Photo by Joseph Swide

James Rodriguez, Envigado F.C., and the Long Shadow of Pablo Escobar

More than two decades after the death of cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar, Colombia and its soccer tradition is entering a new era—even as Escobar's influence remains visible.

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Sep 30 2014, 9:45am

Photo by Joseph Swide

The road from the town of Rionegro to Medellín winds for about 30 kilometers through the vast green mountains that surround the city. Since the airport is in Rionegro, the road is often one's first introduction to Colombia. When driving in at dusk, the view out the window is enough to erase any residual perceptions of the country left from State Department travel warnings. The sun sets behind the next ridge as the road leads past old farmhouses, roadside stands selling local berries, a gourmet supermarket that looks something like a Colombian version of Whole Foods, and a sign that reads, "Bienvenidos al Municipio de Envigado: Donde Lo Primero Es La Gente." ("Welcome to the Municipality of Envigado: Where The People Are First.")

Splashed into the mountains at the southern edge of Medellín, the town of Envigado has long been a waypoint for people on a journey going elsewhere. When the Spanish governor of the region declared the village an official municipality 200 years ago, Envigado was a tiny roadside stop for travelers on more or less the same route through the mountains from Rionegro to Medellín. In 1929, after 55 years of blasting through mountains, construction of the Antioquia Railway came to a close. The railroad connected Medellín and other towns in the region with the Magdalena River, which was the main route to the seaports on the country's Northern coast. The train brought trade and the beginnings of industry, and though Medellín saw the most economic benefit, Envigado grew as well.

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Today, Envigado is a large suburb, rich in history and culture in the sort of way that makes it rather quaint. There are museums and historical sites, and a lovely park in the center of town surrounded by outdoor cafes and highlighted by the grand Santa Gertrudis church. Fernando Abiantun, a 26-year-old professional from Bogota, describes Envigado as the sort of place you go with your parents when they come to visit.

The town most certainly does not feel like a place that was once the epicenter of Colombian cocaine trafficking and violence, or a place that is now an epicenter of Colombia's rebirth in soccer.

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Envigado Futbol Club proudly calls itself the Cantera de Héroes. Cantera is a Spanish word that means "quarry," but is fittingly used to describe the youth academies of professional soccer clubs--where talented youth are chiseled out of the local population and shipped across the globe to become masterpieces. And over at least the last decade, despite being dwarfed by fellow Medellín clubs Atlético Nacional and Independiente Medellín, no club in Colombia has been as successful at producing top young players as Envigado.

The recent Colombian World Cup squad brought three Envigado alumni to Brazil: 28-year-old Inter Milan midfielder Fredy Guarin, 21-year-old FC Porto winger Juan Fernando Quintero, and 23-year-old Real Madrid star and World Cup darling, James Rodriguez.

Envigado players have also represented the Colombian national team recently at youth levels. Budding stars such as 19-year-old Udinese midfielder Alexis Zapata and 21-year-old Granada striker Jhon Cordoba came up through Envigado. Striker Cristian Arango and defender Daniel Londoño, both 19, are both playing with the Envigado first team and have also played for the national side.

The presence of effective systems to identify and develop talented young players is one of the defining factors for success in world soccer. It's a huge reason why Germany won the most recent World Cup, and why former German national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann was hired in 2011 to build the soccer program in the United States. It's also a reason why relatively tiny places like Holland and the Spanish region of Catalonia consistently maintain global excellence--and what Ajax's academy is to Holland or Barcelona's famed La Masia academy is to Catalonia and greater Spain, Envigado's cantera has become to Colombia.

Photo by Joseph Swide

In a 2013 interview with futbolred.com, current Envigado FC president Felipe Paniagua spoke at length about what makes La Naranja Mecanica such a machine at producing top young talent. According to Paniagua, the club begins with a pool of about 5,000 children, age 7-12. About half of those kids play in recreational leagues run directly by Envigado, while the other half play in leagues indirectly affiliated with the club. At age 12--the same age as James Rodriguez when he was signed to Envigado in 2004--the young players are put into more intense competition led by Envigado's best youth coaches, as the club aims to start selecting the most talented players for professional contracts at age 15-16--Rodriguez was 16 when he made his professional debut with Envigado.

However, effective youth systems require money--the true defining factor in world soccer. Germany, Holland, and Catalonia are among the wealthier places in the world. Even in South America, the ranking of countries by GDP per capita, in order, is: Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Venezuela, Brazil, and Colombia. With the exception of Venezuela, whose oil income and heavily socialized economy make it a unique case, the rest of that list reads like a CONMEBOL power ranking. Envigado fits in that context as well, being a relatively affluent suburb of a quickly rising city. But the club has invested in and been structured towards youth development since its origins, during a time in Colombia when money often led back to a murky and treacherous place.

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When Envigado FC was founded by Gustavo Upegui and others in 1989, cocaine trafficking and the associated violence were at their peak, and the town of Envigado was at the center. Pablo Escobar was born in Rionegro, but he grew up in Envigado. In 1989, Escobar's Medellín Cartel accounted for an estimated 70 percent of Colombia's total cocaine export revenue of $5 billion, and the cartel's violent enforcement wing--named La Oficina de Envigado--accounted for a sizable portion of Medellín's 5,045 homicides in the same year. A couple years later, La Oficina split with Escobar and aided in the hunt that led to his 1993 death. Since becoming an independent cartel, La Oficina has more or less reigned as Colombia's dominant narco-trafficking organization.

