the DRUG BARON who LIVED in a ZOO
Hacienda Napoles: At home with Pablo Escobar, the drug baron who lived in a zoo
Paul Scheltus reports from Puerto Triunfo / 26 December 2007
Since the death of the notorious cocaine supplier, his estate has fallen into disrepair. But today it reopens as a theme park, complete with the hippos, zebras and other animals with which he shared his home. It’s unclear whether the hippopotamus died in a fight or if it was electrocuted by the fence surrounding the sprawling ranch. What is certain is that when its remains were found two weeks ago, the ranch workers tossed the meat on an improvised barbecue and stuffed the hide. “We’re going to display the beast as it is and tell visitors the story of what happened on the day we found it,” says Oberdan Martinez, visibly pleased at the idea… “although we may have to change the eyes,” he adds after a second glance the eye sockets of the deceased hippo are stuffed with blue ping-pong balls.
Mr Martinez is the general manager of the Hacienda Napoles theme park, which opens today in Puerto Triunfo, 100 miles east of Medellin, Colombia. The novelty of the park lies not in its African land mammals whether alive or dead but in that they, and the 3,700-acre ranch they live on, once belonged to the world’s most feared drug baron, Pablo Escobar. Born in 1949, Escobar worked his way up from stealing cars in Medellin to joining the aristocracy of crime in the 1970s, where he dominated the cocaine trade to the United States. His wealth was such that he could afford to construct hundreds of homes for the city’s poor, paving the way to a seat in congress in 1982. Dodging the law and doling out to the needy earned him a Robin Hood-like reputation.
Hacienda Napoles was Escobar’s idea of Eden. He populated the lush green hills with elephants, giraffe, buffalo, camels and lions. A total of 700 farmhands stood to attention as their master played god. “El Patró” boasted that it took more than 100 employees several weeks to train a flock of white birds to roost in the trees around his marble-floored mansion. As the cocaine-laden jets took off from the airstrip next to the house, Escobar impressed fellow politicians with rides on his hovercraft on one of the estate’s 14 lakes.
Then came the bloody drug wars of the 1980s, when Escobar would offer a million pesos for the head of policeman. Judges, politicians and journalists were given the choice of plomo o plata- a leaden bullet or a silver pay-off. Escobar, who was the son of a school teacher, is held responsible for the murder of the justice minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla and a string of other political assassinations. Not content with bullets, Escobar turned to bombs, blowing up the headquarters of the secret police in an attack that left almost 70 people dead. His arrest in 1991 and subsequent escape from a luxury prison built to his own specifications made world headlines. Finally, on 2 December 1993, an elite police unit gunned down the head of the Medellin cartel, moments after he had phoned his son.
Hacienda Napoles, the drug baron’s version of the biblical ark, has since fallen into ruins. Its name is barely readable on the concrete arch at the beginning of the drive. Twisted iron bars over the arch testify to the place where a small Cessna plane once rested: the plane, locals insist, with which Escobar made his first drugs shipment. The lions, elephants and giraffe are long gone, donated to zoos across the continent but not so the hippos. Floating aimlessly in one of the lakes, much as their chubby patron might have done, are at least a dozen of the huge mammals. Their bad-tempered reputation seems to have kept any would-be captors at bay. Better yet, the fertile acres of Napoles have had a prolific effect on the animals. Although Escobar originally only imported four, according to locals there are now at least 18 of the African “river horses”, and 19 if you count the stiff one with the blue eyes. Perched over the hippo lake are several homes built for ranch workers. They now house so-called displaced families refugees from Colombia’s ongoing civil war between guerrillas, paramilitaries and the army.
Maria Eucaris Posada and her five children were given a home on the ranch after her eldest son was murdered. “We were forced to choose between feeding the paramilitary groups or the guerrillas,” she says. When her son brought food to the former, the rebels killed him. A year ago her husband was also killed, after he returned to their village, Maria says. She doesn’t know who was responsible. Now that they are planning a tourist attraction here, she fears she and her family will be homeless once more.
Five other refugee families live in houses spread across the estate. It’s ironic that fate has brought them to the former home of Pablo Escobar. After all, he created the MAS, the very first paramilitary group, in order to combat the guerrillas, his rivals in the cocaine trade. To add to the irony, the government is building a maximum-security prison a few hundred yards beyond the entry to the ranch. Up to 1,600 inmates will look out over the rolling hills that once belonged to their fallen comrade.
