Pablo Escobar (1949-1993), a Columbian drug lord and the King of Cocaine, has been called the wealthiest criminal of all time. At his peak, he was worth $30 billion and, by age 44, was named by Forbes magazine as the 7th richest man in the world.
Born in the village of Rionegro, Columbia, to a farmer and school teacher, he had a fairly ordinary start in life. However, after dropping out of university, he began making money through crime; selling illegal cigarettes, counterfeit high school diplomas, and fake lottery tickets. Even then, he never let issues of morality get in the way of making money, stooping as low as stealing gravestones, sandblasting the names off them, and selling them to Panamanian smugglers.
In the early 1970s, he graduated from petty crimes and entered the drug trade as a thief, bodyguard, and kidnapper. His eyes were opened to the world of drug smuggling, and he saw nothing but opportunity. In 1976, he founded the Medellin Cartel, which established the first cocaine smuggling routes into the US, and thus his empire was born.
He started small, buying just £30 worth of cocaine paste on his first trip, but it snowballed quickly. Soon he was hiding kilos of cocaine inside plane tires, bribing pilots and making £1 million a week. He also pioneered the use of drug mules, paying passengers and airline crew to smuggle the drugs and bribing anyone who got in the way. One Columbian Airport manager was paid £300,000 per plane that landed without issue. By the time the manager was arrested, he’d amassed a fortune of £15 million.
Always looking for ways to increase his profits and evade the law, Pablo hired a team of chemists who he tasked with coming up with new and ingenious ways to hide the cocaine. They mixed it with dried fish to evade sniffer dogs, added it to wine, and blended it into plastic, which was then used to make PVC pipes and religious statues. Once the drugs arrived at their destination, the items were destroyed, and the cocaine was extracted and purified.
In one case, his crew soaked jeans in liquid cocaine and exported them to the US. At their destination, the drugs could be retrieved by washing them in a special liquid. Once the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) caught on to this, an informant warned Escobar that his shipments were going to be intercepted. Instead of cancelling his plans, he soaked the boxes instead of the jeans and sent them as usual. The DEA seized the jeans and washed them multiple times in an effort to recover any trace of the drug. They failed. Meanwhile, Escobar sent men to retrieve the discarded boxes from the rubbish, and they recovered the cocaine.
Silver or Lead?
As Pablo discovered in May 1976, clever smuggling, entrepreneurship, and bribery alone isn’t enough to succeed in the drug world. He and his men were arrested in possession of 18kg of cocaine, and he attempted his usual strategy, trying to bribe the Medellin judges who were leading the case against him. But, unlike the pilots and airport manager, they couldn’t be bought. In the end, he ordered the two arresting officers to be killed. It worked, and the case was dropped. His brother, Roberto, points to this as the moment Pablo decided that authorities were to be dealt with in one of two ways, bribery or murder, plata o plomo, silver or lead.
The murders continued and during his reign as the king of cocaine, he was responsible for over 4000 deaths and is famously quoted as saying, ‘Sometimes I am God. If I say a man dies, he dies that same day.’ But he didn’t do all the dirty work himself. He hired a number of hitmen and amassed an army of sicarios, hired guns, from the local slums. Some were as young as 14. They had few other opportunities, and he’d even give them a bonus for killing police. Over 600 officers were murdered as a result.
It wasn’t just the authorities who were victims of his cruelty. He needed to be able to control his manufacturers, traffickers, and sellers. At any point in the chain, his workers could take their own cut, run with his drugs, or hand him in. How could he control people who were thousands of miles away, in a different country? Fear. In one case, a servant was caught stealing silverware during a party. Escobar had him tied and drowned in the swimming pool as his guests looked on in horror.
Seemingly untouchable, the one thing Escobar really feared was extradition to the US. Often, he’d say he’d ‘rather be in a grave in Columbia than a cell in the United States.’ and he put an enormous amount of effort into making sure this was the case. To do so, he became involved in politics and ordered countless kidnappings, tortures, bombings, and murders of presidential candidates, judges, and journalists. His most deadly hit was the bombing of Avianca flight 203 in 1989, which he believed held presidential candidate César Gaviria Trujillo. The plane went down, causing the deaths of 107 civilians and crew members.
