The Pablo Escobar tourism industry in Colombia


One of the most jarring sights on a visit to Auschwitz is the hordes of Israeli school kids laughing and playing amid the crumbling gas chambers. On the whole, everyone else is sufficiently sombre and respectful, although not every tourist pays attention to the signs reminding guests that many people died at this site and to observe silence. Located in Poland, the vehicles in the car park with number plates from Italy, Holland, Austria and many, many from Germany indicate that Auschwitz is a site that attracts tourists. And there is something incongruous about the site where over a million people were industrially murdered now being a tourist attraction. And so it is with Pablo Escobar.

In Medellin, the story and history of Pablo Escobar has sprung up its own tourist industry. There are a large variety; you can visit Barrio Pablo Escobar, where he donated eight hundred houses and a church to an impoverished community, or the Monaco building, where the Cali Cartel attempted to assassinate him, or perhaps Comuna 13, formally one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods and one of Esocbar's main recruiting grounds for young men to carry out his murderous orders. Many tour operators include Pablo tours with other tours, such as visits to his out of town mansions whilst visiting the beautiful lake of Guatepe. You can even play paintball in one of his old mansions, with such games as 'capture the Pablo' or simply 'kill Pablo Escobar'. At what point does the fascination with Escobar fall in to bad taste?

Much - but not all - of this interest in Pablo Escobar is driven by the TV show 'Narcos'. A quality, high-budget American production intended for an English-speaking audience, it tells the story in an unflinching style, with some dramatic license and from the 'gringo' perspective. Most of the dialogue is in Spanish, with English subtitles. Despite the evident quality of the production, it has not been met with much enthusiasm in Colombia. Many of the actors hail from South American countries other than Colombia, with attendant dodgy Colombian accents. The gringo perspective, while notionally refreshing for Colombians, feels somewhat like cultural appropriation. And finally, for many Colombians, this is a tired story still fresh in its grave and is it really necessary to disinter it once again?

The show depicts all the excesses and bald horrors of the Escobar era, without too much 'Hollywood-isation' because it's simply unnecessary. On top of all the murders, all the bombs, all the intimidation, all the horror, Escobar - for a time - turned Colombia into a corrupt narco-state, with police and judiciary in his pay; bombs and bullets for officials who did not get on board. But what's more, in a time when the government only wanted votes and the police only bribes, it was Escobar who contributed to the poorest communities. These are all true facts faithfully portrayed in the TV show, and, like the fact that many people died at Auschwitz, must be kept in mind by Escobar tourists. As Pablo Escobar both segued into legend and a TV show character, people perhaps overlook the fact that he was a real man responsible for the deaths of friends and cousins and family members for many present-day inhabitants of Medellin.

Twenty four years on from his death, Medellin is a thriving city, winning Most Innovative City in the world in 2013. The progress is clear and tangible and Paisas, the local people, are proud. While some would prefer to move on, it is accepted that Escobar is part of their history and that his story will hold a fascination with foreign visitors. Many would prefer the focus to shift away from this grisly past, with wounds still fresh and many who can remember the terror. Hence the attitudes towards the Pablo Escobar tourism industry range from ambivalence to antipathy.

Escobar tours focus on a bloody and dark time in Colombian history, a time which many would prefer to forget. But there is a fascination with this period and of course there is. This is generally accepted, so long as there is appropriate reverence for the human trauma and tragedy. What would the attitudes to 'slavery tours' in the U.S. deep south be? Or playing paintball around Verdun? Would both of these be tolerated? Or just one? Or neither? Thus goes the attitude to the Pablo Escobar tourism industry.