“A lot of priests have told me that probably, where Pablo Escobar Gaviria is, he already received the pardon from God. I don’t believe that. If I could know that it’s true, that day I would give up the cloth and resign to the Church, because it isn’t fair. People think that time or economic compensations are enough to clean someone’s death, but they don't."
With those words, the abbot father Elkin Ramiro Vélez García states clearly that he doesn’t like the way a lot of people think about the history of blood and violence from the era of drug trafficking in Medellín. He says that from the old Catedral, the one that was for little more than a year, between 1991 and 1992, the jail where Escobar was held prisoner.
Today, the abbot father runs the place, where he built a nursing home under the name of “Fundación Santa Gertrudis La Magna”, which houses more than 55 elders, most of them without a family or abandoned.
When he arrived 11 years ago into this space embedded in the mountains of Valle de la Miel, 14 kilometers away from Envigado’s urban center, the religious man found only ruins and undergrowth. And, above them, an image of crime and desolation. Inclusively, there were several tunnels left by those who ventured to find the treasures hidden in the coves that Escobar allegedly concealed.
“A lot of people have come to find them, I dare to say they found about four in the past 11 years, they left us the holes, tunnels four-meters-long by three of width, curved. Seemed like they knew what they were coming for”, explains.
He constantly reasserts that despite the threats he received in numerous occasions he maintains his straightforward rejection to narco-tourism, a practice surviving in the city that recalls its darkest time. But for many, as the cleric, it is based on idealizing Escobar’s image, without making much allusion to the pain generated by the disappearances, murders, kidnaps, tortures, bombs and multiple attacks he ordered.
After leaving prison, Jhon Jairo Velásquez, alias “Popeye”, started tours of the most representative places of drug trafficking in the city. According to the priest, he also arrived to La Catedral in buses filled with tourists, but now he is forbidden to enter. The reason why neither the priest, nor the Municipal Administration, want him prowling around the place is because they don´t want him to be anymore an idol for the youth.
“I received 'Popeye' more than 20 times, he went where the grandparents were, pulled out a bundle of money and gave bills to each one of them. He looked for me to confess and the last time he fought with me he told me that my confessions did not serve him, and I answered that I would never give him an absolution because he used to say that he had more than 300 dead on him. In my ignorance I say that not even the Pope could give him absolution, and neither will Pablo get God’s pardon”, says Vélez, who holds the title of Abbot Primate of the Catholic Apostolic Anglican Church, meaning he is the superior of monks from the north of the United States to Florida, and other countries in the world, as Venezuela, Brazil and Chile.
For the priest, 'forgiveness is not a synonym for bawdry'. With that in mind, he says that it is not possible to cast into oblivion the evilness he considers inhabited in Escobar (until he died).
In his struggle with narco-tourism, he devoted himself to remove one by one more than 300 names of people who died by Escobar’s orders, while he was imprisoned in La Catedral jail, and changed them to white crosses. He made the decision because, he says, there were people looking for the victims’ families to interview them, create histories around their pain and use them in guided tours.
Today, the crosses are attached to a black marble plaque, located in a room of La Catedral where the extinct drug dealer kept committing crimes and from which he escaped. That room is the only one that remains intact from the former drug dealer stay, and where can still be found some of his furniture, a lamp and some oriental statues.
In that place, the priest also placed posters with images and facts of the crude violence that was lived on behalf of the Medellín cartel. With it, he hopes the tourists face the terror generated by the former capo and can see the other side of the story, different from was is told by their guides: the one of the mothers who never saw their children again, the one of the families that were left without a father, the one of the fear of the citizens to even get into an airplane o going out to the streets because, at any time, a bomb could explode.
Nowadays, there is also in the living room, where is also the grandparents’ library, a temporary exposition of tens of mangers of all sizes, exposed to the public to promote the religious tourism, one of the priest’s bets.
“When the tourists enter, they will only be interested in the room where Pablo’s stuff is; that’s why I’m hanging the posters of all the atrocious deeds he committed. I know that not all of them are going to be convinced, but at least there will be a lesson that things are not always the way they are presented”, express Vélez, who adds that people pay up to $150 US dollars for a narco-tour.
For the priest, “forgiveness is not a synonym for bawdry”. With that in mind, he says that it is not possible to cast into oblivion the evilness he considers inhabited in Escobar until that December 2nd, 1993, when he passed away. He tells that a lot of people have confessed to him truths that have not come to light yet. “There was a woman named Lorena, who used to bring seven or eight women permanently, I know the beauty salon where they used to go. The last time they came, they never appeared again, not one of them. That man was truly evil”, he says.
The abbot primate knows perfectly every corner of La Catedral. And he says that “very annoying” intangible presences also inhabit the place, specially by night.
The cleric is not the only one who feels that way: it is said that the trail of crimes Pablo committed before running away is still latent in the place through energies that those who live there attribute to spirits that remained in a limbo. Inclusively, the priest says that they often feel and listen noises and presences. He doesn’t feel afraid and, in his heart, he says, besides the love of God, he is accompanied by his mother Teresita, whom he frequently mentions.
Usually in the mornings he dresses his cloth, that covers his head, and leans on his crosier to walk the paths of La Catedral. Or he makes healings to the people who come to him, some of them possessed by evil spirits.
After those sessions, aiming to eliminate negative energies, the abbot primate spends the nigh in a coffin he has in his house, located also at La Catedral, for which he has received several criticisms he doesn’t care much about.
Neither does he cares about not being liked by the narco-tours organizers. Every day, outside the place gather several groups of tourists, mainly foreigners, guided by men who speak fluent English with a strong local accent. Photographs, videos and surprise expressions are constant before the anecdotes told by the guides, who point to stairs, paths and corners inhabited by Escobar and where is presumed that many deaths occurred.
I want to have the clear conscience that I’m not participating in the world of evil. That´s why I want to show the other reality.
Outside, the only thing lasting from Escobar’s jail time is a sentry box that was used to watch over the place, even though the invisible mark left by the violence is still alive in many spaces and the guides take advantage of it, to feed their stories.
But for the abbot primate, most of the time those stories are fake, specially when they tell tourists that the nursing home was built under the former capo’s order to benefit the elders. That’s the story that bothers him the most, since building it implied several years of efforts and sacrifices, with the help of the Municipal Administrations, some more than others, and private benefactors, among which former mayor Héctor Londoño stands out.
The home is a colorful structure built on the soccer field on which recognized football players played matches under Escobar’s request, but also where it’s said that his hitmen played with their victims’ heads. The house is a nice place, decorated with diverse plants, set with one of the purest airs you can breathe in the Aburrá Valley and where also live more than 70 cats.
For the grandparents, as they are affectionally called, the ghost of Escobar is almost meaningless. They seldom speak about the subject and are not very compatible with the tourists, which is why the priest prohibited their entrance to the home. A colorful grille separates the home from the other spaces, the ones the visitors can walk freely, because the priest has the land in loan with the Municipality, hence is not authorized to enclose it.
For the moment, he will continue his struggle to dismantle the ideal image of Pablo Escobar. “I want to have the clear conscience that I’m not participating in the world of evil. That´s why I want to show the other reality. Old ladies have come to mourn here the death of their children, to mourn because they have not found them, and that cannot be forgotten”, he emphasizes.
By Heidi Tamayo Ortiz*
EL TIEMPO CORRESPONDENT
*Translated by Laura Vita