Inside Pablo Escobar’s Medellín cartel
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.
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.