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House of Cards
In the glory days of Colombia’s marijuana economy, lavish spending and status-symbol designer mansions were sine qua non. SILVANA PATERNOSTRO, who watched it all unfold in her hometown, recalls a time when interior decorating was an insanely lucrative — and death-defying — pursuit

In 1975, Matilde and Rubén* were the Harold and Maude of Barranquilla’s marijuana bonanza. She was a recent widow in her late thirties with four children, a respectable last name, and a big mortgage. He was 22, penniless, and very rambunctious. They met when he walked into her former husband’s store to inquire about the pair of chairs displayed in the window. The store normally sold refrigerators, not fabulous pieces of furniture.
     Matilde had decided that to help with the store’s dire financial situation she would sell used furniture brought in from Bogotá, Colombia’s more sophisticated capital city. Matilde had an eye for interesting objects and a knack for arranging interiors. Rubén was 
a high school dropout, a precocious and charming young man who hung with a small artsy crowd. Together they made a great decorating duo.
     They also fell in love, moved to the biggest house on the beach, where no one respectable lived, and threw parties. The city’s bohemia attended, and even though people gossiped about their decadent lifestyle, everyone — from senators and industrialists to newly married couples starting their first home—wanted a piece of Rubén and Matilde. They wanted their adventure, irreverence, and style. Rubén and Matilde brought interior decorating, a previously unknown profession, to this Caribbean port city. As Barranquilla

