The Ethics of Colombian Narcotourism
For decades Colombia has been associated with cocaine. With cartels, with violence, with death. The name Pablo Escobar was one that incited fear and contempt, and the world condemned the narcoterrorists who crafted their own civil war. In the 25 years since the death of Colombia’s most notorious narcotraficante, his home town of Medellín has become a shining example of progress and transformation. Metro lines connect each end of the city, new well-funded start ups and ‘digital nomad’ cafes pop up every day and the poorest comunas built upon themselves up the Antioquian hillside are laced with escalators. Once the murder capital of the world, the city now topping lists of ‘must-visit’ destinations has seen a 300% increase in tourism since 2006.
While Colombia’s cities and communities have been growing and progressing, moving out of their darkest days, the seedy underground home of the cocaine industry has developed a brand new income source. Tourists flood to Medellín, to Cali, to Bogotá, to the jungle, all in the pursuit of the hottest ‘narcotourism’ destinations. From tours around key places in Escobar’s life, to ‘make your own cocaine’ excursions in an Amazonian factory, to paintballing trips through the kingpin’s abandoned holiday home. The international popularity of the Netflix series ‘Narcos’ has brought a wave of fresh attention to Colombia, but many of these tourists display a concerning lack of disdain for the terrorists they want to learn about.
The reign of the narcotraficantes, the guerrilla warfare and the widespread violence that plagued the country are an important part of Colombian history. In order to understand and fully appreciate the culture of modern Colombia, it is important for us to learn about the struggle that shaped their communities. Discovering the wild variation in the opinions of paisas (residents of Medellín) allows visitors an incredible insight into the social divides in the city, with a large portion of her residents still citing Escobar as a hero, hanging paintings of the kingpin depicted as an angel on their living room walls. People lay wreaths on his grave and piss on their flowers in equal measure.
I met two of the living members of the Medellín cartel, of whom there are very few left. Roberto Escobar Gaviria, brother of Pablo and one of the leading figures in the organisation, provides guided tours around the shrine that he’s built to his brother, poses for photos with tourists, and, crucially, is open to answering questions from curious tourists. By going to this museum, now shut down by the government in an effort to quell the tide of dark tourists in the city, we were offered the opportunity to question one of the instigators behind Colombia’s darkest days. About his relationship with the people of the city today, and how in many areas he is still hailed as a hero. About his regrets, and how few of them hark back to the mass murder that his brother resorted to. About the love his holds for his brother, his family and their comrades in arms. While many may find tours celebrating the lives of narcoterrorists distasteful, they offer one of very few opportunities visitors have to learn straight from the mouths of the monsters.
Condemnation and curiosity aren’t mutually exclusive; if we don’t allow visitors an opportunity to learn about the bleak past curated by these men then we foster opportunity for false narratives idolising terrorists. Yet, it’s skewed narratives that are causing the most damage to Medellín. Whether fans of the Netflix series, or just fans of taking lots of cocaine, many tourists that visit the city do so while hailing Escobar as a hero. They see him as an outlaw, a renegade, a champion of the people. Many people taking tours to his home or to his prison see him as a personal hero. Not Colombians, not paisas that directly benefited from the money and resources he poured into poor parts of Medellín, but foreigners. Narcotourism at its core is an opportunity to learn about the history of Colombia, but it also opens the floodgates for these Pablo Escobar fanboys to perpetuate their warped perspective of the Colombian drug wars. He’s coming to be seen as a pop culture figure, rather than as a mass murderer.
There is no doubt, though, that he still inspires devotion from many Colombians. Driving through the poorest barrios of Medellín with Pablo Escobar’s personal driver, we were greeted with open arms by people we were typically wary of. Young men loitering on street corners went out of their way to shake his hand, women sitting outside run-down shop fronts joked about how we had been adopted into their family now. They explain that Pablo built their homes, their churches, their parks. How he is the sole reason they weren’t abandoned to rot in poverty and neglect. Areas we had been told it would be ludicrously fool-hardy to enter welcomed us, foreign girls with patchy Spanish, without question. Local encounters and experiences can be limited in cities like Medellín, where many tourists fear leaving the safe streets of the tourist haven El Poblado, and the opportunity to meet and engage openly with people in the very poorest communities in the city provides valuable insight into the reality of Medellín and of Colombia. Even previously dangerous districts like Comuna 13 have been cleaned up and presented to the public, with residents fabricating dramatic backstories to wow tourists there to gawk at the poor. In an effort to encourage tourism in Medellín the government has swept poorer communities to the side, creating a narrative of plucky affluence for visitors within a bubble of security and gentrification.
Colombia have gone to great lengths to manufacture this illusion. By attempting to shield tourists from the truth behind the history, they stepped aside and allowed the terrorists to become the protagonists of the story of Medellín, rather than the swathes of innocent people that died in resistance. In conversation with the New York Times, Daniel Vásquez, head of public outreach at Casa de la Memoria, stressed this issue. He pointed out that “the city saw no urgency to tell this part of history. It wasn’t a priority for the government until there was a problem, until suddenly you had narco-tours led by Popeye.” The Colombian government’s determination to sweep the entire era under the rug has allowed for the city’s enemies to shape its narrative. Sicarios, Escobar’s personal hit men, produce slick Youtube videos explaining where and how they murdered civilians and government officials. They are the face of this part of Colombian history on the international stage, and profit off their years in the Medellín cartel even after the organisation has been defeated.
It is a difficult dilemma for travellers in Colombia. In partaking in narcotourism we are perpetuating the most negative aspects of the country’s reputation, but in neglecting to learn about the history of the drug wars we are doing a disservice to the survivors. Fantastic institutions like Casa de la Memoria tell the story of Colombia’s darkest days while keeping the victims the focus, but they’re almost alone. Medellín claim to ‘take the victim’s side’ by attempting to eradicate all traces of narcotourism, but are they instead stifling their stories?
Each tourist in Medellín, or travelling more widely in Colombia, must decide. It is a totally personal decision, where your opinion is your guide. Yet, whether you do or don’t participate in the narcotourism trend, there is one point that you mustn’t forget on your trip to Colombia. Escobar isn’t a hero. He did great things for some people, and ruined the lives of hundreds of thousands of others. If you want to learn about the history of Colombia, do so with an open mind, but not with an open heart towards the narcos. The ones that I met were funny, intelligent, and very charming. You forget, briefly, that you’re sat with terrorists. That’s their power, that’s their influence, and that’s how they came to run one of the most prolific and dangerous criminal organisations in history. Remember that no matter how many posters and street art portraits of Escobar you see in the streets, no matter how many people have his face on the front of their t shirts, that he isn’t a pop icon. He murdered more than 200,000 innocent people. Learn the history, ask questions, but don’t slip into the ignorant tourist trend of adulation of a monster.
Should you be interested in partaking in narcotourism, you can see my list of the best narco sites and tours here.
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