Once a city synonymous with a heady concoction of drug cartels, murderous rampages, and all-out chaos, Medellin, Colombia – former “murder capital of the world”- has been busy shining its public relation shoes, slashing its crime rates, and churning out tourism gems such as “Come to Medellin, the only risk is not wanting to leave”.
Despite being crowned by guide books as “Colombia’s safest big city” and hearing nothing but glowing reports from other backpackers, I was still decisively apprehensive about going there alone. Clearly my nerves were etched onto my pinched, fear-striken face as the taxi driver gave me a big, toothy grin and told me kindly but firmly to “tranquila.”
After enduring the resplendence of downtown Bogotá, I had wisely opted to stay in one of Medellin’s more affluent neighborhoods. As the taxi screeched to a halt outside my hostel, I thanked the driver for not kidnapping me, dropped my bags and set out to explore the district of El Poblado.
I was instantly struck by how green it was; tropical flowers, green parks, the sound of the Rio Medellin trickling through the city. An impressive array of nice-looking boutiques, bars and restaurants welcomed me and while feeling at ease and encouraged by the clean streets and relaxed vibe, I ventured to Centro, Medellin’s downtown area. Ever so slightly sketchy and crumbling, Centro still manages to conjure up some charm with its beautiful churches, museums and main plaza filled with brilliant larger than life Botero sculptures.
That evening, I found myself deep in thought. I was utterly intrigued as to how Medellin had managed to crawl its way out of a black hole of violence and misery to what it is today: a modern, cosmopolitan city on the up and up. I was also considering the concept of safety: How safe is Medellin and for whom? And in comparison to where? In search of answers I promptly signed myself up for a “Pablo Escobar” expedition around the city.
The following morning I eagerly squeezed my way into a gringo-packed mini-bus. Our Colombian guide Alejandra spent the morning showing us the King of Cocaine’s various once-glorious, now derelict residences, the exact rooftop where he met his
bullet-ridden demise, and finally his resting place. His grave was much less flamboyant than I had expected, but he had good views. Alejandra regaled us with stories of people pissing all over it or snorting lines of coke from it (according to street rumor).
I think at this point, the tour could have quite easily felt sensationalized, but Alejandra was so cynical, bitter, and honest that she provided an invaluable insight into the history of the city . She explained in detail how Pablo and other drug lords like him had reached such heights, fell so low, and were allowed to terrorize Medellin and its people for over a decade. Following Pablo’s death in 1993 and the disbanding of the Medellin Cartel, other cartels, guerrilla groups and paramilitaries have since stepped in and it is only through incredible resilience, well-placed investment, and rapid social and political change that the city has achieved what is has; but the feelings of grief and anger are still raw.
The end of the tour took us to one of Medellin´s most desperate districts, Barrio Corazon de Jesus (Jesus’ heart), also known as Barrio Triste (sad neighborhood). It’s an over-crowded, deeply troubled, and thoroughly depressing commercial area thick with car garages and mechanical workshops. Disused car parts littered the pavement, exhaust fumes choked the air, and huddled tightly on every corner, groups of emaciated old men played cards and smoked crack. Glue sniffing, working street children, and prostitution was also rife. It was one of the most dispiriting sights my eyes have ever seen. I think the point being made and the reminder given was that although the city is now hailed as safe, the Colombian cocaine industry still fuels and funds a multitude of horrors. Large social hierarchical inadequacies still exist, and probably always will, due to its drug lord tyrannous past.
As a tourist or resident, you may no longer be at high risk of being blown to pieces by a car bomb, caught in cross fire or kidnapped, but every gram sold, bought and snorted by backpackers proclaiming that they “fucking love Colombia” is money placed directly into the pockets of Farc and other illegal groups. Groups that, in the words of former Vice President Francisco Sants Calderon, “plant mines, that kidnap, that kill, that use terrorism to protect their business.” Groups that leave the children of Barrio Triste drug dependent for life and that work to undermine everything the people of Medellin have struggled to achieve.
So how safe is Medellin? Unfortunately I’m not armed with statistics, just instinct and personal experience and with those I would say provided that you don’t venture anywhere obviously dodgy or walk home drunk with a wallet full of cash and a camera around your neck, you’ll be fine. Medellin is a fascinating, vibrant city with a rich paisa culture and for that it’s well worth a visit.