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Colombia’s New
Cocaine Problem

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I’d been told that Carmen was the best restaurant in Medellín; maybe in all of Colombia. Back in the U.S., a superlative like that would send me fleeing to the nearest discount grocery store or to the familiar fluorescent glow of a taco truck. But when on vacation, one does things they normally wouldn’t do at home. One indulges. Thus, I found myself blotting the last smudges of black truffle agnolotti off my lips with a white cloth napkin, having finished a meal whose flavors had been narrowly outshined by the artistic flair with which it had been presented. The napkin, now soiled with agnolotti (whatever that is), ended up in an undignified ball on the table, where it looked glaringly out of place in this atmosphere of meticulously crafted lighting and slender wine glasses.

I headed for the bathrooms and was unsurprised to find them as tastefully arranged as everything else in Carmen. What I was surprised to find were several tiny Ziploc baggies crusted with white powder. Two were discarded on the floor, and a glance into the wastebasket revealed at least two more. Another floated in listless circles around the toilet bowl.

These relics of drug use seemed anachronistic in such a posh setting, and yet they reinforced the prevailing stereotype about Medellín. The city’s reputation is intimately tied to cocaine. The two are linked by thick white lines of association that stretch across oceans and back into history. When most people outside of South America hear the word “Medellín,” their minds unwittingly time-travel back to an era of cartels, violence, and kidnappings, unprecedented in world history, one that left a conspicuous stain on the global perception of the city, as well as on the psyches of its citizens.

In places frequented by tourists, small powder-dusted baggies are ubiquitous

But the massive scale of trafficking and terror connected with the drug cartels are emblematic of Medellín’s past rather than its present. Over the last decade, the city has been experiencing something of a renaissance, growing safer, more prosperous, and winning international acclaim for its progressive reforms as life under the cartels recedes into memory. While locals are aware of—and proud of—their city’s continuing transformation, many visitors flocking to the city in the wake of these positive changes bring their preconceptions about the old Medellín with them. In places frequented by tourists, small powder-dusted baggies are ubiquitous. As its citizens try to distance themselves from a traumatic past, it seems that Medellín has paradoxically found itself suffering from a new kind of drug problem, not in spite of its burgeoning positive identity, but because of it.

A restaurant like Carmen could not have existed in Medellín fifteen years ago. If it had, its customers would likely have been paying for their truffle-oil-brushed entrées with drug money, many of them arriving for their reservations in armored cars. As recently as the early 1990s, Medellín was the murder capital of the world. When the violence peaked in 1991, the city recorded 381 murders per 100,000 residents. To put that in perspective, Caracas—the city earning the unpleasant distinction of 2016’s murder capital—saw 120 murders per 100,000. The presence of paramilitary groups and rebel insurgents contributed to Medellín’s astounding levels of violence, but the bulk of the killings can be attributed to the Medellín Cartel, headed by the infamous Pablo Escobar, who, from 1975 until his death in 1994, essentially ran the city—if not the entire country—terrorizing its citizens and corrupting its institutions.

Today, Medellín is unrecognizable from what it was during those dangerous times. In 2015, the city saw only 20 murders per 100,000 residents, continuing a steady trend of declining violence with each passing annum. Due in part to this newfound stability, its economy is flourishing. The city’s GDP per capita grew an average of 4.1 percent every year from 2000 to 2010 and 5.4 percent each year from 2011 to 2016. In 2014, it was named the “highest performing Latin American metro area” by the Washington D.C.-based Brookings Institution.

A simultaneous cause and effect of Medellín’s thriving economy and diminished violence are the tourists and foreign investors flocking to a city that was once an explicit no-go zone. While its economic numbers are impressive, the tourist explosion in Medellín, and in Colombia as a whole, is staggering. In 2005, Escobar a recent memory and FARC still at large, Colombia hosted just over half a million tourists. A decade later, that number had quintupled, with the Ministry of Commerce, Industry, and Tourism reporting that the country had drawn 2.5 million foreign visitors in 2015 and forecasting that the tourism industry will generate roughly $6 billion of revenue by 2018.

