When outsiders think of Colombia, one notorious name (unfortunately) comes to mind: Pablo Escobar. No figure in Colombian history is more controversial than this drug lord, the wealthiest criminal in history with an estimated net worth of near US$30 billion, the man responsible for nearly 80% of the cocaine entering the United States in the 1980s and the deaths of thousands in his own country.
The mere mention of Escobar’s name in public will often result in looks of disgust. I’ve tried to bring up the subject to a select group of Colombian friends who I thought would be open to talking about their lives during the most difficult period in their country’s history, but my questions were quickly met with anger and I could see the pain on their faces. Clearly, many people are not yet ready to talk about it and would prefer to push this painful period into the background in order to move forward.
The scars from Pablo Escobar’s reign of terror still run deep, especially in his home city of Medellín. Almost everyone in that city who has been alive since the 1980s knows someone who was ruthlessly murdered during the wave of violence unleashed by this despicable man. Nationwide, there are estimates that over 200,000 Colombians have been killed and nearly 6 million have been displaced by guerrilla and drug related violence over the past 50 years. There have been over 450,000 homicides in the country since 1990 alone.
Despite the immense pain felt by the Colombian people, many foreign tourists travel to Medellín every year to quench their curiosity of Escobar’s lavish lifestyle and reckless overindulgence. If you are a tourist in Medellín in search of answers to your Escobar questions, it’s best to not ever mention his name to anyone. Keep your mouth shut. Simply talk about how innovative and beautiful the city is and discretely take the Pablo Escobar tour offered by Paisa Road.
Paisa Road’s Pablo Escobar Tour is Medellín’s original Pablo Escobar tour. It costs COP$50,000 and can be booked from one of three hostels in the city. Simply go to one of the hostels at least 24 hours in advance to book the tour, pay for it, and return to the hostel before 10:30am on the day of your tour for pickup. Space is limited (about 10 people) so it’s best to book early – at least 24 hours in advance – because it fills up very quickly. The tour is 100% in English.
There are other tours offered by other agencies, even some that include a visit with Escobar’s brother, but I chose Paisa Road because their tour is more of a history lesson that tells of the horror this man has caused the people of Medellín and the stigma he unfairly attached to Colombia. It also tells how the people have coped and moved ahead, but how the drug trade still operates and is doing as much business as ever. I didn’t want to take a tour that would benefit his brother, a well-known accomplice, even if he claims the proceeds go to charity.
The tour is led by the charismatic Paula and the driver, Nicolás. Paula may initially come off as prickly – when the tour begins, she explicitly orders all passengers to hold questions until she is ready and that nobody eats in the van – however, you quickly realize there is a lot of information to disperse with very little time. She speaks with immense passion and is sometimes unfiltered, gives very vivid descriptions, and can easily captivate her audience. Some people may be put off by her occasional left wing rhetoric, but if you have a moment to chat with her, you will see she is a genuine person that cares deeply about her city and country. But again, if you had to talk every single day about the horrors of car bombs, public drive-by motorcycle executions, children being murdered, and your home city being turned into a war zone overnight, you wouldn’t exactly be smiling and laughing, would you?
This is not a Disney-style tour. The subject matter is not happy and you will not hear an inspirational story. Paula will not paint a rosy picture. She will dish out facts and statistics and talk about how terribly affected the people of her country were and still are. She will pass out graphic photos of bombed out buildings, personal photos from Escobar’s life, diagrams and maps, and other supporting material. You will learn that Escobar’s childhood ambition was to be a millionaire. You will hear stories of how Escobar ran several businesses in order to legitimize his profits from cocaine, and about his time as a member of Colombia’s congress until he was kicked out in 1984. You will learn how nearly everyone who tried to cross Escobar ended up dead – judges, police officers, politicians, journalists, his rivals from the Cali Cartel, former friends, and innocent people who just happened to be in the way of his money. It was “plata o plomo” – “silver or lead”. Take the money, or take a bullet.
You will also learn that while the majority of people hate Escobar, he was a very polarizing figure and there are people that still love him. He successfully fooled many people into supporting him by cultivating an image as “Robin Hood Paisa”, a Colombian Robin Hood, by building churches, hospitals, and homes for the poor, and feeding the hungry while their government let them suffer. There is even a neighborhood he built in Medellín that to this day bears his name and pays tribute to him. It’s mind boggling to me that these people still cannot see through this “generosity” the monster that Escobar truly was.
One more very important thing to remember – Escobar never once used cocaine. But what about Colombians? Are people in Colombia walking around high all the time with white powder on their nose? No. All of this violence comes in a country that has significantly lower cocaine use (0.7%) than the United States (2.8%) and several other industrialized nations. Now think about the thousands of Colombians who died just so someone in the United States or Europe could have a little “fun”.