None of this, however, is disturbing the upbeat general manager of Colombia’s newest theme park. With an initial investment of $10m (£5m), the park’s operators are expecting 400,000 visitors a year. “We’re a long way from actually finishing,” Mr Martinez admits. “But the idea is that people can use their entrance tickets to keep coming back for the first six months and watch the progress.” He dismisses the fears of the refugee families, insisting that new housing will be made available to them.
Doesn’t it worry him that he’ll be making money thanks to the celebrity of a mass murderer? “We don’t plan to eulogise the memory of Escobar in any way,” Mr Martinez insists. “We’re just going to tell people that this was his home.” He claims that the park will provide much-needed jobs for the area and an income for the municipality. “This is the first property seized from a major criminal in Colombia that is being put to use,” he explains.
A paintbrush has already been taken to Escobar’s collection of life-size dinosaurs. On a hillside, a triceratops is locked in battle with a clawing adversary, while two tyrannosaurus hatchlings emerge from under their parent’s massive legs. Not far off, a solitary brontosaurus stretches its snake-like neck. The park’s operators plan to place speakers near the prehistoric beasts, so that visitors can appreciate the kind of grunts they might have made.
The 500-seat bullring built to entertain family and friends has been refurbished as well. However, this time round there’ll be no gory bovine slaughter; instead the place has been renamed the Coliseum and is meant to host local celebrities.
In a garage lies the charred remains of Escobar’s classic car collection, along with dust-covered amphibious vehicles. Long before the rust got hold of them, the priceless Porches suffered the wrath of their owner’s arch rival, the Cali cartel. After the bombing of his Medellin home in 1988, Escobar moved what was left of his cars to the hacienda.
Apart from the hippos, the park has two zebras, an ocelot, a margay, an ostrich and several buffalo. The animals come from a regional environmental agency and were seized from law-breaking owners. Butterfly and reptile houses are in the planning, as well as an aquarium. The puma and the spectacled bear are expected to arrive today.
Turning a drug baron’s Nirvana into a family outing seems symbolic of the transformation Colombia has undergone. The government of President Alvaro Uribe has managed to demobilise the majority of the paramilitary groups and dealt significant blows to the two remaining guerrilla groups since taking power in 2002. Murder rates have halved since four years ago and the number of kidnappings has fallen by 73 per cent.
As a result, the highways and major cities of Colombia are a lot safer than in recent decades, stimulating tourism. Well over 100 soldiers patrol the road between Puerto Triunfo and Medellin, which is now a vibrant and modern city. “This is a completely different country than it was a few years ago,” Mr Martinez says. “Without the improved security situation this kind of investment would be unthinkable.” Tourism, not terrorism is what Colombia hopes to be known for from now on.
Lying in ruins on a hilltop near the abandoned runway is Pablo Escobar’s sumptuous mansion, which is to remain untouched. Treasure seekers have ransacked the place, stripping the walls and digging holes in the floors in search of cash. Thick green algae covers the swimming pools, where army colonels once sipped whisky to numb their conscience. “We couldn’t even restore the house if we wanted to,” Mr Martinez remarks. “The construction is so poor that if we tried the whole thing would cave in.” And suddenly the humour of that occurs to him. “Actually, for a hardened criminal, Pablo Escobar was easily cheated by a common builder.”
NOW a THEME PARK
Drug Lord Escobar’s Bloody Hideaway Gets Revamp as Theme Park / Aug. 16
“Imagine the real estate ad: “Dead drug lord’s ranch, nestled on 2,000-hectares of prime Colombian cattle country, with 5,000-foot airstrip, 1,000-seat bull ring, five life-sized dinosaur sculptures, Bonnie and Clyde’s bullet- ridden car, 18 wild hippos. Additional development possible.”
The Hacienda Napoles was Pablo Escobar’s lavish weekend getaway before he was gunned down 13 years ago on the roof of a three-story safe house in Medellin as he tried to escape from a special police task force. Since then, the Spanish-style Napoles has been ransacked and left in ruins by treasure hunters seeking millions of dollars worth of cocaine loot that many believe is buried on the property. The ranch served as one of the headquarters for Escobar’s $20 billion drug business.
