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When the Medellin cocaine baron Pablo Escobar had become the planet’s biggest drug trafficker, mentioned as a billionaire on Forbes’ rich list, Gustavo was just seven years old.By then, Escobar was such a legend in the slums that even children talked about him. He was bigger than the Colombian president,’ Gustavo says.Others keep their mouths firmly shut, honouring the cartels’ code of silence and avoiding giving away secrets about their trafficking organisations that could earn them a death sentence.Researching a book on the drug war in Latin America has taken me from bullet-ridden barrios to marijuana-growing mountains, but finding gangsters who will talk to a British journalist is not easy.Sicarios such as Gustavo are wreaking havoc across Latin America.Back in the Eighties, the region was torn apart by fighting between Left-wing guerrillas and Right-wing dictators.In a sparsely furnished but tidy flat in a pleasant, middle-class neighbourhood in the city of Medellin, Colombia, a 24 year-old called Gustavo is telling me how he likes to spend his hard-won earnings. For when Gustavo isn’t dancing to salsa music – or politely offering his guests drinks – he is a paid assassin for one of Colombia’s most notorious cocaine traffickers.
We also have to promise we will not pass any information on to the Colombian National Police, who fight a bloody war with the cartels and their soldiers.Some had fled the bombings and firefights between the government and communist guerrillas.Others just came looking for enough money to feed their families.For many young men here, working for the cartels is one of the few ways out of the ghetto.Dressed in a trendy green short-sleeved shirt, Hawaiian shorts and bright-green canvas baseball boots, Gustavo is strikingly thin, with light brown skin and hair shaved to a crew cut.But the violence exploded again last year with 2,899 murders.The corpses pile up as gangsters battle for cocaine routes both to the United States and to the growing market in Europe, especially Britain, where cocaine is still being snorted everywhere from stockbroker bars to northern council estates.Medellin, a city of three million that climbs up the northern Andes mountains, became the most murderous city in the world in the early Nineties under the rule of cocaine baron Pablo Escobar, its most famous son.After police gunned down Escobar in 1993, the murder rate subsided.In the Latin American drug war, journalists cannot afford to act as eyes for law enforcement.The small but airy apartment he shows us into, looking out upon palm trees and fountains, must be a far cry from his childhood home.