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Episode 60

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Narco Tours

Pablo Escobar died 25 years ago in Medellín, Colombia. Today, despite the suffering he caused, at least 15 tours designed around his life are offered in the city. We went on one of those tours to learn what story they tell about Escobar, and to find out what they can teach us about the city’s relationship with its painful past.

You can read a Spanish transcript of the episode.

Or you can also read an English translation.

If you want to get our new episodes via Whatsapp, please text us at +573229502192. You can also join Radio Ambulante’s Facebook group to discuss with others around each week’s story.


Transcript

Translated by: Patrick Moseley.

 

[Daniel Alarcón, host]:  Hello?

[Diana Caballero]:  Hey!

[Daniel]: Hi, how are you, Diana?

Welcome to Radio Ambulante, from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.

Ok. Let’s start here, with Diana Caballero.  

[Diana]: I’m a Colombian woman, from Baranquilla but I’ve lived in Medellín for many years. I’m an architect, editor and copy-editor.

[Daniel]: In December, 2017, we asked you our listeners to send us questions about your city or country, questions you’d like Radio Ambulante to answer in an episode. More than 100 questions came in, so we decided to let you vote for the one that interests you the most yourself.

And the winning question was Diana’s…

[Diana]: I would like to listen to a story on Radio Ambulante about what happens in Medellín’s so-called “narco tours.” How do they work and what consequences do they have?

[Daniel]: Narco tours: Maybe you’re asking yourself, “what’s that?” Well, they’re lead through Medellín, the city that was home to perhaps the most famous drug trafficker in recent memory: Pablo Escobar.

(NEWS SOUNDBITE)

[Journalist 1]: A man who sowed blood and death throughout Valle de Aburrá and the country.

[Journalist 2]: Who practically changed the face of this country. Who turned drug-trafficking into a multinational business.

[Journalist 3]: He came to be considered on of the most dangerous criminals in the world.

[Daniel]: Though it may sound absurd, in Medellín there are at least 15 tours that take tourists to see places connected to the life and legend of Pablo Escobar. They go to a neighborhood he built, and that still bears his name; to the now run-down luxury building where he lived with his family; to see the statue of the Virgin Mary where his assassins offered their prayers, or the roof where he was killed.

Diana heard about these “narco tours” from a friend who was looking for one for a Canadian reporter. She wanted to report a story on them and well…  

[Diana]: It seemed well, a little vulgar and left me, well, rather intrigued. I’m a little shocked that there are people who really admire things from this man’s life.

[Daniel]: I feel more or less the same as Diana. There is no more nefarious villain in Colombian history than Pablo Escobar. Just the idea of doing an episode about this figure, well, makes me uncomfortable. Deeply.

But my reservations aren’t what are important here. To many people, many Colombians and even many Paisas [people from the northwestern region of Colombia including Medellín], Escobar is a myth. An idol. The deaths he cause, the damage, the trauma…none of that matters. It’s as if people are talking about a fictional character, a Robin Hood, a figure from a Netflix show…   

(SOUNDBITE FROM THE TV SHOW “NARCOS”)

[Pablo Escobar Character]:  You choose: silver or lead. But I don’t wanna get ahead of myself…

[Daniel]:  And not a killer who became a multimillionaire off of the blood of country.

So, understanding how these tours work didn’t seem like enough for us. It falls short. We decided to also investigate the history of Medellín that is told on these “narco tours,” and how Pablo Escobar remains in the memory of a city that isn’t quite sure how to deal with that ghost.

First, a little context. In the early 90s, at the height of the war for drug-trafficking, Medellín was the most violent city in the world. At one point there were approximately 20 murders a day, figures that haven’t been seen since.  

When Pablo Escobar died in 1993, that wave of violence diminished.

[Jorge Caraballo]: There weren’t car bombing anymore, there weren’t police killings, ransom kidnappings are very rare…  

[Daniel]: This is Jorge Caraballo, our Engagement Editor. He was born and lives in Medellín. Jorge was 5 when Escobar died. You could say his childhood and adolescence coincide with a drastic change in Medellín.

[Jorge]: That drug war that was going during the time of Escobar withdrew mostly into the city’s poorest neighborhoods. For upper and middle-class people, that meant recovering…a sense of security that they had lost in the Escobar years. And it’s true that there are parts of the city that see and feel almost no violence.