The Colombian government, which seized Napoles from Escobar’s exiled wife and children, will begin breaking up the property into smaller lots next month. Part of the ranch is intended for a prison housing 1,200 inmates, and there are plans for an anti-crime museum and theme park. Tourists are expected. “We want to return the property to its golden age and use the name of Pablo Escobar to attract people to it,” said Luis Francisco Sanchez, who heads the Puerto Triunfo municipality’s plans to develop Napoles, about 200 miles from Bogota. Escobar bought the property for $63 million. Construction on the prison may begin as soon as September, Sanchez said. Occasional cars already turn off the highway from Medellin to Bogota and pass through the entrance gate to Napoles, eager to check out where Colombia’s most notorious citizen lived. At the entrance arch there used to be a small plane — since stolen — that Escobar claimed he used to make his first drug run.
Trees Through the Floor
The sprawling, L-shaped villa sits at the end of several kilometers of potholed dirt road, within stone walls topped with barbed wire. The white, two-story house, once “El Patron’s” luxury playground, is now gutted and its walls are crumbling. Floors have been dug into and ceramic-covered walls smashed apart. Visitors use the house as a bathroom, perhaps to tell friends they have been to the toilet at Pablo Escobar’s.
The bedroom, which overlooks the murky, slime-covered swimming pool, looks like the hanging gardens of Babylon as trees curl through the windows and up through a gaping hole in the floor. The kitchen has become a favorite of souvenir hunters who pry gaudy green and yellow tiles from where Escobar’s staff once prepared food for murderous guests at drug-fueled parties. Sanchez hopes to attract enough outside investment to rebuild the house.
Escobar, a plump man with longish hair and moustache, started out as a petty thief, later taking advantage of a growing appetite in the U.S. for cocaine. Credited with blowing an Avianca airliner out of the sky, killing 110 onboard, and orchestrating an attack on Colombia’s Supreme Court that left 11 justices dead, Escobar terrorized Colombia with bomb attacks and thousands of assassinations.
At the height of his drug dealing in the 1980s, Escobar and his associates provided more than half of the cocaine entering the U.S., according to Mark Bowden, author of “Killing Pablo,” a blow-by blow account of the joint U.S.-Colombian hunt for Escobar (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2001). Part of the tourist attraction at Napoles would be Escobar’s collection of vintage Ford and Porsche cars. One is thought to have been used by notorious gangsters Bonnie and Clyde and now stands rusted and burned out in a massive garage, after revenge by a rival drug cartel. But the biggest attractions for tourists, other than to fantasize about power and riches in the home of the world’s Public Enemy No. 1, are the hippos.
Back in the 1980s, Escobar imported elephants, giraffes, rhinoceroses, zebras and two hippos from Africa to graze and wallow at his many manmade lakes. While most of the animals have since died or been transferred to zoos, the hippos, which can grow to 4,000 pounds, have multiplied to 18. “They are certainly an attraction, but a potentially dangerous one, if their numbers outgrow the property,” Sanchez said. “We will keep a few of them, but the rest will have to go to zoos, locally and internationally.”
Martha Cecilia Ocampo, head veterinarian at Parque Zoologico Santa Fe, near Medellin, is worried that the hippos, which kill more people in Africa each year than any other wild animal, have outgrown their habitat. Her park already houses many of Escobar’s animals, including two hippos. “This is a time bomb,” Ocampo said. “If the authorities don’t do something to rehouse these hippos soon, they will make it to the nearest river, and then people will die. Catching them is extremely difficult.”
A short walk from Escobar’s house is his party area, complete with Roman columns, where beauty queens and strippers once mingled with assassins and friendly politicians. Now it’s obscured by weeds and the encroaching woodland. He also had a Western-style saloon, currently boarded up, with the doors hanging off their hinges. The stables, which could house as many as 12 horses, is now home to families displaced by Colombia’s four-decade war with guerrillas.
A dozen or so families live on Escobar’s land. “We just beg the government to let us stay here and not send us back home,” said Bellavida Perea Gomez, 44, who fled the western province of Choco a year ago and lives with her daughter and two grandchildren in the stables. Her other daughter was killed by guerrillas. Among the government’s plans is to allow displaced and demobilized paramilitary fighters to develop parts of the land into small farms, Sanchez said. Maracuya fruits, lemons, plantain and corn will be cultivated.
At the bull ring, the only aggressive creatures now are the hundreds of thousands of wasps that cling to hives in the interior of the arena, where his matadors changed into their costumes and bulls waited to be turned loose. One can imagine Escobar and his lieutenants deciding the fate of some poor victim in the ring like a Roman emperor.