With incredible power came even more incredible wealth. The cartel was smuggling 15 tonnes of cocaine every 24hrs earning them $70 million a day. They were having to spend between $1000 and $2000 per week just on elastic bands to bundle their stacks of cash. The mountains of money were so large that he struggled to protect them from vermin and $2.1 billion was eaten by rats every year. Some was wrapped, buried, hidden under floorboards and in caves and soon 1/5th of all $100 bills in existence were buried in Columbia. With so much money coming in it was a full-time job just to deal with the notes and he’d kill anyone who knew the hiding places so stashing it wasn’t exactly sustainable.
One way he dealt with this incredible fortune was to spend it and that’s where Hacienda Nápoles comes in. In 1978 he purchased a 7,000-acre estate 3 hours from Medellin in Columbia and used the land to create his own personal paradise. He built a luxury Spanish style villa, artificial lakes, swimming pools, a go-kart track, bullfighting ring and zoo. All were used by his family and his men for recreation and illegal gambling as a way to keep them happy.
He also constructed his own private airport to aid his smuggling activities and decorated the estate’s entrance with a replica of a Piper PA-18 Cub, the aeroplane he’d used to transport his first load of cocaine to the US. He bought all the normal things you’d expect the ultra-wealthy to invest in, fleets of rare classic cars and bikes, aeroplanes and slightly more unusual but handy for drug smuggling, submarines.
When he ran out of your standard purchases for the obscenely rich he started spending money on more obscure things. Like a sculpture trail of random and confusing pieces of ‘art’. Including the famous, enormous and hideous white hand holding an almost life-sized green tank and half a dozen huge and equally ugly, concrete dinosaurs. He filled his zoo with 1,200 exotic animals including elephants, giraffes, ostriches, zebras and smuggled a yellow-eyed blue parrot worth $100,000 from Brazil by private jet.
Once, during a search of Hacienda Nápoles, police seized 12 of the zebras. In order to get them back, Pablo bought 12 donkeys and ordered his men to paint black and white stripes on them. They were then taken to the building where the zebras were being held the security guards were bribed to let Pablo’s men make the switch.
In 1991, Escobar’s luck ran out. Presidential candidate César Gaviria Trujillo didn’t board the 1989 Avianca flight due to, clearly well-founded, security concerns and therefore survived to become president. The attempt on his life and the successful murder of his fellow presidential candidate, Luis Carlos Galan, understandably, solidified his resolve to bring down both Escobar and the drug cartels. Negotiations began and, eventually, Escobar agreed to surrender and end his criminal activity in exchange for a reduced sentence and permission to be held in his own prison. He no longer feared extradition to the US, as it was now prohibited by the newly approved Columbian Constitution of 1991. Likely achieved by extensive bribery of members of the constitution assembly.
Pablo’s prison, La Catedral, was, of course, unlike any other, and he continued to live in luxury. It was equipped with its own Jacuzzi, waterfall, bar, disco, and football pitch. The guards were his employees, and life was better for him than the majority of the population. But, he was unwilling to give up his criminal activity, overseeing 80% of the cocaine shipped to the US from his ‘prison’. When reports of La Catedral, nicknamed ‘Hotel Escobar’, began to surface in the media, the government felt they had no choice but to move him to a more conventional facility.
Of course, as the guards were in his pocket, he managed to escape before the transfer and went on the run. However, he only managed to hide for 2 years as in 1993, a Colombian electronic surveillance team, led by Brigadier Hugo Martinez, managed to track him down via his mobile phone signals. His house was raided by eight men who chased him and his bodyguard onto the roof. A gunfight broke out and he died, having been shot in the leg, torso, and fatally through the ear.
Whether he was killed in the shootout, executed or committed suicide is still up for debate. His brothers remain convinced he killed himself as he’d often say that if he were ever cornered, with no way out, he’d shoot himself through the ear. However, during the autopsy, no stippling patterns were found, indicating the shot that killed him was fired from further than an arm’s length away.
You might think his death would be cause for national celebration and it was for some but not the 25,000 mourners who attended his funeral. As, despite his horrifying acts of evil, he’d also been generous to the local people building schools, football pitches and many other amenities. He’d earned himself the reputation of a Robin Hood who looked out for the poor of Columbia.
The Seizure of Hacienda Nápoles
Following Escobar’s death, both his family and the Columbian government attempted to claim Hacienda Nápoles. After a lengthy legal battle, the government won and the property, valued at $5billion was handed over to authorities. Some of the estate was gifted to low-income families, the animals were given to any zoos who’d take them and the villa was left to rot as an insult to the man who’d caused so many deaths. They put up a sign saying the house won’t be restored because ‘it’s technically difficult and morally impossible.’
