Colombia the Most Dangerous City

Welcome to Medellin, coke capital of the world

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Established in the 16th century by Spanish conquistadors looking for the fabled riches of El Dorado, Medellin has long been Colombia's main industrial center. On windless days, the skyline is smothered in smog, and a blue haze of pollution drifts upward into the Andes. Medellin-born Fernando Botero, probably Latin America's most renowned contemporary artist, captures the city's self-assuredness in his exaggerated canvases of local life, several of which hang in the Medellin museum. The pinched mouths and tiny noses of Botero's overfed men and women suggest the provincial smugness of an entrepreneurial society that honors the self-made man.

That spirit found a new expression in the late 1970s when the cocaine business came to town. The coca plant, from which the substance is derived, grows best not in Colombia but in Bolivia and Peru, where the leaves are made into a rough paste. But turning the paste into the white powder that foreigners consume in such prodigious quantities requires laboratory facilities and technical skills. Medellin had them, as well as convenient proximity to the huge U.S. market and a work force willing to take risks. "There has always been an entrepreneurial spirit in this city," says Jaramillo. "These people found a way of controlling a big business with a growing demand in the U.S."

At first the arrival of the drug lords generated only mild concern. "They were getting rich off the gringos, an entirely respectable way for a Latin to accumulate wealth," says Maria Alves Osorio, a middle-class mother of three who is now alarmed at Medellin's lawlessness. "Our children weren't taking cocaine, so everything was fine." Many residents welcomed the money that drugs brought to the city and the jobs they created, however temporarily, in the construction and retail businesses. The old estates on the surrounding hills of El Poblado were replaced by luxurious red-brick apartment buildings topped with satellite dishes to enable tenants to watch Miami Vice and other U.S. programs. Shopping malls proliferated, and land values soared.

Pablo Escobar Gaviria, generally acknowledged to be head of the Mafia, as the cartel is known locally, became something of a local philanthropist, building a zoo, soccer fields and an entire suburb of low-cost houses that is still called Barrio Escobar. In the manner of feudal serfs, residents in Barrio Escobar refer to their benefactor with cap-doffing deference and slip the Spanish honorific Don in front of his name.

For all their money, the drug barons may have brought only a superficial prosperity to Medellin. "Their money hasn't created much employment because they haven't invested in productive infrastructure," says Juan Gomez Martinez, publisher of Medellin's biggest daily newspaper, El Colombiano (circ. 100,000), and a candidate for mayor. "They have spent a lot of money on imported luxuries." Escobar, for example, is said to have imported gold-plated bathroom fittings for a penthouse he frequently used. His wife had more shoes in her closet, according to local lore, than Imelda Marcos. The penthouse was abandoned by the Escobars last January, after a car bomb blew the side off the six-story apartment building and wrecked neighboring houses.

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