MEDELLÍN — The city of Medellín wants to find ways to properly honor victims of drug violence, with actions including demolishing an abandoned building that once housed the family of infamous drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, boss of the Medellín cartel.

The structure, called the Monaco Building, has become a tourist attraction to the dismay of local officials. In January 1988, the rival Cali cartel set off a massive car bomb outside the Monaco, hoping to kill Escobar and his family. The explosion shook the neighborhood and marked the start of a brutal war between the Cali and Medellín cartels.

Medellín's city hall sees it as a symbol of pain, and a misused one at that if it helps to impart a bit of glamor on bloody criminals. Mayor Federico Gutiérrez wants to demolish the structure and have it replaced by late 2019 with a park to honor victims who, in contrast with the man who rained bullets on them, are slipping into oblivion.

"We do not want to negate history," says city official Manuel Villa.

The municipality wants to "change our references as a society," says Villa. "So the children who didn't know who Pablo Escobar was do not see him as a kind of Robin Hood as some try to portray him. Too many, instead, have never heard of Guillermo Cano, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, Luis Carlos Galán or Colonel Valdemar Franklin Quinter — people who gave their lives fighting lawlessness and they are the ones we must highlight." Villa's list includes prominent politicians and a senior policeman killed during Colombia's war on drugs in the 1980s.

We allowed fiction to tell our story.

Others in Medellín want the building left in place, precisely to remember Escobar's crimes. Since his death, it has served variously as head offices for banana companies, private health providers and shipping firms. Repairing it is thought to cost 20 billion pesos (just over $6 million) more than destroying it, and the municipality wants its park ready by late 2019.

Villa says "unintentionally, we allowed fiction to tell our history," referring to various television and web series on Escobar's life. He says institutions now want to recover the initiative on telling history, "the one that honors the victims and heroes, not the capos. Tourists still visit places like the Monaco building where Escobar died, or his tomb. Now we want people to respect the pain and stop excusing crime. Let them know the real history that left thousands dead. We mustn't hesitate in saying we still have symbols of illegality, like the man dubbed Popeye who justifies what he did 30 years ago. These people can't be our references anymore."


A mug shot of Pablo Escobar in Medellín in 1977 — Photo: Colombian National Police

On April 4, to show the government's support for city plans, Colombia's Ministers of Defense and Justice joined the mayor and formally began knocking down the Monaco Building.

The head of the city's House of Memory museum, Adriana Valderrama, says other sites may be treated similarly. "Escobar's victims are angry that the Monaco should become a tourist site without an understanding of its context," she says. "It is not just about knocking down a building. The demolition is intervening in a particular space to make it public again, and allow civic reflection. There are other places we want to integrate in this strategy. We had bombs in the 1970s ... by the end of the 80s we had four bombs a day. If tourism is coming to ask what happened, what they must recognize and visit are places honoring victims."

Gonzalo Enrique Rojas, whose father was one of 107 passengers killed on a flight Escobar had bombed in 1989, says changing the meaning of these places will allow people to reflect on how they themselves must change. "Only five of Escobar's victims have been recognized in the framework of the Law of Victims," he said, adding that such initiatives will help "heal wounds."

The program has coincided with moves to reshape the Colombian image by Colombians living in the United States, where the drug reputation fed by television series is tiresome to many. U.S.-based Colombian artist Ciro Sarmiento has for months been orchestrating an online campaign including short videos, where "shifty" looking Colombians discuss, not "deals" or drugs, but science, cultural heritage or literature.

"Our first objective is the [U.S.] audience, because it is their perception of Colombia we would like to change," says Sarmiento.

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