Treasure hunters tore up what was left, digging the lawns, smashing concrete walls and even breaking apart the dinosaur statues in search of Escobar’s hidden money. $75 million has been recovered by the government so far, found buried in the jungle near Escobar’s cocaine factories and around his other homes. $10 million was discovered in Nápoles itself. However many believe there’s more to be found, estimating that 10x as much is still hidden.
Not everything of value was stripped from the estate though, some things proved too large and dangerous to move. These were, of course, Pablo’s Cocaine Hippos, because they were bought with drug money, they don’t actually contain cocaine. Although, given a few more years I wouldn’t have put it past him. There were 4 in the zoo when Escobar was killed and nobody could find a facility to take them so they were left to starve. But they didn’t starve, in fact, the climate, with no drought and the habitat of the artificial lakes proved to be a hippo paradise. By 2007 the original 4 had multiplied to 16 and today it’s estimated that there are close to 100.
Initially, they remained in the estate’s lakes, not bothering anyone. But, problems arose when the alpha male, El Viejo, The Old Man, started defending his territory and females against the younger males. This gave the boys no choice but to leave and attempt to establish their own herds, forcing them out of the estate and into the Magdalena River. While they look quite chubby and cute from a distance, Hippos are actually one of the most deadly large mammals and will charge at 20mph when threatened. This has left fishermen terrified poses a real threat to locals who often find them roaming the streets.
Getting them under control has proven to be a massive issue, more for PR reasons than anything else. Rehoming is near impossible as Hippos are incredibly sensitive to tranquillizers and sedation can often be lethal. There are also no zoos that’ll take them and they can’t be sent back to Africa as they might spread disease to the local Hippos. Culling them has been suggested but when one male, Pepe, was killed in 2009 Columbia made global headlines and the planned hunt of a female and her calf had to be cancelled. The outcry was put down to the ‘floppy effect’ that endears them to people.
The most humane solution seemed to be castration but this is dangerous for both the animals and the vets. 11 have been treated so far but, no one knows how many Hippos there are and, missing just one male will cause the project to fail. It also caused backlash from local Hippo fans who complained, ‘Oh why do you have to castrate them? Just let them be. Castrate the politicians.’
So the current, cheaper and safer option is to put the females on birth control. They’re being shot with darts laden with GonaCon, a contraceptive drug often used on deer. If the dosage is right, it’ll prevent Hippo pregnancies for up to 4 years.
The Hacienda Nápoles Theme Park
While the Hippos have been a nuisance, they’ve so far not caused any deaths and most locals want to keep them. Why? They’re a great tourist attraction and that’s what the former playboy mansion of a drug baron is used for now. A theme park, for kids, seriously.
It’s rented by a private company, Parque Tematico, and to be fair, it kind of makes sense. Swimming pools, dinosaur statues, a zoo and a fine dusting of cocaine. A theme park was the obvious choice. It’s also been a very successful one attracting 500,000 visitors a year.
Of course, it had to be completely renovated. Water slides were installed, the bull ring was turned into a museum, the dino statues were repaired and animals were rebought to fill the zoo. The company also invested a huge amount of money to make improvements, like the construction of 4 hotels, an aquarium and restaurants.
Apart from the Hippos, one of the largest draws is obviously the links to Escobar. Hundreds came to pose under the Piper plane at the entrance and he’s become a cult hero to many following the Netflix series Narcos. Fans even travel to Escobar’s grave to snort cocaine off it.
However, drugs are something the Columbian government are desperate to get away from. They don’t want the country to be known for cocaine and they definitely don’t want more fame and respect given to Escobar than his victims. In an effort to shift the focus off drugs, the plane was removed from the theme park’s entrance, the museum now pays tribute to the victims instead of glorifying Pablo’s horrific reign and Steven Semmens, a British tourist who intelligently filmed himself snorting coke off the grave, was kicked out of Columbia. Unfortunately for his family, it’s where his girlfriend and twin children live and he was banned from the country for 5 years.
Yes, Pablo Escobar did some good deeds. He constructed schools for the poor but, he also ordered the bombing of the DAS building in 1989. The 500kg of dynamite used, destroyed 300 buildings and killed 57 people. He loved his family dearly and once burned $2 million of notes to keep his daughter warm when hiding in a cave. But, he also burned 107 people when he blew up Avianca flight 203. He did pay for football facilities for the local people. But, he also hoarded so much wealth it was eaten by rats. So, who should be remembered at Hacienda Nápoles, Pablo Escobar or his thousands of victims?
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