Not so long ago, walking into Medellin’s sprawling Comuna 13 slum would have likely been a death sentence.
The area was plagued with violence and home to infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar’s bloody Medellin cartel, guerrilla fighters and other armed groups who earned the area a reputation as the most dangerous place in the world.
It took just five minutes of walking up the steep hill towards the infamous former warzone before I was confronted with the instantly recognisable image of Escobar.
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But the man whose multi-billion dollar cocaine empire once wreaked havoc across the world had been reduced to a T-shirt caricature of Homer Simpson with a moustache snorting cocaine off a donut.
The area’s gun fights and bloodshed that lasted throughout the 1980s to the early 2000s had been replaced by a tourist free-for-all with swanky art galleries and iced caramel frappés sitting next to outrageous Escobar merchandise and pints of lager.
Alongside T-shirts depicting the cold-blooded kingpin as Homer Simpson were other classy garments, including Escobar as Bart Simpson, with the aptly-named title EscoBart.
Instead of hiding from battle-hardened soldiers with AK-47s, I found myself avoiding eye-contact with swarms of Americans armed with selfie sticks, petrified they would ask me to take a picture of them donning a new sombrero.
Sellers roamed with the tempting offer of Big Ass Ants, which they claimed to be an aphrodisiac and a perfect pairing for a day exploring the area’s dark history.
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It was easier to imagine what the old Comuna 13 was like when I looked up at the skies to see two helicopters circling over the bricked houses that cling onto the rolling hills.
But whilst in Escobar’s time aircrafts in the area were likely to be the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) intercepting calls between ruthless cocaine gangs, today they are tourists who pay 450,000 COP (£85) to avoid the crowds and get a better view.
The miraculous turnaround of Comuna 13 from a lawless hell zone to a weird fusion of Benidorm and Brick Lane is a huge credit to the people of Medellin.
Escobar remains a fresh memory for some who live here – and his smuggled ‘cocaine hippos’ still plague the surrounding areas to this day – but his beloved hometown is undeniably beyond recognition from the days he walked the streets as one the of world’s richest and most feared men.
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In 2002, almost a decade after Escobar was shot dead by National Police on the streets of Medellin, the Colombian government cracked down on the brutal armed groups who had remained in control of Comuna 13 – including left-wing terror group FARC, who SAS legend Andy McNab once described as the toughest fighters he had ever encountered.
The resulting bloodbath saw the army bring in tanks and helicopters. It tragically left multiple innocent people dead but regained government control over the streets, allowing escalators to be built in 2011 that saved locals the hefty 480 metre trek to the top.
This opened up the barrio to the rest of the city and is widely credited with the speedy transition from a nightmarish slum to an area that would feel safer than Birmingham, if it wasn’t for the significantly higher risk of sunburn.
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