“You go through the door of history of what Medellin was like, and you are at the entrance of Medellin is going to be like in the future. Everyone who comes here sees how the 21st century Medellin is being built, In particular, this is going to be a very important example for Colombia…” (Luis Alberto Oreno, President of the Inter-American Development Bank)
Thwack thwack thwack. The rounds smashed into the collapsing clay tile topped brick wall as I peered around the corner. I had volunteered to prevent the attackers from working their way along the wall and breaking for the house, where we had The Don holed-up on the second floor. I was isolated, breathing heavily and drenched in sweat. I eventually calmed down, steadied my weapon against the corner of the wall and calmly popped the first two attackers as they exposed their position during misguided advances. Amateurs! The third attacker decided to sacrifice himself for the greater good, arcing away from the wall, firing erratically. I swiveled, slipped, and returned fire sitting on my behind. I stopped the wannabe crazy kamikaze with a head shot.
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Medellin is remarkable. Since Pablo Escobar was peppered with bullets on a rooftop in Los Olivos in 1993, it has emerged from its cocoon of violence and become a vibrant cosmopolitan city. The Fernando Botero’s painting of the rooftop shoot-out hangs in the Museum of Antioquia in central Medellin — a portrait of one of the world’s most despicable criminals, by one of the city’s favourite sons.
Medellin was a blood splattered hell-hole from the 1970s to 1990s, the heart of an out of control country. The Medellin Cartel, Cali Cartel, FARC, The Black Widow, Popeye, various militias, CIA, DEA and the head-kicking Search Bloc were clamping down on cocaine trafficking, profiting from it or both. The first two seasons of Narcos provide an outline of what Medellin and Colombia was — a violent confusing mess. Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel declared war on the Colombian government and people. At its worst, there was over 6,000 murders a year in Medellin. A car bomb was planted in front of a kindergarten. An Avianca passenger flight was blown-up in a failed political assassination killing 107 innocent people. Corruption and kidnapping were endemic. The solution to the problem was Los Pepes, a violent vigilante group. Fighting violence with violence, it was close to a civil war. The question isn’t why is Narcos so popular? But why wasn’t this turned into a classic TV series earlier? The writers didn’t need to use Colombian mysticism to enhance the story (which they did), reality was crazy enough.
Medellin today is a success story which provides hope for those stuck in declining violent Mexican cities or downtrodden place such as Chicago and Detroit. Medellin today is a vibrant city. It feels like one of the safest major cities in Latin America, although undoubtedly still facing major social issues. Green space punctures the urban grid, bamboo lining the small rivers which still wind through the city in places. A transport system comprising buses, trains, trams, cable cars and escalators integrates the city. The poorer areas are reasonably clean, colourful and habitable. The only scary thing about Medellin is that in the back of your mind you still expect violence, and the kids like letting off fire crackers.
The City Museum located next to the reconstructed Antioquian village Pueblito Paisa, is a shrine to the forward thinking urban planners of Medellin. The museum highlights the importance of enhancing the lifestyles of all of Medellin’s residents. Initiatives have included green spaces in impoverished areas, sporting facilities and the escalators to Communa 13, which removed the need to walk up and down 350 concrete steps.
The highlight of Medellin and its surrounds is the Pablo Escobar Paintballing tour. The tour combines paintballing with a trip to the colourful town of Guatape, and a 650 step climb up “La Rock” which overlooks a giant island studded man-made lake.
The beauty of paintballing is that it hurts, really hurts, when you get hit. If you are struck in a non-fleshy part of the body, or shot from close range, you bleed. This increases the adrenalin, and minimises cinematic front-on charges — you have to be smart or you get hurt.
The paintballing is based in the guesthouse adjacent to Pablo’s former lakeside Hacienda and personal bar near Guatape. Looters searching for bags of US dollars have accelerated the destruction of the property, with the hacienda and guesthouse laying in ruins. The Los Pepes attack on the guesthouse while Pablo was still upright didn’t help matters. The land is owned by Pablo’s ex-bodyguard, who after Pablo was terminated, somehow convinced the government that he should be assigned the land. The ex-bodyguard was sporting a white 1970s moustache and Latin American middle-aged wear: jeans, sneakers, polo shirt and cap. Now, you may knock middle-aged Latin clobber - obviously not his - but it is preferable to Colombian casual businessman wear: dark blazer, light coloured trousers, sneakers and greasy aggressively slicked back black curly hair . Otherwise known as the Lebanese gun runner look. It’s as if they want people to think they spends their time smoking a fat Cuban cigars, over-seeing sweat drenched shirtless Africans unloading crates of AK 47s.
After being broken into teams of about 10, we were given 200 paintballs and a brief safety course. “Here is the safety, keep it on when not playing” shouted the guide to the group, as I stared through the hole where my safety should have been. If you get shot in the vest or head you are “dead” and exit the game, if you are shot in the limb you can keep fighting.
One team started in the guesthouse sheltering a person nominated as “Pablo”. The other team had to storm the house and shoot “Pablo” and his “bodyguards”. We were effectively performing mock executions of the psychopath, in his own property. The most difficult part of the Shoot Pablo Game was getting up the stairs to the second floor, where “Pablo” was hidden. Every attempt to broach the stairs received a barrage of close range downward head shots. This indiscriminate protective fire halted our attempts to pad up the stairs like a badly choreographed SWAT team. We finally got to the top of the stairs, and took “Pablo” out with our own barrage of wild round the corner shooting techniques, losing two team members in the process. The fear was real and the bullets were only paint.
Paintballing is a turkey shoot if you know how to use weapons. I grew up on a farm, I could shoot accurately on both sides before I was in high school. Most of my opponents and team-mates learnt to shoot by watching Hollywood films, and as a result, they were shooting like the Somalis in Black Hawk Down — gun waving everywhere, firing one-handed, not bothering to sight. If you are going to go paintballing, try and team with people who actually know how to shoot, your body will thank you for it.
From Medellin I ventured to Manizales, in the throes of a fair which is held in the first week of January. The streets were packed with people wearing their bull fighting attire: cowboy or panama hats, ponchos or bar mat shaped rugs draped over shoulders. Bullfighting is a fun, thrilling yet disturbing experience. Strutting leotard wearing bull fighters, a lot of bull stabbing with numerous implements, raucous spectators squeezing liquor into their mouths out of animal skins. If the bull doesn’t put up a good fight he is jeered as the horses drag his dead carcass out of the ring. If he puts up a good fight, even better if he head-butts a bull fighter, he’ll have the applause of the crowd following him to hamburger heaven. If the bull fighter shows fear, or misses with the various stabbing devices he is noisily mocked. Bull fighting is like motor sports. In motor sports, you don’t want to anyone to die, but you are secretly hoping for a crash. In bull fighting, you want the bull to get the bull fighter, but not enough to kill him. I suppose paintballing is similar — you are proud of your headshot but you hope the target hasn’t lost an eye.