(Updated: February 11, 2012)
Colombian drug lords and American mobsters are about to have something more in common than lives of crime – their very own tourist attractions.
Next week, Las Vegas is scheduled to open a $42-million Mob Museum highlighting the gambling Mecca’s gangster past. It will come complete with a bullet-scarred wall from the Chicago warehouse where Al Capone’s gang committed the notorious St. Valentine’s Day massacre more than 80 years ago.
In Medellin, hometown of the late Colombian crime boss Pablo Escobar, at least two separate travel agencies this year are offering Escobar tours. Among the sights are Escobar’s grave and an apartment building where he was gunned down on the rooftop by national police.
And last week, developers disclosed plans to build a 6-star hotel and resort on a section of Escobar’s one-time country estate, Hacienda Napoles. The crime boss’s favorite hideaway, about 2.5-hours drive from Medellin, has already been turned into a series of tourist parks. This hotel will be the fifth added to the sprawling property since Escobar’s compound and grounds were confiscated nearly two decades ago by Colombian authorities.
The 7,400-acre estate had become something of an international curiosity when Escobar first stocked it with exotic animals: elephants, lions, zebras and a rapidly propagating herd of hippopotamuses. And before he became the world’s most wanted outlaw, Escobar entertained openly and lavishly at the estate.
One site not far from Hacienda Napoles probably won’t make many tourist maps despite the fact that it represents one of the most intriguing, if little-known, episodes of Colombia’s cartel war years.
The setting was 1989, a time in Colombia that was much like today in Mexico with rival trafficking gangs vying to massacre and terrorize each other. Cali crime bosses secretly hired a team of British mercenaries to storm Escobar’s country retreat. A dozen heavily armed commandos, promised up to $5 million, were engaged to kill Pablo.
How close did they come?
The assault was launched from a jungle training camp in southwestern Colombia aboard two overloaded helicopters, but as they swooped down into the Magdalena River valley, one aircraft clipped a mountain ridge and crashed. The pilot was killed and the British team leader injured.
Little more than five minutes flying time from their objective, the commandos were forced to abort their mission.
Today, somewhere on the steep, wooded slopes of Cuchilla del Tigre (Tiger Ridge), the remnants of that helicopter still await discovery – presumably by the most intrepid of tourists. For those interested enough to try making the climb, versions of the story behind the ill-fated raid are featured in the new book, “At the Devil’s Table,” and described in memoirs by two of the Brits: “Dirty Combat” and “No Mean Soldier.”
Official response to the surge in gangster tour business varies.
Madelene Torres, Medellin’s deputy secretary of tourism, told the Wall Street Journal there was fear that the tours “would promote the very thing we’re trying to move away from – the connection people so often make between Colombia and cocaine.” But Medellin Secretary of Culture Luis Miguel Usuga told Colombia Reports that the tours also show “crime does not pay” and that the city “has managed to transform itself.”
In Las Vegas, on the other hand, Mayor Oscar Goodman led a campaign through much of his three terms in office promoting the idea of a mob museum. Some in town wanted “to hang me,” he told the Los Angeles Times.
But the former defense lawyer for several prominent gangsters has always relished the city’s notorious past and shows no interest in changing its image – or his own. As the mayor once explained:
“I knock on doors, and little old ladies … say, ‘Hey, it’s the mafia lawyer! Come on in and have some cookies and milk!’ I love it!”