Colombia's monks transform a space of violence into a place of peace

The monks are trying to erase the bloody history of a grand villa that once served as a prison for one of Colombia's most brutal drug lords.

Jeremy Kutner
La Catedral, a former prison is now home to monks.

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

A monument to Colombia’s violent, traumatic past once loomed over the misty hills surrounding Medellín – a decadent villa that formerly served as the prison for Pablo Escobar, the country’s most notorious drug lord. But now, after years of indecision about how to deal with such a painful national symbol, a trio of Benedictine monks has helped construct a monastery on the spot.

Known as La Catedral, the former prison was custom-built to Escobar’s tastes in the early 1990s in exchange for his willingness to submit to confinement. Escobar filled the compound with supporters, a Jacuzzi, and prostitutes, and was rumored to continue operation of his drug empire while in custody. The arrangement ended when Escobar, threatened with extradition, simply walked out of “jail” and into hiding. He was killed not long after.

The monastery construction project began a couple of years ago when La Catedral still lay in ruins. The site had become popular with treasure seekers, who believed Escobar had buried millions in the surrounding hills. Now the winding road to the monastery is populated mostly by urban mountain bikers.

The monastic complex, called La Virgen Desata Nudos (Virgin Mary Untier of Knots), holds services on the last Sunday of every month for hundreds of worshipers. It features a library, a chapel, and community meeting spaces. Escobar’s old soccer field is now a meditation garden. For the rest of the month, the monks live in silent seclusion.

Orley Cano, a local farmer, was recruited by the monks to be the monastery’s caretaker. He says he remembers, years ago, when the nights were pierced with screams coming from La Catedral. For Escobar and his men, “killing, living – it was the same thing,” he says.

The project of converting history, though, is a difficult one. Many locals still feel a sense of admiration and respect for Escobar for the wealth and benefits he showered on locals here, despite the violence associated with him.

Normally silent, one of the monks, Father Gabriel Gilberto de Jesús Jaramillo, told a local paper in 2008 that “Many acts happened here that the country knows about. People were killed. For that reason we say prayers for atonement for everything that happened here, prayers for liberation for everything that took place.”

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