[Daniel]: I mean, Medellín is still a violent city, but it’s nothing compared to the battlefield that was the 1990s. You can see it in the streets. And in tourism…

(SOUNDBITE FROM A PUBLICLY SPONSORED AD)

[Song]: Medellín will always take you…to a heaven on Earth.

[Daniel]: National and international tourism. They come to see the infrastructure, the libraries, a public transport system that features the only metro in the country…  

It’s worth noting that the vast majority of these public works were built after Escobar died, part of a very deliberate effort to reintegrate a city that was broken apart by violence, connecting neighborhoods that had become very isolated during the  bloody narco years.

And well, in many ways, it has worked.

[Jorge]: In the 90s, it would be unthinkable for a person who wasn’t from Comuna 13 one of the most violent neighborhoods in the city to set foot there. But today, hundreds of tourists ride the neighborhood’s escalators to look at it’s murals and graffiti.

[Daniel]: But it’s not just tourists who go to Medellín. The city is presented as a model: it has won important international medals in the field of urbanism, and mayors from all over the world come to see the “miracle city”: The city that managed to elevate itself after the destruction wrought by the Cartel.

[Jorge]: Though the tourists are really also coming for the parties, the drugs, the sex and now many also come for the “narco tours.”

[Daniel]: As a Paisa, Jorge was the obvious choice to do this story.

So, the first thing he did was do a Google search: “Pablo Escobar,” “Tour,” “Medellín.” Tours that cost between $30 and $100 a person popped up and there was even a five-day tour that cost $750. Obviously, prices varied depending on the added value. For example, the most expensive tours try to stand out by promising tourists that they will meet former members of the Medellín Cartel.

Jorge chose one that billed itself as unfiltered version of the story. In other words, a tour guided by people who were part of that world. On top of that, it was promoted in videos by John Jairo Velásquez, a.k.a Popeye.

(VIDEO SOUNDBITE FROM YOUTUBE)

[John Jairo Velásquez]: Hello, I’m John Jairo Velásquez, Popeye, mafia general Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria’s trusted hit man. From the streets of Medellín, the same streets where Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria once walked, I recommend the Pablo Escobar tour with Óscar. Óscar is a very serious man and I work with him because he is a serious man. He respects tourists and he respects me.

[Jorge]: Uh, John Jairo Velásquez is Pablo Escobar’s former head assassin. He spent 23 years in prison and has publicly admitted to killing close to 250 people. And the truth is, along with Pablo Escobar, he is now one of the most well known members of the Medellín Cartel. And at the moment, he‘s a popular Youtuber.

[Daniel]: Jorge paid $50 and got a Whatsapp message with instructions: to go to a well-known supermarket in a neighborhood called El Poblado at 8 am and to wait for a white van. But when he got there, there were no other tourists, just the van…

[Jorge]:  And the driver, who was a… nice, kind of bigger, talkative guy, and I got to talking with him…  
[Daniel]: They were waiting for the guide to get there…

[Jorge]: And in the meantime, he started telling me everything. Everything! He started saying to me: “Look, look, you don’t belive me? I was in Rio de Janeiro and 9 other countries ‘caleteando’ [lit. ‘coving’]. “Caletear“, according to him, means staying in an apartment looking after drugs that are going to be delivered or the money received after an hand-off between drug traffickers.

[Daniel]: The driver took out his phone and played a video of him with Popeye, like someone trying to prove his place next to the Devil. He said he’d been Escobar’s personal bodyguard, and in the video Popeye confirms it. Jorge felt like he was being presented with the driver’s credentials.   

[Jorge]: He was trying to tell me, “look, you’re here in a privileged place, a unique place, in which you can get close to people who were part of the Medellín Cartel and you’re going to learn all of our secrets.”

[Daniel]: Jorge started to worry about what kind of tour it was going to be: a defense of Escobar, a deification. But well, he was already there. What’s more, he was only person there with the driver. And then Doris, the guide, appeared.  

[Jorge]: She arrived drinking a coffee, with dark sunglasses and in high heels. She was around 50 or 55, a really extroverted woman…

[Daniel]: Doris explained that for the day tour there would be two people: Jorge and a German man, Mathias.

And that’s it, the “narco tour” began. Doris, Escobar’s former bodyguard driving, and Jorge and the German in a van for 12 people. The driver was whistling, Jorge and Mattias were completely silent and Doris explained in English what they were going to do for the next 4 hours.

