I just asked three people in my office: what’s the first word that comes to mind when you think of the country Colombia?

Colombia-Real-EstateTwo answered “drugs.” One was more specific and said “cocaine.”

I expected at least one of them to say coffee. Nope. People associate Colombia with drugs. And where there are drugs, there are crime, violence, and corruption.

Above all else, there’s one man to thank for Colombia’s negative reputation: Pablo Escobar, the infamous Colombian cocaine kingpin. Not only was Escobar a ruthless drug lord, he was probably the most successful drug businessman in history, amassing an estimated fortune of $24 billion at the peak of his empire. In the mid-80s, Forbes ranked Escobar as the seventh-richest man in the world.

He achieved those heights by using an unprecedented mixture of business acumen and brutality to force his would-be rivals to fall into line. His famous “plata o plomo” strategy – which translates to “silver or lead” – remains a critical component of his legacy: Escobar would first grease any problematic palms with a bribe. If a subject were foolish enough to reject the bribe, Escobar would stop playing nice and give him some lead instead – in the form of a bullet to the head.

To be fair, by some accounts, Escobar wasn’t a bad guy. He used his cocaine profits to build schools, churches, and housing for poverty-stricken Colombians. Escobar thought of himself as a modern-day Robin Hood. Many of his beneficiaries concurred, and repaid his kindness by looking the other way when he was doing something illegal – which was almost all of the time.

Regardless, Escobar was a violent, merciless man, even by drug-lord standards. And as my nonscientific survey above shows, his legacy still dominates Colombia’s reputation today.

There’s only one problem: the Colombia of today is nothing like it was back then.

The country has improved immensely since Escobar’s death nearly twenty years ago. Thanks in part to a $7.5-billion, US-backed effort to crack down on narcotics, Colombia is no longer the world’s top cocaine producer. Both Peru and Bolivia overtook it in 2012. And from 2001-2012, potential Colombian cocaine production decreased by a whopping 72%. Not surprisingly, drug related crime plummeted, too.

Noting the dismal failure of the US’s own war on drugs, it’s almost hard to believe that Colombia’s government has been so successful in its efforts. Yet the figures are there for all to see – from 2011 to 2012 alone, Colombian cocaine output fell another 25%.

Meanwhile, Colombia’s economy has prospered: GDP growth has been strong; the average Colombian’s income has doubled in less than a decade; and BusinessWeek even called Colombia “the most extreme emerging market on Earth” in 2007.

One Colombian city in particular – Medellín, which coincidentally is both where Escobar’s cartel was based and where he was shot dead – is flourishing. The financial services and food products industries in particular are booming, and multinational companies are even opening offices in Medellín –Hewlett-Packard just opened a campus there in 2012.

And the residential neighborhoods are keeping pace, too – they’re dotted with cafés and restaurants that would rival those in European cities.

As should be clear by now, there’s a stark contrast between the perception of Colombia and its reality. While the country isn’t perfect and drugs are still a problem, they are only a fraction of the problem they were 20 years ago. Though few are talking about it, Colombia is up and coming.

Dan Steinhart, Managing Editor of The Casey Report

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