18th, the Nissan Patrol that was transporting Franklin stopped in a corner in the

Calasanz neighborhood (Medellín). “My colonel, you´re about to get killed”, told him his driver before undertaking the escape. The officer, who in his fight against the narcos received 26 awards and 54 congratulations, got 154 gun-shots, alone and helpless.

Galán was murdered in the face of 20.000 people in a Soacha square, in an improvised scaffold, after being taken there in a ramshackle car without any kind of protection. “He was taken to the slaughterhouse”, would say later his secretary Juan Lozano. Gabriel García Márquez would tell later that there was not a sadder place near Bogotá to be killed and that that action was the narcos’ biggest mistake: “With facts like this, Colombia will be a country so abhorrent that not even yourselves will be able to live, nor your children and grandchildren”, replied the midnight of that Friday to a journalist who called him to ask for his reaction. His augury was fulfilled. One by one, the cartels’ members were falling, death or jailed, while the country moved its march forward. With the conviction of saying: Never again Escobar”.

ARMANDO NEIRA*
EDITOR FOR EL TIEMPO’S CULTURAL SECTION

*Translated by Laura Vita