The first thing she told them was…

[Jorge]: We don’t want you to walk away from this tour thinking that Medellín is a terrible, violent city, not seeing how we have transformed after Escobar’s death.

[Daniel]: And she assured them that they weren’t going to glorify Escobar.

[Jorge]: I mean, I felt genuine relief because I was really hoping these tours would show me something about city, something I didn’t know. It’s an issue that interests me, as a person from Medellín, very much.

[Daniel]: I suppose it interests me too. I mean, there is a way a “narco tour” could be useful: telling the story, but telling the real story, a urban tour in which the city itself acts as a museum of memory. A telling that focuses on the victim’s story rather than the victimizer’s.

Unfortunately, that’s not what it was.

Take for example, the first stop: the famous Mónaco building.

[Jorge]: It’s in a residential neighborhood, but it’s abandoned. It’s a five story, white building, but the white is now discolored with mold and stains.

[Daniel]:  Escobar built it in the early 90s to live in with his family. This was before his war against the government forced him into hiding.

[Jorge]: Well, the Mónaco building isn’t at all attractive, not at all.

[Daniel]: But you could say it’s important in Colombian history because that was were the Cali Cartel a rival group  planted the first car bomb in Colombia. That was in 1988, and from that moment, one of the bloodiest wars between cartels for control of the drug trade began, a war in which the Colombian State also took part. The car bomb became one of Escobar’s weapons of choice.

Jorge grew up hearing these bombs…

[Jorge]:  When I was 4 years old a few days before my birthday, I remember a car bomb blew up 200 meters from my house. It was such a powerful explosion the car’s bumper landed on our roof. I remember that horrible bang. I remember the confusion, everyone running downstairs to go out to the street to see what happened. The broken glass, people covered in blood pointing out the damage to the houses. It was horrible. And…it’s something you never forget.

[Daniel]:  But Doris didn’t mention the deaths. Or the wave of violence set of by that first car bomb. She talked about the works of art that Escobar once had there, the classic cars and motorcycles that “El Patrón” hadshe would call him that sometimes, “El Patrón. She also talked about how on the second and third floors of the Mónaco were like a hotel were personalities from all over the world would come: Latin American politicians like Vladimiro Montesinos, the now imprisoned advisor to the president of Peru; or Manuel Noriega, the Panamanian dictator.

Little people like that.

How cool.

All of those car bombs we mentioned earlier, many of them were part of war between the Cali and Medellín cartels. But other, a vast majority of them were directed at the Colombian State with a single goal.

The story’s complicated, but important. In short: the Medellín Cartel wanted to keep their leaders from being extradited to the US at all costs.  

And it worked. The day after the Colombian Constitution was modified to prohibit etradition, Escobar turned himself in.

And he went to live in the prison that he built himself, which was called la Catedral, the Cathedral.

The second stop on the “narco tour.”

It’s on top of a mountain, about an hour outside of downtown Medellín.   

[Jorge]:  La Catedral wasn’t just any prison because la Catedral didn’t really seem like a prison. It has bars, sure, but really it was a resort, it was a hotel full of luxuries.

And inside they only followed the orders he gave.

[Daniel]: And what was inside that prison was unbelievable. Escobar slept on a waterbed, he had a jacuzzi in his room and a big screen TV mounted on the wall. We know that he continued to run his business from the inside, with visits from friends and family.

[Jorge]:  And on top of that, there are a lot of stories, legends about what happened in there. Diego Armando Maradona Maradona! said that Escobar paid him to play a friendly match with other famous soccer players…

[Daniel]:  Among them, several players from the Colombian national team.

Escobar lived in la Catedral for more than a year, until 1992, when the government tried to transfer him to another prison when they found out that two people had been killed in la Catedral. But when the military came, Escobar wasn’t there anymore.

After he escaped, the place was ransacked by treasure hunters and turned into a pilgrimage site for admirers of Escobar.

And despite the violence he was responsible for, a lot of people in Medellín still see him as a hero. This is in part due to a PR campaign that was run by many media outlets, be it unwittingly or complicitly.

Before it was confirmed that he was the leader of the Medellín Cartel…   

[Jorge]:  The media treated Pablo Escobar as if he were a Paisa Robin Hood. Someone who shared his wealth with the poor.

[Daniel]:  Escobar himself used that mythology as a political flag.

(NEWS SOUNDBITE)

[Pablo Escobar]: Those who know the story of Robin Hood know perfectly well that he struggled and went out in defense of the common people.

