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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.

His mansion has been converted into a museum adorned with enlarged photographs of bomb attacks and somber funerals of politicians and presidential candidates assassinated by Escobar’s hired killers.

“This site does not glorify Pablo Escobar but what he did is part of our history,” said Oberdan Martinez, the administrator of the theme park and museum. “We are paying homage to his victims.”

The park, run by a Medellin business group, attracted 65,000 visitors last year. Some of the profits go to the town government of Puerto Triunfo, a nearby community where Escobar used to hand out Christmas presents.

The dinosaur statues have been refurbished. Water slides and sound effects simulating the Jurassic period have been added to entertain children. Monkeys, toucans, geese, zebras, ostriches and flamingos populate the site while hippos still swim in the artificial lakes.

“This is spectacular,” said Roy Gomez, a tourist from Bogota, after feeding carrots to a baby hippo named Vanessa. “Escobar had to have a lot of money to buy all these wild beasts.”

About 200 acres have been handed out to former guerrillas and paramilitary gunmen, who disarmed in exchange for government benefits, as well as to families displaced by the war.

Some of them raise Tabasco peppers, which are sold to a local company that makes hot sauce. One of the rookie Tabasco growers is Robeiro Gomez, who spent six years fighting Marxist guerrillas and their civilian supporters as part of a paramilitary group.

“Working the land is the most honorable thing you can do,” Gomez said. He added that instead of contributing to the country’s violence, he’s now working for a good cause.

But while laudable, getting land into the hands of small farmers isn’t always enough. The Tabasco project was set up as a cooperative for 110 families yet only 16 families participate. That’s partly because finding dedicated farm workers is difficult in an area that's long been dominated by the lucrative cocaine trade.

“The issue is money and physical labor,” said Paola Lozada, a psychologist who counsels co-op members, many of whom are still traumatized by the war. “Some people are not used to working eight hours under the sun.”

In the illegal drug business, she added, “they can make a lot more money in just two or three hours.”

A nearby cacao project has been more successful. Cacao, the raw material for chocolate, is easier to grow than chili peppers and due to rising demand, prices for the product are rising.

As he chops open a cacao pod and pries out the seeds, farmer Francisco Gomez says he’s never owned a square inch of land in his life. But he now grows seven acres of cacao. If the crop succeeds and they stay put, Gomez and his fellow cacao farmers will have the option to buy the land at a low price.

“I’m very happy,” Gomez said. “This is the inheritance that Pablo Escobar left for us.”