What points of interest will you actually see on the tour? For most of the tour, you will pass by several important buildings significant to Escobar and the Medellín Cartel. If you are expecting to actually go inside these buildings, you will be disappointed – they are off-limits or privately owned. The van will stop outside many of these buildings and Paula will explain their significance and the history behind them.
Among the buildings that are visited are the Edificio Monaco, the former home of Escobar, his family, bodyguards, and members of the Medellín Cartel. The building is located in the upscale El Poblado district. It’s a white building that sticks out like a sore thumb among the surrounding brick buildings. Why white? Escobar colored most of his buildings white in honor of the product that made him rich – cocaine. The building still bears the scars of gunshots and the 1988 bomb blast that forced him to move out. This bomb blast was the beginning of the terrible wave of violence that swept across the city and lasted nearly 20 years.
You will stop by the Edificio Ovni, once home to the central operations of the Medellín Cartel. A bomb was detonated outside the building in 1990. It is now home to a popular Colombian restaurant on the ground floor while the rest of the building is still unused.
There will also be a quick stop outside the Edificio Dallas, another of Escobar’s office buildings which is now being reconstructed into a luxury hotel. This building was named after Dallas, Texas, an important entry point for the Medellín Cartel’s cocaine into the United States. It was put in the name of Pablo Escobar’s daughter in order to make her “the world’s richest baby”. You can guess what happened to it – a bomb exploded out front in 1992.
On the other side of town, the tour will stop at the house where Escobar was gunned down on 2 December in 1993. He had been on the run for nearly 18 months with all sorts of speculation as to where he was – in the jungle, in a submarine, in other countries – but he was right under the nose of the authorities – in an unassuming middle class neighborhood in Medellín. The home was only two stories high when Escobar died, but the current owners decided to build a third story.
The night before he was killed, Escobar was celebrating his birthday with his last loyal bodyguard and his aunt, the owner of the house. In the middle of the night, the attack began and Escobar fled to the rooftop. He was shot several times and fell onto the roof of a neighboring home where he was finally killed. There is some controversy as to whether he was killed by the forces attacking him or if he shot himself. My personal opinion based on information given in the tour and several hours of reading articles about him is that he shot himself.
The final stop of the tour takes you to Cementerio Jardines Montesacro in nearby Itagüí. This is an exclusive cemetery with simple flat grave stones.
After getting out of the car, we made a quick stop at the grave of Griselda Blanco, the “Black Widow”, one of the most powerful members of the Medellín Cartel. Responsible for several assassinations in Miami, she herself was assassinated in 2012 while shopping for groceries in Medellín.
Not too far away from Blanco’s grave is the most unusual grave in the entire cemetery. The people who created the cemetery were trying to avoid the lavish monuments common in many wealthy cemeteries in Latin America, but they were unable to prevent one grave from following the cemetery guidelines – that of Pablo Escobar.
Escobar arranged his burial plot well before his death, and even after his death, the fear of his threats to carry out his final wishes were too much for the cemetery managers to bear. Escobar’s final resting place is near some members of his family including his parents, and his bodyguard, “Limón”. It is the second most visited grave in all of South America, behind Eva Perón at the Cementerio de la Recoleta in Buenos Aires.
The Pablo Esobar tour is misunderstood by many residents of Medellín and many Colombians. It does not, in any way, shape, or form, glorify the man that caused the deaths of thousands of people and the misery of millions more. The wounds are still very fresh and, as I mentioned earlier, it’s still a very difficult subject for most people to talk about. In my opinion, this tour can help cope with the tragedies of the past and give outsiders a better understanding of what Colombians had to endure for many years, and still have to endure to a lesser degree.
Some may criticize them for profiting and making a living off a man who destroyed so many lives, but I believe Paula and Nicolás perform an important service by showing foreigners the resolve and strength of the Colombian people to move forward. They are helping to educate people not to associate Pablo Escobar and cocaine with Colombia, much like Hitler should never be synonymous with Germany, Pol Pot with Cambodia, or Idi Amin with Uganda. They remind people that Escobar was just one man and that several others involved in drug trafficking are also responsible for ruining lives in Colombia and abroad. They teach people to remember the thousands who died and an entire country that suffered for what casual drug users in Europe and the United States may think of as an “innocent” amount of cocaine. I applaud them for having the will to openly talk about what is seen as a forbidden subject, in order to grow personally and help make Medellín and Colombia a better place, while most others try to simply erase the terror from their memories.
It’ll take generations.