[Daniel]: Escobar built a neighborhood to give houses to people who lived in the dredges of the city. He made soccer fields where he would often hand out wads of cash.

(NEWS SOUNDBITE)

[Journalist]: And the Las Flores neighborhood in the city of Envigado, a new soccer field has been opened that ranks 12th in terms of lighting. This project comes from Civismo en Marcha and Mr. Pablo Escobar Gaviria.

[Daniel]: This, in Medellín, one of the most unequal city in Colombia, meant a lot.

(VIDEO SOUNDBITE FROM YOUTUBE)

[Man]:  Viva Pablo Escobar Gaviria!

[Crowd]: Viva!

[Man]: Pablo Escobar Gaviria is a man of the people, the leader of the people, the man who stands for our people.

[Jorge]: For a lot of people from the lowest social strata of Medellín, Pablo Escobar is a symbol of that discontent with the system, of that irreverence, of that desire to say: “I do what it takes to get what I want.” And that’s why it’s very common in Medellín to drive around and see a mural with Pablo Escobar’s face, or t-shirts for sale downtown with his image on it, or bumper stickers on buses or taxis with his face.

[Daniel]:  That’s why, when they killed Escobar, the funeral was massive…

(SOUNDBITE FROM A VIDEO OF THE FUNERAL)

[Crowd]: Pablo! Pablo! Pablo! Pablo! Pablo! Pablo! Pablo!  

[Daniel]: Hundreds of people mourning his death, trying to touch him. The military even had to make room to allow the family to bring the coffin to the tomb.  

(SOUNDBITE FROM A VIDEO OF THE FUNERAL)

[Daniel]: Jorge and the German walked through La Catedral. It had been abandoned for 15 years, but, on it’s ruins was built what is now a nursing home. It’s run by Anglican monks, but there are areas that are open to the public. They went to the chapel, to a soccer field. They saw a helipad and a small park with concrete tables where they say Escobar played chess.

Doris also showed them a library that supposedly belonged to Escobar. It was in a building they couldn’t go in, but they looked in the door that was made of glass.  

[Jorge]: And she pointed to it and said something like “Look. Look at all this. These are all books that Escobar would read.” And I looked and… and it was a few wooden shelves, like in a rural school, with a bunch copies of Salvat encyclopedias and I said: “What…what is this? I mean, how are these Pablo Escobar’s books?”

[Daniel]: More than one copy of the same encyclopedia didn’t sound very convincing to him. But on top of that, when Doris asked them to look toward the back of the library, there were a few pieces of furniture.

[Jorge]: Think of a grandma’s furniture: very old, super old-fashioned, that I’m sure were red at some point but are now a worn pink. And she says “That’s the furniture Escobar had delivered directly from Spain. Queen Isabel sent them to him.”  

[Daniel]: Back at the van, Jorge saw a large bright orange sign in the parking lot. It said that the information presented by some of the tour guides wasn’t entirely accurate and that the administration of the nursing home was willing to answer questions.

[Jorge]: I started to feel like this was more of a performance in a historical tone. I can see she has this desire for us to go out and repeat all of these grandiose stories, rather than help up understand what really happened in Medellín.

[Daniel]:  Jorge started to feel that not everything was true. But there was something that made him uncomfortable. Doris asked the German…

[Jorge]:  “I imagine it’s the same in Germany. People visit all of the places Hitler went, where Hitler died”…And he looked at her like: “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” I mean, he said to her: “No if we learned anything after the Second World War it was to care for our memory. The people who go to Hitler sites are Nazis, people who adore him. But the population in general is focused on what happened to the victims.”

[Daniel]: I’ve seen it. If you walk through Berlin, sometimes you come across bricks that stick out of the ground. You look down and you realize that there are names and dates written on them. They’re a record of Jews who were taken from Berlin to the concentration camps. They’re a way of telling passersby: “Hey, look. We haven’t forgotten what happened.”

The German told Jorge that he had wanted to go on the tour because he had seen the show “Narcos” and he was really interested in the history of the drug trade. He wanted to visit these place and better understand what had happened in the city.

[Jorge]: Well, in the beginning, Mathias was very talkative. He paid attention to what Doris said and asked questions. But toward the middle of the tour I could feel that he was talking less and less. As if somehow he felt the same thing I was, that discomfort at hearing a defense of a drug trafficker.

