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City Struggles to Bury Ghost of Drug Lord – Opinion –




MEDELLÍN, Colombia — When the mayor of Medellín showed up, he was bearing a sledgehammer.

He stood with it in front of the former home of Pablo Escobar, the notorious drug lord whose cocaine empire once placed him on lists of the world’s richest and most wanted.

Escobar lived for years in the Monaco Building, a white, six-story edifice with a penthouse apartment on top and his family name still inscribed in fading letters on the exterior.

The building was bombed in 1988 by Escobar’s rivals, and not long afterward, he abandoned it. Weeds grew in cracks in the driveway. A satellite dish collected old leaves. And for a while, Medellín could ignore the now-empty Monaco.

Recently, however, attention to the building has returned, piqued by scores of international books, telenovelas and movies about Escobar.

Tourists now sidle up to the gate, snapping photos and posting them on Instagram. Tour guides stop by. A former cartel hit man-turned-YouTube-star appeared, offering DVDs recounting his exploits with Escobar and anecdotes from the day the building was attacked.

In April, fed up, the mayor intervened.

“This symbol, which is a symbol of illegality, of evil, will be brought to the ground,” said Federico Gutiérrez. The mayor vowed to topple the building by next year and to put a park remembering victims in its place.

How the Monaco Building went from relative obscurity, to global tourist draw, to one of the most publicized demolition projects in Colombia speaks to the uneasy relationship Medellín has with Escobar, the city’s most notorious son. Twenty-five years after he was killed in a police shootout on a Medellín rooftop, the city cannot forget him, no matter how much it might want his legend buried away.

The conflicting response to the building — municipal embarrassment or photo opportunity — is also a prime example of how Medellín still struggles over the Escobar narrative. Who gets to tell this history of the drug wars? Where is it told — in the streets or in museums? And who are the protagonists — the villains or the victims?

I came to live in this city eight months ago. But I first became familiar with Medellín as a child in the early 1990s. It was the height of Escobar’s terror campaigns to protect his multibillion-dollar drug business, and the grisly consequences were shown on the evening news in the United States. Decades later, I was drawn to cover how Medellín had managed to turn the page on its violent past.

The city has become a boomtown where international architects compete to build prestige projects and well-funded technology startups proliferate next to trendy restaurants. Colombia’s metro runs the length of the city; escalators thread the barrios that climb up the sides of the lush valley where the city sits.

Medellín’s residents, a famously proud clan known as paisas, are the first to tell you where their city has advanced to.

But they are the last to mention where it has advanced from — the depths of the cocaine era that brought not only the horror of Escobar but also the money that built its skyline, including the Monaco.

“Paisas say, ‘Dirty clothes should be washed at home,’” Juan Mosquera, a writer in Medellín, told me over lunch when we discussed why local residents avoid even mentioning the Monaco. “It was a mansion of horror. His family didn’t just live there; they killed and tortured people, and they planned the biggest blows toward the city.”

If the city wanted to keep its soiled laundry private, the popular Netflix series “Narcos,” whose first two seasons chronicled the rise and ruin of Escobar, exposed it to millions of global viewers.

Medellín resisted the show from the start. Film crews had trouble getting permission to work in the city, and just hearing the name of the series makes my neighbors bristle.

But the city itself was a key character in “Narcos,” and fans of the show come to Medellín in droves, seeking more stories of Escobar’s life. Must-see stops include Hacienda Nápoles, his ranch outside town; his grave; and La Catedral, the prison built to his specifications.

Daniel Vásquez, who heads public outreach at the Memory House Museum in Medellín, seemed exasperated when I asked why visitors are more interested in the life of the city’s top villain than in visiting this institution dedicated to the victims of the city’s armed conflicts over the past 50 years.

“Pablo Escobar has become the pop icon of this story,” Vásquez said. “The city saw no urgency to tell this part of history. It wasn’t a priority for the government until there was a problem, until suddenly you had narco-tours led by Popeye.”


“Popeye,” the alias of Jhon Jairo Velásquez, a hit man for Escobar, began hawking DVDs and hosting tours of the city after his release from prison in 2016. He also created a side business as a YouTube personality with a channel called “Repentant Popeye.”

In a city still smarting from Escobar’s wounds, the hit man seemed to be anything but sorry. In one video series, “Famous Tombs,” Velásquez goes to the graves of his victims, narrating how he murdered them.

“Here we have Carlos Mauro Hoyos. We kidnapped him in 1988,” says Velásquez, standing at the headstone of Colombia’s former attorney general, explaining how Hoyos was wounded in the leg when he was ambushed and later killed.

