Colombia´s Crimson Nigth

Escobar’s hand of death reaches out from the grave

From The HoustonChronicle print edition

“He taught these boys to assassinate”

MEDELLIN, Colombia – In life, he embodied death itself. Now, almost four years dead, Pablo Escobar has become a roadside attraction.

The once-feared drug boss lies in a simple grave up a low hill from a busy expressway on the outskirts of Medellin. Every year, thousands of people trek to his tomb, some to pay their respects, others, perhaps, to assure themselves that he really is gone.

“Many people come here to cry for him. Many others think he hasn’t died,” says Carlos Venegas, 24, who once worked as Escobar’s gardener and now earns tips guiding sightseers to his grave. “He was very loved.”

Maybe. But for more than a decade Escobar defined the world’s bloody image of Medellin.

Though the city has spawned many gangsters, none has been as feared or as admired as Escobar. His cocaine mafia took the violent young men of the city’s slums, armed them well and trained them to kill in special schools for sicarios, as Colombia’s paid assassins are called. Escobar then set the young men on rival gangsters, government officials, anyone who challenged or irritated him.

If cocaine offered Medellin’s young men a way out of anonymous poverty, Escobar offered them an example of what they might become.

“They blamed everything on him,” says Venegas, standing near Escobar’s grave in old unlaced shoes, a dirty shirt and torn gym shorts. “But Medellin hasn’t changed. There are still bombs. There are still killings.

“Who are they going to blame now?”

Escobar lies alongside the trusted bodyguard who died with him on Dec. 2, 1993, when police caught up with them in a nondescript Medellin neighborhood not far from the cemetery.

A coffin length away are the graves of three Escobar relatives, reputed partners in the cocaine trade, who were also hunted down and killed by police.

At least once a week, Olga Maria Salazar, 34, stops by Escobar’s grave. She comes after paying respects at the grave of her husband, who was shot last year by a hired killer.

Salazar says Escobar might have been responsible, at least indirectly, for her husband’s murder. But that doesn’t diminish her respect for the drug boss, she says. She remembers the money Escobar spent on the poor neighborhoods of Medellin, the good feelings he gave the people there.

“Pablo was very good in one sense,” Salazar says with a sad shrug. “He had so much money, he helped people out. But he did bad things. I can’t forgive him, because he started the sicario schools. He taught these boys to assassinate.

“Now it’s not Pablo anymore who does the killing. It’s the guerrillas, the gangs. But he taught them to kill.”

Salazar grows hushed as three men approach. One bears a remarkable likeness to Escobar. Another, a skinny man barely out of his teens, hovers like a bodyguard, the bulge at his waistband suggesting a gun.

The men nod hello to Venegas, stand silently in front of Escobar’s tomb, then walk to the graves of the dead drug boss’s relatives. The men say little. But their presence chills the sunny afternoon.

After a few minutes, the men cast a sneering glance at the other visitors and trudge toward the cemetery exit.

“Everyone comes here because of who he was, because of his importance,” says Salazar, nodding at Escobar’s grave as the men walk beyond earshot. “If he was a saint, no one would visit him.”