More than twenty years after his death, some Colombians still think of him as a hero, call him a saint, a savior, the Godfather, and even Robin Hood, although most refer to him as El Patrón, The Boss. I use less kind terms. I even refuse to write his name. He doesn’t deserve any ink. I left Colombia in 1992 to escape, among other things, the culture of fear he created to protect his business. His ruthless cocaine monopoly turned my beautiful home city, Medellin, into a barbaric war zone that earned it the title: Murder Capital of the World.
The "King of Cocaine" was the leader of the Medellín cartel, controlled most of the cocaine in Colombia, was responsible for 80% of the global cocaine trade, and built his wealth by flooding the U.S. market with the drug. At the height of his power, he was estimated to be worth around $30 billion, which is probably why, to change the laws of extradition, he offered to pay off the national debt of Colombia, which stood at $10 billion at the time.
My city had eyes and ears everywhere and all belonged to him. His hit-men mercilessly killed anyone who tried to stop him. He was responsible for killing about 4,000 people, including an estimated 200 judges and 1,000 police officers, journalists, and government officials. His gangs’ high-profile assassinations, which were often carried out in the open and with no concern for the lives of innocent passers-by, brought Colombia to its knees and made him effectively untouchable. His message to those in power was Plata o Plomo, Silver or Lead, which colloquially translates to: Either take the bribe or take a bullet - and we knew that he would keep his word.
He was not a philanthropist. If he did any good at all, he did it to win over the hearts of Medellin’s poorest and most marginalized residents. His most efficient recruiting method. He gave money to churches and hospitals, established food programs, built parks and football stadiums, and created a barrio, a neighborhood named after himself. He used his obscene wealth, ruthlessness, and popularity to get himself elected to Colombia's Congress. By 1991, he had gained one too many enemies and was under threat of being extradited from Colombia to the United States. He then made a deal with the Colombian government in which he offered to give himself up—instead of facing the American justice system—on the condition that he would build his own jail. The kingpin had a custom luxury prison built called La Catedral, The Cathedral, more like a resort, which housed a football pitch, a casino, a nightclub, a spa, a waterfall and a telescope that allowed him to look directly into his daughter’s house when he was on the phone to her. He walked out of La Catedral after a year.
Forbes once named this drug-runner the seventh richest man in the world. He made Forbes' international billionaires list 7 years in a row (1987-1994). He used planes, helicopters, cars, trucks, and boats to smuggle cocaine into the USA. When in the late 1980s, Colombian authorities seized 142 planes, 20 helicopters, 32 yachts, and 141 homes and offices, he bought two submarines for transporting his cocaine. He even smuggled cocaine into plane tires. Depending on how much product American pilots flew, they could earn as much $500,000 per day. He made so much money that he bought a Learjet specifically for flying his cash. And when he ran out of luck and he and his family were in hiding, his daughter, Manuela, got sick. To keep her warm, he burned about two million dollars.
As you do.
All this long-winded story is just to talk about Manuela, or La Manuela, the lakeside mansion he built on the shores of Guatape Lake, and named after his daughter. He owned whole chunks of the country, but La Manuela was special to him, not only because of the spectacular views of the lake and the picture-perfect vistas of the mountains, but also, because it was his favorite party place. La Manuela housed a Miami Beach-style nightclub, tennis courts, stables, and an Olympic swimming pool. It was built with double walls to store cocaine and money. To La Manuela, he flew singers, actors, politicians and even his favorite hamburgers. It was the place from where the cartel boss ordered assassinations while riding one of his pure-bred horses, or aboard a yacht, or swinging in a hammock. But by 1993, his luck ran out, La Manuela was bombed by rival Cali Cartel, and eight months later, he was shot and killed while fleeing police in Medellín.
This summer, as I took a boat ride around the lake, the site of La Manuela struck me hard. A decaying ruin, neglected by the government, sitting on prime land and surrounded by gorgeous water. There is nothing but graffiti-covered walls and charred remains of what once was a drug-fueled empire. What’s left of the mansion can’t be demolished and the land is not for sale. They are there for the passers-by to assess the price of avarice. It is a reminder of the thousands of Colombians—innocent or not—who lost their lives to this narcoterrorist during the savage 80s and 90s. It is proof that there are some things money can’t buy, even if your net worth is $30 billion.
I don’t watch Narcos, the TV series. Shame on Netflix for giving this man airtime, for immortalizing a ruthless drug-runner who brought down a plane full of innocent people and set car bombs in stadiums, shopping malls, government buildings and police stations. He needs to disappear from TVs and big screens, to be dissociated from Colombia. He doesn’t need to be revived by money-making show producers so that irresponsible celebrities, such as rapper Whiz Khalifa, are inspired to go to Colombia to be photographed delivering flowers at this drug lord’s grave, face enveloped in a cloud of weed and all.
Enough is enough.