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The Stigma of Medellin

January 1st, 2011 | By: Admin | 2 Comments » | Posted in FrontPage, Tourism

“Medellín Colombia”. Even the name carries a stigma. Simply saying it aloud and allowing it to linger in the air without further comment conjures images of sunglass wearing drug kingpins, horrific news reports, elusive guerrillas, and bands of roving assassins terrorizing a population.


The city has only been mentioned outside of South America for a seemingly endless river of cocaine and blood, being the very embodiment of a city outside the jurisdiction of any recognized law or order; the Wild West with AK47s and C4 explosives instead of Colts and Winchesters. The city was the personal fiefdom of criminal organizations who ruled openly and in defiance of international will.


Words are metaphors. Simply stringing together a few letters can silently impart an entire concept, conversation, or lifetime without further comment. Their associations are learned over time and carry the full range of emotions packed into them, and often vary from person to person depending on our experiences.


There are typically only three things associated with the city of Medellín: cocaine, murder, and beautiful women. And the “beautiful women” association is only really known within South America.

But word association exercises regarding “Medellín” are generally simple rather than complex because there are typically only three things associated with the city of Medellín: cocaine, murder, and beautiful women. And the “beautiful women” association is only really known within South America.


North Americans never get past the first two to even have heard about the third. It’s a beautiful city of roughly 2.4 million people set in the approaches to the Andes, the second city of Colombia, an economic powerhouse, and an emerging destination for CEOs, dignitaries, and now tourists.


Yet the stigma remains, and the mere presence of the name lingering in the air after having said it, is enough to cause people to recoil in amazement at hearing it mentioned as your next destination. I think that alone attracted me to the possibility of going.


Lest we allow ourselves to be overcome with incredulity at the world’s harsh and unfair treatment of such a beautiful and pleasant place, it’s important to acknowledge that it’s not irrational for people to think of that “other” Medellín. After all, the American news crews didn’t rush down in the last few years to belabor the renaissance.


To newcomers though, dazzled by tall buildings and shiny glass, it can all seem like a fantasy past; a mythical scary bedtime story of many years ago concocted on Hollywood sound stages and in reels of heavily embellished film. Sitting in Sabaneta today it seems like a cruel joke the media played on the entire world to keep what is a pleasant and beautiful city secret and hidden to only a few “in the know”.


Walking around the malls of Poblado, Envigado, or Llaureles you could easily be fooled into thinking you’re in St. Louis, or Philadelphia. Except that most things in these areas are nicer and cleaner than in either of those two cities; with my begrudging apologies to St. Louis and Philadelphia, but seriously people, yuck.

La Estrada Mall Poblado

La Estrada Plaza in El Poblado

In the fashionable avenues of Medellín the people are very well dressed and polite, even anxious to help you. You’re an attraction in and of yourself just walking down the street because you’re an American in a place where there really just aren’t any. People offer to help you.


But it’s also telling in that they’re helping you in some part because they’re still aware that many people will not come here, and they’re just so happy that you gave them a chance and have bought into the collective populace’s willpower to make the past go away and present the new Medellín to visitors.


But it doesn’t take long to be swept back into the chasm between its storybook present and the cold reality of Medellín’s very near past. The reminders are everywhere. Like walking in Parque San Antonio and seeing old women still coming there to touch their hands in sadness to the monuments to the 23 innocent dead, killed by a bomb going off in crowded park in 1995 for no other reason than that there was a remote chance to kill a few police officers.

Parque San Antonio Monument

Monument to the bombing victims in Parque San Antonio

1995 is not ancient history to most of us. When you drive through the streets, you notice the reflective vests on motorcycle riders, with license numbers on them, originally required because assassins usually travelled on motorcycle, and today it is again illegal for male passengers to ride on the back of a motorcycle for this very reason (although this too goes back and forth between past policy and current necessity) . The taxis all have prominent licenses displayed for the same reason.


The kingpins who ran this city cared only for drug money and what it bought them, not for the thousands who died in the crossfire between their turf wars and efforts to send messages to police forces and the government.


They took what they wanted and anyone who dared speak out against them found himself fading into darkness in a pool of his own blood, usually with three or four unknown and innocent nameless fathers and daughters and mothers who were unlucky enough to be standing nearby him when the bomb went off, killing anyone around.


Currently Ciudad Juarez Mexico surpassed Caracas Venezuela as the “world’s most dangerous city” with a murder rate of 192 per 100,000 inhabitants. It’s far and away ahead of the second most dangerous city. To put that in perspective: in 1991, which wasn’t even the height of Pablo’s reign, it was the end, the rate for Medellín was 380.

Colombia Murder Rate Late 1990

Colombia was the murder capital of the world during these years

Twice as bad as Ciudad Juarez is now, which is going through an open war between various cartels of narco-traffickers and the government. During the height of Pablo’s reign that number in Medellín was said to be 650. In 2000 Colombia still ranked as the world’s most dangerous country, and all through the 2000s it ranked in the top 10.


While its disingenuous to deny and downplay the city’s real and violent history, it’s equally dishonest to deny and downplay its rising from the ashes. It’s not surprising that the world still thinks of Medellín as Pablo’s playground.


To those of us who know the other newer Medellín, it’s a guilty little pleasure to bask in the sunlight, stroll down the avenues and dine in the restaurants at ease and leisure while having acquaintances back home look at you as if you’re strapping on your bulletproof vest and sidearm, sliding a machete into your waistband, and striding off into the jungles with your eyes shaded from the penetrating sun by a well worn and tatty Panama Hat.


Let them think of you as Michael Douglas in “Romancing the Stone” if they wish, and bring your Kathleen Turner with you. The ladies in Medellín wouldn’t be intimidated by the competition, to put it mildly. Angelina Jolie might not attract any attention on the streets of Medellín if it wasn’t for the fact that she was well known, she’d be just another woman walking to work.


So let your friends back home think of you as slogging through the jungle swatting mosquitos and fending off natives. “You may not be able to reach me for a few days, I’ll be in Colombia”. Of course I’ll actually be sitting by the pool nursing a hangover from the party the night before, surfing on WiFi, and trying to decide whether to go back to that really good Thai place, try something new, or stay in and order from the domicilio and be lazy.


It’s hard to get motivated to go out into those mean streets of Poblado and scurry around town from one intrepid location to the next, dodging assassination attempts and kidnappings when you’re comfortably settled in a 3 level penthouse apartment, sitting in your rooftop jacuzzi and sipping on your drink while looking out over a beautiful view of the valley.


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2 Responses to “The Stigma of Medellin”

  1. Admin says:

    I couldn’t agree more. Medellin still has a really bad reputation in the USA due to it’s past. People don’t realize how much it has changed in the past 10 years. It truly has become a world class city with amenities that rival any other city in the world. Yes, it has crime, but at this point not anything more than you would find in any city its size in the USA. And what a fun, low key, and relaxing place it has become.

  2. Cinco says:

    The few times I have visited Medellin, I have always come back to the States thinking Medellin is very similar to any of our metro cities in the US and is a lot cleaner in the business district. I have always felt safe in Medellin because of the company I’m with who are very familar with the city of Medellin.


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