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Colombia: Welcome to a drug lord's playground

Pablo Escobar liked to relax at Hacienda Napoles. Now it's a tourist attraction.

HACIENDA NAPOLES, Colombia — When he wasn’t smuggling cocaine or ordering hit men to gun down his enemies, Pablo Escobar liked to relax at Hacienda Napoles, his personal playground and petting zoo.

The 7,000-acre ranch included a private airport, dinosaur statues and 20 artificial lakes, as well as herds of elephants, zebras and hippos.

Today, 17 years after Escobar was gunned down, Hacienda Napoles has been turned into a tourist attraction. The site is home to a museum and a Jurassic-era theme park. Part of the property has been set aside for peasant farmers. And in a nice twist, a chunk of the estate houses a maximum security prison.

Hacienda Napoles represents a rare victory in the government’s campaign to seize the properties of drug lords and turn them into productive ventures.

Over the years, traffickers are believed to have acquired more than 9 million acres — representing about 8 percent of Colombia’s best grazing and farm lands. Because the properties were purchased to launder drug money, they often sat idle or were turned into private airports and golf courses.

Read: From fine art to rubbish — the stashes of drug traffickers

All the while, legions of rural families were forced off their land amid Colombia’s ongoing guerrilla war and many have crowded into slums in Bogota and other cities.

These factors help explain why Colombia has one of the most unequal ratios of land distribution in Latin America. Government officials here have long advocated seizing drug lord properties and turning some of them over to landless peasants, but the task has proved frustrating and, in many cases, impossible.

That’s because many of the traffickers' assets — from farm land and condominiums to luxury vehicles and private jets — are registered in the names of friends and associates of the bad guys. These degrees of separation combined with Colombia’s slow legal system and multiple appeals by the defendants means that seizure cases are often tied up in court for more than a decade.

So far, the government has managed to expropriate only about 250,000 acres, less than 3 percent of the land thought to be held by traffickers. Of that amount, just 80,000 acres have been distributed to peasant farmers, according to Omar Figueroa, who heads the National Narcotics Department, the government agency that administers seized assets.

“Obviously, it’s not enough, given the demand for land in Colombia,” Figueroa said in an interview.

Even when properties of dead drug lords are targeted, expropriation can take a decade or more. Escobar was killed in 1993 but the government was unable to secure the title to Hacienda Napoles until 2006.

Still, the projects on Escobar’s former estate offer a glimpse of the possibilities.