Hacienda Napoles: At home with Pablo Escobar, the drug baron who lived in a zoo

Since the death of the notorious cocaine supplier, his estate has fallen into disrepair. But today it reopens as a theme park, complete with the hippos, zebras and other animals with which he shared his home. Paul Scheltus reports from Puerto Triunfo

It's unclear whether the hippopotamus died in a fight or if it was electrocuted by the fence surrounding the sprawling ranch. What is certain is that when its remains were found two weeks ago, the ranch workers tossed the meat on an improvised barbecue and stuffed the hide.

"We're going to display the beast as it is and tell visitors the story of what happened on the day we found it," says Oberdan Martinez, visibly pleased at the idea... "although we may have to change the eyes," he adds after a second glance the eye sockets of the deceased hippo are stuffed with blue ping-pong balls.

Mr Martinez is the general manager of the Hacienda Napoles theme park, which opens today in Puerto Triunfo, 100 miles east of Medellin, Colombia. The novelty of the park lies not in its African land mammals whether alive or dead but in that they, and the 3,700-acre ranch they live on, once belonged to the world's most feared drug baron, Pablo Escobar.

Born in 1949, Escobar worked his way up from stealing cars in Medellin to joining the aristocracy of crime in the 1970s, where he dominated the cocaine trade to the United States. His wealth was such that he could afford to construct hundreds of homes for the city's poor, paving the way to a seat in congress in 1982. Dodging the law and doling out to the needy earned him a Robin Hood-like reputation.

Hacienda Napoles was Escobar's idea of Eden. He populated the lush green hills with elephants, giraffe, buffalo, camels and lions. A total of 700 farmhands stood to attention as their master played god. "El Patró" boasted that it took more than 100 employees several weeks to train a flock of white birds to roost in the trees around his marble-floored mansion. As the cocaine-laden jets took off from the airstrip next to the house, Escobar impressed fellow politicians with rides on his hovercraft on one of the estate's 14 lakes.

Then came the bloody drug wars of the 1980s, when Escobar would offer a million pesos for the head of policeman. Judges, politicians and journalists were given the choice of plomo o plata- a leaden bullet or a silver pay-off. Escobar, who was the son of a school teacher, is held responsible for the murder of the justice minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla and a string of other political assassinations. Not content with bullets, Escobar turned to bombs, blowing up the headquarters of the secret police in an attack that left almost 70 people dead.

His arrest in 1991 and subsequent escape from a luxury prison built to his own specifications made world headlines. Finally, on 2 December 1993, an elite police unit gunned down the head of the Medellin cartel, moments after he had phoned his son.

Hacienda Napoles, the drug baron's version of the biblical ark, has since fallen into ruins. Its name is barely readable on the concrete arch at the beginning of the drive. Twisted iron bars over the arch testify to the place where a small Cessna plane once rested: the plane, locals insist, with which Escobar made his first drugs shipment.

The lions, elephants and giraffe are long gone, donated to zoos across the continent but not so the hippos. Floating aimlessly in one of the lakes, much as their chubby patron might have done, are at least a dozen of the huge mammals. Their bad-tempered reputation seems to have kept any would-be captors at bay. Better yet, the fertile acres of Napoles have had a prolific effect on the animals. Although Escobar originally only imported four, according to locals there are now at least 18 of the African "river horses", and 19 if you count the stiff one with the blue eyes.

Perched over the hippo lake are several homes built for ranch workers. They now house so-called displaced families refugees from Colombia's ongoing civil war between guerrillas, paramilitaries and the army.

Maria Eucaris Posada and her five children were given a home on the ranch after her eldest son was murdered. "We were forced to choose between feeding the paramilitary groups or the guerrillas," she says. When her son brought food to the former, the rebels killed him. A year ago her husband was also killed, after he returned to their village, Maria says. She doesn't know who was responsible. Now that they are planning a tourist attraction here, she fears she and her family will be homeless once more.

Five other refugee families live in houses spread across the estate. It's ironic that fate has brought them to the former home of Pablo Escobar. After all, he created the MAS, the very first paramilitary group, in order to combat the guerrillas, his rivals in the cocaine trade. To add to the irony, the government is building a maximum-security prison a few hundred yards beyond the entry to the ranch. Up to 1,600 inmates will look out over the rolling hills that once belonged to their fallen comrade.

None of this, however, is disturbing the upbeat general manager of Colombia's newest theme park. With an initial investment of $10m (£5m), the park's operators are expecting 400,000 visitors a year. "We're a long way from actually finishing," Mr Martinez admits. "But the idea is that people can use their entrance tickets to keep coming back for the first six months and watch the progress." He dismisses the fears of the refugee families, insisting that new housing will be made available to them.

Doesn't it worry him that he'll be making money thanks to the celebrity of a mass murderer? "We don't plan to eulogise the memory of Escobar in any way," Mr Martinez insists. "We're just going to tell people that this was his home." He claims that the park will provide much-needed jobs for the area and an income for the municipality. "This is the first property seized from a major criminal in Colombia that is being put to use," he explains.

A paintbrush has already been taken to Escobar's collection of life-size dinosaurs. On a hillside, a triceratops is locked in battle with a clawing adversary, while two tyrannosaurus hatchlings emerge from under their parent's massive legs. Not far off, a solitary brontosaurus stretches its snake-like neck. The park's operators plan to place speakers near the prehistoric beasts, so that visitors can appreciate the kind of grunts they might have made.

The 500-seat bullring built to entertain family and friends has been refurbished as well. However, this time round there'll be no gory bovine slaughter; instead the place has been renamed the Coliseum and is meant to host local celebrities.

In a garage lies the charred remains of Escobar's classic car collection, along with dust-covered amphibious vehicles. Long before the rust got hold of them, the priceless Porches suffered the wrath of their owner's arch rival, the Cali cartel. After the bombing of his Medellin home in 1988, Escobar moved what was left of his cars to the hacienda.

Apart from the hippos, the park has two zebras, an ocelot, a margay, an ostrich and several buffalo. The animals come from a regional environmental agency and were seized from law-breaking owners. Butterfly and reptile houses are in the planning, as well as an aquarium. The puma and the spectacled bear are expected to arrive today.

Turning a drug baron's Nirvana into a family outing seems symbolic of the transformation Colombia has undergone. The government of President Alvaro Uribe has managed to demobilise the majority of the paramilitary groups and dealt significant blows to the two remaining guerrilla groups since taking power in 2002. Murder rates have halved since four years ago and the number of kidnappings has fallen by 73 per cent.

As a result, the highways and major cities of Colombia are a lot safer than in recent decades, stimulating tourism. Well over 100 soldiers patrol the road between Puerto Triunfo and Medellin, which is now a vibrant and modern city. "This is a completely different country than it was a few years ago," Mr Martinez says. "Without the improved security situation this kind of investment would be unthinkable." Tourism, not terrorism is what Colombia hopes to be known for from now on.

Lying in ruins on a hilltop near the abandoned runway is Pablo Escobar's sumptuous mansion, which is to remain untouched. Treasure seekers have ransacked the place, stripping the walls and digging holes in the floors in search of cash. Thick green algae covers the swimming pools, where army colonels once sipped whisky to numb their conscience. "We couldn't even restore the house if we wanted to," Mr Martinez remarks. "The construction is so poor that if we tried the whole thing would cave in."

And suddenly the humour of that occurs to him. "Actually, for a hardened criminal, Pablo Escobar was easily cheated by a common builder."

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