Three decades after police shot dead cartel leader Pablo Escobar on a rooftop in Medellin, the same city he sought to raise for drug money was devastated by them.
Addicts often visit hundreds of outlets across Colombia’s second city, which has become the epicenter of domestic drug trafficking.
“Easy access? Yes, absolutely. In Medellin you can find it anywhere. Even on the floor you will find drugs, ”Manue Morales, an unemployed engineer and chronic consumer of basuco, the cheapest drug on the market, told AFP.
Basuko is made from coca leaves, which is also used to make cocaine, and is mixed with other low-grade substances.
His hands were shaking, 32-year-old Morales inhaled a dose in a public park using a PVC tube, even as pedestrians and police hustled around.
“I’m a little nervous,” he admitted.
“The truth is that people are less careful and that (basuko) can make you do stupid things,” said Morales, who lost his job due to drug use.
Four short months later, all his worldly belongings fit into a worn-out briefcase, and he often sleeps poorly.
According to him, the fall of Morales began with the so-called “vice-beach” – drug outlets, which ten years ago in Medellin there were about 160, according to police.
According to researchers, this figure is now approaching 800.
– “Billion industry” –
In 2013, about 3.5 percent of Colombians said they had ever taken illegal substances, according to the state statistics agency.
By 2019, their number has almost tripled to 9.7 percent.
With the help of the United States, the leader of the world’s “drug war,” repression in Colombia since the early 2000s has forced traffickers to look home.
“There is a concentration of a product … that could not be exported because of this harsh anti-drug policy,” said toxicologist Juan Carlos Sanchez.
Domestic customers, however, are not getting the best out of what the world’s largest cocaine exporter has to offer.
Instead, they opted for cheaper, substandard and often dangerous drugs.
Medellin, with a population of 2.2 million, is today the city with the highest drug use – 15.5 percent – in Colombia.
Medellin City Council estimates that each drug “plaza” can bring in up to $ 75,000 a month – the equivalent of about $ 300 in minimum wages.
But authorities say the rise in drug use at home goes hand in hand with rising vulnerabilities.
Since 2018, more than 2,500 people have been killed in gang wars nationally, police general Herman Bustamante told AFP.
Official figures do not distinguish between the deaths of bandits and civilians.
– “Mafia of Peace” –
In Medellin, the figures reveal a paradox.
In 1992, at the height of Escabar’s search, the city’s homicide rate was 350 per 100,000 people. Last year, it dropped to 15.5, even as drug use increased.
According to Luis Fernando Kihan of the NGO Corpades for Social Development, this is more evidence of “mafia peace” than any real progress.
According to him, there were “packages” between drug groups and some local authorities to allow drug trafficking in exchange for relative security in their areas.
“When confiscations are made … it is often not the product of (police) intelligence,” Kihan added. “They are supplied (by the People’s Commissar) to create an image that … the security strategy works.”
Bustamante admitted that some police officers were arrested for conspiring with traders without giving numbers.
“As long as there are consumers … criminals will see business opportunities,” he said.
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– The Bronx –
In 2018, then-Medellin Mayor Federico Gutierrez accompanied nearly 1,000 police officers who bulldozed the city’s main drug market, known as the Bronx.
Gutierrez, a right-wing candidate in the presidential election later this month, has promised tougher police pressure against drug trafficking inside the country.
His left-wing rival Gustav Peter wants to view drug use as a health problem.
Since 2021, the government has demolished at least 129 outlets across the country.
But many are returning soon, including the Bronx.
Twenty-four hours a day sellers call the names of their products: “blons” (marijuana), “stone” (cocaine), ecstasy or “wheels”, as they call clonazepam tablets, psychiatric drugs with sedative effects.
Others suggest “tusibi” – abbreviated as “tusi”, and sometimes “pink cocaine” – the latest drug based on ketamine mixed with substances such as ecstasy and mescaline, a psychedelic derived from cactus.
Although street selling is “forbidden” – even gangs find it too harmful – those willing can also find heroin for about $ 2.5 a gram.
Addict Julian, with numb skin stretching across the clear cheekbones of his emaciated face, told AFP that he needed to inject himself with drugs four times a day.
As night fell, Julian, who did not want to give his full name, met his vendor in a park full of people.
The transaction takes seconds.
“Before, you didn’t see people injecting themselves on the street, throwing out syringes,” Julian said. “We were few.”
But not anymore.