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Slain drug lord's ranch becomes a tourist stop

Jul 06, 2008

HACIENDA NAPOLES, COLOMBIA — The scavengers have come and gone. The lookout tower sentries have disappeared. The main house lies in ruins. And adorning one decrepit wall are three photos of the ranch's former owner and infamous drug lord.

One was said to be Pablo Escobar's favorite picture. He is dressed like Pancho Villa, the Mexican revolutionary, wearing a sombrero and with a bandolier stretched across his chest while cradling a rifle.

In the second photo, a mustachioed Escobar stares out from a "wanted" poster. The third snapshot shows him barefoot and sprawled face-down — dead, the image taken minutes after Colombian authorities gunned him down on a rooftop in Medellin 15 years ago.

In a land that has served as the setting for the surrealistic novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, it doesn't get much weirder in Colombia today than the Hacienda Napoles. What was once the weekend hangout of the world's most notorious outlaw has become a strange, fledgling tourist attraction in central Colombia.

Opulence and the fall

A private company now manages Hacienda Napoles and in December opened it as a rustic theme park.

"It was a symbol of Escobar's limitless wealth and power — of the opulence that his position as capo de capos entitled him to enjoy and display ostentatiously," said University of Miami professor Bruce Bagley. " ... The current state of dilapidation is a symbol of his final ignominious fall."

In his heyday, flush with hundreds of millions of dollars in profits from trafficking cocaine to the United States, Escobar stocked the Hacienda Napoles with animals from Africa — hippos, zebras, buffaloes, camels, elephants and others. He built six life-size dinosaurs and proudly showed off the single-engine Piper Cub that had flown his first cocaine shipments.

The government confiscated what is now a 3,700-acre ranch in 1989 after Escobar ordered the killing of a popular presidential candidate.

Left off the pamphlets

The iconic Piper Cub has disappeared but the private company that runs the place now, Ayuda Tecnica y de Servicios, is planning to remount a replica.

Of the live animals, only the hippos remain. No one dared move them. They have multiplied to 16 or 17. Officials can't get close enough to the ornery animals to properly count them. They roam the ranch at night in search of food.

Ayuda Tecnica has rebuilt the dinosaurs complete with Disneyesque moans and roars every few seconds. Meanwhile, a butterfly arboretum is on the way.

"We believe the ranch could be an attraction to bring back tourists to the region," said Oberdan Martinez, who cheerfully oversees the ranch for Ayuda Tecnica, which has a 20-year concession to manage it.

"We're not trying to profit off of Escobar," Martinez said. "He was a criminal who did a lot of damage to the country. But we can't wipe him off the Earth. Visitors want to know where he slept and where he brought his mistresses. It's kind of like the museums in Germany to Hitler or to Al Capone in the United States."

Neither the theme park's Web page ( nor its pamphlet mentions Escobar.

"People know he was here," Martinez said.

A Robin Hood image

Escobar got his start as a neighborhood thug stealing cars in Medellin, Colombia's second-biggest city. He soon began to arrange huge shipments of cocaine in the 1970s, just as the drug was becoming popular in the U.S.

In the 1980s, he became known as the boss of the Medellin cocaine cartel. He ordered hits on anyone who got in his way: policemen, politicians and fellow drug traffickers.

He bought the Hacienda Napoles for a reported $63 million in 1979 and spent millions more building the main house, six swimming pools, a dozen lakes, an airstrip and the zoo.

It is a four-hour drive southeast of Medellin.

With a deft touch for public relations, Escobar cultivated an image as Robin Hood. In Medellin, he built housing for the poor and soccer fields for youths. At Christmastime, he gave away toys to children in towns near the Hacienda Napoles. Thousands of people mourned his death.

Jhon Edward Montano got a toy truck from Escobar one year.

"He did a lot of bad things," Montano, an official in the nearest town, Puerto Triunfo, said recently. "But I admire him. He achieved big things."

Slain drug lord's ranch becomes a tourist stop

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