The swimming pool lies empty and drained of water. A gentle breeze stirs the palm leaves, and the faint lapping of the surf can be heard. Other than that, though, there is no sound. And looking at these eerie, peaceful and dilapidated surroundings, it’s hard to imagine the wild parties that once rocked these grounds – the music, the dancing, and the laughter.
In the midst of it all, some of the most powerful men in South America – and perhaps the world – would have no doubt discussed money, drug smuggling, and the unsavory fates of their rivals.
These inconspicuous-looking islands off the coast of Cartagena were once luxurious playgrounds for billionaire drug lords like Pablo Escobar. They may have used them to relax and unwind from the stresses of running multinational crime organizations, to entertain friends and allies, or even to plan their next big move.
It looks like photographer Foantje – a.k.a. Stefaan Beernaert – surprised someone while he was exploring. We’re not quite sure if this is the type of character Escobar would have wanted while he was around. Then again, he did have his own zoo at his mansion in Puerto Triunfo, Antioquia, so maybe the drug cartel kingpin would have allowed this trespasser to roam freely.
Although ruined buildings like these are mere husks of what they were, the blue sky and warm azure waters would have made this a perfect place for any criminal mastermind to forget his cares for a while. It must have been a far cry from Escobar’s humble origins in the Colombian suburb of Medellín where, so the story goes, he began his life of crime by stealing, sanding and reselling tombstones.
Looking at the broken-down state of these properties, it’s quite hard to imagine the wealth of the men who once lived there. Escobar alone was so rich it’s said that rats ate up to a billion dollars of his money annually while it was in storage. But what’s a billion dollars when you’re making an estimated profit of $20 billion annually?
Waste is a terrible thing, so we’re happy to see that someone is making use of this cute little blue shack on the water. Once the ‘house of the guard’, it is now occupied by a squatter, offering a room with a view for non-billionaires.
If you were a wealthy kingpin without any scruples, what exotic building material would you build your house from? For the owner of this villa, it was coral. And since the coral reefs in these waters are protected, making an environmentally conservative home obviously wasn’t a priority.
Here’s a nice, quiet looking courtyard – and we love the white arches. Perhaps Escobar came here to contemplate his rapid rise up the criminal ladder, from tombstone re-selling and car theft, to kidnapping and ransoming a local businessman. When he eventually entered the drug trade, a life of crime must have been pretty much assured for Escobar.
We don’t think this building is falling apart – more incomplete. We wonder what it would have been. A guest house perhaps? Or a series of games rooms? Perhaps Escobar was planning to use it as a rat-free storage space for his ill-gotten gains. By the time he died in 1993, Escobar had become one of the wealthiest men in the world and controlled a drug cartel that did business all over North and South Americas – possibly stretching as far as Asia.
Since the walls and floor are tiled, we can probably assume that this was a bathroom. The tiles display a feminine touch, with a border of flowers at the top. Maybe they were chosen by the drug lord’s wife: Escobar married Maria Victoria when he was 26 and she was only 15. The marriage lasted until Escobar’s demise, but so did Escobar’s affairs and his fondness for underage girls.
The bars on these arched windows were no doubt superfluous. You would have to be pretty foolhardy to try and steal from a Colombian drug lord with no qualms about killing people.
Seeing it in this state, it’s difficult to imagine the former luxurious condition of the property. It’s said that Escobar spent $2,500 a month on rubber bands to keep his wads of cash together! He even had to buy a Learjet to transport the enormous amounts of money he was earning.
If these walls could talk, we wonder what despicable crimes they’d tell us about. Becoming the leader of a drug empire certainly isn’t for the kindhearted. Escobar’s way of dealing with problems with the law was known as "plata o plomo", which translates as silver or lead. Basically, you took his silver – in bribes – or his lead – in bullets. Not much of a choice, really.
Of course, it wasn’t only those who worked for the law that were at risk from Escobar; it was pretty much anyone who stood in his way. Once, on November 27, 1989, Escobar’s Medellín cartel planted a bomb on an Avianca flight with the intention of assassinating a presidential candidate. In the end, 110 people were killed in the explosion. And the worst part? The target wasn’t even on board. So who knows what evil acts were plotted within these seemingly peaceful, pastel blue rooms?
Despite Pablo Escobar’s horrific crimes, there were those who considered him a hero. Cultivating a ‘Robin Hood’ image, the drug lord built schools, hospitals, churches and stadiums. He even constructed an entire neighborhood of 450 red brick, tax- and rent-free homes for the poor. Presumably the houses weren’t quite as expansive as this though.
We’re not really sure what the purpose of these window covers was. You can see them on the indoor windows in one of the earlier photographs in this series. Were they used for protection? Or were they, perhaps, some kind of bizarre fashion statement? It was the ‘80s after all.
Even the heads of multi-billion dollar drug cartels have to sit down sometimes. It’s possible that this rather unassuming looking chair could have supported an infamous posterior at some point. Either way, we like its retro style.
Looking at the white, rectangular shape of this particular building, we can’t help but think of a mausoleum. Appropriate when you consider how many people have lost their lives in the Colombian drug wars over the years.
Pablo Escobar famously said, “I prefer to be in the grave in Colombia than in a jail cell in the United States.” And he got his choice when he was shot dead on December 2, 1993, a day after his 44th birthday. No doubt there was a large sigh of relief from law enforcement officials.
Today, his island properties, along with those of his associates, stand deserted and in ruin. Now they’re owned by the state, patrolled by security guards and slowly being reclaimed by the island vegetation.