Here the Puerto Triunfo government plans to develop a commercial agricultural show ring for cattle, Sanchez said. On the dirt road that leads to the main buildings, visitors pass by Escobar’s Jurassic park, where he built statues of five prehistoric animals, including a T-Rex and a wooly mammoth. As in the main house, the plaster sculptures have been bashed open with sledge hammers, revealing their metal cages inside, as scavengers searched for hidden money. The government plans to restore the sculptures as a tourist attraction, Sanchez said.
Overlooking the ranch were wooden towers where sentries could scan the horizon and alert Escobar to uninvited guests or aircraft that landed at his international-size runway. Escobar, once listed by Forbes magazine as the world’s seventh richest man, bought old 727s and stripped out their seats to transport cocaine. The runway, which can be seen from Escobar’s house, now will be used for international tourists to land directly at Napoles, Sanchez said.
Lunch at Pablito’s : The Ranch of Pablo Escobar
by Mariana Martinez / May 26, 2005
“Give it time, little sister, give me a chance, I’ll make you come.”
God! It was good to be back in Latin America again, where men know
how to treat a lady.
Kicking him in the balls wasn’t a good response. I was in the back
seat, and he was the driver, and I couldn’t see myself walking alone in
an area where guerrillas hang low to recuperate on mama’s home cookin’
and want the same thing only maybe they don’t ask as charrrmingly as
the driver does. I smiled, a half-smile, a half-snear, a smear, and my
American boyfriend who spoke no Spanish hummed and looked out the
window, unable to follow our line of conversation. He told me later
that night that he thought we were talking about Pancho Villa. Honey, I
said, tapping him on the arm, Pancho Villa is Mexican, but he said that
he had seen it written that Pablo Escobar had a fetish for his get-up.
Shall I say it all again? Among the first memories I have of the world
outside of Tijuana and San Diego, the first I knew that a world outside
of those sister cities existed, was in the stories of Pablo Escobar’s
“liberation war” against the Colombian government in the 1990s. The
war, and Pablo, were mocked. What kind of a man sells drugs to feed the
A very strange man, you could answer. And you would be correct, and
this is a cardinal point at which all enemies and friends of Pablito
meet. Pablo Escobar was a very strange man. Yes, he liked to dress like
Pancho Villa. Yes, once snorted his own product and watched Patton for
three days straight. “All fame is fleeting,” are George C. Scott’s
final words in Patton. I wonder what Pablito must have thought of that,
what deep significance he saw in it, behind his mountain of cocaine,
beneath his mountain of dollar bills, on top of his mountain of kitsch
at his ranch, Hacienda Napoles.
Which was where we were going. Eleven years after Pablito lit his last
candle for the poor and his devout old grannie lit her first candle for
Jesus to have mercy on his soul, hiring a car for an afternoon spread
on Pablo Escobar’s old estate is something every tourist in the Andes
wants to do. There’s no velvet ropes but there are giant concrete
dinosaurs. Hacienda Napoles is Colombia’s Graceland.
Hacienda Napoles is not a town itself, but you have to call it by its
name because no one knows where Puerto Triunfo is. You get warmer
with Medellín, warmer with River Magdalena, red hot when you say
“Pablo Escobar’s ranch.” He had more than one, because $3 billion is a
lot of money to spend when you’re as bored as Pablo was. Three billion?
Si. And that was only his profit.
The ride to Hacienda Napoles is long, especially when your driver is
angling with his mirror to get a better look at the sweat pasting your
dress to your breasts. But eventually you get there, and he agrees to
wait, because your American boyfriend will be easier to murder at dusk,
when the mean peasant dogs howl and men in this part of Antioquía are
obliged to get romantically shit-faced. There’s an airplane over the
entrence, the first airplane Pablo hired to ship his nose candy to el
norte. Because the ranch is so huge, we didn’t see it. Just walk in the
general direction of the giant Brontosaurus, you can’t miss the ranch.
The dinosaurs and some hippos are all that’s left intact from Pablo’s
days. Everything else is in ruins. So ruined and broken-down, it looks
like the hacienda has been abandoned for more than just ten years. It’s
like the giant ants and the earthquakes and the floods and banana
speculators tore the ranch asunder in the early twentieth century.
The government of Colombia has many ideas of what to do here. The last
president, the one that took down Pablito, he was in the pocket of the
Cali cartel. It’s well known now that the two of them worked together,
the state and the Medellín cartel’s rival in Cali, to bring Pablito
down. Ernesto Samper was that kind of chum to the guys in Cali.
