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The Real Sites That Inspired Netflix's Drug Lord Drama Narcos

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One of Netflix's newest original series, Narcos, gives a Goodfellas treatment to the story of Pablo Escobar, the infamous leader of the Medellín drug cartel who at one point supplied 80 percent of the world's cocaine (that's 15 tons per day to the U.S. alone). While numerous books, miniseries and movies have documented, sensationalized and retold the story of history's wealthiest criminal, Narcos went to serious lengths in an attempt for authenticity, filming on location in many sites in Colombia (though the accent of the Brazilian actor playing Escobar could be improved). The first season begins with a message about magical realism, the surrealistic literary style of authors such as Gabriel García Márquez, and adds that, "there's a reason magical realism was born in Colombia." On a similar note, there's a reason the Escobar story is so captivating; fact is often as incredible, or more so, than fiction. No places bear that out more than the residences the multibillion-dollar drug boss constructed for himself, his friends and his family. Escobar's Hacienda Napoles and La Catedral prison complex symbolized not just unimaginable wealth, but unchecked power.


Video shootage shot by a local television station of Hacienda Napoles.

Hacienda Napoles
It's common for self-made entrepreneurs to decorate their homes with mementos of their business successes. When you're the largest drug trafficker in the world, mounting a single-engine Piper Cub airplane—the one you flew on your first drug runs—above the entrance to your ranch shows that you're still connected to your roots. After spending $63 million for 7.7 square miles of land in 1979, Escobar invested untold millions more building his own retreat, a Spanish-style colonial villa in Colombia complete with an airstrip, helipads, 24 artificial lakes, and a swimming pool containing a marble statue of Venus. He fashioned the sprawling estate in the Magdalena Medio region into a playground for him and his family, complete with a Go-Kart track and one of the world's largest private zoos, a menagerie of animals including giraffes, ostriches, elephants, a "football-playing kangaroo" and hippos, some of which have escaped and adapted to the native climate.

One associate recalls Escobar taking hovercraft out on the nearby River Claro, and if they ever hit anything, calling in a helicopter and just leaving the machine to be scrapped. While every luxury of Escobar's estate isn't depicted on screen, Narcos does use Napoles as a backdrop to Escobar's rise, and a symbol of his power and (assumed) invincibility; during one scene, the cartel boss becomes frustrated that the exotic birds he imported to his ranch won't stay still in the trees, as they were trained to do.

After Escobar was killed in 1993, his family fought to keep hold of the property, but they were eventually forced to cede it to the Colombian government. The grounds have since been turned into a family-friendly zoo, which still contains some of the dinosaur statues Escobar had made for his children. It's likely the only former drug lord mansion that has received a TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence.

Video footage of El Catedral.

El Catedral
The tide truly begins to turn for Escobar in real life, and during the first season of Narcos, when he orders the 1990 bombing of Avianca Flight 203, which was supposed to contain Presidential candidate César Gaviria Trujillo. The assassination attempt and resulting loss of innocent life led to a concerted effort by the government to punish Escobar. The kingpin, still at the height of his power, decided to turn himself in to avoid extradition to the United States, and in the process, convinced the government to allow him to construct his own prison a few miles from Rionegro, his hometown near Medellín. Built on the mountainside of Mont Catedral, the complex wasn't anybody's idea of hard time; the cinder block walls and electrified fences were built to keep other cartels out as opposed to holding criminals inside, and the mountainous site was a precaution to prevent raids from rivals. Narcos depicts an endless parade of guests, girls and gifts being ferried via truck to the prison, and the reality (a truck with a false bottom became a gateway for supplies and contraband) is just as unbelievable.

Escobar was theoretically in "solitary," since he was the only prisoner, but by negotiating the right to choose his own guards, he was able to spend his days partying with friends and could run his cartel from behind bars (he even had access to a fax machine). His lodging was also first class. Besting even the most elaborate white collar prisons in the United States, El Catedral boasted a Jacuzzi, a waterfall, a well-appointed bedroom with a circular, rotating bed, a full bar and a soccer field. Located so close to his family's home that he could look through a telescope to see his daughter as they talked on the phone—the same daughter who had a doll house to play with when she visited her father in prison—it was more resort, referred to as Club Medellin or Hotel Escobar. Wedding receptions were held inside, and an ESPN documentary suggests Escobar had pro soccer players visit for pick-up games.

Escobar was able to get away with this arrangement until word leaked to the press that he invited underlings to the prison and had them killed. The government responded by attempting to transfer him to another prison, which resulted in botched negotiations with the deputy justice minister and the chief of the national prison system, the officials being held in a hostage situation, and eventually, an escape by Escobar. The prison has since fallen into disrepair (many have dug through the complex trying to find Escobar's buried money). A group of Benedictine monks (the Benedictina Fraternidad Monastica Santa Gertrudis) have since taken over the grounds and transformed the site into an elderly care center, a sharp contrast to Escobar's life of excess. Tourists can now take photos of the stained glass inside the chapel, formerly a guard house built by the world's most notorious outlaw.

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