Cocaine put Colombia on the World radar.
From the mid to late 1970s, exports of the white stuff took off after celebrities in the US and Europe made the drug ‘cool’.
The country was first to react to the sudden increase in demand with four illegal drug gangs emerging to control production and supply – the Cali Cartel, the Norte del Valle Cartel, the North Coast Cartel and the Medellín Cartel.
By far the most powerful of these organisations was the Medellín cartel, headed up by the notorious Pablo Escobar.
Despite his diminutive 5 ft 5 inch stature, Escobar combined a burning drive to escape the poverty of his childhood with a brutal ruthless streak.
To some Colombians he is a cult hero. A man who managed to rise from nothing to become a billionaire – in 1987 Forbes Magazine listed him as the seventh richest man in the World with a personal wealth of a cool $25 billion. Spending millions on parks, schools, stadiums, churches and even housing for the poorest of Medellín’s inhabitants endeared him to many.
However, money came at a cost and most grew to despise the man who brought violence to the streets and killed hundreds of innocent people as his stronghold over the supply of cocaine to the World market grew to 80 per cent.
Born in 1949 in the north Colombian city of Medellín, Escobar began his criminal career by thieving gravestones, which he would polish up and sell to stonemasons. He progressed to pushing marijuana and then on to stealing cars and selling the parts on to scrapyards.
It was after a stint in jail in the late 1970s that Escobar decided to start trafficking cocaine on a huge scale.
Throughout the 1980s and early 90s he developed routes to the USA, using planes crammed full of blocks of cocaine. Pilots reportedly got paid up to $500,000 a journey to illegally smuggle the drug over the border.
Escobar wasn’t all about violence and making money. In the 1980s, with cash to burn, the drug lord decided to build a zoo in his sprawling country hacienda of Napoles on the outskirts of Medellín. Amongst the many animals he imported in were hippopotamuses.
After he was gunned down in 1993, the authorities took control of his animal kingdom, but three of the hippos escaped in 2006 and begun to breed at a phenomenal rate in the wild. So much so that experts from Africa have been flown in especially to come up with a plan to deal with the scores of hippos now running wild in the hills of Medellín!
He also had a twisted sense of humour. When two of his zebras were confiscated from his hacienda by officials and put in the city zoo he reportedly stole a load of dogs and chickens in Medellín and painted black and white stripes on two donkeys to make them look like zebras. He then broke into the city zoo, reclaimed his zebras and left the painted donkeys, dogs and chickens in their place.
In 1991, with pressure mounting from the US, the Colombian government and Escobar’s lawyers struck a deal. Escobar agreed to turn himself in and serve a five-year jail term, but he would build his own prison and would not be extradited to the United States.
The prison, La Catedral, was an elegant fortress which featured a jacuzzi, a waterfall, a full bar and a soccer field. In addition, Escobar had negotiated the right to select his own “guards.” In reality nothing changed and he was able to carry on running his empire as per usual.
Although dead for nearly 20 years, visible reminders of Escobar’s impact in Medellín exist around almost every corner. More than 500 white, cocaine-colour inspired buildings built by the wealthy Escobar still stand like ghosts in the midst of brown-brick structures.
Today trafficking and production are still issues in Colombia, but a hardline approach from repeated Governments has made some inroads into tackling the problem.
Violence associated with drugs has also seen a marked fall.
In the last decade, Colombia has gone from having the highest murder rate in the World to a rate lower than places such as Honduras, Jamaica, South Africa and Trinidad and Tobago.
Last year cocaine production in Colombia decreased by 60 per cent relative to its peak in 2000 and for the first time in decades Peru has now surpassed Colombia as the World’s biggest grower of coca – the raw material used to create cocaine.
Colombia is now giving advice to other countries about how to tackle the drugs problem but, leaders argue, as long as there is still demand in the US and Europe the rewards of drug trafficking will always outweigh the risks.