“It’s like if members of al-Qaida gave tours in New York about how they had planned 9/11,” said Luis Hernando Mejía, who represents the neighbors association that includes the Monaco, where Popeye would begin his tours.

Popeye was rearrested this May on charges that included extortion.

Héctor Abad, one of the country’s most popular novelists, told me on a visit to his apartment about his father’s killing by a paramilitary group the year before the Monaco was attacked. He said a girlfriend once showed him the scars across her back that came from an Escobar bombing.

And he offered his own home as evidence that no building in Medellín seemed untouched by past crimes. Shortly after he bought the apartment, he found a cache of gold ingots and counterfeit money hidden in a wall.

“You move a brick, and you find a skeleton,” Abad said.

He looked down the hill from his balcony toward where the Monaco — a “cursed building,” he said — sat awaiting the mayor’s wrecking ball. “If someone gave it to me, I would refuse.”

When I caught up with Gutiérrez, I asked the mayor, 43, about the day the Monaco was bombed.

“What did I feel? Fear,” he said. “Not just fear about what had happened but fear for what we are going to become.”

He paused for a moment.

“Why did I decide as the mayor to destroy the Monaco?” he asked himself.

To show that the city had been reborn, he said, and that the law had triumphed over chaos.

But more than anything, he said he wanted to demolish the Monaco because Medellín was sick of telling the same story of the same villain, over and over.

One of the last people I sought out to talk to about the Monaco was Escobar’s son, born Juan Pablo Escobar. He left Colombia after his father was killed, changed his name to Sebastián Marroquín and now works as an architect in Buenos Aires. Marroquín was the only person I could find who was there the day the building was bombed.

At first he said he wanted to talk. But then he stopped answering my emails.

I began to think of what it must have been like for a child to be the son of the country’s richest man, having all six floors of the Monaco for his family, yet with so many threats beyond its walls.

Eventually, I did hear back from Marroquín. I opened the email, thinking perhaps he’d agree to an interview. But he, too, seemed to have had enough of the subject.

“Thanks for your patience,” he wrote. “I’ve been on the road for more than a month. I think we should leave this one for some other time.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Nicholas Casey © 2018 The New York Times

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Frosty ties between police and Olenguruone residents




Rossy Lang’at (center), the mother of Emmanuel Kipkoech, 17, a Form two student at Sugutek Secondary School being consoled after her son was shot on the right hip by a police officer while dispersing protestors at Mlango trading centre. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

Over the years, Kiptagich and Olenguruone police stations, which are barely 15km apart, have been hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Several times police officers at the stations who are supposed to be enforcers of the law have found themselves under sharp civilian criticism for breaking the same laws.
From deaths of civilians in their hands in unclear circumstances or by the law keepers’ bullets, to cases of assaults and drunk driving, the residents have found themselves demanding that the officers live up to the discipline as expected from the service.
Shockingly, the officers accused of breaking the law and some who have been arraigned have held senior positions at the two stations.
At the height of 1992 and 2007 post-election chaos, which are the worst the country has ever gone through, officers here were placed in a spot by human rights activists for taking sides based on ethnic lines.
Since then the relationship between villagers and the officers has been frosty. The residents appear to have lost confidence in the law enforcement officers and in some instances expressed their frustrations through violent protests.
In the most recent incident last weekend, at a roadblock erected at Mulango and manned by police officers attached to Kiptagich police station, officers flagged down a car bound for Tenwek Hospital in Bomet County.
The roadblock had been set up to stop movement of people from Nakuru County to Bomet County following a zonal lockdown that has since been lifted.

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The driver and the child’s mother are said to have disembarked from the vehicle to inform the police that they were rushing a sick child to hospital, but their plea landed on deaf ears.
Alex Tonui, a resident, explained that the two returned to their vehicle only to find that the child had already died, causing the woman to break down and attracting the attention of residents.
“The residents confronted the police officers. The situation escalated after more officers were deployed from Kiptagich and Olenguruone police stations,” said Tonui says.
A one-hour running battle between the police and the residents who had blocked the road left at least one civilian dead, police officers injured and property destroyed.
The deceased was identified as Emmanuel Kipkoech, a 17-year-old Form Two student at Kiptagich Secondary School.

