J. J. Junieles (trans. Ellen Jones)
Pleased to Meet You, Pablo Escobar
I still remember that day, walking along Calle Séptima with Mariela. We heard a commotion in the street, followed a group of people into a café with a television, and discovered the reason for all the noise: a news anchor was explaining that Pablo Escobar had been killed. In the background, you could see a man’s body lying on the roof of a house and several armed policemen surrounding him. Then Mariela leaned over and said in my ear: ‘Your troubles are finally over, Pablito.’
..……..We’d been out for lunch. We went into a church and lit candles for San Gregorio Hernández, physician and servant of God. We lingered a few minutes before heading back to our respective offices. That night, despite finances being tight, I took her out to the cinema, leaving our daughter with her grandparents. I couldn’t quite relax. It’s not every day you hear your name on everyone’s lips, all of them saying you’ve been killed, even though it’s not you.
..……..Pablo is a common name. What’s not common is for two people to share all their first and last names. Our names were the same, but our lives were not, fortunately. That was the important thing, that there were actually two Pablo Emilio Escobar Gavirias. One was an in-house accountant and the other was one of the richest, most dangerous, most wanted men in the world.
..……..In any case, Mariela was right, my troubles were over. There would no longer be another Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria going around blowing up aeroplanes, ordering assassinations of politicians, policemen, and journalists, sending everyone drugs by the tonne, and scaring people enough for them to be suspicious of the other Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria who’s struggling to pay his rent, has a sick daughter, and has had to get used to all manner of abuse because he shares his name with a criminal.
..……..These problems, to those who don’t know, might seem mere nuisances, small causes for irritation that anyone could experience. Inconveniences with easy solutions. The thing is, nobody puts themselves in the other person’s shoes – that’s why people never understand the problems this situation was causing and which, lately, had been getting completely out of hand.
..……..I remember the first time I learned of Pablo Escobar’s existence. One night when I was leaving a party with a couple of friends from the Faculty, a police car passed the corner where we were waiting for a taxi to take us home. The vehicle stopped and two policemen got out. A bottle shop nearby had been burgled and they were doing spot checks in the surrounding streets.
..……..They got us up against the wall. They patted us down for weapons and then finally asked for our papers. All three of us handed over our ID cards to one of the policemen who went to the car, took out some kind of radio, and started reading out our names and ID card numbers. I heard when he got to my name. Our eyes met. Something happened. The policeman dropped the communication device, pulled out his gun and aimed it at me. ‘Hands up, cabrón! You move a muscle and I’ll shoot!’ he yelled at me.
..……..I saw surprise and fear wrestling in his eye sockets.
..……..The other policeman had moved away from us now, also aiming his gun. ‘What happened, man?’ he asked, yelling at his companion.
..……..‘This son of a bitch is Pablo Escobar, that cartel guy they’re looking for everywhere. Get down on the ground, cabrones, hands behind your backs. One move and you’ll have an ass full of lead.’
..……..The policeman’s pulse was leaping so much I was scared he’d actually shoot. Face to the floor, kissing the dust, I asked myself who this guy was they were confusing me with who had everyone so terrified.
..……..The sound of radio-telephones could be heard, shouted orders and the arrival of another car from which police emerged with their weapons drawn. They took us to a nearby police station, compared my face with a photo, but weren’t convinced. ‘All that money, he must have bought himself a new face!’ I heard one of them say.
..……..The statements my friends gave saying I was just a student, that I wasn’t Escobar Gaviria, made little difference. They called my house and my dad arrived with a photo album so they could see how the other Pablo lived, the one without a pot to piss in. The next day, the results of a fingerprint comparison made them finally let me go.
..……..Days later I saw Hernán, a neighbour who was a radio journalist and a friend of my father’s. We ran into each other in the street.
..……..‘Listen, son, your dad told me about your little adventure the other night. That Escobar they confused you with runs one of the most dangerous cartels operating out of Medellín. He was nobody until recently, just like the rest of them, but now he’s on the TV and in the press the whole time because he basically declared war on everyone. What planet are you living on, son?!’
