Three decades after Pablo Escobar’s death, drugs devastate Medellin

Three decades after cartel boss Pablo Escobar was shot dead by police on a rooftop in Medellin, the real City he had tried to raise with drug money he was devastated by them.

Junkies frequent hundreds of outlets scattered around Colombia’s second largest city, which has become the epicenter of domestic drug trafficking.

“Easy access? Yes, absolutely. In Medellin you can find it everywhere. Even on the floor you can find drugs,” Manue Morales, an unemployed engineer and chronic user of “basuco”, the cheapest drug on the market, told AFP.

Basuco is derived from the coca leaf also used to make cocaine and mixed with other low-quality substances.

Shaking hands, Morales, 32, inhaled a can in a public park, using a tube made from a PVC pipe, even as pedestrians and police circled around.

“I’m a little nervous,” he confessed.

“The truth is that one is less cautious and that (the basuco) can make you do stupid things,” said Morales, who lost his job due to drug use.

Four short months later, all of his worldly belongings fit into a worn briefcase and he often sleeps outside.

Morales’ downfall, he said, began in a so-called “deputy square” – drug outlets that numbered 160 in Medellin ten years ago, according to police.

Researchers estimate the figure is now closer to 800.

– ‘Billion Dollar Industry’ –

In 2013, about 3.5% of Colombians said they had ever taken an illegal substance, according to the state statistics agency.

By 2019, the number had nearly tripled to 9.7%.

With the help of the United States, a leader in the global “war on drugs”, a Colombian crackdown since the early 2000s has forced traffickers to look home.

“A concentration of product was generated … which could not be exported due to this strong drug policy,” said toxicologist Juan Carlos Sanchez.

Domestic customers, however, are not getting the best of what the world’s largest cocaine exporter has to offer.

Instead, they are turning to cheaper, lower-quality, and often dangerous drugs.

With 2.2 million inhabitants, Medellin is now the city with the highest drug use – 15.5 percent – in Colombia.

Medellin City Council estimates that each drug “square” can earn up to $ 75,000 a month, the equivalent of about 300 minimum wages.

But authorities say rising domestic drug use has gone hand in hand with growing insecurity.

Since 2018, more than 2,500 people have been killed in nationwide gang wars, Police General Herman Bustamante told AFP.

Official figures do not distinguish between gangsters and civilian deaths.

Bags containing a powder known as Tussi or pink cocaine are pictured in Medellin, Colombia on April 2, 2022. – Three decades after Pablo Escobar’s gunshot body was left on a Medellin rooftop, traffic Drug continues and, currently, the market for flavored cocaine, local crack, ketamine-based drugs and hallucinogens are rife in his hometown. (Photo by JOAQUIN SARMIENTO / AFP)

– ‘Mafia Peace’ –

In Medellin the numbers reveal a paradox.

In 1992, at the height of Escobar’s research, the city’s murder rate was 350 per 100,000. Last year it dropped to 15.5, although drug use has increased.

According to Luis Fernando Quijano of the social development NGO Corpades, this spoke more of a “Mafia peace” than of real progress.

There were “deals,” he said, between drug gangs and some local authorities to allow drug trafficking in exchange for relative safety in their areas.

“When kidnappings are made … it is often not the product of (police) intelligence,” Quijano added. “They are delivered (by the narcos) to create the image that … the security strategy is working.”

Bustamante admitted that some policemen were arrested for collusion with traffickers, without providing numbers.

“As long as there are consumers … the criminals will see a business opportunity,” he said.

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– ‘The Bronx’ –

In 2018, the then mayor of Medellin, Federico Gutierrez, accompanied nearly 1,000 policemen who demolished the city’s main drug market, known as “The Bronx”.

Gutierrez, the right-wing candidate in the presidential election later this month, has promised a tougher police crackdown on domestic drug trafficking.

His left rival Gustavo Petro wants to tackle drug use as a public health problem.

Since 2021, the government has demolished at least 129 stores across the country.

But many return quickly, including the Bronx.

Twenty-four hours a day, vendors call the names of their wares: “blones” (marijuana joints), “rocks” (cocaine), ecstasy, or “wheels” as they call clonazepam pills, a psychiatric drug with sedative effects.

Others offer “tusibi” – calling it “tusi” for short or sometimes “pink cocaine” – the ultimate ketamine-based party drug mixed with substances like ecstasy and mescaline, a psychedelic derived from a cactus.

Even if “banned” from street sales – considered too harmful even by gangs – anyone who wants it can also find heroin, at around 2.5 dollars a gram.

Drug addict Julian, his discolored skin extending over the pronounced cheekbones of his emaciated face, told AFP he needed to inject drugs four times a day.

As night fell, Julian – who didn’t want to give his full name – met his supplier in a crowded park.

The transaction takes a few seconds.

“Before, you didn’t see people injecting themselves on the street, discarding syringes,” Julian said. “We were few”.

But not anymore.