This is a true story given told by “Maria” (not her real name) to the Editor of East Coast Stories.. Maria was a little girl in Colombia when the drug lord Pablo Escobar was at the height of his power. The name Escobar still commands such fear that she does not want to use her real name.
Maria works in customer service at a major New York area airport. She is perfect for the job. Maria is fluent in Spanish and English and is what some would call a “classic Colombian beauty.” She has long flowing jet black hair and a warm inviting smile. She has a charming way of dealing with people that immediately calms down even the most troublesome customer. You may think that nothing bad had ever happened in her life. You would be wrong.
She grew up in a rural town in Colombia. Her family was very poor but Maria did not realize it. Unlike a lot of poor people in Columbia her family always had enough to eat. The little town was located near a wide and slow moving river with plenty of fish. Beans, rice and fish were the main sources or nutrition, along with whatever vegetables they could get.
Even as a little girl Maria knew something big was going on in the country. The adults were often gathered in groups having animated discussions, but would stop speaking when a child came near. Wherever she went Maria heard the name “Pablo” repeated, as if speaking the name of a saint.
These were the days of Pablo Escobar, the most powerful drug lord the world has ever seen.
Pablo Escobar ruled the Medellin Drug Cartel and the poor people loved him. They thought of him as a sort of Robin Hood. He sold illegal drugs to wealthy Americans and distributed the profits to the poor of Colombia that the rich Colombian politicians had forgotten. If a poor family’s house burned down one of Pablo’s men would show up with cash and pay to have it rebuilt. If a constriction laborer died in an accident, Pablo would send cash to the widow and children. The people loved Pablo.
But then Pablo stopped loving them. Pablo was not afraid of the Colombian justice system. He had been to jail many times and he was not afraid of it. He could walk out of a Colombian prison whenever he wanted. He had an arrangement with judges and police in Colombia. He called it “plata o plomo”. In English this is “silver or lead”. If you went along with the cartel you were rewarded with a generous bribe (silver). If not, you died in a spray of bullets (lead). The system work well, until the Colombian authorities agreed to extradite Pablo to the United States the next time he was captured.
Escobar felt betrayed. He knew that if he ever landed in a U.S. prison he would be there for life. So Escobar and his cartel started their campaign of violence within Colombia. Murders and bombings were every day occurrences. There had always been murders of rival gang members or uncooperative policemen, but this was different. Pablo was punishing the authorities by random mass killings of ordinary citizens. Bombings in marketplaces and random shootings became common. Escobar swore they would continue until Colombia passed a law stating there would be no extradition to the U.S.
As a little girl Maria was only vaguely aware of these things. They all seemed like events in the far off city that did not impact her. Then one late afternoon she walked down to the river to see what the fishermen were bringing in for the day’s catch. When she got to the river, she saw that most of the town was gathered at the banks of the river. A body had washed up. It was riddled with bullets.
This would have been traumatic to see just once, but that was not the end of it. Every day more bodies would wash up. Maria’s town was at a bend in the river, and all the murders that were happening upstream ended up on the shore of Maria’s town. Day after day bodies came down. It became a daily ritual as people rushed down to the river to see the bodies from Pablo’s revenge.
As a child, Maia began to have nightmares. She was afraid to go down to the river she used to love. She stopped eating fish since she associated them with the river and the dead bodies. She just wanted it all to end and to get out.
Her parents somehow got the family out of Colombia. They were smart enough not to speak out against Escobar or say that was why they were leaving. Maria does not know what her parents did or paid to get them out. Her parents won’t talk about it.
Pablo Escobar died in a shootout with the Colombian police on December 2, 1993. The drug trade continues stronger than ever.
Every few years Maria’s mother forces the whole family to go back to Colombia and visit relatives. Maria doesn’t like to go but makes the trip to keep peace in her family. She is always amazed at how hot and humid it is and how small her old town looks. She won’t go near the river. She is always glad to get back to the U.S.
You may have seen Maria at the airport without even realizing it. She is the beautiful woman with the jet black hair. She is behind the counter smiling at the passengers. Perhaps the smile is because she knows that the problems of a delayed flight or a missing bag are nothing compared to what she faced as a child.