If there’s one famous Colombian that everyone can name (aside from perhaps Shakira), it’s Pablo Escobar. He started his criminal career as a teenager on the streets of Medellín, stealing gravestones (which he would later sand down and re-sell). And after doing everything from stealing cars to selling fake lottery tickets and contraband cigarettes, he got into the cocaine business in the 1970s. And by the 1980s and early 90s, at the height of his career, his Medellín Cartel was apparently responsible for over 80% of the coke in the world, making US$60 million a day.
And when you’re worth US$30 billion, and are not only the richest criminal in history, but also one of the richest people in the world, you can do pretty much whatever you want. And Escobar did, building homes for the poor (to cement his Robin Hood reputation), giving generously to the Catholic Church (who gratefully accepted his donations), and at one point even getting himself elected to Colombia’s Congress. And all that while running Medellín, the country’s second city, as his own personal fiefdom.
He also built a number of lavish homes for himself, his family, and his various mistresses. And the largest and most famous of his properties is the 20 square kilometre Hacienda Nápoles, mid-way between Medellín and the Colombian capital Bogotá.
Escobar’s taste was as questionable as his wealth was enormous. And with nothing to hold him back and nobody to question him (much like Donald Trump), the only limit was his own tacky imagination, and he filled the hacienda with everything from African big-game animals to concrete dinosaurs. He brought over hippos from Africa, built a bullring for bull fights (and where he also machine-gunned any animals that he got bored of), amassed a collection of classic cars, and built an airstrip (so that he could commute to and from his home base in Medellín). And on the front gate of the property, he proudly put the plane that transported his first shipment of cocaine to the US.
After Escobar was killed by Colombian police in 1993, the Colombian government seized the property and gave away most of the animals to zoos. But the hippos escaped and went feral, and there are now 40 of them living in and around the property (the largest population of wild hippos outside Africa), much to the concern of local farmers and residents of nearby villages, who are understandably worried by the presence of aggressive, one-tonne animals in nearby rivers and lakes – and indeed, several of the hippos have been killed over the years, after attacking people and destroying crops.
The property was left abandoned for over a decade after Escobar’s death, slowly decaying in the tropical climate, with extra damage being done by the rival Cali Cartel (who destroyed the classic car collection) and the locals (who destroyed Escobar’s house, searching for drugs and money).
Eventually, a private company bought the land, and turned it into a Jurassic Park-style theme park, complete with a logo that’s so ripped off from the film that I’m surprised the lawyers haven’t been in touch.
Having arrived at the park from the nearby town of Doradal by tuk-tuk, the first thing that I notice about the place is that it’s huge, gigantic. I didn’t know at the time that it was 20 square bloody kilometres, and I’m quite offended when I suggest to the teenager on the ticket desk that I can just walk around in a few hours, and he responds by laughing in my face. After showing me the map and explaining to me the sheer size of the place, I sheepishly head back to the tuk-tuk, where the driver is waiting for me with the engine running and a smile on his face, probably waiting for the penny to drop and for me to come back and ask him to drive me around.
We drive around the concrete dinosaurs, which Escobar installed for his kids to play on (aren’t fathers so much more fun when they have tons of drug money to throw around?), and to which the theme park owners have now added “lifelike” dinosaur sounds, roaring out of nearby speakers. We visit the bullring, which is now a museum of African culture, complete with statues of muscular tribesmen and a wall of photos of notable Africans, starting off with Nelson Mandela and ending with Charlize Theron and Didier Drogba. We take in the classic car collection, a set of burned-out vehicles that looks less like Cocaine Drug Lord and more like East End Scrap Yard. And we visit Vanessa, the one remaining hippo, who responds to her name and likes being hand-fed carrots.
The last stop is the ruins of Escobar’s villa, where there’s now a museum about the man, his life, nefarious activities, and death. You might think that a museum devoted to a man who was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people would be in bad taste; but this one seems to be firmly on the side of the Colombian government – there are numerous photos of Escobar’s death on the Medellín rooftop, plus pictures of many of the people he ordered killed, and all topped off with a sign that reads “Triumph of the State”. There are descriptions of how he paid US$2000 to any of his henchmen who killed a policeman, ordered the deaths of over 30 judges, blew up an airliner (killing everyone on board – just to get at one official that he was unable to nobble by other means), and sold arms to both left-wing guerillas and right-wing paramilitaries (turning a small rural conflict into a full-on civil war, one that’s still ongoing in parts of the country).
And there are photos of the hacienda in the past, in happy-family times, with Escobar and his kids in the pool, Escobar dressed up like an Arab sheikh, or a sombrero-wearing Mexican bandito, or a Tommy Gun-wielding American gangster. But the crumbling walls and rotting ceilings of the house seem to fit well with the countless photos of all the terror and violence that he unleashed on his country, presumably plotting all manner of horrifying plans from this very villa. I notice that the house, with its array of sombre images, is one of the most popular parts of the whole park, full of Colombians quietly reading up on ‘El Patrón’. Whether they think he was a man of the people or a ruthless murderer is unknown to me, as I don’t ask them. But whatever his reputation, his place in Colombian history is as assured as that of Al Capone in the USA.
As we head back to town, my tuk-tuk driver tells me how Colombia has become safer and more stable since the death of Escobar and the break-up of the big cartels. While that may well be true (and I hope for Colombia’s sake that it is), I still doubt that those events (or the hardline approach of ex-President Álvaro Uribe) has really made much of a dent in the global narco trade. As long as people want to take drugs, and as long as they’re illegal, there will always be someone (narcotrafficker or businessman, depending on your point-of-view) happy to bring the two together – only these days it’s not Colombians anymore, but Mexicans like Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, with his Shawshank Redemption-style prison breaks. And as for Escobar, he’s now back in the very same place that he started – a Medellín cemetery.