Of the two cathedrals in the city of Medellín, the one in Parque de Bolivar has far and away the lesser association with murder. It’s the largest brick building in South America and its confessionals are open-plan. You can see the priests, frowning, ears cocked, twiddling the cords of their vestments. The brick walls gave shelter to many mourners in the days when Medellín was ruled by Pablo Escobar, Colombia’s nabob of narcotics. But if you want a cathedral with a past, make for the mountains. The second great building in the Medellín see was founded on a prime slice of real estate overlooking Parque de Bolivar. Actually, ‘La Catedral’, as it’s known, isn’t a cathedral at all. Or if it is, then only in the same way that the expression ‘at Her Majesty’s Pleasure’ refers to a royal palace. The title was conferred by the people of Medellín on the soaring jail in which Escobar served his debt to society, until six years ago, when he got fed up and escaped. Presumably, this had nothing to do with the layout of the place, about which the principal inmate himself had been consulted. The one generally available guidebook to Colombia – published by Lonely Planet – describes La Catedral as ‘a huge hotel complex with sports facilities including football ground and swimming pool, all surrounded by barbed-wire fences and several guard towers. There is a marvellous view over the Aburra valley.’

Escobar is the best known modern Colombian. He would outscore even Gabriel García Márquez and the bubble-permed soccer legend Valderama in focus-group samplings. After 499 days at large, he was run to ground in 1993 by a force of 1500 men, and whacked. But Colombia is still haunted by his ghost. President Ernesto Samper, who will leave office this summer, has been dogged for his entire term by allegations of backhanders from the ‘narco-traficantes’. His successor will have to apply a big stick to the cartels, if only in the hope of persuading the United States to relax its punitive trade sanctions. In an unmistakable echo of the Escobar story, 51-year-old Gilberto Rodríguez Orejula, known as the Chessplayer in tribute to his thoughtful gangland chops, was recently presented with a high school diploma in a dignified ceremony at La Picota prison, Bogotá.

In Medellín, I cut a deal with a taxidriver called Maurio to visit La Catedral. He wanted 3600 pesos for the round trip. This was getting on for £20 but didn’t seem out of the question because we had to go out to Envigado, which was as far as the Medellín city limits. Escobar had grown up in Envigado. When the authorities had made him an offer he couldn’t refuse – he would have been mad to – i.e. avoid extradition to the United States by pleading guilty to a single offence, the drug lord had unaffectedly chosen to do his time in his hometown.

Alone among the cabbies I encountered in Colombia, Maurio liked to drive without the accompaniment of the car radio. Also unusually, he wasn’t interested in discussing football and his country’s chances against England in France ’98 – perhaps because the citizens of Medellín are sick of thinking about Andres Escobar, the capo’s namesake, who was shot dead in the city after scoring an own goal during the last World Cup finals. Most people seemed to think the player had been killed out of peevishness by a gambling syndicate who had taken a bath on a spread-bet following his error. It made me think, with unexpected tenderness, of the match-fixing trials of Bruce Grobelaar and the others at Winchester Crown Court, the judge’s limo drawing past Moss Bros at the end of each day’s proceedings, the flashier barristers chatting up local girls in the wine bars.

Maurio wasn’t big on soccer but he liked talking about Princess Diana. He didn’t believe any of the conspiracy theories about her death. ‘The chauffeur was drunk and he was going too fast,’ he said, in what ought to be the last word on the subject, the authority of a living Colombian on speeding and drunk-driving being unsurpassable. At this time, we were going through a suburb of Medellín, a place busy with shoppers, and ran into a cyclist. Our offside wing mirror glanced the boy’s handlebars, nudging him into a parked car. In Colombia, overtaking is a high-speed game of chicken. The main highways have only one lane in each direction and are clogged by slow-moving lorries. Some people might ask themselves: why not get that freight off the roads? What’s wrong with Colombia’s railways? That was something I wanted to know myself, and was one reason I was there. My grandfather ran railways in Colombia until they were nationalised in the Fifties. But the Government failed to put any money into them, guerrillas blew them up or stuck them up. In the index to my map of Colombia was a symbol for ‘ferrocarril’, ‘railway’, and beside it one for ‘ferrocarril abandonado’. On the map itself, the last symbol appeared more frequently than the first.

Maurio’s taxi was leaving the city behind, winding up a hill lined on its lower slopes by single-storey houses with terracotta roofs. It might have been Southern Italy. Presently we reached a fruit stall at a fork in the road. A man in a gigolo moustache recommended the right-hand turn. We travelled for a kilometre or so on an unmetalled road before arriving at tall, red gates. The guidebook had talked about a police post outside the prison, the consolation of long-range photographs. But Maurio seemed to know these were the wrong gates. We backtracked to the fork, selecting the other turn this time, and found ourselves on a twisting route into the mountains. Greenery grew densely at the roadside, and it was only where this cover was broken that you could see how elsewhere it masked a sheer drop. A truck laden with logs came down the hill towards us, pulling up dust from the road. Maurio let the truck pass, a manoeuvre which involved reversing until the rear window overlooked the lip of the precipice.

