They don’t say the name Pablo Escobar in Medellín. He is simply referred to as ‘the most famous criminal in the world’. Everyone in Medellín has family or friends who were killed in the terrorist attacks that plagued the city under Escobar’s orders. I was on an educational tour about Pablo Escobar when the driver pointed to a mall and simply said, “My childhood friend died from one of his bombs there”. A large proportion of the city’s population seems to be suffering from PTSD, which can be seen in the avoidance of speaking Escobar’s name or anything about him. It seems that most would just like to forget.
If you are unfamiliar with the story of Pablo Escobar, here is a very quick breakdown. Escobar headed the infamous Medellin cartel during the 1980’s, which was responsible for exporting huge amounts of cocaine from Colombia to consumers primarily in the US. He was responsible for horrific acts of violence against anyone who opposed him, which ranged from police to politicians to members of other gangs. He also committed acts of terrorism against civilians in a bid to gain leverage against the government. A notorious incident is when he had an entire plane blown up because he wished to target one passenger in particular. He is revered by some in Medellin because of his humanitarian work and support for poor people, particularly in his hometown of Envigado. However, overall he is considered to have been one of the most evil and calculated men of his time.
In current times, the majority of cartel activity is conducted in Mexico, which has become increasingly more violent and dangerous as a result. Colombia’s cocaine only accounts for 2% of its GDP, but it and other Andean countries continue to be significant sources of the product and locations of drug trafficking.
Keeping in mind the violence and chaos that the cocaine trade has brought to so many South American countries, it can be disheartening to see how many backpackers contribute to the industry in such a huge way. Cocaine is so cheap and easily available in South America that I observed backpackers who were consuming several times a day, every single day. While it is definitely not just foreigners consuming the drug, I find it hard to justify partaking in such a huge way when you have knowledge of the devastating impacts that the drug trade has had.
These are what I see to be the main issues surrounding consuming cocaine in South America.
Unethical consumption. Many consumer products could be considered to be unethical if you look at the means of production and exploitation of workers. Lots of people opt for fair trade products or abstain from consuming certain products for these reasons. I guess the difference for me is that you can’t ignore the unethical background of cocaine when you can literally see the impact of the trade in the places you visit. The drug trade brings horrific amounts of violence to so many Latin American communities. In a community that I visited just outside of Buenos Aires in Argentina, children as young as twelve are addicted to a cocaine derivative called paco. The vast majority of violence in the community, both domestic violence and acts of aggression, are due to drug trafficking. While as travellers we can’t be responsible for domestic consumption, it doesn’t sit right with me to pretend that cocaine is just a fun drug that doesn’t have awful, awful consequences in Latin America. This unethicality extends to taking cocaine in our own countries of course, but it seems to be even more deplorable to me that people do this while literally looking at the consequences of their consumption choices.
Ignoring history. You can easily see buildings pierced with bullet wounds, a statue blown apart by a terrorist bomb and a population marked by mass PTSD in Medellín. During the 80’s, it was statistically the murder capital of the world. The vast majority of people in the city have lost someone in the violence that marked this time. We can’t pretend that the cocaine trade didn’t completely propel this violence. To me it feels a bit like a slap in the face to be able to physically see and experience these things and then choose to ignore that and chase a high instead.
Reinforcing stereotypes. Colombia in particular really struggles to shake its stereotypes of violence and drugs, particularly cocaine. I spoke to my friend Juan from Bogotá and this is what he had to say about people making assumptions about his country. “I met this guy at a party and when he found out I was Colombian, the first thing he said was- I love your cocaine!- I mean, I use drugs too, but I’m sick of us just being known for that”. So many people are ignorant of the gorgeous natural beauty and cultural heritage that a diverse country like Colombia has, and simply see it as a lawless place where you can get cheap cocaine. This is simply doing the country a disservice. Many people still avoid visiting Colombia because of this kind of reputation. Locals still stare at Westerners in downtown Medellín because they just don’t expect to see them there. Colombia is such an incredible place and it deserves better.
I can’t tell anyone what to do or physically stop anyone from consuming cocaine in South America, but I just want to offer some food for thought. The drug trade has ravaged so many regions with violence and instability, and created a negative reputation that deters tourism. A big part of travelling is trying to do as little harm as possible, and I truly believe that consuming cocaine is an unethical choice to make.