..……..Then he told me not to pay any attention, that everything happens for a reason even if it’s hard to see, that he was sure what happened would turn out to be a good thing in the end. ‘Say hi to your old man for me, tell him I’ll invite him for a game of tejo and some beers one of these days,’ he said, then headed off with his voice recorder in hand. I hadn’t much appreciated his comment, but I was reassured by his optimistic take on the situation.
..……..I had no idea what was going on in the country. I was too busy trying to earn money while studying, helping my mum and dad in the difficult art of managing their poverty, paying my sister’s school fees and all the bills, and making sure there was always rice and eggs in the kitchen. My father had been looking for work for three years. His last steady job had been in a government office and since then no one had wanted to hire him because he was too old. Meanwhile, no one wanted to hire me because I was too young: ridiculous, like so many things that go on in this country.
..……..My mother knitted woollen clothing that she sold in a clothes shop. At Christmas she made decorations: smiling old men in red pyjamas, deer, little angels playing trumpets. All this helped fix the holes in our pockets through which tranquillity was trickling away.
..……..Dad had always wanted to save up for an old car. I saw him watch as they went by, until they were lost in the distance, but he’d used his redundancy money to settle late mortgage payments on the house. Mum never asked for anything, but she’d always dreamed of visiting Buenos Aires, home of her favourite singer, Don Carlos Gardel, who my father envied whenever she sang his songs. My sister was a good student, and spent much of her time helping my mum with her knitting. She knew it was unlikely she’d be able to study Fashion Design in Paris: her birthday wish every year. And in the middle of all this, Mariela was my rock. We’d been together since our first semester. We put off marriage and having children until after graduating. Then we put it off until we both had good jobs, and then until we had our own house. One thing led to another, putting off another, and then another… Until we understood that time functions differently in dreams and in reality, so we saved up for a couple of months and went to live in a rented apartment.
..……..Nobody can live your life for you, and over time you come to understand that good memories have nothing to do with appearances or with other people’s opinions of you, good or bad. There’s a hole in the ground waiting for each of them too and it would be a sad thing indeed to take with you only what other people think of you. You may as well go on living while you look for a better life, forgetting about perfect habits and ideal worlds. So we didn’t much mind the disapproval of Mariela’s family when we got married in a registry office.
..……..Meanwhile the other Pablo Escobar kept killing policemen left, right and centre – cars were exploding in front of newspaper offices, planes and buildings collapsing in ruins on his orders. On television and in the newspapers and magazines people talked of nothing else: his cocaine routes, his entry onto the list of the richest men in the world, his tycoon whims. Whenever I was at the bank and someone called my name so I could take out money or collect a document – ‘Señor Pablo Escobar Gaviria!’ – everyone turned to look at me suspiciously. The plastic surgery boom had begun. Journalists talked of narcos buying new identities from surgeons, and it would be easy to try and throw the wool over people’s eyes by continuing to use your own name. That’s why I decided to lose weight and get rid of the moustache I’d always worn to try and emulate my dad. The universe seemed to have conspired wholeheartedly to make sure Pablo Escobar and I not only shared a name but also a certain physical resemblance. We weren’t identical, but we weren’t that different either. Similar enough to make any sensible person suspicious.
..……..We can’t be held responsible for the names our parents choose for us. I even thought about changing mine when the situation became unbearable. On two occasions, the police or the military (I don’t remember which) broke down the door to our house, frightening Mariela and our little girl, Manuela. They stayed for several hours while I had my identity confirmed in an office once again. By that point they’d been through all the bedrooms and the house was in total chaos. They always left with a: ‘Sorry amigo, just doing our job.’
..……..When I had to travel by plane for work, the security officers at the airport locked me in a cell for several hours. They wanted to check my fingerprints against their database and by the time they’d made one hundred per cent sure, my plane had left and I’d missed my appointments. I wrote many times to complain, demanding they put an end to the abuses I was suffering. Wherever I went I carried around certificates from multiple institutions, proving my identity. But despite all the precautions, it was very difficult to explain to someone that I wasn’t the Pablo Escobar, just another Pablo Escobar. There was always someone who believed Pablo Escobar really went about his business using his own name.
