Drug Traffickers Build the Best Theme Parks
Apr 7 2014
When Colombian National Police finally put a bullet through Pablo Escobar’s head in December 1993, he was running what was probably the most successful cocaine cartel of all time, worth some $25 billion. You can do pretty much anything you want with that kind of money, and Escobar did, building houses for the poor, getting himself elected to Colombia’s Congress, and running much of the northeastern city of Medellín as his own personal fiefdom.
In 1978 he bought up a vast tract of land outside the city and started building Hacienda Nápoles, the sort of sprawling complex that you’d expect the world’s richest drug dealer to inhabit, complete with its own array of wild animals. When he died, the land was ignored for a decade and fell into disrepair. The house was looted by locals who were convinced he’d stashed money or drugs in the walls, and the hippos turned feral.
Eventually, some bright spark hit upon the idea of reopening the estate as an adventure park. They kept the name, gave it a Jurassic Park–style makeover, and reopened it to the public, creating the ultimate family-friendly tourist destination: a still pretty run-down complex with some dinosaur figurines, some hippos, and the enduring, unavoidable legacy of a man whose cartel were responsible for anywhere between 3,000 to 60,000 deaths.
To get to Hacienda Nápoles you have to take a three-and-a-half hour bus from Medellín to the small town of Doradal, and from there it’s another ten minutes on an auto-rickshaw to the entrance. The main gates remain as Pablo designed them, with the Cessna that he first flew into the States, loaded with cocaine, displayed proudly above them. The current owners have decided to repaint the plane with zebra stripes, presumably to make visitors forget it belonged to the most infamous drug trafficker of all time.
I arranged to meet my old friend Ilmer here. He’s from the nearby town of Puerto Boyacá, and now 33, he was 12 years old when Pablo died. Ilmer told me that a lot of the locals still call him El Patrón, or "the Boss"—kind of like Springsteen if he had his own militia.
The first thing you notice about Hacienda Nápoles is that it’s gigantic, really fucking gigantic.
You need an auto-rickshaw just to get around the site, which the owners have tastefully painted in the same zebra stripes as everything else. While this is in keeping with the new safari park vibe, there’s also maybe a knowing nod to Pablo buried somewhere in the design. There’s a story the locals love—recently dramatized in the Colombian TV series Escobar, el Patrón del Mal—that, after authorities in Bogotá impounded zebras destined for his zoo, Pablo sent his men to steal them back, replacing the exotic animals with donkeys painted with black and white stripes.
“He could do anything!” laughed Ilmer. “He had so much money!”
Nowadays, a day out at his former compound will cost you 32,000 pesos ($15), or a little more if you want to use any of the various water parks.
“The place was seized in a sting by the DNE [Dirección Nacional de Estupefacientes],” Ilmer explained. “But when they carry out a sting on drug lords, they often forget about the places themselves and leave them for ten or 15 years. Then someone—a private company—rented this place, and now they run it."
Pablo originally bought four hippos from San Diego Zoo in 1981: a male and three females. There are now 40 living on site, all descendants of that original bull hippo, who still lives on happily as head of the family.
I’d assumed that all the dinosaurs dotted around the place were cooked up by whichever Jeff Goldblum aficionado ran the park, but it turns out that they too are original Pablo installations. He supposedly built them to give his kids somewhere to play, proving conclusively that any dad is more fun when he has tons of drug money to throw around.
But while Pablo’s wife and children would visit Hacienda Nápoles, he preferred them to stay home in Medellín so that he could throw lavish parties here, flying in women from all over South America to entertain anyone he wanted to influence, like high-ranking police officers or government officials.
There are a few of these dioramas of dinosaurs at battle spread throughout the complex. Here's one, for example, of a triceratops stabbing a T-rex in the groin.
And here are some other things that I'm 95 percent sure were crafted by the maniac behind that horrifying Palestinian taxidermy zoo.
