Steve Murphy, the former DEA agent romanticized in “Narcos,” the Netflix series on Pablo Escobar that is still earning money for its producers, is a polished public speaker who takes his story around the world.
In Lithuania, in 2017, he marveled out loud that 24 years after the death of the world’s first narco-terrorist, once thought to be among the seven richest men on the planet, we are still talking about him.
Everywhere in the world. Everywhere – except Colombia.
Here in Medellin, Escobar’s home base, successive governments seem to have done everything in their power to obliterate his memory.
They razed the Monaco, an apartment block he built and once lived in with his family, and in its stead put up a polished black granite wall patterned on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, in honour of victims of narco-violence that wracked the country in the 80’s and 90s.
Every death is marked by a bullet hole.
At nearly 50,000, the toll rivals the number of US soldiers killed in Vietnam.
The park where it sits is also a dog run.
“As if razing the Monaco wasn’t enough,” said a former associate of the drug kingpin bitterly, “they have dogs shit on his legacy.”
It’s unlikely there is enough canine excrement in the world to bury Escobar’s legacy.
This country still supplies an estimated 43-percent of the world’s cocaine (down from 80% in Escobar’s day, according to Murphy).
Official figures are difficult to come by.
One government minister is quoted as saying the business is worth between eight and twelve billion dollars a year to the Colombian economy.
That’s as much as a billion dollars a month, a figure that easily beats petroleum exports, and it’s a lot of illegal narcotics produced in and flowing out of this country.
One wonders how this could be going on, without the complicity of some if not all levels of government, as in Escobar’s day.
Both candidates who emerged victorious in the first round, on May 29, right-wing businessman Rodolfo Hernandez, and left-wing Senator and former guerrilla, Gustavo Petro, ran on “anti-corruption” platforms.
But nobody ran on an “anti-cocaine” platform. In fact, cocaine was barely mentioned.
“Nobody’s going to touch that business,” said a resident of Envigado, the working-class suburb where Escobar grew up and his mother taught school, “they’d have to be crazy.”
It would be unfair to say the government does nothing to stop the illegal drugs trade.
High profile arrests and extraditions are run of the mill, in local media.
Colombia’s Truth Commission, formed under the peace process of 2016 to investigate the deaths and disappearances of more than half a million Colombians between 1985 and 2018 (ten times US dead in Vietnam), chastised the nation’s media, dominated by private sector interests, for “coddling” Colombians with” fragmentary” accounts of events, leading to a “fragmented and unreal” perception of the country.
Even Google self-censors on the importance of illegal drugs to Colombia. Ask for the top exports, and it spits out petroleum, coffee, flowers, and bananas.
“It’s the unnameable,” said a close Colombian friend, cautioning me about possible reprisals for publishing this article. “Why are you going to name it?”
President-elect Petro campaigned and won, on June 19, on a platform of radical change.
Swearing to fight corruption, one wonders how far he will dare go. Will he target the unnameable, silent bystander looking over his shoulder?
Or will his “radical change” turn into “change to keep things the same?”
How far dare he go, to rein in oil exploration in the Amazon, as he promised, where community leaders are routinely assassinated by paramilitary groups?
As an aside, shares in Ecopetrol, the nation’s euphemistically named oil company, tumbled more than 30-percent in one day last week.
Analysts blamed “uncertainty” about Petro’s moves in the face of a global recession. He takes office August 7.
Will he really dare shift power to the people, from the four families who reputedly control the country?
The stakes are high, in a country that could explode into violence at the drop of a hat.
The past five decades have taught us that. Half a million dead or disappeared means almost everyone in this country of 52-million knows someone who has been affected, or has suffered personally from “the violence.”
Senator Gustavo Bolivar, one of Petro’s stalwarts, has begun to publicly express doubts, after Petro met with former President Alvaro Uribe days after his election victory, and agreed to open a “channel of communication” with him.
This, after 20 years of publicly vilifying each other. Will Uribe get off with a pardon, or will he be held accountable for alleged illicit conduct in office? Will he even be formally investigated?
“Remember the victims,” Bolivar tweeted.
The President-elect is conscious that his first priority, despite pressure from his radical base, must be to reassure the ten million Colombians who voted against him, that they are not en route to becoming the “next Venezuela.”
He has earned the benefit of the doubt, at very least.
David Gollob is a Canadian screenwriter and freelance reporter. Formerly a Managua-based Latin America correspondent for CBC, BBC and The Times, today he lives in Medellin, Colombia.