Great Escapes

06.07.14

Pablo Escobar’s Private Prison Is Now Run by Monks for Senior Citizens

In exchange for his surrender, the top Colombian drug lord was allowed to build his jail—complete with a disco, jacuzzi, and waterfall. Now 23 years later, it's a home for the elderly.

The road begins at the southern edge of town. It slithers its way up into the perfect green mountains surrounding the red brick metropolis of Medellín. Partly gravel, the road is so steep at times that the wheels of our Chevy 4x4 spin out beneath us.

As we continue our ascent, I consider the bizarre assortment of people who, over the past 25 years, have made the journey before me: the imprisoned drug lords, mass-murderers and street thugs, the politicians both noble and corrupt, the soccer superstars, beauty queens and prostitutes, the military brigades and would-be fortune hunters, the hermetic monks, religious pilgrims, and, as of recently, the low-income senior citizens.

I have arranged a meeting with Brother Davide—one of two monks who live at The Cathedral full time. But when I arrive at the entrance, the timid gatekeeper tells me—without explanation—that I can no longer speak with him. I am left to explore the grounds unsupervised, armed with nothing more than some archival photos and a rudimentary map of the old prison that I found online. With little of the original structure still standing, I find it quite difficult to get my bearings. With me is David Graff, a German journalist and guide at Palenque Tours in Colombia, who is acting as my translator.

The parking lot must be new because it's not on my map. Uphill, behind the parking lot, is more new construction: two small buildings with a courtyard and benches.] I can hear somber music playing—it sounds like Colombian bambuco. I notice some old weary faces staring back at me. The gatekeeper appears out of nowhere. "Those are the senior citizens," he whispers to me, "you're not allowed to go up there." Suddenly, it feels like a prison. Maybe even more so than it did twenty-five years ago…

***

By 1991, Medellín was the murder capital of the world. With the help of a CIA surveillance operation, the Colombian government was beginning to close in on Pablo Escobar's Medellín drug cartel. Feeling the pinch and running from hideout to hideout, Escobar began taking national dignitaries hostage and mapping out the conditions of his surrender.

Before Escobar and his posse would surrender, the drug kingpin had a few stipulations. His first demand was that the country's official constitution be rewritten to prohibit extradition. Second, that he be allowed to build his very own prison. There were a few other conditions, of course, such as the removal of Gen. Miguel Maza, one of Escobar's most determined rivals, from his post as the Director of the Administrative Department of Security (DAS). Another requirement was that the Colombian National Police would not be permitted within a 12-mile radius of his prison.

Before he stepped down from DAS, Gen. Maza warned President Gaviria of the dangers of negotiating with a criminal of Escobar’s caliber. But President Gaviria assured him, "His treatment will not be any different from what the law demands."

140606-campagna-escobar2-embed
Tania Lacaria

With negotiations underway in the spring of 1991, Escobar began hunting for the perfect piece of land upon which to construct his prison. He took along his brother, Roberto, who was the cartel's accountant. Escobar had scouted much of the vacant land surrounding Medellín but found the lush mountainside of Mont Catedral particularly ideal. "This is the place, brother," Escobar said during a site visit. "Do you realize that after six in the evening it fogs over and is foggy at dawn, too?" Escobar also appreciated the steep topography that would make it nearly impossible for the military or rival cartels to mount an air attack on the compound. And so, prior to formally surrendering, Escobar began construction on The Cathedral.

Weeks later, with construction in full swing, Escobar and his brother returned to the site. They buried a stockpile of rifles and machine guns on a slope just above the building that was to house the inmates. "One day, we'll need them," Escobar told his brother.

Then, in June of 1991, a continental congress officially added an amendment to the Colombian constitution forbidding the extradition of nationals. After receiving confirmation that the amendment had been approved, Escobar finally revealed the location of his hideout.

Late in the afternoon of June 19, two government helicopters landed on a rock-strewn soccer field at The Cathedral. Escobar was the first to get out, setting his famous white velcro sneakers on the dirt. He then looked up to find 50 uniformed men all pointing machine guns in his direction. "Escobar gave a start," Gabriel García Márquez wrote in his book, News of a Kidnapping. "He lost his control for a moment, and, in a voice heavy with fearsome authority, he roared, 'Lower your weapons, damn it!' By the time the head of the guards gave the same order, Escobar's command had already been obeyed."

