“When I was growing up, it was usual to hear a shooting, to hear a bomb,” says Maribell Arango, who grew up in Medellín, the former most-dangerous city in the world. “My sister’s boyfriend was shot.”
After moving away and travelling the world as an actress and film-maker, Maribell returned to the city and is now a tour guide for Real City Tours. She delivers her information with a performer’s flair, the pavement is her stage and the tourists her agape audience. Yet, when she talks about Medellín’s most infamous son, Pablo Escobar, or as she calls him, “the most-famous criminal” her voice hangs heavy. She refuses to name him not out of some you-know-who fear, but because he is a controversial subject, loved and loathed in the city. Most of the city’s residents don’t speak English, and she doesn’t want a misunderstanding.
“He built 492 houses for the poorest when the government did nothing,” she says. “He’s also responsible for 38,000 deaths over 10 years.” An argument can be made he only built the houses to get elected to the Columbian Congress and gain diplomatic immunity. He is someone the city will never be able to run away from and even 25 years after his death, he is all most visitors want to talk about.
Narcos, Netflix’s popular TV show about him, has turned him into a character and somehow placed a buffer between him and his acts of terror.
“TV has made him popular abroad. Tourists play paintball at his home, snort coke off his gravestone. Would you turn Aushwitz into an amusement park?” Asks Maribell. “TV is good to entertain; not to educate.”
How do you protect something that is illegal? With guns and with guns you get blood.
Maribell isn’t the first to mention how “badly timed” the show is. Juan Vasquez in Bogotá reflects how it reminds people of Escobar just as the city is shedding its image as the world’s “most dangerous city”. Medellín is undergoing a resurgence, spurred on by the efficient Metro system locals proudly flaunt. Public parks are thriving, and once where grenades were dropped on the floor, people now refuse to drop a piece of paper.
“If you compare the city we have today with the one we had 20 years ago, it is night and day,” says Maribell. “We don’t remember one grenade because of how messy the last 60 years have been. This [past] makes everyone go crazy when we watch a football match. Everyone is happy. We grab every branch of joy because our [past] reality would drive us insane if we didn’t.”
No matter how improved the city is, Columbia remains one of the few countries who can grow the Coca leaf. Cocaine remains problematic, and the lenient measures proposed in the recent Peace Accord is a possible reason Colombians rejected it.
“How do you protect something that is illegal? With guns and with guns you get blood. People argue we should legalise it, but the problem isn’t the drugs, it’s with the corruption surrounding them. We don’t get the glamour, we get the death and corruption,” says Maribell. “We [Columbia] don’t get many tourists because of our past. We welcome you and my job is to convince you to come back with stories.”
When I see the damaged statue I don’t see the left or the right. I see the names of 23 people who died.
She indicates two Fernando Botero statues behind her. The artist has a presence in the city and even has a plaza named after him. It is filled with statues of his artwork, each one worth $1.5 million. Little do people know that down the road in Plaza de San Antonio are two other statues, one ripped apart from a bomb that detonated in 1995, killing 23 people.
“The Mayor was going to tear it down until Botero rang him and told him not to. The Mayor wanted to erase our history, Botero wanted it to stay as a reminder of what people can do to one another,” Maribell explains. “When I see the damaged statue I don’t see the left or the right. I see the names of 23 people who died. The youngest was seven: what seven-year-old cares about politics?
“The one on the left is what we were, the one on the right is what we are: strong, resilient.”
Maribell jokes Medellín has overcome the “Latin American disease: bad administration”, and the city’s reformation has turned it into one of the Gringo Trail’s must see destinations.