In Medellín specifically, one need only walk through the Poblado district, the city’s wealthiest, to see the drastic impact of the tourism boom. Poblado is entirely unrecognizable from the majority of the other 16 districts in Medellín. The unfinished brick facades of El Centro and the cinder block shacks that comprise the seemingly endless slums paving the mountainous slopes around the city are nowhere to be found there. Its streets—fecund with both tropical foliage and commerce—are lined with restaurants like Carmen that cater to international tastes and exchange rates, bars and nightclubs bearing English names, and an ever-multiplying number of hostels. From 2010 to 2016, the amount of tourist hostels in Medellín rose from five to fifty, the vast majority of them swooping up Poblado’s recently coveted real estate.

While the clubs, bars, hostels, and restaurants have analogs in any city around the world frequented by backpackers, Poblado has developed certain symptoms of its tourism that can’t be found anywhere else. The most evident are the men and boys selling gum and cigarettes. Whenever I found myself walking through Poblado, invariably several of these entrepreneurs would approach me at various points along my stroll, an oblong box bristling with Trident and Marlboro slung around their necks. Hocking their wears, each of them called out the same four words in Spanish: “Cigarettes? Gum? Cocaine? Marijuana?” In the languid humidity of an afternoon or in the barely controlled rainbow of chaos spilling out of Parque Llares by night, in a leafy alleyway or a mere five yards from a squadron of police officers on Calle 10 (Poblado’s main artery), this same refrain was directed at me and at the droves of visitors filing past. These men’s boxes of gum and cigarettes were almost always full. Clearly the sale of the last two items on offer accounted for most of their profits.

Leave Poblado for any area not inundated with foreigners and the pushers disappear. They know where the demand for their product lies, and it’s not with locals. Drastically lowered crime rates, economic growth, and a slew of internationally lauded public-works projects targeted at improving the infrastructure of the city’s poorest communities, have brought a palpable and long-overdue zeitgeist of hope to today’s Medellín—of looking towards a bright future rather than a dark past. And there is nothing more symbolic of the city’s past than the illicit white powder.

The street dealers’ customers are almost exclusively tourists looking to easily acquire cocaine in a place where it is sold for $3 a gram—a fraction of the roughly $60 it costs in Europe or the U.S., and nearly a hundredth of the price in New Zealand or Australia, where it goes for between $200 and $300 per gram. In most tourists’ home countries, cocaine is a drug of the wealthy and even for those who can afford it, it is stigmatized to the point one generally wouldn’t discuss or partake in it openly.

But, as with the prohibitive price tag, among tourists in Medellín, the stigma that surrounds cocaine use is largely absent. Backpackers in hostels loudly compare the prices at which they bought their coke and debate the quality of their respective purchases. As a night in one of Poblado’s clubs progresses, cocaine use overflows from the bathroom stalls to the urinals, and then eventually to any part of the club where there’s sufficient space to withdraw a key and baggie. While cocaine use this brazen and on this scale would be unthinkable in the hometowns of these visitors, when on vacation one does things one wouldn’t normally do at home. One indulges.

The reasoning behind my uncharacteristically opulent meal at Medellín’s premier restaurant wasn’t so different from what compels many people to visit Medellín in the first place. But unlike fine dining, many tourists see cocaine as a part of Medellín’s culture; a box to tick off the list of locale-specific activities like watching a tango in Buenos Aires or visiting Machu Picchu in Peru. And though no guidebook I’ve ever read urges its readers to do cocaine in Medellín, within the insular community of backpackers this idea is repeatedly reinforced.

Almost every hostel in the city offers “Pablo Escobar Tours,” cementing the association with a purveyor of atrocities into Medellín’s cultural fabric, and I’ve overheard hostel employees advise patrons on the best spots to buy drugs. In researching this article, I came across this website, that equates visiting Medellín and not sampling the cocaine there with passing up the opportunity to eat cheese whilst in Paris. In fact, I found as many (if not more) blog posts about how to safely acquire the drug as articles about any of the city’s legal attractions.

Tourists caught with drugs are rarely arrested

Buying drugs in Medellín is illegal, but the overwhelming prevalence of this activity in Poblado makes it obvious that police are not cracking down on the sale of cocaine as hard as they could be. The presence of neon-vested cops in the area is massively disproportionate to in Medellín’s other neighborhoods. In Poblado, they are on almost every corner, nearly as many cops as there are dealers.

