Inside Pablo Escobar’s Medellín cartel

InColombia History 18 October 2011 | By Brad Cohen
Pablo Escobar’s bombed-out corpse of a mansion La Manuela sits on a shimmering turquoise lake. (Brad Cohen)
It was a strange feeling posing for a picture with one of the world’s most notorious criminals. A vacant stare on Roberto Escobar’s face, his arm draped over my shoulder, inspired conflicting feelings, equal parts excitement and disgust. Then again, the entire tour revolving around Pablo Escobar’s life in Colombia — from its beginning at the drug lord’s grave, to the rooftop where he was shot to death by Colombian police, through the conclusion at his brother Roberto’s house — generated ambivalence, just like Pablo himself.

Our guide seemed more conflicted about giving the tour then we were about taking it. It is an important part of his country’s history, but the wounds inflicted by Pablo Escobar, the world’s most ruthless drug lord, are still fresh in the collective mind of Medellín, a city that would rather its rapidly increasing tourism industry focus on transitioning from murder capital of the world to cultural centre of Colombia. Our guide lies to his family about his job, preferring they were not aware of this part of his life.
Despite this country-wide disapproval, tour companies have begun capitalising on the allure of Colombia’s most notorious son. One enterprising company — creatively named Pablo Escobar Tour (like many of its competitors) — has helped transform the home of Roberto Escobar into a live-in museum that focuses on the life and criminal career of his brother, commonly known as Don Pablo or El Patrón.
Nearly everything about Roberto’s home is disconcerting: the bullet hole hidden behind a framed photograph at the entrance, the barbwire fence obscuring a view of the surrounding mountains, the oversized picture offering a $10 million reward for Pablo and himself. Living in a shrine to Pablo’s violent rise to the top of the criminal underworld might be more bizarre if he had to look at his surroundings, but Roberto is nearly blind — the result of a letter bomb blowing up in his face during his 14-year prison stint.
Tourists from all over the world, many of whom seem to romanticise the life of a man who made his way to No 7 on the Forbes world’s richest list, come to ask Roberto about the «true» story regarding his brother, who lived from 1949 to 1993. Roberto shrugs off the atrocious bombings Pablo orchestrated and the thousands of civilians, politicians, journalists and police officers he maliciously sent to an early grave. He prefers to focus on the homes, soccer pitches and schools his brother built for the poor.
The curiosity for most people ends after the tour ends, but the more dedicated Pablo Escobar historian can find a handful of equally bizarre places just outside of Medellin.
La Catedral
It was named La Catedral  but the former five-star prison had nothing to do with religion when Pablo lived there; its name was more of a nod to the grandiosity of the prison and Don Pablo’s power. Throughout his reign, he had cost the Colombian government so much time, money and frustration that they agreed to let him construct his own prison in the hills of Envigado, in exchange for his surrender. So he built himself a luxurious fortress, complete with waterbeds, entertainment systems and a spectacular view of Medellín, all protected by his personally selected prison guards. From his enclave he hosted wild, drug-and-booze fuelled parties and ran his drug empire. He even conducted murders inside its walls.
Now home to a monastery, La Catedral serves a purpose more representative of its name. Most of the original structure has been demolished, looted by people coming in search of treasure he left behind during his escape in 1992.
By looking at La Catedral’s biblical statues, the chapel with its stained-glass windows and the giant metal crosses overlooking the city, it is hard to believe this place was ever a prison. The guard towers and sections of crumbling exterior are the only real signs that La Catedral was ever anything other than peaceful. New living quarters surround the former soccer pitch, where Pablo once played with star players from the Colombia national team. The main chapel and library sit next to the guards’ former sleeping quarters.
Open to visitors from 6 am to noon on Saturday and Sunday, La Catedral remains one of the more constructive projects of all Pablo’s former homes. Take the metro to Envigado and tell a taxi driver to take you to La Catedral or the monastery in Reserva Ecologica la Miel. It is a relatively long and difficult drive up, so do not be surprised if the driver asks you for more money than the metre reads.