..……..But that wasn’t our biggest worry. We had another even more upsetting problem, and that was Manuela’s health. She suffered from a progressive eye disease. We had her on expensive treatment while we waited for a cornea transplant. The disease first appeared just after we began paying rent on the apartment, for which reason we had stopped – just for a couple of months – paying our medical insurance. Now our salaries went on Manuela’s expensive medications, monthly appointments with ophthalmologists, the upkeep of the house, and the money to help my parents and my sister.
..……..Then, one day out of nowhere, I received a call. ‘Hello? Pablo?!’
..……..‘Yes, hello, speaking?’
..……..‘It’s Polar Bear. We still have that deal pending – where can we meet to settle up? It’ll have to be quick, the area’s red hot. I’ll just make the drop and beat it.’
..……..The voice spoke good Spanish with a gringo accent. I don’t know where I got the impulse to talk – perhaps it was the cloak of anonymity and too many films in which I’d seen this exact scene. The situation felt almost familiar, like a good opening for a joke, even, so I started to play along.
..……..‘Polar, hi, good to have you back. I was about to send out a search party.’
..……..‘Chill, it’s all good, Pablo… Congrats! Great work. You’re killing it, I swear to God if someone stuck a finger up your ass you’d steal their ring. Great job, the clues, the surgery, the DNA. Where did you find that jerk who showed up dead on the roof ? He looked just like you! And then going into hiding using your own name, that was awesome, man, bacán. Where did you find that family, the wife, the kids, the whole setup? Those CIA hijosdeputa put on a good show, just like back in Kennedy’s day!’
..……..That was when I realised what was happening and was seized by cold terror. I had to sit down on the first chair I could find, every muscle in my body tense. The only way to get out of this was to say something convincing, despite my throat being dry as a stone. I remembered another film:
..……..‘Come on, Polar, the walls have ears. Loose lips sink ships. You want this whole thing to go to shit?’
..……..‘You’re right, it’s all good, it’s all good… So what do we do? Where do we meet?’
..……..‘Let me think.’
..……..Guardian angel, sweet companion, don’t leave me or I’ll be lost! You’ve hooked a giant fish, now all you have to do is reel him in… The only place I trusted was a café near the Luis Ángel Arango Library, where I went to borrow books. It was busy, there were security guards, and if this got out of control, like in the films, it would help to have panicked people screaming and running. I gave him directions and told him 12.30, because that was when it would be busiest.
..……..‘It’ll have to be quick, Polar. I’ll be in a black hat, dark glasses, holding a newspaper. See you there.’ And I hung up.
..……..The dice were in the air. Fear had a shape – I could touch it. It acquired the shape of the phone I had in my hand. Dark, solid, real, like everything that had happened in that minute when I knew my life hung in the balance. From my wallet I took a saint’s card showing San Judas Tadeo, patron saint of lost causes, and rubbed it between my fingers until it felt warm.
..……..The Polar Bear was a hulking albino, a six-foot mammoth in dark glasses. He had a camera around his neck and a white bag. He was also carrying a map. He took a couple of photos and came over to my table, studying the map’s criss-cross of coloured lines.
..……..I had crossed my legs so as not to wet myself and folded one hand over the other in an apparently casual gesture, like Michael Corleone facing down his enemies in a restaurant, totally in charge of the situation (but also it helped disguise the trembling). I came out in a cold sweat, like at school before an exam you haven’t studied for, when you know you’re running the risk of fucking everything up. He came over to my table as if to ask me something, spreading out the map before my huge sunglasses.
..……..The gringo sat down across from me, as if to continue his line of questioning, and put the white bag down by his feet. Between us there was a tiny vase of flowers on the table. As he finished opening out the map’s folded squares, he spoke:
..……..‘What’s with the flowers? People are gonna think we’re in love, Pablo. You gotta tell me who did the work on your face so I know never to go to them. It’s awful. You’ve never looked more like yourself.’
..……..I had to say something, I really needed to say something.
..……..‘Let’s cut to the chase. There isn’t time. My people think someone’s on my tail.’
