Hernán Soto Atehortua rummages through his traditional flower-seller’s satchel, before laying its contents before me: a deck of cards; family photographs; a pearl-handled pistol; his balled-up handkerchief… the appearance of each item accompanied by a slick patter.
Don Hernán has clocked my inquiring stare. “That’s my gun,” he explains, picking up the pistol and pointing it at me, his arm jerking back from the elbow as he simulates firing the weapon.
“Yes, of course it’s loaded,” the septuagenarian flower farmer laughs, in reply to my next question. “I need it to be because I have this in my bag,” he adds, gesturing to a roll of banknotes he’s pulled from its seemingly infinite depths. Although, having already learned a little about this humble horticulturalist’s background, I can’t help but think he might by carrying a firearm through force of habit.
I’m up in Santa Elena — a Colombian flower-farming community overlooking the city of Medellín — in Hernán’s little farmhouse: a homespun museum of antiquities and junk-shop finds that grants equal wall space and reverence to tortilla presses, armadillo shells, enamel commodes, antique scissors, milk bottles, and racy calendars of bikini-clad women, and a plethora of items too innumerable to list. In pride of place, though, are vintage posters advertising Feria de las Flores, Medellín’s famous flower festival. It’s a really big deal around here, and it’s Hernán’s life as a silletero that I’ve come to chat to him about.
During the slavery era, wooden chairs (silletas) were mounted on the backs of servants to carry sick people up and down the precipitous hills around Medellín. The seat-cum-rucksack was soon being used by the area’s country folk (paisas) to carry produce, like flowers, from Santa Elena to the markets in Medellín. From these humble origins, blossomed the annual silleta pageant: incredible floral displays paraded around the city on the backs of proud silleteros.
Colombia is one of the world’s biggest flower exporters, and Medellín is known as the ‘land of eternal spring’ because of its year-round mild climate, which gives rise to this efflorescence. It’s not just flowers that grow well in rural Colombia, though; cocaine is the country’s most infamous cash crop and, back in the 1980s and ’90s, this city was a haven for drug trafficking gangs, most notably its titular Medellín Cartel, led by the legendary Pablo Escobar. Some tourists still come here to see the downtown rooftop where, in 1993, the man was killed in a hail of police bullets.
With notoriety comes mononymity, and — like Hitler and Rasputin — all the locals around here still refer to drug lord Pablo Escobar on a first-name basis. Hernán is no different, but it sounds to me as if he’s particularly familiar with the man who was once public enemy numero uno.
Once more, I have to ask. “Pablo hired me as his gardener,” he replies, with a beaming smile that’s incongruous with the statement. “But back then, we had to call him El Patrón (The Boss). I didn’t actually end up doing any gardening, I just ran errands. Eventually, I became the head of domestic staff. There’s was a lot of money hidden in false walls in the house, and if any went missing it would be my neck, so it was my job to make sure staff didn’t steal, and to report anyone who did. Anyone caught was taken up to the hills around here, in Santa Elena, and we wouldn’t see them again. Pablo trusted me, though; he used to give me big wedges of money to deliver to the police.”
His tales of the lavish lifestyle he enjoyed serve as a stark contrast to these rustic walls, stuffed only with newspaper clippings and curios. I wonder what happened to Hernán’s ill-gotten gains, as he continues his story, having to compete to be heard over his chickens, which cluck and peck at the threshold.
“I never stole from Pablo,” Hernán tells me, “but one day I crossed him, to protect my family. Then I overheard Pablo’s gang plotting against me, so I fled to a small village near Barranquilla on the north coast, around 450 miles away. I stayed there in hiding for three years.”
Hernán’s brother, Alejandro, appears and hands me a glass of aguapanela, a sugar-cane drink popular in Colombia. Hernán explains that Alejandro kept their flower farm going during his years in exile. I ask if his brother also took over the honour of carrying the silleta in the annual Desfile de Silleteros.
“No! I returned each year for the parade,” says Hernán with a look of incredulity, clearly having been unwilling to share the glory with his sibling, even though the world’s richest and most brutal criminal had a price on his head. “Sure, if they found me they’d have killed me, but Pablo had bigger things to worry about, and I wasn’t going to miss carrying our silleta!”
I sip my drink as the scent of blooms wafts through the door, and enquire how exactly Hernán got on the wrong side of Escobar. He dutifully tells me the whole grisly story. I wish I hadn’t asked.