Letter From Bogota
WHERE YOU CAN ORDER A STEAK-AND A STALLION
At first it sounded like sexist gossip when I overheard a man at the next table ask: "Did you see the chest on her?" I put down my fork and wheeled around for a look to discover that the remark was about a mare.
Big-chested she was, indeed, and long-legged to boot as she pranced past my table with a coquettish flick of her tail, one of a dozen identically matched jet-black horses being paraded around the restaurant to the delight of diners. There's only one place in Bogota where you find action like this, and it's at the Margarita del 8 steak house.
The restaurant's remarkable owner, Fabio Ochoa, is also one of Colombia's great horse breeders and without doubt the most famous. His fame, however, stems not from his horses but from his sons. Don Fabio sired Colombia's three richest living cocaine traffickers: Jorge Luis, Juan David, and Fabio Jr., the men who formed Pablo Escobar's board of directors in the Medelln cocaine cartel.
This particular Sunday, Don Fabio is celebrating the birthday of Atrevido, a magnificent stallion whose stud fee is $1,200--earned an average of twice a day. Don Fabio has over 1,000 horses at the stables that surround the restaurant, and all are for sale. He has rejected million-dollar offers for Atrevido. Even bargain-basement horses fetch over $20,000.
DON'T TOUCH. Not that Ochoa's love of food is outpaced by his love of horses. His 400 pounds don't allow for much walking, so on most weekends Don Fabio holds court from a makeshift throne in the restaurant. Crowned by a felt hat, the 70-year-old horseman is flanked by two phones that ring incessantly, although he never answers them. Behind him a sign says: "You may say hello, but do not shake hands."
When I ask him about the restaurant's concept, he says: "I take full credit for the idea," as a horse prances in rhythm to bullfight music. Don Fabio is building a bullring out back, next to the tack shop.
The restaurant is named Margarita for the farm where he was born in the northwestern Colombian province of Antioquia. The horses are branded with an "8," which when pronounced in Spanish forms the first two syllables of the Ochoa family name. As Don Fabio and I talk, a huge Belgian draft horse is led between the tables, tailed by a pony and then a llama for contrast. Then comes a specimen of the breed that has made the Ochoa stables famous, the paso fino, whose gait carries the rider as if on a cloud. Later a tack saleswoman assures me that if I buy a paso fino, I'll be able to tour my entire plantation in a single day without getting sore.
Don Fabio hands me his business card, which reflects the restaurant's multifaceted nature: "Breeders of paso fino horses -- stud service -- Antioquian food." Steaks are grilled over a wood fire and served in a rustic atmosphere on bare wood tables. The typical Antioquian platters turn out to contain $12 worth of rice, beans, hamburger, plantain, corn muffin, and a slab of deep-fried pork rind. Service is glacial, in part because the waitresses are dodging horses and their leftovers.
Behind Don Fabio hang dozens of photographs tracing the lineage of the paso fino and of the Ochoa family, which have grown famous together over the past 100 years. Prominently displayed is a portrait of Father Rafael Garca Herreros, the priest who brokered Pablo Escobar's 1991 surrender. Don Fabio gave the priest a horse for his efforts.
Diners applaud as Don Fabio's 4-year-old daughter, Daniela, turns a bay paso fino among the tables, carrying a poodle in the saddle. A beaming Don Fabio says: "She's the star of the show." She was also the reason for his banishment from Medelln. It seems Don Fabio sired the child to a horsewoman half his age, precipitating a family tribunal at the prison where his three sons are serving time. His grown children sided with their mother, and Don Fabio moved to Bogota to build this restaurant with his new wife.
However, don't think that Don Fabio's sons have turned their backs on their father. Their custom-built prison cells are lined with photos of his horses, and they regularly receive videos of horse auctions at Margarita del 8. Juan David, 46, Jorge Luis, 45, and Fabio Jr., 37, are serving eight-year sentences after confessing to the exportation of cocaine. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration says they exported it by the ton. They turned themselves in to Colombian authorities four years ago at their father's request.
Such deference to family is typical of the people around Medelln, who call their regional culture paisa. The three brothers say they actually enjoy more of a family life in prison than when they were on the run. They wrote me this in reply to a list of questions I sent them at their prison in the Medelln suburb of Itagu. They told me their mother cooks their lunch and dinner every day, and their sisters deliver the meals to the prison. "The paisa food that comes from our Mom's house is the best in the world," they wrote.
"MAKE IT ANYWAY." After family, making money through hard work is the cornerstone of the paisa culture. "Make your money honestly," the archetypal paisa mother tells her sons, "and if you can't make it honestly, make it anyway." That sort of permissiveness gave rise to smuggling in Medelln. It should be remembered that Pablo Escobar got his start smuggling electronic appliances.
The Ochoa brothers wrote me of cocaine trafficking: "Ten years ago, the business was inoffensive and not badly looked upon. It was simple customs smuggling." That "simple customs smuggling" evolved into the Medelln cartel, which shipped some 80% of the cocaine sold in the U.S. and used its profits to wage a war on the Colombian government and press that claimed 1,000 lives.
To the Ochoa brothers, cocaine was merely the most profitable of smuggled goods in a land where smuggling is an honored profession. In his screenplay for the film, Erendira, Colombia's Nobel laureate Gabriel Garca Mrquez places a desperate father in the path of some smugglers. He begs them for help in stopping his son from eloping. "We don't get involved in that sort of thing," says one contrabandista. He thumps his chest proudly and adds: "We're smugglers."
The Ochoa brothers argue that they are paying an unfairly high price for smuggling a product that only later became offensive when others could not control their consumption. "The U.S. has tried to resolve this problem exclusively at the expense of the producing countries while tolerating it in their own territory," the Ochoas wrote me.
HARD LABOR. "The only way to eliminate the trafficking problem is to legalize it," wrote Jorge Luis, who intends to dedicate himself to fighting for legalization once he is out of prison.
Although the youngest brother, Fabio, is up for parole this year, lawyers close to the traffickers doubt that Colombia will feel it can afford to release him. On Mar. 1, the Clinton Administration certified Colombia as eligible to receive foreign aid only on grounds of national security. Critics of Colombia's efforts to control trafficking, such as Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, point to light sentences meted out to traffickers as reasons to deny aid to Colombia. Carlos Jimenez Gmez, a former Colombian attorney general who is now the lawyer for Jorge Luis and Juan David, concedes that Colombian officials could still reopen the Ochoa file and try them for other, unconfessed crimes.
The only way for the Ochoas to whittle down their sentences is through hard labor, since the Colombian government takes one day off a sentence for every two days worked. So each day, the three Ochoa brothers set to work in the prison factory at their new trade: stitching together saddles for sale in their father's tack shop at Margarita del 8.KEN DERMOTA