..……..‘OK. There’s fifty percent here, in the package. They still haven’t bred dogs who can smell them. New contact details and new coordinates for where the shipment’s coming in, too. Phones are difficult, as you know, so you’re better off using the fax number in there.’
..……..He folded up the map as he stood and headed off the way he came. I sat there watching him until he disappeared. Then I got up. I picked up the white cloth bag he’d left behind. I walked in the opposite direction to him. I didn’t turn around for a single second. I hailed the first taxi that went by and then I opened the bag.
..……..Life is like a funnel. At first, it’s wide but then it narrows until it forms a single path. I still haven’t quite got the hang of Italian, but I’m getting there. My parents still have moments of nostalgia, but when they do I put on a Gardel record for my mum, one from our collection, and pour her a glass of wine on the terrace overlooking the lake. And I take my dad out for a spin in his 1955 Chevrolet, along the avenue that skirts the coast of the little Italian town where we live. My sister’s coming to visit tomorrow, with sample designs for her couture class in Paris. She has a French girlfriend who’s studying with her, but my parents don’t know that yet.
..……..Mariela and Manuela will be here soon, my two girls. Now that Manuela’s had her operation, the doctors say she’s no longer at risk of going blind, and in response to this miracle she goes around taking photos of everything she lays eyes on: animals, landscapes, the hundred dolls with which I’ve populated her room. Every night, before I go to sleep, I say a prayer of thanks to an image of San Gregorio Hernández.
..……..The man was right. They still haven’t bred dogs that can smell diamonds. A big cereal box in the hands of a little girl on holiday with her family, heading from Cartagena de Indias to Panama on a yacht full of tourists, is also a great way to get seven hundred and seventy-seven diamonds out of the country without raising suspicion.
..……..Everyone knows money isn’t happiness, but my God, it sure feels like it. It can’t make you immortal but it can allow you to be reborn, start a new life, and fulfil the dreams of the people you love. Mariela is now Lucía, from a Joan Manuel Serrat song I’m fond of. And I’m now José Obregón, a fusion of characters from a novel by Graham Greene. I’ve already promised Lucía and my parents I won’t play at being a character in a thriller anymore. I’ll limit myself to watching the thousands of films I have these days in my little home cinema.
..……..I see Manuela – now Guadalupe – smiling, the lights from the lake reflecting in her eyes, and I’m convinced that everything was worth it. Leaving Colombia, changing our identities, altering our fingerprints, undergoing plastic surgery and starting a new life somewhere that’s discreet but not hidden. A little villa with a view over the shores of Lake Como, where we can enjoy the mountain air that reminds us of our own mountains. It’s near Laglio, a tourist town, rather than out in the middle of nowhere, where you might imagine we’d head if we didn’t want anyone to find us.
The Colombian Edition of The London Magazine is out now and available from our online shop. Published in anticipation of next month’s Hay Festival in Cartagena de Indias, this issue will be followed by a Spanish language version, out in January 2022, in Colombia and the UK.
Cover image: Ritual (Pescadores), oil on canvas, 100x150cm (Pedro Ruiz, 2010)
John Jairo Junieles was born in Sincé-Colombia (1970), grew up in Cartagena de Indias, and now lives in Bogotá. Until he was seven he thought his name was ‘Damn boy, get down!’ At eight he loved to shout from windows to scare people, at nine he started throwing things at them, and at ten he liked to throw himself out the window, into the street. In 2007 he was chosen by Hay Festival to take part in the project ‘Bogotá 39’, featuring the thirty-nine writers most representative of Latin American literature. His most recent book is the novel The man who talked of Marlon Brando (Editorial Planeta, 2020). He has four books of stories, five of poetry and he also writes chronicles and scripts.
Ellen Jones is a literary translator, editor, and occasional writer based in Mexico City. Her recent translations from Spanish include Ave Barrera’s The Forgery (2022, co-translated with Robin Myers), Bruno Lloret’s Nancy (2020) and Rodrigo Fuentes’s Trout, Belly Up (2019). Her book Literature in Motion: Translating Multilingualism Across the Americas will be published by Columbia University Press in January 2022.
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