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At home on Pablo Escobar's ranch

By Mike Ceaser
Puerto Triunfo, Colombia

Concrete dinosaurs on the Napoles estate
Huge concrete dinosaurs tower over visitors to the estate

Hacienda Napoles, a lush estate in Colombia, used to be home to one of the world's richest and most feared criminals.

There he planned drug shipments and plotted murders, kidnappings and bombings.

On a recent sunny afternoon, Maria Claudia Gomez, a 24-year-old university student from the nearby city of Medellin, sat by one if its two pools, enjoying the sun and warm water.

"This place is really nice and tranquil," she said.

And of the estate's founder, whom she called "kind of a hero", she observed: "If one judges him by the estate, you have to say that he was a really intelligent guy."

Killing spree

Ms Gomez was talking about Pablo Escobar, one of recent history's most vicious and successful criminal masterminds.

On this idyllic spot, just off the main road between Bogota and Medellin, with its swimming pools, mansions and exotic animal collection, few might disagree with her reflections.

But Escobar, the estate's creator, made himself into history's most successful drug trafficker by bribing, killing or kidnapping all who stood in his way and terrorising Colombia in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Entrance to the Napoles estate
The drug-running plane above the entrance is gone

He bombed a passenger plane, as well as Colombia's federal police headquarters, and paid bounties for the murders of policemen and members of rival drug cartels.

Estimates are difficult, but it is thought he was responsible for more than 4,000 deaths.

For Escobar, it at first paid off spectacularly, with Forbes magazine ranking him among the world's 10 richest men in 1989, when he was in his thirties.

Escobar purchased the 22sq km (8.4 sq miles) Napoles Estate, about 320km (200 miles) from the capital Bogota, in 1978.

He turned it into a fantasy land with concrete dinosaurs, a bullfighting ring and a private zoo that would have made Michael Jackson jealous, with giraffes, elephants, kangaroos and hippopotamuses.

To keep them company, he built a herd of concrete dinosaurs.

Above the entrance gate to the estate, the never-subtle Escobar put a plane he had used to smuggle cocaine into the US.

Public support

It was here that the drug baron entertained models, movie stars and the malleable politicians that he bribed and threatened into rewriting laws to his convenience.

Lucia Duque, a visitor from Medellin, Escobar's native city, remembered the terror of his wars against the government and rival drug cartels.

"You couldn't go to the police," she said, "because a bomb might explode there."

Burnt-out car on the Napoles estate
Escobar's collection of vintage cars was destroyed after his death

At the same time, Escobar bought public support by lavishing his wealth onto Colombia's many disenfranchised and unemployed.

He built houses for slum dwellers, installed lights on football pitches in poor neighbourhoods, and provided many jobs.

In Puerto Triunfo, a poor river town near the estate, residents miss Escobar and the work he gave locals as gardeners, construction workers and even tour guides.

Every Christmas, residents recall, Escobar sent truckloads of gifts for the town's children.

In fact, Puerto Triunfo's main street, which Escobar paved, is named Napoles Avenue.

"He lent us a hand when we needed it most," said Jose Willian Rico, 38, who did construction work for Escobar, but currently has no steady job.

Yet the town's mayor, Javier Guerra, said Escobar left scars on the community.

"[Escobar] had a lot of people killed here," said Mr Guerra.

"Where there was evil years ago, there is now progress and tourism," he said.

Looted

Colombian police, with US help, gunned Escobar down on a Medellin rooftop in 1993.

Neighbouring peasants looted the mansions, dug up floors and knocked down walls and even the concrete dinosaurs, seeking gold, money or jewels they thought were stashed inside.

If they found anything, they did not say so publicly.

They also carried off everything they could, including doors, window frames and bathroom fixtures.

Escobar's collection of vintage automobiles was torched.

Map of Colombia

Most of the exotic animals either starved to death or were given away to zoos.

The government settled several hundred peasant farmers on the estate, who continue to raise crops there on a remote section.

Finally, the provincial government decided to allow the estate to be developed as a theme park.

The manager, local hotel owner Oscar Jairo Orozco, started renovating the property late last year.

Now visitors can admire a new generation of exotic animals - many confiscated from the new generation of drug traffickers who replaced Escobar.

Also on display are hippopotamuses, three of which Escobar imported from Africa in 1984.

The beasts have flourished, and now number 25, making it the world's largest wild hippo population outside of Africa.

Tourists can also ogle at the torched cars and pose for photos underneath the restored concrete brontosaurus and T-Rex - now playing recorded roars like those which might have sent terrified Jurassic animals scurrying for safety.

While most of the estate's buildings have been restored, Escobar's looted and sacked mansion still looks like it was hit by fire bombs.

Walking through its abandoned halls and rooms, Camila, a visitor from Bogota, reflected on the drug lord's demise.

"He had so much money," she said. "And for what? They killed him like a dog on a rooftop."

Folk hero?

Over the years, time has faded recollections of Escobar's terror, and popular memory has turned the drug lord into a sort of guardian angel for Colombia's poor.

On the estate, the only written information on Escobar's crimes is a sign on one of the destroyed mansion's walls.

Swimming pool on the Napoles estate
Visitors can now enjoy one of Escobar's swimming pool

That bothers some visitors.

"I would think that maybe a lot of young people could think 'this is what I want to be like'," said Pablo, a shop owner from Medellin

In fact, some of the children visiting the estate had only admiration for the drug lord turned folk hero.

"He gave a lot of gifts to children," said one boy when asked what he knew about Escobar.

As for Escobar's penchant for murder, the children justified it as self-defence and then speculated that Escobar faked his death to escape and enjoy his riches.

But Mr Orozco says that a maximum-security prison being built nearby - and which visitors must pass on their way to the estate - stands as a lesson.

"I think that it's a very clear message to society, that he who commits crimes, not only ends up losing his property, but can also end up in jail," Mr Orozco said.

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SEE ALSO
Colombia wins drug baron's house
30 Aug 04 |  Americas
Colombian homeless eye Escobar estate
13 Apr 98 |  Despatches


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