MEDELLÍN, Colombia — When the mayor of Medellín showed up, he was bearing a sledgehammer.
He stood with it in front of the former home of Pablo Escobar, the notorious drug lord whose cocaine empire once placed him on lists of the world’s richest and most wanted.
Escobar lived for years in the Monaco Building, a white, six-story edifice with a penthouse apartment on top and his family name still inscribed in fading letters on the exterior.
The building was bombed in 1988 by Escobar’s rivals, and not long afterward, he abandoned it. Weeds grew in cracks in the driveway. A satellite dish collected old leaves. And for a while, Medellín could ignore the now-empty Monaco.
Recently, however, attention to the building has returned, piqued by scores of international books, telenovelas and movies about Escobar.
Tourists now sidle up to the gate, snapping photos and posting them on Instagram. Tour guides stop by. A former cartel hit man-turned-YouTube-star appeared, offering DVDs recounting his exploits with Escobar and anecdotes from the day the building was attacked.
In April, fed up, the mayor intervened.
“This symbol, which is a symbol of illegality, of evil, will be brought to the ground,” said Federico Gutiérrez. The mayor vowed to topple the building by next year and to put a park remembering victims in its place.
How the Monaco Building went from relative obscurity, to global tourist draw, to one of the most publicized demolition projects in Colombia speaks to the uneasy relationship Medellín has with Escobar, the city’s most notorious son. Twenty-five years after he was killed in a police shootout on a Medellín rooftop, the city cannot forget him, no matter how much it might want his legend buried away.
The conflicting response to the building — municipal embarrassment or photo opportunity — is also a prime example of how Medellín still struggles over the Escobar narrative. Who gets to tell this history of the drug wars? Where is it told — in the streets or in museums? And who are the protagonists — the villains or the victims?
I came to live in this city eight months ago. But I first became familiar with Medellín as a child in the early 1990s. It was the height of Escobar’s terror campaigns to protect his multibillion-dollar drug business, and the grisly consequences were shown on the evening news in the United States. Decades later, I was drawn to cover how Medellín had managed to turn the page on its violent past.
The city has become a boomtown where international architects compete to build prestige projects and well-funded technology startups proliferate next to trendy restaurants. Colombia’s metro runs the length of the city; escalators thread the barrios that climb up the sides of the lush valley where the city sits.
Medellín’s residents, a famously proud clan known as paisas, are the first to tell you where their city has advanced to.
But they are the last to mention where it has advanced from — the depths of the cocaine era that brought not only the horror of Escobar but also the money that built its skyline, including the Monaco.
“Paisas say, ‘Dirty clothes should be washed at home,’” Juan Mosquera, a writer in Medellín, told me over lunch when we discussed why local residents avoid even mentioning the Monaco. “It was a mansion of horror. His family didn’t just live there; they killed and tortured people, and they planned the biggest blows toward the city.”
If the city wanted to keep its soiled laundry private, the popular Netflix series “Narcos,” whose first two seasons chronicled the rise and ruin of Escobar, exposed it to millions of global viewers.
Medellín resisted the show from the start. Film crews had trouble getting permission to work in the city, and just hearing the name of the series makes my neighbors bristle.
But the city itself was a key character in “Narcos,” and fans of the show come to Medellín in droves, seeking more stories of Escobar’s life. Must-see stops include Hacienda Nápoles, his ranch outside town; his grave; and La Catedral, the prison built to his specifications.
Daniel Vásquez, who heads public outreach at the Memory House Museum in Medellín, seemed exasperated when I asked why visitors are more interested in the life of the city’s top villain than in visiting this institution dedicated to the victims of the city’s armed conflicts over the past 50 years.
“Pablo Escobar has become the pop icon of this story,” Vásquez said. “The city saw no urgency to tell this part of history. It wasn’t a priority for the government until there was a problem, until suddenly you had narco-tours led by Popeye.”
“Popeye,” the alias of Jhon Jairo Velásquez, a hit man for Escobar, began hawking DVDs and hosting tours of the city after his release from prison in 2016. He also created a side business as a YouTube personality with a channel called “Repentant Popeye.”
In a city still smarting from Escobar’s wounds, the hit man seemed to be anything but sorry. In one video series, “Famous Tombs,” Velásquez goes to the graves of his victims, narrating how he murdered them.
“Here we have Carlos Mauro Hoyos. We kidnapped him in 1988,” says Velásquez, standing at the headstone of Colombia’s former attorney general, explaining how Hoyos was wounded in the leg when he was ambushed and later killed.
“It’s like if members of al-Qaida gave tours in New York about how they had planned 9/11,” said Luis Hernando Mejía, who represents the neighbors association that includes the Monaco, where Popeye would begin his tours.
Popeye was rearrested this May on charges that included extortion.
Héctor Abad, one of the country’s most popular novelists, told me on a visit to his apartment about his father’s killing by a paramilitary group the year before the Monaco was attacked. He said a girlfriend once showed him the scars across her back that came from an Escobar bombing.
And he offered his own home as evidence that no building in Medellín seemed untouched by past crimes. Shortly after he bought the apartment, he found a cache of gold ingots and counterfeit money hidden in a wall.
“You move a brick, and you find a skeleton,” Abad said.
He looked down the hill from his balcony toward where the Monaco — a “cursed building,” he said — sat awaiting the mayor’s wrecking ball. “If someone gave it to me, I would refuse.”
When I caught up with Gutiérrez, I asked the mayor, 43, about the day the Monaco was bombed.
“What did I feel? Fear,” he said. “Not just fear about what had happened but fear for what we are going to become.”
He paused for a moment.
“Why did I decide as the mayor to destroy the Monaco?” he asked himself.
To show that the city had been reborn, he said, and that the law had triumphed over chaos.
But more than anything, he said he wanted to demolish the Monaco because Medellín was sick of telling the same story of the same villain, over and over.
One of the last people I sought out to talk to about the Monaco was Escobar’s son, born Juan Pablo Escobar. He left Colombia after his father was killed, changed his name to Sebastián Marroquín and now works as an architect in Buenos Aires. Marroquín was the only person I could find who was there the day the building was bombed.
At first he said he wanted to talk. But then he stopped answering my emails.
I began to think of what it must have been like for a child to be the son of the country’s richest man, having all six floors of the Monaco for his family, yet with so many threats beyond its walls.
Eventually, I did hear back from Marroquín. I opened the email, thinking perhaps he’d agree to an interview. But he, too, seemed to have had enough of the subject.
“Thanks for your patience,” he wrote. “I’ve been on the road for more than a month. I think we should leave this one for some other time.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.