The drug lord terrorized Colombia. Now his country struggles with the idea of profiting from his bad name.
SLATE – On Dec. 2, 1993, one day after his 44th birthday, Pablo Escobar died during a police raid on the roof of a modest home in what is now an otherwise unremarkable middle-class suburb of Medellín, Colombia. Twenty years later the man who invented modern-day narcoterrorism and brought his country to the brink of ruin still inspires extreme emotions. Colombians either love him (if you’re from one of the many poor barrios where he built homes, schools, and soccer fields) or hate him (if you’re one of the tens of thousands who lost loved ones during Escobar’s years of violence).
Colombians can agree on one thing, however: Escobar sells, especially to the growing number of tourists visiting this South American country. As Colombia gropes its way out of the shadows of decades of drug violence, nationwide tourism is on the rise—up 300 percent since 2006. Tourism officials predict a record-setting 2 million people will visit Colombia in 2013. The following year they’re aiming for twice that.
The irony of this welcome increase in visitors, however, is that there is a corresponding rise in the kind of tourism that Medellín officials really wish you would avoid: Escobar tours. The visitors bureau refuses to promote them—a top administrator said she “feared” reinforcing the Colombia-cocaine stereotype—and even some tour companies, like Colombian Getaways, decline to offer them, calling the idea “hurtful.”
And yet the drug lord’s legacy is unavoidable. At the height of his power in the 1980s and early 1990s, Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria controlled 80 percent of the cocaine traffic to the United States. He had enough money to offer to pay Colombia’s national debt. He briefly held a seat in Colombia’s Congress. His crimes included assassinations, car bombings, extortion, and the bombing of an Avianca commercial flight. Escobar’s brother, who was the cartel’s accountant, claims that the group spent $2,500 on rubber bands each month for wrapping bundles of cash. In 1987 Escobar appeared on the inaugural Forbes magazine list of billionaires, and he remained on that list until the day he died.