How Pablo Escobar Made His Own Prison Palace

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What do you do when the most wanted man in your country also happens to be one of the richest and most powerful people on the planet? For the authorities in Colombia, the answer was this: you cut a deal. One of the strangest and most outlandish deals in the history of criminality.

Pablo Escobar, the billionaire CEO of a vast business empire – albeit one that was illegal and soaked in blood – was given permission to create his own custom-made prison, in a plum position overlooking the city of Medellin. Dubbed the Cathedral, it boasted all the perks and luxuries of a celebrity hideaway, complete with its own football pitch, hot tub, giant doll house and state-of-the-art kitchen. Just the place for a cocaine kingpin to hold court, safe in the knowledge he would never be extradited to the United States.

The willing surrender of the world’s most notorious criminal in 1991 was not exactly the blunt delivery of justice many of Escobar’s victims would have had in mind. It was the result of complex negotiations, with Escobar reasoning that – after years as a fugitive, and in constant danger of being eliminated by his equally vicious rivals – he was better off entering the secure embrace of the authorities. By any conceivable measure, he got the better end of the deal. The authorities may have technically snared the infamous Pablo Escobar, but he would live in security and luxury, safe from enemy cartels, with guards who effectively doubled as his manservants in a complex that was quickly dubbed “Hotel Escobar”. And it wasn’t as if his criminal operations had been shut down. Far from it. Hotel Escobar, as well as being a comfortable place to lounge around and entertain his VIP pals, also became the new headquarters of his business empire – a fact that would eventually embarrass the government into action.

During his short, strange stay in his prison-palace, Escobar was known for his extravagant get-togethers. As his much-feared, ultra-violent lieutenant, Popeye Velasquez, later recalled, they once had the Colombian national football team over for lunch, which was followed by the excited drug lord having a kick about with the players while the prison guards served drinks like waiters. Then there was the occasion of Escobar’s birthday, which saw caviar, salmon and other delicacies brought into the complex – along with the regular gaggles of sex workers and beauty queens to entertain the male revellers.

For Escobar, it was fun while it lasted. But even this brazen kingpin couldn’t get away with this kind of behaviour for long, and things came to a head when he was implicated in the murders of two of his underlings. They were actually killed right there in the Cathedral, over a pay dispute, and it was this kind of unashamed brutality within so-called custody that spurred the government to clamp down on Escobar.

It was decided that he would be transferred from his cushy pad to a conventional holding pen – and this did not go down well with the kingpin and his men. When the chief of prisons and the deputy justice secretary arrived at the Cathedral to effectively apprehend Escobar, the gun-toting minions were far from cowed. The aforementioned Popeye Velasquez waved a sub-machine gun in the officials’ faces, vowing to slaughter them on the spot.

The tense standoff only ended when the Colombian military abruptly burst into the complex to rescue the hostages. Somehow, in the ensuing violence and chaos, Escobar vanished into the countryside. After just over a year in his self-created sanctuary, Escobar was now on the run for good. The fiasco of the Cathedral, “Hotel Escobar”, was over. “We made a huge mistake,” the President of Colombia said, rather understating the situation. “We underestimated the capacity of Escobar for corruption and intimidation.”

Which is something many wouldn’t have thought possible, but either way – Escobar’s life of privilege was over, and he would be gunned down the very next year.