Editor's note: GlobalPost featured this article in "Great Weekend Reads," a free compilation of the week's most colorful stories. To receive Great Weekend Reads by email, let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
BOGOTA, Colombia — Under a thick layer of dust in a Bogota warehouse lie goods confiscated from drug traffickers that range from fine art to just plain crap.
In one corner sits a trio of elephant tusks. An oil painting of Pablo Escobar shooting pool hangs on one of the walls. Stacked is a back room are the steel segments of a homemade submarine used to smuggle drugs.
The site also houses stacks of blue jeans, a dozen bread-making machines and an old sign for a dry cleaning store — all of which were seized from front companies used by traffickers to launder money.
“This is a device for producing ecstasy,” said warehouse manager Rudolfo Velasco as he pointed to a hulking German pill-making machine. “It was confiscated along with 11,744 doses of ecstasy.”
The seizure of ill-gotten goods is a major part of the Colombian government’s offensive against drug traffickers. Not only does it hurt the criminals in their wallets but some of their domestic furnishings, properties and businesses can be turned into profitable ventures for the government, auctioned off or donated to good causes.
But taking care of tens of thousands of assets has turned into an unwieldy and seemingly endless task.
To store all the stuff, the government has set up a nationwide network of warehouses, including 10 storage sites in Bogota. Officials must also maintain hundreds of seized farms, condominiums and businesses and keep them in good condition in case their owners are exonerated by Colombian legal system and their assets are returned to them.
In a few cases, agents have been authorized to immediately sell seized assets, such as mangoes and watermelons that would otherwise spoil. But most items must be preserved for use as evidence in trials involving alleged traffickers which can drag on for years.
The National Narcotics Department was originally designed to help formulate government drug policies. But according to Interior Minister Fabio Valencia Cossio, it has come to resemble a combination mini-storage and real-estate business. That's why the department is in the process of handing off confiscated narco goods to a newly created government entity designed to maintain them.
But there are some success stories.
Take the bizarre saga of Hacienda Napoles, a massive country estate that belonged to Escobar who stocked it with exotic animals. After Escobar was gunned down in 1993, the government seized the property which also meant taking over responsibility for the site's zebras, elephants and monkeys.
In 2006, two of Escobar’s hippos — Pepe and Matilda — escaped. Citing public safety concerns, the government issued a shoot-to-kill order and bounty hunters eventually bagged Pepe. But newspaper photos of the dead hippo sparked outrage among animal-rights activists and the government called off the hunt.
Today, the remaining hippos are a tourist attraction at Hacienda Napoles, which has been turned into a combination zoo, amusement park, museum and farm cooperative.
Another reclamation project is Drogas La Rebaja, a pharmacy chain closely linked to the now-defunct Cali drug cartel. It had 400 stores when the business was seized. Under government management, the chain has expanded to 800 stores and is the largest pharmacy in Colombia.
“We’ve sold about 2,000 properties and items for the equivalent of $150 million, which is a lot of money,” said Omar Figueroa, who heads the National Narcotics Department. “We are now making a profit.”
With so many things to keep track of, some officials have taken advantage.
Last year, Figueroa denounced 126 cases of theft, extortion, fraud and money laundering within his own department.
“It’s truly been overwhelming,” Figueroa said in an interview.
But most seized farmland, houses, vehicles, clothing and domestic furnishings remain in legal limbo and have been locked up, fenced off or jammed into warehouses.
Parked in the garage of the Bogota storage facility are cargo trucks seized for transporting acetone, potassium permanganate and other chemicals used to make cocaine and heroin. One wing of the building is filled with plastic-wrapped Louis XV-style sofas that belonged to Elizabeth Montoya, a Cali cartel go-between who was assassinated. Her assemblage of European dress shoes brings to mind the Imelda Marcos collection.
But the warehouse is also stocked with rusty birdcages, broken Christmas creches, dented bicycles and other items that any sane homeowner would hide in the attic or haul to the nearest landfill.
“When there’s an anti-drug operation, everything gets seized,” said Velasco, the warehouse manager. “And as long as the lawsuits continue, we can’t throw away anything.”