[Daniel]: And despite everything Doris had said that the start of the tour, it did feel like an apology. From time to time she would mention the people who were attacked or the victims, or some fact about the negative impact he had on Colombia would come up, but she always went back almost immediately to Escobar’s audacity, the lower in his reach, and the fact that, according to Doris, no one could overcome him.

[Jorge]:  Well, I think that that is one of the legacies of…of the drug trade in Colombian culture: the person who is astute or who skirts the rules is the winner, and the one who follows the letter of the law is like a fool, the idiot. In large part, what Pablo Escobar represents is that person who is astute.

[Daniel]: And we’re the fools.

The last stop on the tour was the Montesacro cemetery, where Escobar is buried. A lot of narco tours passed through there, and that day Jorge and Mathias passed by another group of about 10 people.

What Jorge describes is a surreal scene. Tourists in shorts and hats, taking pictures with selfie-sticks, while at the same time, it’s a cemetery. There was a burial. And people dressed in black coming out of the cemetery to bury their dead.

[Jorge]: And they were looking at us. I remember there was a woman who looked at me. She was crying and I was there with a camera on my shoulder. And…and then I felt dirty. I felt horrible. I thought: “I don’t want to be here.”

[Daniel]: The tourists kept taking pictures as if nothing was happening, and the driver was waiting with big stack of stickers with Escobar’s silhouette and the slogan “Producto Colombiano.” They also had DVDs of documentaries about the drug trade and books by Popeye. It’s all for sale, of course.

[Jorge]:  I thought: “this is bullshit.”

[Daniel]:  Well be back after the break.

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[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. I’m Daniel Alarcón.

Before the break we were at the last stop of the “narco tour.” It ended there, in the cemetery, among those mourning their dead and the tourists celebrating a killer.

And Jorge was left thinking about the sign the nursing home had put up at la Catedral, inviting tourists to come ask questions if they had any doubts.

[Jorge]: What kept coming back into my head was that sign, it was like: why do they have to post that? I mean, what do they know about what the guides are saying? And…and I said: “I’m going back.” I mean, I have to go ask them, is this true or isn’t it?

[Daniel]: So he decided to go. And from here Jorge continues the story.

[Jorge]:  At la Catedral I spoke with this man:

[Elkin Vélez]: I’m Father Abad Primado Elkin Ramiro Vélez García, of the Anglican Catholic Apostolic Church.

[Jorge]: This priest has lived there for 11 years.. He was the one who lead the construction of the nursing home that stands there today. Bur from the beginning he has had to deal with one problem.

[Elkin]: They come up here, tourists from all over the world, all over, to see where the prison was, what Pablo did, what they didn’t do: looking at this place as if it were, well…as it were: “It’s a sanctuary where Pablo Escobar stayed, so if we go there, things will be alright for us.”

[Jorge]: The priest told me that he doesn’t have a problem with tourists visiting the place.

[Elkin]: But they’re being fooled. In what sense? All of them, absolutely all of them, come and they tell them different story, stories that aren’t true, things that didn’t happen.

[Jorge]: I asked him about the two things that raised my suspicions the most: First, Pablo Escobar’s supposed library and second, the furniture he wast sent by Queen Isabel.

[Elkin]: Lies. When we got here there was nothing, absolutely nothing. Just adobe on top of adobe.Everything was full of weeds. That library, those banisters, those beds and those lamps are all things people gave us.

[Jorge]: I asked him about other stories Doris had told me about that place. For example, a statue of Mary in a cave that she took me to see, that Pablo Escobar’s mother had supposedly put in place months after the escape from la Catedral in thanks for her son’s safe departure…

[Elkin]: The Virgin that’s in the cave was put there by us.

[Jorge]: And I asked about the supposed helipad Frank Sinatra landed on to visit Escobar, but according to Abad it’s not a helipad at all.  

[Elkin]: It’s the septic tank for this whole area of…of la Catedral.

[Jorge]: For the priest, what the tours are doing has a obvious name:

[Elkin]: It’s a scam…a complete scam. It’s a clear scam. It’s a rip-off.

[Jorge]: And that’s why the administration of the nursing home made a decision. They are, little by little, getting rid of everything that references Pablo Escobar. For example, the ruins of a building that housed a rotating bed that supposedly Pablo Escobar used to have sex.

The monks don’t want the tours to have anything to scam tourists with, and they are tired of guides saying that the elderly people live in the ruins of the Pablo Escobar empire.