I felt quite safe. I mean, I felt quite safe. Excepting the episode with the cyclist, Maurio seemed to know his stuff, but road safety wasn’t uppermost in my mind in any case. It came down to mathematics: the health department has listed violence as the most common cause of death in Colombia among individuals aged ten and over. In Medellín, 80 people are killed every week. The national murder rate is 81 per 100,000 inhabitants, nine times greater than in the United States. I was concerned about this, of course, but I was more concerned about kidnappers. They were the bogeymen lurking in the jungle. I had started saying to myself: ‘As long as you’re not kidnapped, it’s a good day.’ Terry Waite has been to Colombia in an attempt to free American hostages who have been held for five years. A diplomat in Bogotá told me that a foreigner – any foreigner – was irresistible bait to the guerrillas. ‘If they think anyone will pay for you, employer, family, whatever, they’ll take you,’ he said. Colombia has more kidnappings than anywhere else in the world, an average of four a day. But the official tally was a fraction of the true one, the diplomat claimed. ‘There were 2500 reported incidents last year but the real total could be ten thousand. Who knows?’ This was body-snatching as a business proposition. The various factions use ransom money to finance their war against the Government, now into its fourth decade. ‘Sit tight, pay up: you’ll walk. The average length of time of a kidnapping is five months. It might freak them out if it happened any faster.’ He could have been a solicitor counselling patience to a first-time home buyer. The diplomat told me a story about an embassy colleague, a keen ornithologist, coming to the end of his posting with an unfulfilled craving to see a Tolima dove. As well as having more kidnappings than anyone else, the Colombians have the greatest diversity of bird-life, with some species, among them the handsome Tolima dove, which are found nowhere else. (‘Sides of neck and upper breast dark vinaceous buff, in sharp contrast to buff lower breast and abdomen’, says Hilty and Brown’s Guide to the Birds of Colombia). The dove was indigenous to a ‘red zone’, an area with high guerrilla activity. The embassy man ‘cracked’, the diplomat said: he took off to see the bird. He spent a long, fruitless day in the red zone with his binoculars. As he was folding up his stool and shaking out his water bottle, he was surprised by guerrillas. ‘They took him off in his own vehicle, made him get behind the wheel,’ said the diplomat. ‘As he was driving away, he saw a flock of Tolima doves.’

It was a hot afternoon and all you could hear was the taxi rattling over stones, and birdsong. And then only the taxi. There was a couple mending a fence and, on the next bend, a line of children standing cheek by jowl against the sheer side of the mountain. They looked like characters from a nursery rhyme. We rounded a corner and into sight on a far slope came what appeared to be a concrete-built motel. Or perhaps the remains of one. Even separated from it by a valley, you could tell that La Catedral, if that’s what it was, was no longer the rosetted gulag of the early Nineties. Escobar’s spell there followed a surreal career in which he founded a newspaper and successfully ran for Congress. By 1983, his personal wealth was estimated at $2 billion and he was underwriting the construction of a barrio for 200 of the city’s poorest families. He’s gone and so has the pre-eminence of Medellín’s cartels. The narcos of Cali reigned supreme for a time – three years ago, US drug agents said that that city supplied 80 per cent of the world’s cocaine – but Mexican gangs are now in the ascendant.

There was a gate-post but no gates, and no sign of the police. A former guardhouse had been prettified and was now used by wildlife conservers. Hanging baskets featured. I thought of a stationmaster’s house on a disused branch line. There was nothing to stop Maurio and me from driving up to the sacked-looking cathedral. I got out of the taxi and stepped over a barbed-wire fence. There were people in the ruins. At first I thought they must be contractors but then I saw that two of them, in shorts and singlets, were doing their washing, pounding clothes on a board, working up a lather while a jet of water played from a hosepipe. A boy sharpening a knife was standing at the doorway of what was now evidently a squat. Inside, a pot simmered on a gas ring. Two dark-skinned men ignored me, not looking up from a card game. In the next room were homemade bunk beds and a length of cable protruding from the concrete ceiling – all that was left of a light fitting. A space which had once been filled by a window was now unglazed. In the next room again, and the only real indicator of La Catedral’s former grandeur beyond its considerable floorspace, was what must have been the bathroom. As smallest rooms go, it was a good size, an impression heightened by the fact that the roof was missing. I liked the thought of Escobar in there, the man whose powder had been consumed in so many lavatories. Kings had their counting houses, but these were surely the right surroundings in which to contemplate a drug lord. His jailers had allowed him to carry on his racketeering, his profiteering – in a word, his laundering. Water was spilling from a ruptured pipe but Escobar’s baño remained sumptuously tiled throughout – in mocha, I would have said.

The authorities had pulled down the prison, or at least they had made a start. It was their solution to the always ticklish question of how to dispose of a monster’s effects and his familiars. They didn’t want the people whom Escobar had helped, the families from the barrio, coming up to the prison, moping about, missing him. The city of Rome, facing the same sort of problem over Mussolini, had taken a different course of action, sealing up his former offices exactly as Il Duce had left them.

Mules were tethered in Escobar’s old quarters. You could stand on top of this makeshift stable and gaze out across rolling agricultural land, the coveted fincas belonging to the prisoner’s former neighbours. The spire of the redbrick Catedral Metropolitana in Parque de Bolivar was a distant, hazy surmise.

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