Medellin, COLOMBIA — It is a miserable afternoon when the van pulls into the Sacred Garden Cemetery on the outskirts of Medellin, Colombia’s second-largest city. The clouds are blackish grey and a heavy downpour begins.
Despite the morbid setting, this is not your normal trip to the cemetery. At the grave we have come to see, a twenty-something Israeli tourist bends down to pose for a photo, grinning next to the gravestone.
He smiles playfully, yet no one in the group seems offended.
Here lies Pablo Escobar, who built and ran one of the most powerful criminal organizations in the world. He took over the Medellin Cartel in 1975, and within a few years controlled nearly the entire supply of cocaine to the U.S. in the 1980s. Known for his ruthlessness, Escobar is believed to have ordered the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands of people who opposed him.
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And now, for a small price, tourists can take a tour of the hot spots, so to speak, of his life and death. The aim of See Colombia, the travel company, which recently included these stops in their Medellin city tour, is to make the violence history.
While locals have long offered informal tours of Pablo Escobar’s hometown, See Colombia is the first to make it public, and advertise it. They now attract several hundred tourists each month who come to explore the life of the man who was once the world’s most wanted.
Proceeds from the tour go to the Pablo Escobar Foundation, which is run by his family and helps more than two hundred HIV patients who cannot afford medical costs, and other vulnerable communities in Medellin.
“We do not want to mythologize Escobar, nor do we want to glorify what he did,” said J.L. Pastor, See Colombia’s director, over a coffee in an upscale Bogota mall.
“He was a repulsive man, who killed a huge amount of people and brought much terror to this country. The purpose of this tour is to make people around the world realize what happened here in Colombia is history, [and that] now we have entered a new era.”
As the tourists pose for photos at the gravesite to later post on Facebook, Natalia, the well-spoken guide, continues with the tour. She explains that the cemetery is far from the most expensive in Medellin.
The modest grave is simply a grass patch at the head are the gravestones of Escobar’s other brothers, mother and father. The only color is a semi-dead rose.
Its simplicity is surprising considering at one point Forbes labeled Pablo Escobar the seventh-richest man in the world, estimated to be worth over $25 million. As Natalia begins to usher us back to the van, she explains that Escobar’s mother was a particular fan of the spot.
Next stop: the home where Escobar was finally caught and killed.
Above some colorful graffiti, common to Colombia’s cities, is the roof where after a year and a half on the run, Escobar was finally killed. He was tracked down by Colombian security forces, with the aid of US technology, and eventually caught on the roof, minutes later was dead, with a bullet hole in his head.
Standing in the rain, Natalia tells the attentive group about the debate over whether Escobar killed himself, or was killed by the police. His family continues to assert that he killed himself, pointing to an injury in his ear that they say proves that he shot himself in the head. Too, they argue that Escobar had often said, “I prefer to be in the grave in Colombia than in a jail cell in the United States.”
“What happened here has become history,” Natalia says, before ushering everyone back into the van.
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Our next stop was the modest home of Roberto Escobar, Pablo’s brother.
He greets us at the door in a sports jacket and baseball hat. The only tell tale sign of his formerly exciting life is an injury to his right eye, following an attempted assassination by a letter bomb.
“Welcome to my home, feel free to take photos and I hope you enjoy learning about our history,” he says slightly shyly, but well rehearsed, in quiet Spanish.
Roberto himself spent ten years in prison for his role as an accountant in the cartel, working to hide the operation’s vast profits. After he was released from prison, Roberto decided to set up the foundation, and use the tour to raise funds.
The main attraction of the tour, the home where Roberto now lives, was one of Pablo’s favorite safe houses and contains memorabilia from his criminal career.
In the garage is a 4.5 tonne bulletproof jeep given as a present by the Cali cartel, the Medellin cartel’s bitter rival, to attempt a truce. The peace overture failed. A bullet hole remains in the passenger window, where police fired on the car when Pablo refused to stop at a checkpoint.
In the entrance to the home, behind a Harley Davidson bought from Frank Sinatra, hangs a large photo of Pablo Escobar standing behind bars at The Catedral, a prison he built for himself after the U.S. insisted he be jailed in Colombia if the government wouldn’t extradite him to the U.S.
For Escobar, it was more a defense against potential assassinations than a punishment. The Catedral included a Jacuzzi, zoo and even a giant doll house.
In the picture, he wore a hat that U.S. officials demanded to have, to ensure that Escobar was still behind bars, however luxurious the accomodations. Now, tourists have the opportunity to take a picture with Roberto in the same hat that Pablo wore for the photo.
Inside the house, one can stand in a secret vault designed to hide Pablo and his closest aides. Look inside a desk, where four million dollars used to always be hidden, and sit at the same table where Pablo had his last dinner before being killed.
Rumor has it that Pablo’s most trusted bodyguard knocked over a glass of wine the day before the raid. As the glass landed unbroken and upside down, the bodyguard saw this as an omen, and told Pablo they should leave right away. Pablo disagreed. The next day, he was dead.
At the end of the tour, Roberto takes questions.
A Peruvian man insists on asking about his connections to Peruvian drug cartels. In a departure from his shy demeanor, Roberto snaps: “I won’t rat out those we worked with.”
GlobalPost asks him how he would want his brother to be remembered.
“He was a hardworking Colombian man, a politician, who only wanted to help the poor and improve his country,” he says. “He was a good man but like all of us, made some mistakes.”