Guatapé and La Manuela
The sign on La Manuela, Pablo’s infamous estate on the shore of Guatapé’s man-made lake, reads «prohibido el ingresso». It is posted next to a barbwire fence with only a small gap to let unwanted visitors through.
Pablo’s bombed-out corpse of a mansion sits on a shimmering turquoise lake, with views of extravagant estates and rolling hills almost too green for reality. The mansion is a tortured paradise more likely to be the twisted creation of Tim Burton or Francis Ford Coppola than two decades of looting and neglect.
When El Patrón built his estate along the lake, he brought chaos to this peaceful town 90 minutes from Medellín. For years Guatapé, which has once again become a popular weekend destination for nearby Colombians, was too dangerous for visitors. It has been just more than two decades since the deck of the swimming pool served as a helipad, the lakefront a landing strip for drug-running planes.
Now, the murky brown pool water is too toxic for swimming. Vegetation consumes much of the house, growing through the roof and the crumbling facade. Names of trespassers adorn the peeling walls of all three sections of the sprawling property, as do their deviant works of art: skulls, naked bat-women, pointy-eared demons.
A peninsula of decay surrounded by sheer beauty, La Manuela resembles purgatory in both appearance and purpose. Like many other of Pablo’s properties worth millions, it sits in limbo as the government tries to hack its way through the moral and logistical jungle of its future. Deciding on the proper use for drug-funded property and the profits from its sale is a touchy and legally complicated subject.
For now, visitors can wander the forbidden property with a boat tour from Lake View Hostel.
Hacienda Nápoles
Walking through the first gateway to Hacienda Nápoles, a theme park that was formally the most famous of Pablo’s many estates, it is already possible to hear the endless loop of canned jungle drums. A blue-and-white light propeller aircraft, Pablo’s first of many, sits atop the original, cracking entrance. The theme park’s second entrance, two wooden towers with a sign hanging across — a poor man’s replica of the gateway to Jurassic Park — is new. It is a perfectly incompatible beginning to Parque Tematico Hacienda Nápoles, a dubious effort between government and private enterprise to turn Pablo’s dirty-money dreamland into something positive.
Dozens of animals occupy the 15-sq-km patch of land less than four hours from Medellín. Zebras, rhinos and elephants roam the fields, while big cats nervously pace back and forth in cages. The safari starts with an auto rickshaw ride, included in the price of admission, to see the stars of the park, the Cocaine Hippos. Most of the animals in the estate’s formerly private zoo — thought to be the largest private collection of pets ever — starved to death after Pablo died, but the hippos thrived. Their numbers grew from four to about 20, making them the largest herd of hippos outside of Africa and famous symbols of the cocaine industry.
The next stop on the safari is the Parque Jurásico, complete with recreated versions of the life-sized concrete dinosaurs Pablo had built when he was still entertaining movie stars and underage women at Hacienda Nápoles, his grandest estate. After getting dropped off, guests can wander to the property’s 500-seat bullring, which has been restored. It sits empty, except for a photo exposition along the outer ring that displays Pablo’s relationships with the corrupt politicians, drug kingpins and journalists who watched as matadors and bulls did battle in the private ring during their visits to Hacienda Nápoles.

His mansion remains virtually untouched, save for a cursory cleaning of the algae-ridden pool and the addition of enlarged photos of his exotic pets, his family and his funeral that now decorate the former bedroom walls. Any attempt at restoration would probably result in the house’s collapse. Still, you can walk through the skeleton of the mansion, which now serves as a museum dedicated to the thousands of victims of Pablo’s drug wars.
If the images of flaming cars, bloody corpses and murdered police officers become too mentally trying, grab an inner tube and float around the lazy river a few metres away before gearing up for an eco-tour, by bike or horseback, through the verdant pastures along one of Pablo’s six escape routes.
Exiting the park — after witnessing the recreated version of Pablo’s personal version of Noah’s ark, the remains of his mansion and the automobile graveyard that houses the torched remains of his classic car collection — you might notice the 2,000-inmate prison that lies on the outskirts of the property, a reminder from the Colombian government that crime does not pay.

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