Although Escobar's Cathedral was still incomplete, it was habitable. Fences built ten-feet high with fifteen rows of electrified barbed wire surrounded the compound. There was a cinder-block home for the warden, seven guard towers, a collection of larger prison buildings on a clearing below, and a large building higher up on the slope that would house the prisoners. "It seemed to me a very prison-like prison," Alberto Villamizar, a diplomat who helped facilitate the surrender, said to President Gaviria. After saying goodbye to his family, Escobar entered the complex and signed a document of voluntary surrender in front of a special prosecutor. He then retired to his cell.

"Starting the next day," Márquez continued, "the very prison-like prison described by Villamizar began to be transformed into a five-star hacienda with all kinds of luxuries, sports installations and facilities for parties and pleasures, built with first-class materials brought in gradually in the false bottom of a supply van."

 ***  

Sensing the eyes of the elderly upon me, I wander toward the lower buildings, which appear to be in fairly poor condition. According to the map, these must have been the prison dormitories. Half of the second story has been demolished and replaced by a small memorial building in the shape of a cross. At one end stands a life-size crucifix with a collection of golden AK-47's resting at Jesus' feet. Black marble slabs etched with the names of Escobar's victims hang on the walls.

“The prison guards served drinks from the sidelines and later, doubled as waiters in the bar.”

The second half of the upper story looks like the original. It's empty inside, just four walls with a few crumbling archways and a concrete staircase that leads to nowhere. The metal doors of the basement level are locked. The entire structure has been newly painted in a variety of garish colors. There are no signs of The Cathedral's notorious five-star amenities. The prison had a gym, a billiards room, a bar, a disco where Escobar even hosted wedding receptions, a sauna, a jacuzzi, a waterfall, big screen TV's, and a life-sized dollhouse for when Escobar's young daughter would visit. During the drug lord’s imprisonment, The Cathedral was often referred to as Hotel Escobar and Club Medellín.

Behind the assisted living home is a lot where the soccer field used to be. Some claim that Escobar had workmen install a grid of high-gauge wire over the field to prevent the police, the military, and the rival Cali Cartel from landing a helicopter on the premises. In a 2010 ESPN documentary title The Two Escobars, one of Escobar's most loyal hit men, Jhon 'Popeye' Velásquez, who is still serving time in prison for terrorism, drug trafficking, and murder, said Escobar would routinely invite soccer players up to the prison for a game.

In fact, Velásquez also confesses that, prior to beginning their official 1994 World Cup qualifying run, all twenty-two players of the Colombia National team visited The Cathedral. The players made their way up the dirt road to the prison in a jolly convoy of dusty Jeeps and Land Cruisers. The team enjoyed a leisurely lunch with Escobar and his men. Afterwards, Escobar put on a pair of short-shorts and cleats and took part in a friendly match with one of the world's most famous soccer clubs. The young, professional players indulged the pudgy kingpin as he kicked his ball around in the dirt. The prison guards served drinks from the sidelines and later, doubled as waiters in the bar.

There is still an original guard tower near the tree line. Somebody (a monk, I presume) has put a dummy dressed in a guard's uniform inside. The place begins to feel like a second-rate Madame Tussauds. Nestled here, in the southwestern corner of the compound, is a heap of crumbling concrete. Walls have toppled in on themselves, flights of stairs are covered in a carpet of soft, green moss, and the tips of rusted pipes curl out of the chaotic wreckage. I wander up the mossy stairs. I'm able to look down into an old room. The only identifiable artifact is a perfectly circular slab of concrete. A museum-like sign on the wall claims this was Escobar's cell and that the circular slab was where he had his rotating, round bed. In old pictures I've seen of Escobar's cell (which looked more like a Sofitel suite), his bed is square, so I'm inclined to think that this rotating bed was part of The Cathedral's elaborate disco. And I'm sure it was put to good use, too.

Escobar and his men were constantly drinking booze and smoking pot while inside. Sources say the drug lord became quite talkative when he was high. Needless to say, there was also a state of the art industrial kitchen on the premises, and Escobar hired many of the best chefs in Medellín to come cook there. On his 42nd birthday, the kingpin hosted a lavish banquet, and many of his friends and family were transported up to the prison for the fiesta. They ate stuffed turkey, caviar, fresh salmon, and smoked trout. Parties were commonplace, and models, beauty queens, and prostitutes were regularly driven up to the prison in the back of a covered military truck.

