Despite the cold morning and the mist that wraps the city, the four foreigners, with their summery outfits, wait at the agreed point the arrival of the vehicle that will take them to tour the most representative places in Pablo Escobar’s life. Two Irish and two Americans look carefully through the vehicle’s window the points indicated by their guide, while he tells them in basic English a lit bit of history of the city.
Manuel Garcés, Epic Tours’ director, says the aim of the tour that bears the name of who was the most wanted drug trafficker in the world is to tell the story from the side most foreigners don't know, the victim's side and the pain the country experienced during the decades that drug trafficking was at its peak. He, as tourist counselor, believes that what is known as narco-tours can change Escobar’s heroic image if they are told, not only from the harshness and pain suffered by the society during the decades of violence, but also from the transformation the city experienced in the last 30 years.
“In this company we do the tour of Pablo Escobar, not from that fanciful and morbid side, but from the passion of someone who lived that time full of uncertainty out of the fear of not seeing his loved ones again”, explains Garcés.
Garcés was also a direct victim of Escobar’s violent inheritance. In front of what once was the home of Escobar and his family, he describes his clients how were the times when the capo, to demonstrate the upper classes that he could also have a place in the city’s best area, bought an allotment in front of the most renowned social club of the time, while he tells that during his youth he lost more than 20 friends because of the war between cartels.
Mauricio Builes, researcher and teacher at Eafit University, agrees with Garcés in saying that one of the strategies to end with the positive image of the drug trafficker abroad is for the municipal administration to build projects to work hand in hand with those who guide foreigners in the city.
“A homework that seems to me very easy and cheap is, for example, knowing who is making those tours and offer a series of workshops about those years’ history. They could still do their narco-tours, but giving that additional information to tourist and locals”, indicates the teacher.
Besides his research process about drug trafficking, Builes also leads a project of digital narco-tours with a group of university students. The stages are the same from traditional tours but told under the victims’ vision.
The researcher explains that the process arose from his experience in producing a documentary about “Popeye” for the Russian television.
“That left me very strained, so I proposed the students to do the same route, but with a different narrative”, says.
As an academic, the teacher points that Pablo Escobar’s figure is striking from a narrative point of view because he is the typical “hero” who fights alone against the state, corners it and help the poor. At least, that’s the version sold from the fiction, consumed by spectators as something truthful.
Between the mountains lean out the ruins of La Catedral, the place where Escobar was, that houses now more than 50 senior adults in a nursing home in charge of a priests that warns in the posters hung at the entrance that “those who don’t the history are condemned to repeat it”, referring to the speeches offered in some touristic journeys.
Garcés and his companions get into the narrow roads of the old prison while they raise to catch sight, at least a little bit, above the still standing walls, despite the years and the absence of prisoners.
“I think that Pablo Escobar was a bad guy”, says August, the Irish citizen in the group that follows Garces’ steps and refers to Escobar as one of the men who has done the most damage in the world. In the distance, the clouds begin to hide the south part of the city visible from the top.
After more than 20 minutes of tour in La Catedral, the group returns to the city to recreate, from Garcés’s narration, the last day of Pablo Escobar. The roof where he was killed is almost intact after 25 years, while the house that served him as shelter during his last days was transformed into a Spanish school for foreigners.
As the building, Garcés has also survived the consequences of the passage of time. Little does he mention his experience to focus on the dead left lying in the streets of the Antioquia capital city. However, away from the visitors, he explains that two of his uncles were hurt after a bomb exploded in what once was La Macarena Bullring in 1991.
“Our children’s children make this tour in memory of those who lost their lives and those who remained with sequels in the aftermath of that mafia culture. This is not a narco-tour because in any moment we sell drugs or take the clients to where it is sold. Here we show what all this evilness left behind, but also how we managed to move forward”, notes the guide.
Unlike this company, Mauricio Builes’ project arrives at places that are not in the typical tours of Pablo Escobar. That’s how Bogotá, one of the most affected cities back then, is included and narrated by those who still carry the burden of violence.
The academic explains that his initiative allowed him to have two important revelations on the subject. The first one, that people speak little about it and victims have remained silent despite the decades.
The second one, not least important, is that Medellín “is trapped with Pablo’s memory” and the citizenship is barely realizing this matter needs to be addressed urgently so that its consequences don't overcome the development of the society.
Before the empty tomb, visitors aware that this is just a momentary end on the road ensure they take a completely different image from the one they are used to see from their countries of origin. The numbers of dead may be forgotten, but the traces from the tour will accompany them long enough to have another point of view of the history.
Medellín is still a mafia city. That’s how Manuel Villa, private secretary of the city, says it, as he tells that drug trafficking inheritance is still latent. The secretary emphasizes that Pablo Escobar is not the problem of the vestiges, that is not the mafia that allows the city to be imagined as a violent place, but it’s the illegality system rooted as a culture.
Traditional values, Villa explains, blurred by the believe that it’s possible to get easy money above the rules. “There is a translocation of principles, and that’s the big problem. What we lived during the 70´s, 80´s and 90’s became an anticultural revolution, a mafia revolution, and what it did was misrepresenting the values and legal referents to change them”.
Even though different administrations have undertaken initiatives to fight against this issue, according to the official, there is a huge gap in history. A gap that, as he himself says it, was filled by fiction through audiovisual productions that reposition the subject again.
“There were 30 years where news, books and some documentaries were published, but never in a systematic, reflexive and conscious was. No memory was made. On the contrary, fiction has been repeating it from the narrative they liked”.
We care about the transformation of the city, but we are still missing a lot in the transformation of the society
That’s why one of the strategies of the current administration is to go back to the history from a series of actions framed in the fight against illegality.
The proposal of an audiovisual production of the same magnitude of those produced by Netflix, the construction of a route of victims and the demolition of the Monaco building, to build a memorial park for the victims, are part of the steps taken by the administration.
“We know we still have a year before the beginning of a new government and we will probably run out of time, but the goal is to mark a precedent for the future administrations to continue this legacy. We care about the transformation of the city, but we are still missing a lot in the transformation of the society”, says the official.
The tour ends with Garcés taking the four foreigners to the place where they are staying while he prepares for the next tour.
“Sadly we, our children and our children’s children will have a scar on our foreheads with the initials of Pablo Escobar. But we cannot wait for the memory to erase our past”, concludes Manuel.
FOR EL TIEMPO
*Translated by Laura Vita