It seems this heavy police presence is more for the purpose of discouraging violent crime directed at tourists than to enforce drug policy. It wouldn’t be surprising if this was an unofficial policy: protect the tourists and don’t be too aggressive with dealers. Tourists in Poblado mean money. For everyone. To the municipality, foreigners who come to patronize upscale restaurants like Carmen bring external revenue in. The economic value of tourists to dealers has already been stated, but the police, too, have found ways to capitalize on visitors and their proclivities.

It’s so common for tourists to walk around Poblado with drugs on them that a bizarre inversion of stop-and-frisk has become a fact of life in Medellín. But unlike those profiled based on their appearance in the United States, tourists caught with drugs are rarely ever arrested. Foreigners I met there, a Canadian and an Afghani who’d been living in the city for roughly six months each, told me they are searched for drugs so frequently they always keep a wad of pesos loose in their pockets, easily accessible to minimize the time and hassle of producing a bribe. In fact, they had been searched that very day. After producing the equivalent of $25, they were allowed to walk away, a baggie of cocaine safely returned to the pocket in which it had been discovered by police.

View of Medellín, from Comuna 13. Photo by: Ben Grenrock

As the aging War on Drugs has proven, drug prohibitions are both reductionist and ineffective. Drugs and drug use are rarely a cause of societal strife. Rather, it is the violence and criminal activity associated with the illegal sale of drugs that costs people their lives, homes, and hopes. At least legislatively, Colombia seems to support this idea, as it has constitutionally decriminalized the possession of up to twenty grams of marijuana and up to a gram of cocaine. The use of cocaine in Colombia, or anywhere else for that matter, isn’t necessarily the problem. However, in the case of Medellín what the demand for cocaine is doing to both strengthen the criminal organizations still clinging to the frayed remnants of the Medellín Cartel and to keep the collective consciousness of Medellín’s citizens trapped in a traumatic past, is nothing if not problematic.

Far from Poblado’s leafy streets, in the slums—or comunas, as they are known locally—two rival criminal organizations control the drug trafficking trade: the Oficina de Enviago and the Urabeños. Though their combined impact is a mere shadow of the reign of terror perpetrated by their predecessor two decades hence, these gangs continue to extort, recruit from, and commit violent acts in the impoverished comunas. The gangs’ main focus is the trafficking of drugs northward, but control of the city’s internal drug trade, worth an estimated $5.5 million, according to police reports, is undoubtedly a cause of much of the crime to which the comunas are subjected. Drug tourism in Medellín creates a lucrative market for these gangs, one where consumers are just a bus ride away rather than across international borders. Foreigners arrive with more money to spend during their stay than the average Colombian earns in months, and many of them come to spend that money predominantly on one thing.

It is no wonder, then, that although openness and hospitality are deeply ingrained in Colombian culture, many citizens of Medellín have begun to view visitors with suspicion and veiled disdain. The Envigado district, similarly affluent and charming to its neighbor Poblado, has pushed for legislation banning the construction of new hostels in its jurisdiction, not wanting to see its streets go the way of Poblado’s and become lined with dealers.

The open consumption of cocaine in a club by tourists looking to have a safe, whitewashed facsimile of what they view as the “Medellín Experience” appears relatively benign when compared to the mass murders occurring on those same streets not so long ago. But the little Ziplock bags that they leave behind, littering the city’s streets, clubs, and even the classy restaurants springing up in the wake of its progress, are a constant reminder to Medellín’s citizenry of trauma that left many of their cohort dead. The city’s government and its people are closer to redefining their collective identity than ever. But as Medellín continues to grow safer and more prosperous and is therefore visited by an increasing number of tourists chasing vices they see as both discounted and more socially accepted there than they are in their homelands, it will remain trapped in a vicious cycle, unable to fully shake itself free from the weight of its history.

Top image: William Gil

Ben Grenrock
Ben Grenrock is an itinerant writer, journalist, and explorer. You can find his thoughts about music, here and his thoughts about most other things on Twitter @bengrenrock.
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