Buying Jeans in Medellín, or: My first encounter with the Colombian Mafia

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Image taken from: http://medellinvida.com/medellin-mall-palacio-nacional

 The boyfriend was in desperate need of a new pair of jeans. Now, if you need ANYTHING in Medellín you can get it easily in a store, but it will be expensive, or you can get it very, very cheap downtown, but you’ll have to put a lot of effort into it. Even though it doesn’t seem worth it most of the times to spend 5 hours looking for … let’s say … a cell phone, a charger and a SIM card (yes, that is exactly what I did!) to save 5 dollars (which is exactly how much I saved), but I can’t deny it: it’s also sooo much more fun! Especially if we are on the hunt with our friend “Pablo” – who I am sure wouldn’t like to read his real name here. Pablo is the most amazing smooth talker / salesman / deal hunter that I have ever seen. Or do you know anybody who gets money from a cab driver for driving you somewhere??? It is a joy to see him work his magic with the vendors and most of the times I have no idea what he tells people, but within seconds he gets you the best price EVER on anything. There was no doubt about it, Pablo was coming jeans shopping with us. .

 

First, he took us to the “palacio”, the “palace”. This giant building really does look like a Colombian version of the Galeries Lafayette in Paris – simply impressive! Rumor has it that the palacio is owned by a very rich Jewish man and that whoever tries to steal anything from there doesn’t leave the palacio alive. Pablo showed us a couple of jeans stores in the palacio, where the average price for a pair of jeans was 80.000 pesos, about 40 dollars. This might seem cheap, but not if you know that the real market value is more around 20.000 pesos… which is why Pablo showed us where you have to go if you want the best deal: straight to the bodega, the warehouse. The warehouse is right next to the palacio, and nothing indicates that this plain building is where it’s all at in terms of jeans in Medellín. Once you enter though you realize that something is going on at this place, something odd to be more precise. There were security guards who only let us pass because they knew Pablo. You can only get from floor to floor using an elevator, operated by another security guard who also has to know you. Once you get to the “warehouse” (a maze of many tiny jeans stores), the vendors have to know you in order to let you into their little stores. Again, I am not sure what Pablo’s smooth talking tongue said, but we got treated like royalty: the boyfriend walks out with a fashionable pair of jeans (of a pretty expensive brand) having paid only 15 dollars for them, and with an open invitation to come back whenever we want.

 

A hidden building, secret floors, top notch security … anybody else having a deja vu of about pretty much every mafia movie you have ever watched? At this point, I also vaguely remember that my mom has told me that Pablo Escobar’s son (Pablo Escobar being the infamous drug lord who ruled Medellín for decades and gave it the reputation of one of the world’s most dangerous cities) now works in the jeans business. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what is going on here and Pablo confirms my suspicions: The clothing mafia rules the city. They operate by “finding” lost container shipments of clothes (= they pay people to steal the clothes off the ships for them … watch “The Wire” season 2 and you’ll know what I am talking about), they organize them in the bodegas from where the middle men (Pablo being one of them) buy them to sell them in different stores, in different locations and to different prices. This is how you can end up paying anything between 15 to 100 dollars for the same pair of jeans in Medellín. The people in power obviously not only control the shipments and the bodegas, they own the stores where the pants are sold as well. With a cocaine street value of only 12 dollars per kilo, maybe jeans are more profitable nowadays and government officials might accept bribes more readily if it’s “only” about clothes? Needless to say that the jeans market is definitely not the only market controlled by the mafia in this town: Welcome to Medell-Sin City!  

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