MEDELLIN, Colombia — Pablo Escobar, billionaire drug trafficker and head of the notorious Medellin Cartel, is a popular hero in a hillside housing project that he donated to 400 poor families here.
"We have much to thank that gentleman for," said Maria de Socorro Tavares, a resident of Barrio Pablo Escobar, as the neighborhood is called. "Everyone should think well of him."
Some do not, of course, including Mayor William Jaramillo of Medellin, who has been an outspoken critic of Escobar's cartel. But Jaramillo recently stopped talking openly about cocaine traffickers, and he sent his wife and children to live in the United States.
"He received some very serious threats against his family," a friend of the mayor said.
Like Jaramillo, many residents of Medellin and other Colombians have learned to bow in the shadow of the rich and ruthless Medellin Cartel. Few openly defy its immense wealth and brute power.
As a result, the cartel has a secure home base from which to dominate the world cocaine traffic, from coca plantations in Peru and Bolivia to U.S. and European retail networks. Anti-drug officials estimate that three-quarters of all cocaine used in the United States passes over the scales of the Medellin Cartel.
Medellin, nearly a mile above sea level but only six degrees north of the Equator, is a sprawling metropolis with springtime weather the year around. In recent decades, the growing city has spread through its broad Andean valley, covering what once were rich ranchlands and crawling up the sides of gentle green mountains.
Thriving Urban Center
With a population of 2 million, it is Colombia's second-largest urban center, a thriving hub of industry, finance and agriculture in the northwestern district of Antioquia. The people of Antioquia, known as paisas , are famous in Colombia for their enterprise and industriousness.
"The paisa is a businessman; he likes money," said Jose Samuel Arango, news editor of the Medellin daily El Colombiano. "But at the same time, he is very generous."
Paisa Pablo Escobar, 38, seems to fit the pattern. In little more than a decade he has built a fledgling cocaine-smuggling business into a multibillion-dollar empire. He has returned some of his wealth to the Antioquia community, paying for park improvements, building a zoo and financing the construction of Barrio Pablo Escobar.
Residents of the neighborhood's two-bedroom, cement-block homes once lived in shacks beside a garbage dump, where many of them scratched out a living as scavengers. In the early 1980s the city decided to move the dump.
'Created Robin Hood Image'
"So Pablo Escobar built them a neighborhood, and gave them the houses, and that created a Robin Hood image for him," editor Arango said.
Escobar was then an alternate member of Congress. He was almost respectable and increasingly rich.
At the same time, other Medellin people prospered in the cocaine bonanza, notably Jorge Luis Ochoa, a pudgy tycoon known as El Gordo (the Fat One), and Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, known as El Mexicano because of his love of Mexican music. In the nearby city of Armenia, Carlos Lehder, the son of a German-born immigrant, also became a cocaine power to contend with.
After it became clear that the organizations of those traffickers were working together, someone began calling them the Medellin Cartel. And in other Colombian cities, similar groupings took shape: the Cali Cartel, the Pereira Cartel.
But none is nearly as big and rich as the Medellin Cartel. According to a recent indictment by a grand jury in Miami, the cartel even bought the cooperation of Gen. Manuel A. Noriega, neighboring Panama's military leader.
Last year, Escobar, Ochoa, Rodriguez Gacha and Lehder appeared on lists of the world's wealthiest people, published by Fortune and Forbes magazines. According to estimates by Forbes, Escobar has at least $3 billion and Ochoa and his family have at least $2 billion.
Wealth Trickles Down
In Medellin, the wealth trickles down to hundreds and perhaps thousands of cartel employees and associates.
Law-abiding people in Medellin say the cocaine money is easy to spot on young men with extravagant clothes, heavy gold chains, luxury cars, expensive homes, bodyguards and no known means of support.
In the luxurious suburb of El Poblado, where many such people live, armed men stand outside high-walled estates and carefully scrutinize passing cars.
Luxury apartment complexes are mushrooming in the hills of El Poblado. Real estate prices are skyrocketing. An apartment building owned by Escobar was severely damaged recently by a car bomb, apparently sent by some unknown enemy of the cocaine king.
Journalist Fabio Castillo, in a best seller titled "The Cocaine Jockeys," said that an estimated 80% of the land in southwest Antioquia is controlled by the cartel.
Traffickers mix with Medellin society at the bullfights, at restaurants, at family parties, even in church.