And something caught my attention. When I was on the tour, in the parking lot of la Catedral, there was a very large billboard with a picture of Escobar behind bars that read: “Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.”

But when I went alone a week later to interview the priest, I realized it wasn’t there anymore. They had gotten rid of it. And that was the sign where all of the tourists took a picture when they visited the site.

I wanted to talk to Doris again, this time with a mic in hand, to ask her about what the priest had told me.

She told me that 8 years ago she started working as a guide in a museum house in Medellín that’s dedicated to the Cartel. It’s directed by Roberto Escobar, Pablo Escobar’s brother, and Roberto trained her to give tours of the museum, telling stories about his brother. This is Doris:

[Doris]: There he had Pablo’s first cars. He had a motorcycle that was a gift from Frank Sinatra, so, uh, it was a fascinating story, it was really cool, and…and that’s the reason, well, I accepted the job and starting working with him…

[Jorge]: She like interacting with tourists in her job and tell that story that’s attractive to a lot of people. So I asked her if she felt admiration for Pablo Escobar…

[Doris]: No, I never liked Pablo. Living in Medellín at that time was terrible for me and…I can tell you…I felt happy they day Pablo died, because I knew the transformation that was coming to our…our city.

[Jorge]: She told me that she also lived through the bombs and the fear and there are even victims of Pablo Escobar in her family.

After working with Roberto for 5 years, Doris decided to start her own tour company. They would be about Pablo Escobar, but…

[Doris]: Our focus is…is different, uh, we show a Medellín that’s like it was when Pablo Escobar was alive, one that isn’t…that wasn’t good at all, and how it it now. So for us it’s very, very important to show Medellín’s transformation after Pablo’s death.

[Jorge]: But I told her that I hadn’t felt that. That most of the tour had been details that didn’t have anything to do with the city’s recuperation and that, instead, she did present Escobar as this admirable man. And I told her that she barely said anything at all about the victims.

And this is what he said in response:

[Doris]: No, what’s happening is…you as…as a guide you have to be impartial. So I, for me, I give the…the same weight to the information I have to give you about Pablo, uh, as…as the information about Medellín.

[Jorge]:  Besides, I told her I was worried about how true to life what she was showing on the tour was. I asked her specifically about what we saw at la Catedral.

Are there things that belonged to Pablo Escobar there?

[Doris]: There are some things, but not a lot. For example, the…the…the original hall and there are a few books that… “El Patrón” read.

[Jorge]: Then I told her that I had already spoken with Father Elkin about the stories she tells on the tour. And she told me that she had been told all that by John Jairo Velásquez, a.k.a. Popeye, and Roberto Escobar.

[Doris]: What’s happening is that you…you…you don’t know, I mean, I…I, what can I say…I tell people what they…they told me, ok, what… And I believe that they told me, that I’m giving…true information. I mean, I don’t…I don’t know if that’s real or if it’s not, ok?

[Jorge]: I asked her how she would feel if I confirmed that everything she said on the tour was a lie.  

[Doris]: Well, I would feel very bad because I think that…that part…the…the…the most important thing for a guide is to give factual information, that it is true. If…if we’re giving erroneous information, well it’s a total mistake on our part.

[Jorge]: It seems like what they’re selling is an exaggerated narrative. That’s what tourists who see Medellín as a set from “Narcos”, the Netflix show, are looking for. And well, Doris has to compete with other companies.

But what happens if a tourist or someone from the city is looking for another version of the story. One that takes into account the victims and the impact of the violence on the city. Well, unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of options.

There’s la Casa de la Memoria, the House of Memory, which opened in 2015. I went a little while ago and came out moved. It tells the story after a rigorous investigation and from the point of view of the victims.

And early last year, in 2017, Mauricio Builes, who is a journalist and university professor, designed a very different tour: this one is virtual.

It all started when a few Russian journalists called him to ask him to act as a translator and “fixer” for a documentary on John Jairo Velásquez, a.k.a. Popeye. This is Mauricio:

[Mauricio Builes]: They wanted to know first hand why Popeye was such a popular figure in Colombia, knowing that he had been a hit-man.

[Jorge]: Mauricio agreed to work on the documentary on the condition that they would also talk to the victims. The Russians agreed, but from the get-go the production was a nightmare.   

[Mauricio]: I had an intense emotional crisis from the first day because what the Russian proposed that first day was to bring him to downtown Medellín. And walk around and ask him questions.

