Tracing Escobar’s Footsteps in Medellin, Colombia

Do you know how much money Pablo Escobar’s team spent in rubber bands per month during his reign of the Medellin drug cartel?

$2,500 USD per month.

I found this out during a 4-hour Pablo Escobar Tour while I was in Medellin, Colombia – a journey full of rich history, incredible sights, and a chilling finale.

In college I studied Spanish. We were often assigned literature surrounding Latin America and the historical hardships that each of the countries endured – including the Colombian drug trade. When it was time to pick a topic for my senior thesis, I already knew what I wanted to research: the Medellin drug cartel, with a specific focus on the transformation of women’s roles from the 1970’s until 2010.

A few years after graduating college, I finally had the opportunity to trace Escobar’s steps throughout the region that he so controversially ruled. It was captivating, exciting, and devastating all at the same time.

Our tour guide, Elver, picked us up from the hotel and informed us that we were going to visit three instrumental locations around Medellin involving Pablo Escobar:

1) The Monaco Building (his family’s apartment complex in Medellin)

2) Catedral (Escobar’s jail looking over Medellin)

3) His grave at Montesacro

We were briefed on Pablo Escobar’s history. He was an entrepreneur since his youth – transitioning from selling fake lottery tickets outside a grocery store to running one of the most lucrative cocaine industries worldwide.

The Medellin Cartel made $500 million per day…PER DAY.  25-30% of the net was pocketed by Escobar as personal income. While he was making many enemies, he was also making many allies by constructing a community.  He built houses for thousands in his hometown (La Paz, Envigado), built stadiums, gave food to the hungry, and paid his employees well. He was a Mother Teresa in the eyes of the poor, providing them with what they could not provide for themselves.  He instantly gained approval and trust in the lower stratus communities.

Everyone else disdained him. He was a murderer, a drug lord, and a destroyer.  He took thousands of lives to get what he wanted, through a “bribe or death” method – taking out those who opposed him. And for 15 years he was unstoppable…

Our first stop was to the Monaco Building, an 8-story apartment complex that Escobar constructed as a safe house for his family members. As we approached the vacant, decrepit building, we were greeted by a security guard.  The house was taken over by the government almost two decades ago, and today they monitor the activity in and out of the complex.  We were granted access and Elver guided us in. We were greeted by dreary, gray cement walls, broken tiles, and crumbling foundation.  Floors were covered with dust and shattered glass from broken windows.  We walked through the 8 floors, witnessing Escobar’s safe (the size of a large walk-in closet), walls knocked down by looters in hopes of finding hidden treasures that Pablo left behind, a large satellite dish that was used for communications (one of the only two in the country at the time), and two broken palm trees where his two pet parrots still live today.

Tracing Escobar’s Footsteps in Medellin, Colombia

Our last stop in the house was the basement – a holding cell for prisoners on one side and his expensive cars on the other.  We meandered around the dense, prison cell doors while Elver explained to us that this space was used as a torture chamber for prisoners.  Escobar would brutally mutilate his inmates while his family carried out their everyday lives just floors above.  There was an eerie aura walking through the basement – the kind that caused goosebumps to form and made the hair on the back of your neck stand up straight.

Our second stop was to the Catedral.  Instead of being extradited to the U.S., Escobar was sent to jail, an estate that he created himself located on a mountainside overlooking Medellin.  Although he was not permitted to leave this complex, he still managed to run the largest and most dangerous cartel in the world.  The first two security gates around his house were built and monitored by him, while the third ring was monitored by the police. He frequently had visitors and even hosted lavish pool parties.  In 1992, he escaped from this prison.

After escaping from prison in 1992, he disappeared.  In 1993, during a wiretapped phone conversation with his son, his location was pinpointed and he was shot dead.  Some today will contest that the person shot was not Escobar, and that he is still alive, despite the confirmed medical tests and dental records.

Tracing Escobar’s Footsteps in Medellin, Colombia

The final stop was to Escobar’s grave in Montesacro, a few minutes outside of Medellin proper.  Those whose lives were positively affected by Escobar still visit his grave to pay homage, while others choose to forget his existence.  The Sunday before we visited was Mother’s Day, and left on Pablo’s mother’s grave were flowers and a note from his brother, Roberto.  Reading this note was unnerving – it was raw and emotional.  It was a reality check that although Medellin is a safer and better place today, Escobar’s reign was not that long ago.  His immediate family members are still alive and still trying to rid themselves of the legacy Pablo left them with – one that is impossible to undo.

The 70s, 80s, and 90s were an overwhelming period in Colombia.  It was the only time in Medellin’s history that the residents had a curfew of 7 P.M.  A law was passed that 2+ men could not ride as passengers on a motorbike, because that was how “sicarios” (hit men) killed – one driving and the other one aiming.  This ban was just recently lifted.

Tracing Escobar’s Footsteps in Medellin, Colombia

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Despite Escobar’s death, the world’s perception of Colombia has been slow to change.  However, a couple of decades later, the government and locals have been working in tandem to clean up their image. As a country, they want to progress with the rest of the world.  Their faith in high-level officials is being restored, and Colombians who once left are returning home.  Foreigners are being welcomed with arms wide open through attractive visa programs and a favorable business climate.

As seen on the wall at El Catedral, “Quién no conoce su historia, está condenado a repetirla.” (Those who do not know their history are bound to repeat it.) Colombians will never forget this era, but they are eager to move forward to a safe, prosperous, and cultured future.