A typical sunny September Phoenix afternoon. As usual my radio was tuned to 91.5 FM as navigated the freeway home from my Tempe workplace. But the story set off instant alarms!
They were interviewing someone from Colombia about one of the weirdest tours I'd ever heard of: the Pablo Escobar Tour. Hosted in Medellin, they take tourists to places of significance to the most notorious drug lord of all time, including the rooftop where he was killed by government officials and to the home of his brother, Roberto--now released from prison.
Not THAT was wild! Bizarre! Far weirder than the walking ghost tour I had once done in New Orleans or the highly popular Jack the Ripper tour in east London.
Who WERE these people? They obviously loved their country and were passionately promoting tourism in Colombia--the Pablo Escobar tour was a unique aspect, but only a small part of what these people were about. I caught the name See Colombia Travel and Googled them as soon as I got home.
A few hours later I emailed them and began planning my Colombia itinerary.
Many Americans had visited Cartegena since cruise ships routinely dock there, but that didn't light sparks. Far too touristy for my taste. A GAP Adventures Colombian tour had previously intrigued me previously since they listed the two areas of prime interest: the coffee region and Medellin--an unbelievably beautiful city but was once ranked the most violent and dangerous on the planet. The problem with GAP's tour was that it never actually took place. They just couldn't get enough people to sign up for it--Colombia's bloody past and drug reputation still repels tourists.
But the See Colombia Travel people ensured that I could do a personalized itinerary without a group. I was in.
And a primary highlight was the Pablo Escobar tour! Weird ... but it's recent history, and I figured that it would provide some insights to Colombian life and culture.
I learned far more than I expected ... this was anything but a traditional tourist route.
I ended up with a tour and a half. My initial tour guide, Juan, said he'd combine a city orientation tour along with the Pablo Escobar tour. It turns out that the Colombian government is NOT very keen on tour agencies giving Pablo Escobar tours; it's a part of their history that they would prefer to erase from memory. And they are doing their best to ignore their connection with the infamous drug cartel kingpin.
The building above was an early residence of Pablo Escobar--the Monaco building complex where the Cali cartel exploded a bomb in a failed attempt to kill Pablo Escobar’s family. No one was home.
My guide informs me that he's only going to show me part of the Escobar sites. He now flat refuses to go to Roberto Escobar's home; a media article had pissed Roberto off. The guide was cited as being negative about giving the tour. (After listening to him... "ambivalent" seems much more accurate). So Juan tells me that he will hook me up with someone who will take me to Roberto's house that afternoon.
Kingpin of the Medellin Cartel, Pablo Escobar gained notoriety in the 1980s as the world’s most successful narc0 trafficker, building a billion-dollar global c0caine market.At the height of his power, Forbes ranked him as the world’s 7th richest man in 1989.
While some describe Escobar as a modern day "Robin Hood" for his good deeds for the poorest souls living in the shanty towns on the hillsides of Medellin, he was responsible for thousands of murders. People who crossed him were either tortured or soon became victims of drive by shootings or car bombings.
A master of corruption and intimidation, Escobar's standand method of dealing with law enforcement and the government was a simple choice: silver or lead? Either take the bribe or be gunned down. Even after drummed out of office for his drug cartel association, Escobar continued to dominate the Colombian landscape. His biggest fear was extradition, and he was able to fight this off.
Juan emphasizes the negative side... with just cause. Hardly anyone in Medellin was untouched by Escobar's violent empire--they have relatives or friends who were murdered due to his orders. Add to that the negative image that his drug cartel created about Colombia, and you can imagine the negative impact that this has had on legitimate business and tourism over the past few decades.
Above is a photo of the rooftop site where Colombian special forces took out Escobar on December 13, 1993. Note: this actually should be on top of the first level of the building on the right hand side; a second story has been constructed since that time. United States DEA did contribute by supplying phone technology that had GPS capability that Escobar was unaware of--he knew that authorities would listen in to his conversation with his family but did not realize that they could locate him.
Below is Escobar's graveside marker. None of his drug cartel members attended the funeral since they were either in prison or in hiding, and no government officials made an appearance. But ... over 1,000 attended... from the poor sections of Medellin.
Examine the photo below for a glimpse of why many poor people consider Escobar a "hero." Note the nicer high rise apartment buildings on the hillside. After the poorest slum areas were cleared, Escobar constructed these for these families--extremely nice facilities at a very low rental price. Lest you think this was a pure act from the heart, this was done to win political favor -- he won their votes and was elected to the Colombian Congress in 1982.
Juan ranted against the media a number of times during the morning and how this reporter had distorted his remarks so that he was no longer comfortable visiting Roberto Escobar. But this worked out fine for me.
I got greater coverage of the dark side of Escobar from Juan's point of view, and the afternoon tour presented additional insights. They also parked their van at a better viewing spot for the Monaco building complex and played an ESPN sponsored movie titled The Two Escobars that provided a more detailed visual history of the drug lord as well as showing his connection with Colombian soccer. (Note: the film is available from Netflix.)
The highlight of the tour is the visit to Roberto Esobar's home. It serves as a museum as well as regular family living quarters. Notice in the photo below the motorcycle that belonged to Pablo--other items include cars, a truck with extra thick bullet proof glass (gift from the competing Cali cartel), photos, table and chairs that were used during Pablo's final supper, etc.
Inside the home were even a few bullet holes, like in the painting and wall below. That explains the hired security guard on hand.
At the very top is a wanted poster with Roberto just to the right of his brother Pablo. Authorities figured that capturing Roberto would serve as an effective way to get to Pablo; hence, the high reward offer. Roberto was never involved with the numerous killings, so he was eventually released from prison after serving 16 years.
But his involvement with the Medellin cartel business was intimate and vital. He served as the accountant...and was responsible for organizing the cocaine delivery routes to the U.S.
At the end of the "museum" visit we are invited to the back yard for tea or coffee ... and we have a chance to buy photos that Roberto signs (along with his fingerprint) for a nominal cost (about $5 per photo). They tell us that any proceeds go to a local foundation for AIDS treatment. Roberto also agrees to pose for personal photos--he likes using the barred window next to the wanted poster as a prop.