Medellín, Colombia — Forbes magazine listed 1980s Colombian cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar as the seventh most wealthy man in the world in 1989. Even today, he still stands as one of the richest men in world history.
But not much is left of his once mighty dominion. Flanked by an algae-filled swimming pool, his crumbling, bullet perforated mansion stands as a testament to his demise, as do the burned out shells of whatever is left of his formerly impressive collection of luxury and classic cars.
It's really no surprise that el Patrón loved cars. He started his criminal career as a car thief; a poor kid from Medellín who wanted wealth and all the trappings that come with it. Once he made his billions by smuggling cocaine into the United States and other countries, Escobar bought all kinds of cars. Among them were a Porsce 356, a Mercedes 300SL roadster, the obligatory banana republic dictator Mercedes 600 limo, several Toyota Landcruisers (the quintessential Colombian drug cartel ride), a number of '20s and '30s-vintage American phaetons, and scores of motorcycles and scooters.
But Escobar wasn't a collector in the Barrett-Jackson tradition. He didn't pick up super rare cars and apparently, Lambos weren't his ride of choice. He picked up whatever struck his fancy, and they were usually relatively pedestrian cars, especially for one of the richest men in the world and, probably, the richest criminal of all time. Juan Guillermo Correa, an automotive historian, told me when I visited him in Medellín that Escobar simply went for cars that struck his fancy, such as an early '30s Cadillac he thought looked like Al Capone's. To make it more authentic, Escobar allegedly strafed it with gunfire, so that the bullet holes would give the car a more authentic gangster look.
Not many of Escobar's cars are left intact.
Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria had everything — race cars, hovercrafts, private jets, and, like many Colombians, a Renault 4. But when you have so much money it has to be stored in bales in a large warehouse (a 10 percent loss write-off was factored in for damage caused by rats chewing on the bales), it stands to reason that you'll buy a few cars. That and your own private zoo.
His career as the world's top cocaine smuggler took off pretty quickly during the latter half of the 1970s, when U.S. nightclub patrons were hoovering up lines as fast as they could get the stuff. Escobar had made hundreds of millions of dollars by the time he was 30. In 1982, at the age of 33, he even "won" a seat in Colombia's House of Representatives. Although he had become popular amongst Medellín's poor population by giving food and building housing projects for the disadvantaged group he'd once been part of, he also bought or forced political influence..
His political success was ruled by his own law of plata o plomo — silver or lead, which means take the money or get pumped full of lead — and it didn't last. Escobar could buy all the cars he wanted, but he could only buy so many people, and for only so long. As pressure from the government to have Escobar extradited to the U.S. increased throughout the '80s, he became more violent, assassinating politicians and even blowing up Avianca Flight 203, amongst other atrocities.
Nearly a decade and many deaths later, Escobar turned himself in to the Colombian government, taking up residence at La Catedral, his custom-built mansion-prison in the hills above Medellín, in 1991. He was only supposed to be confined there for five years, but after running his cocaine trade and murdering several people within its walls, the government decided it was time for business-as-usual to come to and end. Escobar got a tip that they were coming, and walked out the back gate as government troops surrounded the place to take him to a regular prison less than a year after he'd taken up residence at La Catedral.
But being a fugitive isn't easy. While he was on the run, his illicit business wasn't the only thing that suffered. Rival groups such as Los PEPES (People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar), the Cali Cartel, and the Colombian and U.S. militaries made life increasingly difficult for Escobar as they closed in. In Feb. 1993, less than a year before he was shot, Los PEPES burned a number of his cars that were stored in a warehouse in Medellín. More were destroyed by national police after Escobar was gunned down by rival guerrillas and government troops on a Medellín rooftop in Dec. 1993.
Today, the rusted out hulks of those once proud, albeit somewhat blasé classics sit at Hacienda Napoles, Escobar's mansion headquarters during his cocaine-smuggling heydays. The hacienda has become a somewhat macabre theme park, resplendent in its jungle landscape. But the burnt cars and the bullet-scarred buildings stand as reminders of a violent past.
Many Colombians wish that all of it would go away, like an ugly stain scrubbed out of an otherwise pristine shirt. But el Patrón's legacy so deeply ingrained in the country's history and culture that there's no way it can be ignored. Pablo Escobar's money built housing developments and sports programs for poor families. Pablo Escobar's money bolstered the Colombian soccer team that was the country's last to compete in the World Cup, in 1994.
But Pablo Escobar and his drug money also caused thousands of deaths and social unrest that is only now going away. After his own death, the criminal organization he spawned was more or less a leaderless mob, and fostered one of the most violent periods in the country's history. Colombia's very culture was shaped by that time when it was unsafe to drive on its highways and when talking to people you didn't know was a dangerous business.
Today, small displacement motorbikes, Renaults, and Toyota Landcruisers are as much a part of Medellín's carscape as they were a couple of decades ago. But back then, temporary Escobar henchmen, lured by the promise of an easier life, accepted payment to become motorcycle assassins. It was a quick and nasty way to kill people, it spread all over the country, and people are still understandably jumpy because of it.
So the fact that you can drive a few hours from Medellín to gawk at Hacienda Napoles, along with Escobar's cars, his first drug smuggling plane, and his hippos can make people whose families suffered a bit queasy. Especially at a time when "narco novellas" — TV dramas like the hit telenovella Pablo Escobar: el Patrón del Mal (the Don of Evil) — have spiked in popularity amongst many Colombians who weren't alive or weren't engaged during la violencia.
There is legitimate concern that showing off Pablo memorabilia could glorify the life of a cocaine king pin. Because even if a show portrays Escobar as the bad guy, he's still it's protagonist, which can make viewers empathize with him. It's a complicated story, because even though there are people who consider him a hero for his Robin Hood public works gestures, almost everyone you meet in Medellín has a story about themselves or a family member who had a negative experience because of Escobar's drug trade. Far too many of those stories involve kidnapping and death, and Colombia is only now beginning to make peace with some of the guerrillas that rose to power after Escobar was killed. So you can see why there's concern about deifying the villain.
Then again, what better way is there to show people Escobar's ultimate failure that to display the burned, bullet riddled ruins of his former empire?