When Pablo Escobar died in 1993, the people of Medellin, Colombia, sighed in relief. But little did they know that the world’s most notorious criminal at the time would become one of their country’s most popular tourist attractions.
The legacy of Escobar lives on in Medellin, in a different and slightly unusual manner. The man and his life are now sold as a tourist attraction to visitors; this has proven to be quite popular. Escobar, who was responsible for several acts of terrorism such as blowing up the Government’s Security Ministry, assassinating a Presidential candidate, bombing a civilian airliner, and waging a war in which thousands of people were killed, would have least expected that the memories he left behind would one day serve as a means to attract tourists to Colombia.
The tours began last year, when two tour companies began to offer these services. Today, hundreds of tickets to the Pablo Escobar tours are sold every month. This has made a huge impact on the country’s tourism industry, that has seen a growth of 54% compared to 2006. The total number of visitors every year is a whopping 2 million. A typical tour lasts 4 hours and costs $30. It includes a visit to Escobar’s grave, his home in the hills where he lived before his death, and the house where he was eventually shot dead by the police. Tourists even get to meet and speak with Pablo’s older brother, Roberto Escobar.
Photo © Jim Willits
It is not unexpected that the residents of Medellin and Colombia have mixed reactions when it comes to the tour. For some, it is only a part of the rich and colorful history of the country that is being showcased in this manner. But the families of Escobar’s victims who are still alive today, have a different story to tell. Nydia Quintero Turbay was the first lady of Colombia from 1978 to 1982. She has suffered personal loss at the hands of Escobar’s exploits. Her daughter, 38-year-old Diana Turbay, was a magazine publisher when she was abducted by Escobar’s gang in 1990. After months of captivity in the outskirts of Medellin, she was finally shot dead in 1991 by her captors, during a police commando raid. Naturally, Ms. Quintero feels that the tours are quite inappropriate. “I don’t know the motivation for having such a tour, but Pablo Escobar and his associates were cruel, hardened and brutal people,” she tells her interviewers.
Photo © Andrew Anderica
With the memories of Escobar’s brutality fresh in the minds of many citizens, the Government finds itself in a dicey situation. One one hand, the tour seems to be promoting the very image of Colombia they have worked hard to shed – as a land of violence and gun-wielding cocaine smugglers. On the other hand, they cannot deny the monetary benefits of improved tourism to the country. Madelein Torres, the Deputy Secretary of Tourism, says that they couldn’t just outlaw the tours. So she sent a few members of her staff undercover to see what foreigners were being told on the tours. To their relief, they found that the guides described Escobar negatively, as a ruthless killer. People who otherwise had no plans to visit Colombia, seem to be coming in just for the tours
Pablo Escobar’s origins are not very spectacular. He was born to a schoolteacher and lived a pretty much normal childhood. However, it was when he started his career of crime, that he became a household name. In his early days, he stole headstones from cemeteries, ground them, and resold them. He later moved to selling contraband cigarettes and booze, and eventually started dealing in cocaine. In 1989, he was the 7th richest person in the world, according to Forbes magazine. His assets were valued at $25 billion.
Photo via Prospect Magazine
The only living person willing to tell the tale of Pablo, is his brother Roberto. All other members of the family are not too keen on establishing a connection. Pablo’s own son, who was 16 at the time of the drug lord’s assassination, prefers to live an anonymous life. He changed his name and moved to Argentina, where he is now said to be an architect. He did take part in a documentary film on the life of Escobar two years ago, and he personally asked forgiveness from the sons of two of his father’s victims, in the film.
Unknown to the world, Escobar has a different image among the poor locals of Medellin. He is seen as a Robin Hood of sorts, having built an entire neighborhood for the poor. Among the people who pay their respects to Escobar’s grave, is Carlos Arbelaez, a 45-year-old glass cutter. According to him, Escobar did a lot of good for the poor.