Pablo loved European culture, hence "Hacienda Nápoles," named after a trip to Naples. Besides the title for his estate, he also brought back a love of bullfighting, so he sensibly decided to construct his own 500-seat arena.
The current owners have converted the bullring into a slightly dubious exhibition of Africa-related stuff, complete with some big, sculpted caricatures of tribesmen and a wall of renowned Africans that kicks off with Nelson Mandela and follows with photos of Charlize Theron and Didier Drogba.
It must have been difficult for the new investors to figure out exactly how to handle the legacy of the equally feared and loved kingpin behind their theme park. In fact, that's probably why there isn't a single mention of Pablo anywhere on site, except for in the museum in the middle of the park, which is entirely dedicated to El Patrón.
Here's his classic car collection, which was destroyed by the rival Cali Cartel when they bombed his Medellín home in 1988. After the fire burned out, Pablo moved all the charred cars to his new estate as a sign of defiance, giving it that unique sense of glamour you'd usually only find in a South Shields salvage yard.
There’s a chance that people could get a little uppity about a government-approved museum glorifying the life of a man who killed 30 judges and 457 policemen, as well as countless rivals. So to make sure we all know who this place is honoring, the new operators slung up these photos—one of Pablo dressed as a Mexican bandit, his wanted poster, and one of his lifeless body—at the entrance, under the words Triunfo del Estado (Triumph of the State).
The house has been left in pretty much the same state of disrepair that it was found in after locals tore it apart in search of Pablo's hidden treasures. But photos on the walls show Hacienda Nápoles in happier, less trap-house-y times—El Patrón bobbing around in the pool, or dressed as an Arab prince.
Of course, all that nostalgia has to be offset somehow, which the new operators have done a fantastic job of with this morbid little cul-de-sac of bleakness.
In case you can't quite make it out, that's a photo of Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Aguilar triumphantly standing over Pablo's corpse, and the walls are lined with black-and-white portraits of the police officers he killed.
A short walk from his front door is the private airstrip Pablo had his men build so he could fly planes directly to his various outposts in the north, like his base on Norman's Cay island in the Bahamas.
Cocaine paste, which originated in Peru, would be refined in Medellín and then brought here to small loading huts, from where—at his mid-80s peak—Pablo was shipping some 70 to 80 tons of cocaine to America every month.
As we walk back down the airstrip, Ilmer asked me, “So, do you think Pablo had a brilliant mind or a criminal mind to build all this?” The answer has to be both. While the museum itself is a stark reminder of the vast number of people he killed for getting in his way, that ruthless figure is at odds with the character the locals—including the park staff—still happily refer to as their very own Robin Hood.
“The exhibition at his house is trying to warn the world so that what he did will not be repeated, but the locals think something different,” said Ilmer. “They still see Pablo as a hero. They think that Pablo was good because they see him as a fair person. If someone was good to him, he was good to them. If they betrayed him, that’s when he became evil.”
As far as Ilmer can tell, Pablo’s death had little impact on the day-to-day drug trade around Medellín. He said the only noticeable changes have come in the last five or six years, since paramilitary groups cut a deal with the government that allowed leaders to only serve five-year sentences for the murders of hundreds of people.
“In Puerto Boyacá, where I live, it used to be an illegal area,” he explained. “It was used for cocaine production, and there was a gasoline cartel who robbed gasoline from Ecopetrol, the biggest oil company in Colombia. All the money there was illegal money. Now, we have more legitimate oil companies coming in. In general, it’s getting better in Colombia.”
But this is a fragile state of affairs. “Now the paramilitaries are starting to be freed again, and we don’t know whether they will continue in their old ways,” he said. “People are used to getting easy money.”
As I left Hacienda Nápoles, it crossed my mind that Pablo's billions probably hadn't been that easy to earn. He did many terrible things, but when you’re wandering around the Platonic ideal of a drug baron’s villa and catch sight of him through a doorway posing with a Tommy gun and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, you can’t help thinking that for a while it must have been a hell of a party.
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