Meet a drug lord’s brother on the Pablo Escobar Tour

Meet a drug lord’s brother on the Pablo Escobar Tour

In Colombia, visitors trace a notorious piece of history and chat with a man once inside a powerful drug cartel
Roberto Escobar
The author (left) with Roberto Escobar. The brother of Pablo Escobar now welcomes tourists to the Colombian mountain hideout where the slain kingpin made his last stand.

Halfway up a slaloming mountain road overlooking Medellin, the second-largest city in Colombia, the whitewashed cinder blocks of a quaint house bathe a meticulously tended garden and yard with splashes of reflected sunlight. The golden hue lends the property an iridescent beauty that belies its notorious past.

This particular two-story mountainside home was once the hideout of Pablo Escobar, the infamous kingpin of the Medellin Cartel.

The day before he was killed in a shootout with Colombian military just five minutes down the mountainside, Escobar was in this hideout celebrating his birthday.

Today the unassuming building acts as a museum and meeting place along a tour where visitors can take advantage of an unusual photo op and drink a cup of Colombian coffee with his brother, a man who claims to have come close to finding a cure for AIDS.

“Meet Pablo Escobar’s Brother” read tour posters plastered throughout hostels in El Poblado, the trendy bar and restaurant district of Medellin.

Sure enough, all you have to do is pay nearly US$30 (50,000 Colombian pesos) for the Pablo Escobar Tour, as it’s officially called, and guides will bring you shoulder to shoulder with Roberto Escobar, who entertains visitors ever day by answering questions about his brother and posing for photos, standing like a wax figure in front of the whitewashed walls of the hideout’s back patio.

Your gracious host: Robert Escobar

Escobar houseThe Pablo Escobar Tour shows replicas of hidden compartments and passageways where the drug lord stashed contraband. Half-blind and half-deaf from a letter bomb going off close to his face, Roberto lived life in the fast lane alongside his notorious sibling. When asked for his favorite memory of Pablo, the surviving brother fondly recalls the time the two escaped from jail together.

Reportedly responsible for nearly 80 percent of the world’s cocaine traffic during the late 1970s and early ’80s -- a notorious feat that made him the seventh-richest man in the world with a net worth of $25 billion at the time according to Forbes -- Pablo Escobar was a kind of reckless Robin Hood to the people of Medellin, bestowing homes on the less fortunate of the city while enduring day-to-day life with the hardships of a drug war being raged between his cartel and Colombian and U.S. special forces.

Roberto, 63, was the cartel's main accountant. He spent 10 years in prison for his drug-related crimes and wrote a book called "The Accountant's Story" about his days working with his brother.

Tilting a painting hung inside the hideout to one side, a tour guide reveals a bullet hole from a firefight that occurred in the recent past when gunmen tried to ransack the building looking for the fabled wealth Escobar amassed. Some Colombians believe Escobar left a secret treasure that’s still buried somewhere in Medellin.

Such was the extraordinary drama of Pablo’s life that after his death many in Medellin refused to believe that the life of the cartel’s helmsman could have come to such an abrupt end. Today, graffiti that reads “Pablo Vive” paints a stark reminder of the myth’s longevity.

Elsewhere in the house, desks and walls appear to peel away, revealing hidden compartments and passageways the cartel used to stow possessions and themselves during raids. It turns out these are replicas of secret places once found throughout Escobar’s erstwhile extensive network of hideouts.

Parked in the back of the house is a blue truck, a sort of centerpiece that completes the assortment of memorabilia. This truck, tour participants are informed, was the first used by Pablo to smuggle cocaine, which he drove across the Panama-Colombia border.

Escobar gravestoneNotorious in life, humble in death. Hung above the heavily polished truck is a picture of a small propeller plane that was used to make runs to Miami. A proud-looking Pablo stands in front of it.

The tour ends atop a serene vista where Pablo’s grave overlooks an industrializing part of southern Medellin. Nearby are graves of family members and his nanny.

Raising money for AIDS research?

The Pablo Escobar Tour supplies Roberto with a steady cash flow from mostly 20-something backpackers.

He says the money is being used to fund his AIDS charity.

During his own incarceration, Roberto says he taught himself medicine, and made a promise to use his autodidactic spirit for good once he was released. A ledger documenting all of his visitors sits atop a coffee table in the hideout proving his income, which he says supports his claims to charitable intentions.

Roberto’s claim to have made a breakthrough in finding a cure for AIDS, which he says could come as soon as within the next 10 years, may also give him an additional shine with the public, who seem to be charmed by his easy manner and altruistic disposition – no matter what he’s using the money for.

In Asia since 2006, Justin Calderon has lived and worked in Seoul, Bangkok, Taipei, Shanghai, Kuala Lumpur, Manila and Yangon.

His work has been featured in The New York Times, Newsweek (Japan), CNN Travel, Global Post, Borneo Post and The Nation (Bangkok). 

He is a Mandarin reader and speaker, and is currently studying Burmese. 

 

Read more about Justin Calderon
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