Samper wanted to give Napoles to the people (the Cali cartel had their
own ranches). Out on the edges live some families I thought were
squatters but are the refugees who resettled here under his
government’s plan for Napoles.
The new president, Alvaro Uribe, used to be mayor of Medallín, and a
senator. Pablo killed any politician who didn’t graciously accept his
bribes. He was a poet, Pablito, like the other Pablo. He called it
plata o plomo, silver or lead, baby, money or a bullet. Uribe was
gracious. He supported Pablito’s Medellín sin Tuqurios housing
developments, the “Medellin without slums” like the one Pablo lived in
as a car thief and a tombstone robber. Everyone knows about Alvaro
Uribe’s soft spot for Pablo. Uribe is touchy about a dead man, not a
living cartel, like Samper was, so out of kindness they don’t mention
Pablo built his hacienda in 1979 and he added to it over the years.
Back then he was just hitting the big time, evolving, shedding his
partners like a snake. He built his empire of coca from the ground up.
He could give pointers to Horatio Alger’s heroes. Actually, there is
something very American about Pablo. The rags-to-riches
heart-throbbing song of the Andes and the Capone trip of the mad
gangster giving to the poor is as American as bombing a poor brown
country with a lot of oil. So American is what he did with his
bootlegging bounty: Escobar captured his id in staggeringly ugly
plaster and concrete.
The halls of the main ranch building are off-limits. The locals tore
out the drywall rooting for hidden treasures. The creatures of the
wilderness took over from there. Not far from the main building is
Pablo’s bullring, with a thin ledge where the man himself and his
honored guests could watch the greatest bull-fighters in the world
tease and mindfuck big beasts brought in on a ship from “Air Escobar.”
The ring is now a wild jungle of weeds seven and eight feet high sunken
below the splintered wood of the riser.
His garage was also looted. Wrecked classic cars like I’ve only seen in
Orange County and Cuba are torn to pieces. Even the steering wheels are
gone. One of these big wrecks belonged to Bonnie and Clyde. At least
that’s what Pablo was told as he opened his billfold and unwrapped a
few large bills. The chassis of one has a jagged ridge of bullet holes.
The Bonnie and Clyde car? For Pablo Escobar, this could be any of his
Nearby is a fallen statue of an open palm holding a copy of Bruce
Wayne’s batmobile. A child wearing rubber thongs was balancing
carefully on a large piece of stone, a sentinel, and whistling he
called out three or four of his friends. They crawled out from under
the weeds, sometimes between the thick stalks, trampling tiny paths
with their feet that no one else could follow.
“Do you live around here?” my boyfiend asked, in English, uselessly. I
repeated the question in Spanish. They live on the property. It was
domingo, they said, it was Sunday, that was important to them. After
some questioning I learned there is a man, or many men, who chase
them out of here. There used to be relatives of Escobar who claimed
this property in the courts, they hired many men, armed men, to
preserve these stones and this splintered wood, all that is left of
Pablito’s huge mansion, and they would chase the children away and
threaten families that settled too far from the edges of Hacienda Napoles.
The families here aren’t the same ones that looted the property and
walked off with big smiles and worthless pieces of drywall, they said,
they were all from far away, driven here by the guerrilla war.
The new men, the guardia, are with the government. The governor or
President Uribe wants to make a big museum of Hacienda Napoles, they
want to make the people like us come here in organized groups, many
more of us pushing each other in the back to get a look at what
America’s appetite for a super-aggressive high in the 1980s could buy.
They chase the children out now, after some of their tools were stolen.
We walked out along Pablo’s stream, looking for some of the hippos that
have become famous, but we didn’t find them. The hippos are the last of
the open-air zoo that Pablito once had, brought here from Africa on Air
Escobar with giraffes, elephants, tigers, gizelles. All of the animals
except the hippos were captured and put into a proper zoo.
Under the Brontosaurus we stopped to have lunch. There were fierce,
vicious ants on the ground, I swear they were like a military brigade
out to get into our sacks. The boy drank from his Coke and lowered his
can as two big red beasties chewed on his lip.
Overhead a plane was rumbling. American? or some new drug lord, a less
ostentatious and strange Pablo Escobar? The Americans are very involved
here now, outsourcing their military aid to a collection of peculiar
American multinationals. They cut right through Napoles. Pablo had one
rule: he grew no drugs on his ranch. The refugees with their small
plots of poppies and coca don’t have Pablito’s puritanism.
NAZI COCAINE MONEY