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Travel

Dark Tourism: Exploring the Columbian home of Pablo Escobar

@SamWKemp

The legacy of notorious cartel leader Pablo Escobar continues to cast a long shadow over the city of Medellin. Located in the heart of Columbia, it was once the homicide capital of the world, a city synonymous with guerilla warfare, kidnappings, and drug barons.

Today, it provides the stomping ground for innumerable tourists keen to revisit the country’s complicated history of organised crime, police corruption, and murder. Take a quick walk around Barrio Pablo Escobar, the infamous neighbourhood that takes the druglord’s name, and you’ll find he is still very much alive in the minds of the local’s – for better and for worse. This district of winding alleys and tightly-packed apartments is filled with elaborate murals dedicated to the man himself, just as the city as a whole is dominated by the various Pablo Escobar tours that have sprung up in the last decade or so.

Going under names like ‘The Authentic Pablo Escobar Tour’ these trails continue to divide opinion among the locals. For some, especially those in Barrio Pablo Escobar, the infamous cartel leader is something of a Robin Hood figure. Having built most of the houses in the area, he gave families who had been living in roofless slums a proper place to live. But, for others, Escobar is a reminder of some of the darkest days in Columbia’s history. The varying ways in which these tours are described reflect these contrasting perspectives. For every tour that purports to offer tourists the chance to “learn about the detrimental effects his organisation had upon Colombia,” there is another that, for a modest sum, will take them to “the house where he grew up, and the cemetery where he is buried.” Those who pay money to go on tours such as these put themselves in a particularly tricky position. Because while narco-tourism has helped the city pull itself out of poverty, it also forces Columbian’s to live in the shadow of one of the most brutal cartel bosses of all time.

One of the difficult narco-tourist spots to get to is Pablo Escobar’s luxury home in Guatape. Built at the height of his influence, the Manuela Hacienda is now a ruin but was once the safe-house for Escobar’s family. Escobar had a taste for money, and he made a hell of a lot of it in his lifetime. This estate is a testament to the sheer magnitude of his wealth. Spanning 20 acres, La Manuela once consisted of a lavish mansion surrounded by swimming pools, numerous tennis courts, an extensive garage packed with expensive cars, various helipads, and a submarine port.

Former mansion for Pablo Escobar in Guatape Colombia. (Credit: Alamy)

Escobar had the house itself double layered and reinforced with steel, serving as protection from gunfire but also as a place to conceal cocaine and weapons. Every room would have featured all manner of hiding places and secret passages – and it’s no wonder. When the narco wars kicked off, Escobar and his family were prime targets. In 1993, Los Pepes, a vigilante group who stood for the “People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar,” bombed the property, decimating it in one fell swoop after managing to jam 200kg of TNT into the bathroom pipes. With the estate in ruins, the police swooped in and seized the mountains of cocaine and money that had once been concealed within the walls. Eight months later, Escobar would be fatally shot from the rooftop of his Medellin hideout while attempting an escape.

Much of what draws tourists to Guatupe is the contrast between the excess of the residence and the ultimate demise of its owner. The ruins seem imbued with the power of myth, evoking that age-old story of the ambitious man who flies too close to the sun and ends up getting burned. But the luxurious estate also speaks of the complexity at the heart of the Pablo Escobar story. Because, while homes such as Manuela Hacienda were funded by what can only be described as blood money, Escobar used this same wealth to build hospitals, soccer fields for impoverished kids, and housing for the homeless.

Pablo Escobar was a ruthless killer who tortured his victims and was responsible for the murders of over 4000 people, but he was also someone who stood for Columbia’s most marginalised communities. The complexity of Escobar’s legacy and its refusal to conform to our understanding of good and evil still plagues the minds of many of the individuals at the heart of the dark tourist trade in Medellin. More often than not, the people giving these tours are ex-police officers, individuals who served when Escobar was killing men like them by the bucketload. Back then, it was be corrupted or be killed. Today, they are making money from his demise while simultaneously keeping his memory alive.

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