MEDELLÍN, Colombia—On Dec. 2, 1993, one day after his 44th birthday, Pablo Escobar died during a police raid on the roof of a modest home in what is now an otherwise unremarkable middle-class suburb of Medellín, Colombia. Twenty years later the man who invented modern-day narcoterrorism and brought his country to the brink of ruin still inspires extreme emotions. Colombians either love him (if you’re from one of the many poor barrios where he built homes, schools, and soccer fields) or hate him (if you’re one of the tens of thousands who lost loved ones during Escobar’s years of violence).
Colombians can agree on one thing, however: Escobar sells, especially to the growing number of tourists visiting this South American country. As Colombia gropes its way out of the shadows of decades of drug violence, nationwide tourism is on the rise—up 300 percent since 2006. Tourism officials predict a record-setting 2 million people will visit Colombia in 2013. The following year they’re aiming for twice that.
The irony of this welcome increase in visitors, however, is that there is a corresponding rise in the kind of tourism that Medellín officials really wish you would avoid: Escobar tours. The visitors bureau refuses to promote them—a top administrator said she “feared” reinforcing the Colombia-cocaine stereotype—and even some tour companies, like Colombian Getaways, decline to offer them, calling the idea “hurtful.”
And yet the drug lord’s legacy is unavoidable. At the height of his power in the 1980s and early 1990s, Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria controlled 80 percent of the cocaine traffic to the United States. He had enough money to offer to pay Colombia’s national debt. He briefly held a seat in Colombia’s Congress. His crimes included assassinations, car bombings, extortion, and the bombing of an Avianca commercial flight. Escobar’s brother, who was the cartel’s accountant, claims that the group spent $2,500 on rubber bands each month for wrapping bundles of cash. In 1987 Escobar appeared on the inaugural Forbes magazine list of billionaires, and he remained on that list until the day he died.
Now there are at least 10 companies offering Escobar tours in Medellín—making stops at his grave, the site where he was killed, and other grisly landmarks. My guide on the $45 Escobar tour offered by Medellín City Tours, John Echeverry, says he had to think long and hard before agreeing to take the job. As we turn our backs on Escobar’s grave, Echeverry tells a story about the time that he and 44 of his classmates (including the son of Escobar’s cousin and Medellín Cartel business manager Gustavo Gaviria) were invited to Escobar’s private retreat, Hacienda Nápoles, for the weekend.
“There were mini motorcycles for all of us,” Echeverry remembers. “We sat at a long table and we could have whatever we wanted.” He shakes his head. The memory has him caught, like the rest of the country, between Escobar excitement and Escobar shame. “There were no limits. It was like Disneyland.”
It is perhaps fitting, then, that the Colombian government handed the 3,000-acre estate, located about four hours from Medellín, over to a management company that turned it into the largest theme park in South America. It is called Parque Tematico Hacienda Napoles (Hacienda Napoles Theme Park), and advertises itself as a destination “for family tourism, environmental protection and the protection of animal species in danger of extinction.” Since it opened in 2008, managers say it has attracted about 1 million visitors, overwhelmingly Colombian, who pay up to $30 to get a peek.
But the managers took care not to turn the drug lord’s ranch/zoo/airport/headquarters into a monument to the narco lifestyle. The drug-running plane that Escobar had perched atop the Hacienda Nápoles entrance was painted with friendly zebra stripes. Five new theme hotels were built (Africa, Casablanca, etc.). Escobar’s private bull ring was recently turned into the Africa Museum. A 30-foot fake octopus now douses shrieking swimmers in a water park that is as tacky as a Florida putt-putt course. Escobar’s original menagerie of wild animals has been expanded to include lions, tigers, rhinos, jaguars, and more than 40 hippos. A pair of elephants will arrive as soon as the paperwork is sorted out.