[Jorge]: They had planned to walk down several blocks where they would record people’s reactions to Popeye. But they could only make it a few meters.

[Mauricio]: Because there was such a swarm of people behind Popeye, piqueándolo, asking for his autograph and a selfie, uh, cab drivers honked their horns and shouted “Popeye for President.”

(SOUNDBITE FROM DOCUMENTARY)

[John Jairo Velásquez]: People like me. They take pictures. If there’s someone in the crowd who attack me or kill me, that’s their problem. I don’t think about that.

[Mauricio]: I’m 38 years old, and in the Pablo years I was a boy here in Medellín. I came across bombs, uh, and I remember the fear. I remember a lot of things. And when I saw that world…I was reminded of all that.

[Jorge]:  Mauricio spent 8 days with Popeye and visited the same places I did and more.

I don’t know how he put up with it for so long. To me that 4 hour tour felt like an eternity.

After a few days, he went back to the journalism class he was teaching at one of the city’s private universities and told his students about his experience. And he proposed an idea:  

[Mauricio]: I told them: “Ok, this happened. I’m in a crisis, so I need you to help me get over this crisis and as a final project, we’re going to make a ‘narco tour.’ But the people who present the facts aren’t going to be Popeye and his friends but rather…the victims.”

[Jorge]: Mauricio worked with 40 students. They picked 13 important places to tell the story of the war years. Then they looked for people to narrate the moments they were victims to the Medellín Cartel.

They collected audio, text, images, videos… which they published on their website: narcotour.co.

(SOUNSBITES FROM NARCOTOURS.CO)

[Man 1]: I’m a victim of narcoterrorism, uh, a relative of one of the victims of the Oporto massacre.

[Woman 1]: I was a kidnapping victim.

[Woman 2]: We were orphaned, myself, my sister Viviana and my little brother with was 5 and half at the time…

[Woman 3]: Now my son is 26. He’s a very nervous person. And a little anxious. Basically, I attribute it to that period of violence.

[Man 2]: One of the cars that was reached by the explosion was my family’s. My wife Patricia Román along with my two children.

[Jorge]: The subtitle makes it clear what distinguishes this narco-tour: “The B-side of the history of drug-trafficking and Pablo Escobar.”

The launching of the site was covered by Colombian and international media. They even started to get messages from tourists who wanted to take the tour and were asking how much it cost. But it wasn’t about that, obviously. It was –is– and exercise in historical memory. Maybe what this city needs the most.

[Mauricio]: We, in Medellín, are preoccupied with the memory of Pablo Escobar. I mean, we don’t know what to do, we don’t know how to deal with it –and we haven’t started.

[Jorge]: Today, Medellín is still a very violent city. There are about 300 combos, or groups that deal in small-scale drug trafficking and extortion. The drug trade still infiltrates the decisive seats of power. For example, last year, the Attorney General accused the Secretary of Security of the local administration the mayor’s right hand man of sharing information about drug traffickers, and was arrested.

The week we finished this story, one of the leaders of these narco groups was captured and in retaliation they stopped public transport in an section of the city. In other words, the conditions that made it possible for the Medellín Cartel to become as powerful as it was are still there.

But when I tell friends and relatives that I’m doing a story on the “narco tours,” a lot of them asked me what for. That’s in the past, a closed chapter, “the miracle city” etc, etc.

And they’re right. Even though the story isn’t complete.  

And neither is what you see on the narco tours.

[Daniel]: In April of this year, 2018, the mayor of Medellín announced that they plan to demolish the Mónaco building to build a park dedicated to the Cartel’s victims. However, a concrete project that lays out how much it will cost and how it will be built has not been presented yet.  

Jorge Caraballo is Radio Ambulante’s Engagement Editor. He lives in Medellín.  This story was co-produced by Luis Fernando Vargas and edited by Camila Segura and me. The mixing and sound design are by Andrés Azpiri. Ana Prieto did the fact-checking.

The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Patrick Moseley, Barbara Sawhill, Luis Trelles, David Trujillo, Elsa Liliana Ulloa and Silvia Viñas. Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.

Radio Ambulante is produced and mixed on Hindenburg PRO.

Learn more about Radio Ambulante and about this story on our website: radioambulante.org.

Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.

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Despite the suffering he caused, there are at least 15 tours designed around Pablo Escobar's life in Medellín.

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