Three decades after the death of Pablo Escobar, drugs are ravaging Medellin

Medellin (Colombia) (AFP) – Three decades after cartel boss Pablo Escobar was gunned down by police on a rooftop in Medellin, the very city he sought to raise with drug money is devastated.

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

“Easy to get to? Yes, absolutely. In Medellin you can find it anywhere. Even on the ground you find drugs,” said Manue Morales, an unemployed engineer and chronic consumer 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 lower grade substances.

With shaking hands, Morales, 32, inhaled a dose in a public park, using a hose made from PVC tubing, even as pedestrians and police thronged.

“I’m a little nervous,” he confessed.

Junkies injecting heroin in public places are becoming more common JOAQUIN SARMIENTO AFP/File

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

Four months later, all his material belongings fit in a worn briefcase and he often sleeps on the streets.

Morales’ downfall, he said, began in a so-called “place of vices” – drug outlets that numbered about 160 in Medellin a decade ago, police say .

Researchers estimate the figure is now closer to 800.

“A Billion Dollar Industry”

In 2013, around 3.5% of Colombians said they had used an illegal substance, according to the national statistics agency.

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

Heroin sells for around $2.5 a gram
Heroin sells for around $2.5 a gram JOAQUIN SARMIENTO AFP/File

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

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

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

Instead, they become addicted to cheaper, poor quality, and often dangerous drugs.

With 2.2 million inhabitants, Medellin is today the city where drug consumption is the highest – 15.5% – in Colombia.

The Medellin City Council estimates that each drug “spot” can bring in up to $75,000 a month, the equivalent of some 300 minimum wage earners.

An aerial view of a drug outlet in Medellin
An aerial view of a drug outlet in Medellin JOAQUIN SARMIENTO AFP

But authorities say the rise in drug use in the country has gone hand in hand with growing insecurity.

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

Official data does not distinguish between gangster deaths and civilian deaths.

“Mafia Peace”

In Medellin, the figures reveal a paradox.

In 1992, at the height of Escobar’s search, the city’s homicide rate was 350 per 100,000. Last year, it had fallen to 15.5, even as drug use rose .

According to Luis Fernando Quijano of the social development NGO Corpades, this was more indicative of “mafia peace” than real progress.

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

Low-grade cocaine is mixed with other substances to provide a cheap and potentially dangerous high
Low-grade cocaine is mixed with other substances to provide a cheap and potentially dangerous high JOAQUIN SARMIENTO AFP

“When seizures are made…it’s 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 acknowledged that some police officers had been arrested for collusion with traffickers, without giving figures.

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

‘The Bronx’

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

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

His left-wing rival Gustavo Petro wants to treat drug use as a public health issue.

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

But many are coming back quickly, including The Bronx.

Around the clock, vendors are shouting the names of their wares: “blones” (marijuana joints), “rocks” (cocaine), ecstasy or “wheels” as they call clonazepam pills, a psychiatric drug with sedative effects.

In 2013, approximately 3.5% of Colombians reported having used an illegal substance.  Six years later, the number had almost tripled
In 2013, approximately 3.5% of Colombians reported having used an illegal substance. Six years later, the number had almost tripled JOAQUIN SARMIENTO AFP

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

Although “banned” from street sales – deemed too harmful even by gangs – those who want it can also find heroin, at around $2.5 a gram.

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

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

The transaction only takes a few seconds.

“Before, we didn’t see people injecting themselves in the street, throwing syringes,” says Julian. “We were few.”

But not anymore.

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