In the 30-plus-year history of cocaine trafficking in Colombia, many thousands of murders and many billions of dollars have soaked into the fabric of the country. The industry has become so deeply ingrained in Colombia that, after a while, it becomes impossible to fully grasp the depth of its influence.

Not even the terrifying headlines and images that feed stereotypes abroad can capture the scale of an industry that has destroyed countless families of both traffickers and innocents, displaced millions of people--especially indigenous and Afro-Colombian populations--and fueled a decades-long civil war. Likewise, the stories of Escobar building homes for the poor can present a simple moral binary, but the extent to which drug money spread through society doesn't allow for such binaries—one cannot be separated from the other. Soccer is one lens through which the inextricable place of the cocaine industry in Colombian society can be viewed with some clarity.

Drug traffickers poured money into Colombian soccer in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Escobar's club, Atlético Nacional, became a powerhouse thanks to his largesse and remains one to this day. Nacional has won the last three Colombian championships, and its supporters group, Los Del Sur (named for the side of the stadium they sit in) is the largest in South America. Yet, while the cartels used their money to compete for Colombian and Copa Libertadores championships, the money around the city and excitement over the sport also helped build soccer infrastructure like neighborhood fields, as well as Colombia's hugely popular Pony Futbol youth tournament.

By 2004, when a 12-year-old Rodriguez dominated the Pony Futbol tournament and was signed to Envigado from Academia Tolimense by Upegui himself, Medellín was just beginning to rise up from its drug trafficking background and move towards becoming the burgeoning destination for foreign business and tourism that it is today. That year saw the first substantial decline in Medellín's murder rate, and the opening of the city's much-lauded Metrocable system, which provided cable car access to neighborhoods that had been nearly inaccessible. However, in Envigado, the influence of La Oficina remained as powerful as ever.

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In June 2012, Colombian newspaper El Espectador published an investigative feature titled "Los secretos del Envigado Futbol Club," exploring the club's lack of transparency and connecting Upegui and other high level members within the club to La Oficina de Envigado and the narco-violence raging in the city through the 80s and 90s. Predictably, the club denied the report's findings in a lengthy Facebook post, calling the report "amarillista" (a Spanish word similar to "Yellow Journalism"), mentioning the virtue of the club's efforts in developing the youth of the community, and claiming that the club would pursue legal action against the newspaper. However, though the report's supposed connections might be up for some debate, Envigado FC was at the very least affected by the violence of the time.

In September 1993, Jorge Bustamante, Envigado's first president and the son of an important member of the Colombian Football Federation, was shot and killed at a bar in northern Envigado.

In January 1997, Upegui was shot by his own bodyguard--who in the same incident killed Upegui's two other bodyguards before killing himself--but Upegui survived.

In November 1998, Upegui was arrested and jailed on charges of kidnapping, conspiracy, and creating armed vigilante groups. He served 32 months in jail before a judge ruled the evidence insufficient and Upegui was released.

In March 2002, club treasurer Luis Avendaño was kidnapped in Envigado and found dead on the street a few days later in El Retiro, a small town in the mountains just south of Envigado and Rionegro.

In July 2006--two years after Upegui signed Rodriguez and one year before Rodriguez's debut with the Envigado first team--assassins hired by rivals within La Oficina disguised themselves as national police to invade Upegui's country estate, where they tortured and executed him.

In September 2006, another former president of the club, Octavio Velasquez Mejia, was shot and killed at a pool hall in Envigado.

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"Mucho trabajo, mucho dinero," is how Luis Ambara, a middle-aged taxi driver born and raised in Medellín and now a resident of Envigado, describes life during the height of the cartels as he drives us into the Medellín neighborhood of Belén Las Playas, a soccer field that he says was built by Escobar. On a weekday afternoon, the field is just an empty lot of packed dirt. But on weekend nights, I'm told that locals fill the green and yellow concrete bleachers to watch youth games under the floodlights.

From there, Ambara takes us on a different route into Envigado. This road doesn't pass through town, but rather ascends the mountains above it, leading up to the site of Escobar's infamous prison palace, La Catedral. After Escobar left the prison in 1992, it was in ruin until recently being converted into a monastery. Today, at the very top of Envigado—the spot from where Escobar watched over his empire—there is now a statue of Jesus Christ. The infamous soccer field in the prison is now a garden for the monks, complete with fake flamingos.

The view is spectacular, looking out over not just Envigado, but all of Medellín. From here, the city looks like an urban developer's scale model of a city brought to life; the "The Medellín Miracle" feels real. But to treat Medellín's recent success as a miracle is to detach a city and its people from their history--or treat that history like a collection of unfortunate coincidences--when the actual sources of the city's optimistic future have been deeply informed by its past. Fake flamingos now inhabit a palace built with drug money. Likewise, the half-life of Escobar's influence can be seen in the soccer infrastructure that eventually produced James Rodriguez—the smiling face of the new Colombia.