The return of Escobar? Events in Medellin show how quickly a city’s fortunes can change

May 3, 2018

By Roland Sanchez

Less than two years ago, the news out of Medellin was all good. The crime rate was dropping, tourism was on the rise, foreign retirees were moving in, the booming economy showed no signs of slowing down. The international press reports were almost all glowing — it was a veritable wet dream for chamber of commerce executives.

Much of the news, however, wasn’t true.

After years of decline, crime already was on the rise. The city government had given up on improving impoverished neighborhoods, in some cases ceding authority to organized crime gangs.

A bus burns in a poor neighborhood in Medellin.

A significant part of the tourism boom was, in fact, fueled by cocaine. Social media buzzed with advertisements for Medellin’s “cocaine tourism” (“snort for a fraction the cost of any other city in the world”) and the residents of upscale neighborhoods were accustomed to seeing discarded baggies powdered with cocaine in city parks, restaurant restrooms and even public buildings.

The police were being paid off to ignore the growing drug traffic and understood, all too well, the old Colombian option of “silver or lead.”

Today, things are getting worse and the truth is out.

Last week, Mayor Federico Gutierrez announced that the military had taken over parts of the city after fighting between local crime syndicates Oficina de Envigado and AGC had gotten out of hand. Police and army troops patrolled the west-side 13th District, where gang violence associated with the syndicates had disrupted years of relative peace.

Early indications, however, are that the sweep is not working. What Gutierrez calls “social cleansing” has enraged the residents. When the mayor toured the 13th District to survey his work, he was forced to beat a fast retreat when gun shots rang out.

Downtown Medellin, Colombia

As the violence escalated, the city suspended cable car and bus service in the district.

For years, more prosperous Medellin residents — or Paisas, as they known in Colombia — have been able to ignore the deadly crime in the desperately poor neighborhoods around the city. Today, most of us know that the crime has arrived in the better neighborhoods as well.

The question on almost everyone’s mind these days is: Are we returning to the days of Pablo Escobar?

Most Colombian citizens, and expats like myself, had high hopes for the recent peace agreement with leftist rebels. We thought by disarming the FARC and other rebel groups and by bringing them into mainstream politics, a new era of peace and prosperity was at hand. Today, we see that it only created administrative vacuums in much of the country that have been filled with criminals, many of them former rebels, even more ruthless than the organized guerilla armies.

We are also saddened at the corruption and ineptitude of our government that has failed to follow up on programs to help poor Colombians who, for years, have been under the control of rebel and drug authority. We are shocked at how quickly the government has abandoned control to the gangs. Now, we see this abandonment moving into Medellin, Bogota, Cartagena, Cali and other major cities.

As a former and maybe future resident of Ecuador, I am alarmed to see  Colombia’s violence spill across the southern border. But it was inevitable.

I believe, however, that Ecuador will be able to control the incursion since it involves only a small part of its territory. For Colombia, I believe a long and bloody siege is just beginning.

Roland Sanchez is a former Los Angeles police captain currently living in Medellin, Colombia. He was in Cuenca last week looking for a rental property.

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