COLOMBIA >> As the looming gray building imploded, crumbling into a pile of debris and dust, a crowd of onlookers cheered. Some wept.
The televised blast Friday that leveled the Monaco building, the former home of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar in Medellín, Colombia, erased a symbol of the city’s past that many have tried to forget. In its place, the city is planning a memorial park to honor the victims of his drug cartel’s crimes.
“Today, that building falls and hope begins,” President Iván Duque of Colombia said in a televised statement. “It is impossible to change the past, but you can build a better present and a better future.”
Escobar lived in the Monaco building for years until 1988, when rivals bombed it. The Escobar family abandoned the structure, and it has remained vacant ever since. But more than 25 years after Escobar’s death, the six-story building with a penthouse had still sparked heated debate, as city officials weighed the potential tourist draw of the site against the urge to move on from a painful past.
The drug lord’s legacy has cast a shadow over Medellín, driven in part by new documentaries, television shows like the Netflix hit “Narcos” and books that have focused on Escobar’s life — often neglecting the details of his victims and glorifying his legacy.
In death, he has become something of a folk hero, for his meteoric rise from the working class to billionaire, and for his generosity to some, building houses and hospitals for the poor.
Medellín, called the world’s most dangerous city by Time magazine in 1988, has seen violent crime plummet and has increasingly become a tourist destination. Some have capitalized on the city’s history as a narcotics hot spot.
Tour guides — including Pablo Escobar’s top hit man, John Jairo Velásquez, known as Popeye — take customers on walks through the cartel’s old haunts. Street vendors sell T-shirts emblazoned with Escobar’s face.
But the tourist narrative often leaves out the impact of his bloody rise to power and the bribery, kidnappings and killings of anyone who dared defy the cartel.
The mayor of Medellín, Federico Gutiérrez, told local news outlet El Colombiano before the demolition that knocking down the structure was an important symbolic step forward for the city and the country.
He said that flipping the narrative by emphasizing victims’ stories, rather than glorifying the illegal activity of Escobar and others like him, was essential to reclaiming Colombia’s national story.
“We are concerned about the way in which we have narrated, and stopped narrating, our own history,” Gutiérrez said. “In most stories, the perpetrators are the protagonists, and this has long-term consequences, because it ends up validating an environment of illegality.”
The city consulted with neighbors, academics, local artists and the families of victims to design the memorial park, he said.
The purpose of demolishing the Monaco “is not to erase history,” he said. “We need our young people to know the stories, to tell them this cannot happen again.”
On Friday, Gutiérrez joined dozens of victims’ families and members of the community for a ceremony on the grounds of a hotel near the site of the Monaco, where they watched the building fall.
“Medellín can tell a different story,” he told the crowd. “Today a symbol falls, and a light of hope is born.”