In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, he was considered the seventh richest man in the world by Forbes magazine. He was the world’s most violent criminal, killing politicians, blowing up a plane and much more until CIA officers killed him in 1993. He was the ruler of the Colombian cocaine drug cartel. And he, Pablo Escobar, painted the international portrait of his country.
Maria Gomez grew up in Colombia when Escobar ruled the streets. She was just ten years old when she moved with her family to Medellin, the center of Escobar’s drug cartel. Gomez soon learned the lessons of the land. She couldn’t leave her house at night for fear of being shot. Her ears tuned themselves to the sounds of bombs and guns. And when her church was damaged by a near by bomb and her best friend’s cousin was kidnapped by the cartel, the violence was personal.
Colombia was her home, but to Escobar, it was his business. He made Colombia and crime synonymous. And, perhaps, his greatest crime against his homeland is the legacy he left that sketched the international image of Colombia with his own face. All across the globe people learned of Colombia as the land of Escobar, the land of cocaine and violence. When Gomez came to the United States as an English student in 2001, people assumed she had drugs, or at least access to them, because she was Colombian.
“As a Colombian, you know your country is not only drugs, killing or guerillas,” Gomez says. “We [Colombians] are trying to emphasize the good parts.”
In an effort to restore the national reputation, the Colombian Tourism Portal started a branding campaign—“Colombia is Passion.” The campaign uses international media outlets to reshape the image of their country. They know people have the power to convey their love of their land.
Since 2005 Colombia is Passion has been communicating three things—their democratic government is one of the most stable in the world; they have a strong economy; and their unique geographic location makes them a culturally rich tourist destination. Escobar may have put Colombia in the minds of many across the globe, but Colombians today are painting a true image over his face.
The image is refreshing as it redeems a land of its bloody past. According to Gomez, the lavish, Medellin properties that Escobar was famous for are now mostly used as churches and youth-serving organizations. The buildings that once represented a culture of control, fear and dominance now symbolize a country brimming with culture and diversity. Gomez says the best advocates of her country are the ones that relocate to Colombia. It appears the Proexport Colombia tourism campaign—the only risk is wanting to stay—is working. People are coming to visit. People are coming to stay. The message is spreading. Gomez says people don’t automatically associate drugs with Colombia anymore.
While healing happens, the scars remain. Colombians recently responded trepidatiously, at best, to the documentary film “Sins of My Father”. In it, Sebastian Marroquin, Escobar’s son, seeks forgiveness from the sons of men murdered by his father’s cartel. But Colombians remember Marroquin as Juan Pablo Escobar, his given name, and they remember his own role in his father’s work as a teenager. There’s something about him they don’t know if they can trust—the wounds of his father are too deep. Gomez worries that Marroquin is just “trying to put on a face, like a poker face.”
Even the flourishing tourism industry remains tainted by Escobar’s name. One of his most lavish homes, Hacienda Napoles is now a five star hotel and theme park. In Medellin tours about Escobar, including a visit to some of his relatives, are available. Colombia is moving forward, but Escobar’s legacy clings like a parasite.
But forward, Colombia goes. With a legacy to rewrite, Colombia’s fervor propels the motion. Now, Colombia is synonymous with passion, a word that evokes life in a land that has dealt with masses of death. For Gomez, Colombia is calm, quiet and serene. It’s a land of diversity, attractions and, most importantly, family. Colombia is her home, not his.