Barranquilla, Colombia
scenes from a designer house left empty for a number of years after its owner died.
PHOTO BY Stephen Ferry
is one of the most fad-oriented places on the planet, the trend took off. Everyone had to have a casa hecha por Matilde y Rubén, even if it was just a matter of having the couple come over to rearrange the heirlooms in order to get the coveted signature look.
     Matilde and Rubén opened an antique shop, they made furniture, and with a purse filled with pesos they traveled the entire coast of Colombia in search of ornamental treasures. By jeep they scoured nearby villages; by dugout canoe they went up and down the Magdalena River, visiting the ghost towns left behind by the banana bonanza of the 1920s and 1950s. The United Fruit Company had long gone and taken its dollars with it, but the Thonet rocking chairs, the Elizabethan double beds and dressers, and the silver candelabra were still there. “It was so much fun,” recalls Matilde.
     Traveling back in time looking for the days of
Before Colombia became the land of cocaine cartels and world-famous drug barons, it was the land of the best marijuana in the world. banana splendor — when it is said men lit their candles with burning dollar bills — must have been fun. But in the late ’70s, Colombia’s Atlantic coast would see the arrival of a new bonanza, and soon the days of decorating with stringent local budgets and banana nostalgia were over.
     Before Colombia became the land of cocaine cartels and world-famous drug barons, it was the land of the best marijuana in the world — remember Santa Marta Gold? Colombia was the main producer and exporter of marijuana. After all, the tip of Colombia is a mere two-hour plane ride from the Florida coasts. As good Caribbeans, these Colombians had smuggling in their blood. It was a Colonial legacy. In a matter of years, the new dollar bonanza came from marijuana — or marimba — smuggling. The marimberos came from distinguished families as well as from the less
sophisticated, country class. But all were fast spenders and equally ostentatious.
     Barranquilla, the most cosmopolitan city of the region, became the beneficiary of the new money. Heavy-hitter marimberos started settling there, and the city changed overnight. It was always dusty, cheerful, disorganized, glitzy and loud — the marijuana money only magnified these traits. Blazers, the SUV of choice in those days, started rolling into town. New arrivals window-shopped from behind the tinted glass of their air-conditioned cars, bringing enough cash to buy up whatever they wanted — priests, policemen, women, and homes.
     “They all came,” explains Matilde, sighing with nostalgia and naughty glee. Through word of mouth, through what they read in the society pages, through family — “one smuggler cousin brought the other,” she says. A house
High-rises, houses of a size never known before, went up along the coast. in Barranquilla would lead to a three-story house elsewhere or to a summer home on a private island. The road was unpaved. Matilde and Rubén helped pave it. High-rises, houses of a size never known before, went up along the coast. Matilde and Rubén were busier than ever. Marimberos wanted decorated homes too. Barranquilla became the Wild West of extravagance, mixed in with a touch of the Matilde and Rubén flair.
     The first thing the marimberos wanted in their new houses was a discotheque, complete with black walls, strobe lights, and mirrored balls. After that it was up to the decorators. Matilde and Rubén were no longer going out on riverboats to buy their wares. They were going to the design districts in Miami and New York, the via Condotti in Rome and the islands near Venice, the auction houses of London and Paris. “We brought back spectacular things,” says Matilde,
her eyes raising skyward almost in ecstasy as she remembers the spending sprees: the gold faucets and doorknobs, the pair of stone lions, the Saporiti pigskin and seal-skin couches.
     There were times it was all paid for in cash. Even the $30,000 dollars for the seal-skin sofa. In New York early one morning in 1979, Matilde woke up to a rain of money, literally. Rubén was pouring out the $150,000 dollars in cash that had been left in a duffle bag outside their hotel room. “He was screaming, ‘Bathe in it, let it touch you,’” she remembers, “‘Maybe it will stick.’”
     Bonanzas bring competition. Matilde and Rubén’s competition was named Rocco, a spitfire talker with four languages and worldly sophistication. The gay son in a very conservative family that wanted nothing to do with homosexuality, Rocco was sent away from
Barranquilla, Colombia
Party room
PHOTO BY Stephen Ferry
Barranquilla and ended up in New York City, arranging flowers in the basement of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. To make extra money he would buy crystal knickknacks and send them back to his sister, who would sell them out of their mother’s garage. Eventually, he was allowed to come home, and slowly he turned the garage into the most prestigious flower shop in the city. Rocco was more of a businessman than the happy-go-lucky decorating couple of Matilde and Rubén. The flower shop expanded into an art gallery. Rocco sold gigantic flower arrangements, expensive baubles, and artwork from Latin America’s most important masters.
     It is hard to tell if Rocco’s timing was due to fortune or to his business wiles, but he opened his exclusive gallery — a three-story extravaganza of crystal doors and smoked mirrors — exactly at the peak of the marimba bonanza. The marimberos wanted what every other
emerging group in history has wanted — recognition, gentrification, the grand life. They would read about an art opening at Rocco’s shop in the paper and the next day they were there. “The old money élite took forever to pay, but these people arrived with the full price in cash,” recalls Manuel, Rocco’s favorite protégé. “Rocco’s eyes were opened wide.”
     He hatched a plan to become their decorator, their party planner, their personal shopper. In other words, he wanted to be Pygmalion to the marimberos. He would transcend the local Barranquilla mafia. Cali, Medellín, Bogotá — the whole country was catching up to the business of trafficking in drugs. The client list was endless and he was ambitious.
     His break came when he learned that a narco-couple from Medellín was getting married and the bride came to Barranquilla to have her dress made by one of the
The wine
was Chateau Lafitte, $1,400
a bottle,
and the bill was paid
in cash.
local designers. He convinced the family to hire him and hold the wedding, not where the bride and groom were from, but where he, the party planner, said it should be. The couple was married in Barranquilla.
     Rocco planned the wedding and went on the honeymoon. “No matter how much money they had, they would never have dared go to the Ritz in Paris of their own accord,” recalls one of Rocco’s close friends. A few times she met the couple and Rocco for dinner at the Forge, then the best and most expensive restaurant in Miami Beach. She remembers Rocco telling them to watch him before picking up their forks, and ladies, please use napkins to wipe your mouths, not the sleeves of your brand-new Valentino gowns. The wine was Chateau Lafitte, $1,400 a bottle, and the bill was paid in cash. “Rocco and I would wait in the car while they settled the check,” she says.
     “He was a brilliant businessman,” says Manuel. “He would take whatever he saw on his trips and would sell them as his own original ideas.” One year, he sold seven-foot lacquered double doors and round Oggetti lamps to everyone. Matilde says she couldn’t believe it when she went into a client’s house three months after having finished decorating it and saw the beautiful Saporiti sofa reupholstered in satin chintz and her treasured antique silver fruit bowl replaced by “a huge horror” — 14 porcelain horses pulling a carriage. “He’d leave their houses saying ‘now it’s divine.”
     The truth is that no matter what he sold or how he sold it, people bought into Rocco’s lifestyle. “He would set a price without any calculation,” recalls Manuel. He would close his eyes and say ‘This job will cost this much.’ It was steep and perhaps three times what it was really worth, but he had his reasons. “There were risks in working with these
Barranquilla, Colombia
Front driveway
PHOTO BY Stephen Ferry
people. The client might be caught or killed, and then Rocco would be stuck with a bunch of couches and crystal lamps,” says Manuel. “But there was a limit to how much you can get away with overcharging. Once they started educating themselves, his clients realized it was a bit much.” They got suspicious. “At first everyone is excited and agrees to anything the master says,” Manuel continues, “but once they begin understanding how things work and the party is over and then they get his exorbitant invoice, everything changes.”
     Eventually, after using Rocco’s services, everyone would feel cheated. For a first communion party he bought hundreds of gold-filled rosaries to hand out as favors and charged for them as if they were made of 18-karat gold. One client issued a death threat. He spent his time escaping from one unsatisfied customer after another, from one brawl after another. When a powerful mafioso realized that he
had been sold a replica of a Colombian master as an original, Rocco’s car was set on fire. He knew it was time to move to Miami.
     The end was near. Not only had he been diagnosed with AIDS, but Colombia had signed an extradition treaty with the US and the days of the marimberos were dwindling. The US was now growing its own pot. Like the bonanza and many of his clients, Rocco died.
     As for Matilde and Rubén, they never ceased being their wonderfully outlandish selves. When a favorite client was extradited and imprisoned in Miami, they flew over to visit, only to be denied permission to see her. Refusing to leave without letting her know they were thinking of her, they parked their rented car, headlights pointing toward her cell, and stood in vigil, armed with cheap disposable lighters, for hours while Rubén called out her name.
     They learned that marimba dollars don’t stick — “It’s cursed money,” says Matilde. “I don’t know one of these guys who made it rich and is also alive. Today, they are either poor or dead.”
     They are no longer a couple but they are still a family — they have two kids together — and are growing old in the house they built on the beach. Nearby, a house, a testament of the heady days, sits abandoned. The owner was gunned down and all the fantastical things Matilde and Rubén bought for him are caressed now only by the Caribbean breeze.  

*All names have been changed

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