Day 120 – Medellin Part II – He Who Must Not Be Named

Mark Twain.PNGI love this quote by Mark Twain, which sits somewhere in my Facebook profile as a relic of the days when people used to bother with the ‘favourite quotes’ section.

If you’re reading this thinking “I don’t know what he’s talking about” then I don’t believe you. Lying and getting caught is a rite of passage – it’s just that some people learn from it and others don’t.

I’d put myself in the former category. As friends and readers of this blog will attest I am honest and very open, sometimes to my own detriment. An ‘oversharer’ if you will. Still, with every rule there is an exception, and a couple of mendacious moments will always stick in my mind.

The first was at around 13 years of age, when I told a mate about how a group of us had got into a fight in McDonald’s, been chased through Chichester and ended up escaping through the multi-storey car park.

The problem with this story was that I hadn’t actually been there, but the friend I was telling it to had. He let me get all the way to the end before exposing me mercilessly.

Fast forward 20 years or so to Paris, and a weekend trip with the boys to watch the Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe, an annual horse race which coincides with Paris Fashion Week.

After two long nights of scowls from Parisian fashionistas upon hearing that I worked in finance I foolishly decided to take on the persona of my sister, saying I was a womenswear buyer for MyTheresa. Yep, what a loser.

Shockingly, Anna from Paris believed me. We met for lunch the next day, where the budding designer subjected me to unrelenting questioning about my fashion career. After a tortuous recitation of my sister’s resumé I finally escaped, agreeing to put her in touch with my non-existent London fashion contacts. Despite not being formally caught out it was horrible, and I promised myself never again to get into such a situation.

Medellin Le Tissier

I wish these painful memories had come to me before I decided to tell Ruben the Medellin taxi driver that I was an ex-professional footballer for Southampton. Conceived of by Jonesy senior as a harmless way of practicing my Spanish on a short taxi journey, it would have been quickly forgotten had Ruben not subsequently become our unofficial Medellin tour guide.

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Over the course of three trips we made with Ruben (who turned out to be a huge football fan) I was asked many questions about my premier league career. What was your best position? Who was your favourite coach? Did you play against Cristiano Ronaldo?

Rather than abandoning ship at the earliest opportunity, this fabrication again lasted the distance. While my back up plan (to claim I was Iain Dowie) thankfully wasn’t enacted the whole thing was torture for me, hilarious for my dad, and I’m sure Ruben eventually worked out that it was all rubbish anyway.

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He Who Must Not Be Named

I suspect Pablo Escobar told a few porky pies in his long, murderous career. While I absolutely devoured Narcos (the Netflix series about Escobar) and was excited to visit the sites of his former reign of terror, on reflection I feel dirty for some of the things I did on our ad hoc tour with Ruben.

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I had already visited the Escobar family grave with Walter, Patrick and our Colombian familia. Popular with narco-tourists keen to get a photo of themselves snorting cocaine off his tombstone, this unassuming grave was clearly intended to portray his simplicity as a true ‘man of the people.’ This, like his well-publicised generosity to the poor folk of Medellin, was just propaganda, done with personal ends in mind.

For every one of the 300 plus houses he built for the poor in Medellin (when he was, coincidentally, running for President), Escobar was responsible for a multiple of that number in murders and executions (estimated at around 3,000).

An excellent free walking tour guide Edgar, who had grown up in Medellin through its worst years, was baffled that so many people could “compare the value of houses alongside that of human life.” He was careful not to use Escobar’s name in his commentary as we walked around the city – just hearing it invokes highly emotive interventions from locals, whichever side they’re on.

It is surprising that anyone could side with the narcos when there are regular reminders of the atrocities committed, like these remains of a bombed Botero sculpture in Plaza San Antonio, where 23 people died at a concert in 1995.

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We made a trip to the Catedral – the luxury ‘prison’ Escobar built himself after a deal with the government in 1991. Looking down over all of Medellin you could just imagine Escobar standing there surveying what was then still his kingdom, despite his incarceration.

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With no visitor centre, entry charge, or any real effort to create a tourist attraction we initially regarded the Catedral as a missed opportunity for Medellin. This, however, was absolutely the intention. The government and the city, well aware of Escobar’s enduring reputation, are doing their best to distance themselves from it.

Colombia’s recent history isn’t taught in schools, which is why some of the younger Paisas, who didn’t live through the terror but did watch Narcos, can be seen wearing pro-Escobar t-shirts. While gratuitous tourist photos are part of the problem I have no regrets about this shot of me and my dad sitting on his former helipad.

P1000502.JPGIn contrast, I am ashamed of my behaviour at the next stop we made. Billed as an Escobar museum by Ruben, we went to visit one of his former safe-houses in Medellin which was really more of a shrine, operated by his surviving family members.

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An extremely pro-Pablo tour guide led us through the house, encouraging photos of the gratuitous and distasteful variety. I went along with it, not wanting to offend our hosts and not really thinking about what I was doing. I stood on his old jetski, sat on his favourite sofa, hid behind the revolving bookcase, took fake hundred dollar bills from the secret compartment in his desk and reclined on top of his old land rover, complete with bullet and grenade damage…I’ve included a couple of the more acceptable shots here, but the list goes on.

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The real low point came when we met Pablo’s elder brother Roberto Escobar, former professional cyclist turned drug lord turned reluctant penitent and strange old man, who used to sit alongside Pablo on Colombia’s most wanted list with a $10m price tag.

The grand finale of this very expensive tour was to shake hands with Roberto who claims, as ‘cartel accountant,’ that he had no part in the violence. Sorry Bobby – if you’re counting and spending the money you’re as culpable as anyone.

After the recent murder of a Netflix location scout in Mexico, Roberto was quoted as saying “It is very dangerous [to film in Colombia]. Especially without our blessing. This is my country.” Not the words of a simple accountant and pacifist.

When given the opportunity to ask questions of Roberto, all I could think of was ‘how many people did you kill or have killed?’ This didn’t seem appropriate, so we stood there for a photo before making our exit. It was awkward.

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Conclusion

This is a blog, not an essay, but I feel the need to conclude.

First up, I think we can all agree that lying is bad, even if it does result in some funny stories.

Secondly, Pablo Escobar and his big brother were very bad, despite what many Colombians will tell you. The Medellin of today is a safe, friendly and happy place where residents no longer need to worry about kidnappings, executions or bombs.

Finally, I accept that there is some hypocrisy in going to the ‘museum,’ shaking hands with a man with so much blood on his, then writing this account and posting the photos. While I have learnt a lesson from this experience, if I could do it all again I would keep my money and skip the Pablo Pilgrimage.


Next stop: The Highs and Lows of Salsa 

What is The Gump Method

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