Police at Olenguruone Police station in Kuresoi South, Nakuru county on May 4, 2021.[Kipsang Joseph, Standard]


During a visit to the Kipkoech’s home yesterday, his mother Rossy Langat was inconsolable as she mourned the death of her son, who the family said they had great hopes on.
“My only son. Why did it have to be him? He was my only child,” she wailed as women struggled to get her back to her house.
Esther Lang’at, a neighbour, said Kipkoech had left home in the morning to do laundry at the banks of a seasonal river near the family’s farm.
“As he was waiting for the clothes to dry, he heard people screaming at Mulango trading centre. He stood at a corridor watching the battle unfold before the police started firing in the air. Minutes later, Kipkoech was lying in a pool of blood,” said Lang’at.
Gilbert Toroitich, the medical superintendent at Olenguruone Sub-county Hospital, said efforts to save Kipkoech’s life were futile.
“He had already lost too much blood and turned pale. He had a bullet that entered through the right hip. We tried to resuscitate him but unfortunately lost him,” said Dr Toroitich.
Kuresoi South Police Commander Henry Nyaranga accused the residents of overreacting and taking the law into their hands.
“The residents blew the situation out of proportion. They extensively damaged police vehicles and we now have two police officers admitted in hospital with serious injuries,” said Nyaranga.
The sub-county police boss has, however, dismissed claims that there was bad blood between the law enfocers and locals, terming the incidents isolated and spread over a long period of time.
“I am not aware of any brewing beef between our officers and the civilians. The cases that were reported recently are either before court or under investigation. The officers are not above the law and the citizens should not take the law into their own hands either,” said Mr Nyaranga.
He said 34 people were arrested and presented before court where they faced charges of being in an illegal gathering, flouting Covid-19 regulations and vandalising police vehicles.
Tension remained high around Olenguruone and Kiptagich police stations, with the residents reportedly planning to burn down the two stations where tens of motorbikes had been impounded. “We detained over 30 bodabodas and arrested 34 people. The residents planned to burn down the stations on Monday. We mobilised police officers from other sub-counties and investigations are on,” said Nyaranga.

The two deaths, however, have emerged to have been a trigger for the simmering tension between the police and the residents who have had a fair share of each other’s wrath in the past.
A chief inspector of police attached to Kiptagich is under investigation for assaulting Maragaret Chelang’at who he found outside during curfew hours last month. “Her case was booked at Olenguruone Police Station vide OB number 9/17/04/2021,” said Nyaranga.
In June last year, Inspector David Kiprotich, Police Constables Henry Mureithi and Tom Kikao attached to Kiptagich, were arrested and charged at Molo Law Courts after they were captured mistreating a suspect.
The officers were filmed dragging Mercy Cherono, 21, with her hands tied at the back of a motorbike after she allegedly stole electronics and cash from a house belonging to one of the officers.
A week later, Police Constable Fred Amaya, who was stationed at Kiptagich, wrecked a police vehicle after he took an unassigned drive while drunk.
Two weeks after he was discharged from hospital, Amaya committed suicide by hanging himself in a bathroom within the station.
In July 2014, Olenguruone Police Station, which is the sub-county headquarters, was extensively damaged as the residents protested the murder of a bartender in the hands of the police.
Caren Chepkoech Rono died in the back of a police vehicle on July 8, 2014 while in the custody of corporal Silas Marimi, constables Reuben Maino and Wycliffe Wangila who were later charged with murder.
Charles Ng’eno, a witness in the case, testified that the three dragged Ms Rono from a bar and bundled her into a police vehicle.
Although the three officers were acquitted of murder charges, a postmortem report indicated that she either hit her head against a surface or was hit with a blunt object.
“There was violent brain shake to cause counter coupe injuries. This could have been caused by either the head moving towards and hitting a hard surface several times or the force hitting the head several times,” the report read.
Interviewed residents have revealed that there has been bad blood between them and the police in the area over their conduct.
Paul Chelule, an elder, said that the officers have been operating outside the law in their handling of arrested persons and the use of excessive force.
“I watched in horror as the boy was shot. The officers who came as back-up didn’t make any attempts to calm the crowd. Instead they started firing live bullets in the air. They should have used teargas instead,” said Chelule.
Another resident said that there have been many unresolved assault cases by the officers which leaves the villagers view them as enemies.
“The young boy was with his friends and they were not part of those protesting. Many people have suffered in the hands of the police and denied justice. The incident has rekindled past experiences,” said Langat.
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Suluhu: Closer ties for Kenya and Tanzania




?President Samia Suluhu’s address to Parliament was a masterclass in charm, punctuated by periodic applause and stomping of feet by Kenyan lawmakers.

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