***

Escobar required a substantial cash flow to support this rather agreeable lifestyle. In order to get cash inside the prison, his men on the outside would squeeze tightly rolled wads of one hundred dollar American bills into milk cans. Then, whenever the early morning mountain fog provided enough cover, his men would bury the cans in the dirt surrounding the compound. Each can reportedly contained a million dollars. While wandering the grounds, I keep an eye out for suspicious lumps in the dirt.

After a few months of semi-retirement, Escobar grew restless. He was still the head of the Medellín Cartel and was being paid a "war tax" of $200,000 a month by each of the cartel bosses on the outside. But he wanted more. He desperately wanted to reconsolidate his empire. The CIA was still listening in on telephone calls from the hilltops surrounding The Cathedral. A busy job, I’m sure, considering every inmate was given his own Motorola cell phone. Aware of the constant phone surveillance, Escobar raised carrier pigeons to facilitate secure communication. Keeping in step with his characteristic boldness, Escobar even had little leg-bands created for his pigeons that read "Pablo Escobar—Maximum Security Prison—Envigado"

140606-campagna-escobar3-embed
Tania Lacaria

Reports of the luxurious netherworld in which Escobar reveled began to reach the government in early 1992. The new Justice Minister, Eduardo Mendoza, was shown photos of the posh amenities that had slowly been brought into the prison. When Mendoza started to investigate, he found that every single piece of The Cathedral's furnishings were completely legal. Each item had been stamped and approved in efficient triplicate by his very own Bureau of Prisons. He was furious. Mendoza decided the only effective solution was to build a new prison—a real prison. But, per Escobar's terms of surrender, the only facility in which he could legally be detained was The Cathedral. The new prison would have to be built right on top of the current one, with Escobar still inside. News of this plan did not sit well with the world's most famous inmate.

Unable to trust his corrupt Bureau of Prisons with the construction, Mendoza sought help from the U.S., only to find that they were prohibited from assisting in the construction of a prison that wasn't on American soil. Mendoza then approached Colombian contractors, but they were far too intimidated by the ever-present menace of Escobar. One contractor even said to Mendoza, "We are not going to build a cage with the lion already inside."

Mendoza finally found an Israeli security expert named Eitan Koren who was willing to take on the challenge. Koren drafted up blueprints. Workmen were hired from the most distant nooks and crannies of the country to ensure they weren't connected to the powerful cartel. It was a clever idea, but ultimately pointless. As work slowly began, Escobar's men were seen sitting on the prison fences writing down the license plate numbers of all the new vehicles that came and went from The Cathedral. Scared for their lives, most of the workmen walked off the job.

The Medellín Cartel was generating more revenue than ever. Two to three tons of cocaine were being trafficked into the U.S. every week—even more than before Escobar's incarceration. Safe within his mountaintop fortress, Escobar grew bolder and more unscrupulous. In July 1992, he made a move to take even more control of the cartel, one that would bring his residency at The Cathedral to an abrupt end.

On the outside, Fernando Galeano and Gerardo Moncada, two bosses of the Medellín Cartel, were growing suspiciously wealthy. Escobar decided to raise their "war tax" from $200,000 to $1 million dollars per month.  Escobar also stole $20 million from their private stash house. When Galeano and Moncada visited The Cathedral to complain, Escobar first lectured them about their place in the pecking order and then had them both executed in the prison. One account claims they were brutally tortured before being killed, that they were "hung upside down and bled like steers." Other reports claim that the bodies of Galeano and Moncada had been dismembered in The Cathedral and buried nearby so as to never be found.

News of the executions reached the government almost immediately. President Gaviria had had enough. "We made a huge mistake," Gaviria later said, "we underestimated the capacity of Escobar for corruption and intimidation. He was running his business from jail." On July 21, 1992, Gaviria gave the orders to move Escobar to a military base in Bogotá. There was just one tiny problem: nobody had the cojones to go in and get him—not Rafael Pardo, the Defense Minister, not Andrés Gonzales, the newly appointed Justice Minister, not Col. Hernando Navas, the Military Director of Prisons, not even Gen. Gustavo Pardo, who currently had The Cathedral surrounded with a four hundred man brigade.

Mendoza, who had recently been demoted to Vice Minster of Justice, resolved to go in and get Escobar on his own. Television reports of troops amassing in the hills around The Cathedral were all over the news. It was now dark, and any chance of a surprise attack had been squandered. Escobar was waiting for Mendoza as he walked up the dirt path and into the compound. He noticed Escobar and his men had all put on considerable weight during their imprisonment. The dining hall, it seemed, had been put to more use than the gymnasium.

