Pope vies with narco for reverence in Colombian city

Medellín (Colombia) (AFP) - In her hair salon, Yamile Zapata is taking advantage of Pope Francis's visit to sell key rings with his face on it. But that's not where the real money is in Medellin.

Most of the gifts she sells in this Colombian city bear the mustachioed face of its own saint and anti-hero: Pablo Escobar, late boss of the cocaine cartel immortalized in the hit Netflix series "Narcos."

While Francis was ministering and teaching as a Jesuit priest in the 1980s, Escobar was killing hundreds of people and trafficking billions of dollars' worth of hard drugs.

"Everyone wants a pope souvenir right now. But Pablo sells better," said Zapata, 34, as the city prepared for Francis's open-air papal mass Saturday.

Francis offered words of sympathy for victims of drug-related violence in the city. But in spite of it all, some in Medellin remember Escobar fondly.

"I only believe in God. But what I do shows the good that Pablo did," Zapata said.

"People in this neighborhood don't talk about the bad things, because here everybody loves him."

- 'Pablo Escobar district' -

Authorities hunted Escobar down in 1993, putting an end to what was then the biggest drug empire in the world.

But for people living in the houses he built in a Catholic district of Medellin in the 1980s, it was more like the kingdom of heaven.

In Yamile's neighborhood, Escobar built 260 houses for slum-dwellers in the 1980s. The settlement has since swelled to include some 6,000 homes.

"Welcome to the Pablo Escobar district," read a sign at the entrance to the neighborhood, with an image of him. "Here, we live and breathe peace."

More than two decades have passed since police shot Escobar dead on a Medellin rooftop with assistance from US agents.

Yet even in death, Escobar is getting people addicted -- to the numerous television series, films and books about him.

In addition to styling hair, Zapata sells mugs and t-shirts of "Pablo."

Since changing the name of her salon to Escobar's nickname, "El Patron," her customer base has doubled.

- Drugs and religion -

Pope Francis came to Colombia to support its efforts to end a civil conflict that was fueled by drug trafficking.

The government has made peace with the country's biggest rebel force, the FARC, which financed its armed campaign through cocaine as well as extortion.

The United Nations ranks Colombia as the world's biggest producer of coca, the raw material for the drug.

Francis spared a thought for young people "so often deceived and destroyed by the hit men of the drug trade," in one of his addresses.

"Medellin reminds me of that," he told assembled religious leaders.

But apart from being the city most associated with Colombia's drug gangs, Medellin is also arguably its most Catholic.

With two million inhabitants, it is said to have more churches than any other city in this country of 48 million.

In his home in the Pablo Escobar district, Wberney Zabala has a mini-shrine: a portrait of the drug lord lit by candles.

"No religious leader and no politician can beat Pablo," said Zabala, 45, a disabled former soldier and now a local community leader.

"Creating a neighborhood was his first miracle... While the neighborhood survives, so will his story."