"You have betrayed me, Señor Vice Minster," Escobar said to Mendoza. "President Gaviria has betrayed me. You are going to pay for this. And this country is going to pay for this because I have an agreement and you are breaking that agreement. You're doing this to deliver me to the Americans." On Escobar's order, Popeye took Mendoza hostage in the warden's house while Escobar tried to figure his way out of the bind.

With the Vice Minster of Justice now a hostage, Gen. Pardo's 4th brigade had little choice but to strike. All hell broke loose. Mendoza managed to escape amid the frenzy. A sergeant from the Directorate General of Prisons, Mina Olmedo, was shot and killed, and eleven other guards were badly injured. At some point during the madness, the most famous prison inmate in the world and nine of his henchmen simply walked out the back door, past a few guards, into the thick woodland of Mont Catedral.

***

The sky begins to cloud over. I'm standing at the eastern edge of the compound where Escobar would have entered the woods during his escape into the mountains. I'm surrounded by mossy ruins that just barely retain the shape of a building. 

For fifteen years after Escobar’s escape, the carcass of The Cathedral sat in purgatory. It was far from deserted, however. With visions of million-dollar milk cans dancing in their heads, the people of Medellín flocked to the legendary prison with sledgehammers, pitchforks, and shovels. These would-be fortune hunters mounted what I imagine to be one of the largest, most enthusiastic civilian excavation campaigns in Colombian history. They dug, demolished, and dismantled The Cathedral brick by brick, looking for the leftovers of Escobar's fortune. Those who were more practical merely went to collect scrap metal, shingles, and other recyclable building materials.

Yovany Moncada, who at the time lived in Socorro, the closest neighborhood to The Cathedral, admitted to me that he was one of those hopeful amateur archaeologists. "We never found anything," he said. "Escobar's men, who knew where everything was, managed to get there first." The site also became popular with Pablo-pilgrims. Foreign tourists would often hike up the winding road and camp out in the ruins. Why? I haven't the faintest idea.

Things changed in 2007. The government of Colombia decided to loan the 28,000 square meter fixer-upper to a fraternity of hermetic Benedictine monks. In the seven years since they moved in, the monks have transformed the site into a "center of religious and cultural tourism" complete with a chapel, a library, a cafeteria, a guest house for religious pilgrimages, workshops, an ecological trail, and a memorial to victims of the cartel. What was once a half prison, half luxury resort is now part house of prayer and part house of horrors. The Cathedral was an oxymoron then and still is. It seems to be cursed with an endless identity crisis. In the last year, however, the monks have established a refuge for senior citizens who can't afford long-term care facilities in the city. The monks hired unemployed men and women to take care of the seniors and even paid for their training. Currently, there are twenty-four occupants.

The gatekeeper appears once again. I ask him about The Cathedral's reported ghost sightings. "I haven't seen anything," he mumbles, shaking his head while staring down at the ground, "but the night patrolman says he has seen white figures like floating blankets." Several others claim to have seen a robust figure wearing a hat and a poncho crouched against a table in the library. In 2010, nuns who were visiting the monastery had taken pictures of the waterfall just past where Escobar's bunker had been. Upon returning to Bogotá they developed the film and found bright lights rising up from the water. Apparently, they were terrified. The most terrifying thing I encounter during my visit is a fat, white Himalayan stray cat with red eyes and a scrunched up face.

A gigantic mural with a picture of Escobar behind bars hangs on an original thirty-foot concrete wall that supports one of the new seniors buildings. He is wearing a silly fur hat, and below his pudgy face is written, "Those who don't know their history are condemned to repeat it." It's a big, fat cliché, but, right here, right now, it feels somehow applicable. Nearly half a mile down the mountain, the city of Medellín has its sights set on the future—on modernization, on redemption. Two months ago, Medellín was named 'Innovation City of the Year' by the Wall Street Journal However, the gangs still operate. And the cartels still traffic. But hell, progress is still progress.

As dusk approaches, a fog creeps up the slope of the mountain and swallows the sprawling city below—just like Pablo promised. Then comes the rain. As I head back to the car, I look up and watch the old folks slowly waddle to a nearby building for shelter. The somber bambuco music plays on.