What Statistics Can’t Tell You About Safety in Medellin

Even if you have only just vaguely heard of Medellin in the past, you’ve undoubtedly heard something about the city in relation to violence, cocaine, Pablo Escobar, and things of that nature.

Those who have only ever heard of Medellin on the news have quite a different picture in their head about the city versus those who have visited in the last 10 years.

In 1991, Medellin was indeed a very dangerous place. With a homicide rate of more than 381 people per 100,000 residents, it was a homicide rate double that of the world’s current most violent city, San Pedro Sula, Honduras.

But Pablo Escobar has long since been dead and amazing strides have been made to turn this city from the world’s most violent into the world’s most innovative. All within about 20 years.

No one could argue that things aren’t better here. Nor could they argue that things are perfect here.

Talking about safety and violence in this city as it stands today is a tough subject. It invites criticism from both sides who will say I am either painting the city in a negative light by talking about crime or that I am looking at things with rose colored glasses and dismissing some of the real dangers.

It is also a difficult subject to address because the perception of safety differs from one person to another based on a person’s life experience, perspective, previous exposure to similar environments, etc.

The statistics tell us, without a doubt, that violence in this city has subsided tremendously.

What statistics can’t tell us about safety in Medellin though is how the place feels more broadly speaking in respect to personal safety while you are living your day-to-day life in Medellin.

I want to talk about my perspective on safety after living in Medellin for more than four months and relay some anecdotal stories about life in this city. As a background note: I have lived in “scary” developing countries where every adult male carries an AK-47, I’ve been in strange situations in world capitals like Paris, but to date, the only time I’ve ever been robbed or stolen from was in Washington, DC–just blocks from where I lived on Capitol Hill.

Safety in Medellin

If you read the State Department travel warnings about Colombia, it sounds like a pretty terrifying place. You could be drugged at any moment with scopolamine (the “zombie” drug), you should not flag a taxi on the street, “explosions occur on a regular basis throughout Colombia”, kidnapping remains a significant problem, and that US government officials are only permitted to travel between cities by air, among numerous other ominous warnings.

It can be hard to ascertain the true likelihood of any of those things happening… We only know that they happen or have happened.

We do know from the news and other reports that it is highly unlikely that any foreign tourist would be shot and killed randomly. Virtually every report of that nature is that they did something stupid like tried to resist a robbery or they were involved in shady activities.

The real question of safety in Medellin then comes down to robberies, muggings, and thefts.

To be sure, that is the biggest concern or possibility for foreigners visiting Medellin.

The longer you stay here, the more likely you are to experience getting robbed at some point or another. But in a lot of ways it all kind of just comes down to luck, and not being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

You can be robbed walking down a quiet street by someone with a knife.

You can be robbed as the passenger in a taxi (as Dave at Medellin Living recounts).

You can be robbed by two accomplices who jump out of the back of a taxi as my buddy experienced.

You can be robbed sitting in your SUV with three other passengers in your car, right on the corner of Parque Lleras, on a Sunday afternoon at 3pm (to date the only robbery I’ve seen in Colombia).

The point isn’t to scare anyone and to say that you ARE probably going to get robbed if you are ever out on the streets alone. The point is to just try and take a step back and realize that, yes, you can (and should) take certain basic precautions when it comes to being vigilant about your personal safety, but that there is only so much that is in your control before it just comes down to bad luck.

“No Dar Papaya”

There is a famous and oft-heard quote here that says “no dar papaya” (don’t give papaya), which is to say do not offer up, show, or present anything (papaya, cell phone, money, etc) or someone will take it from you.

To “dar papaya” is to lackadaisically flash your nice smart phone around on the streets or in the back of a cab, or to pull out a wad of fifties when you are searching for 4.000, or to just walk alone at night.

I do sometimes “dar papaya”, according to my Paisa girlfriend, when I walk 15-minutes from the Metro station to my house at night or when I walk back from the bar after last call. I hail cabs off the street, by myself, in the evening. I don’t consider myself to be living dangerously–but I may be increasing the chances of something happening.

Common Sense Precautions

You will hear lots of advice from both gringos and Paisas alike about what to-do or not to-do in this city when it comes to personal safety. All of it is tainted by anecdotal stories. One of the first pieces of advice I received upon arriving to Colombia from a local Colombian was to “never travel at night [between cities]”. I have practically only traveled at night between cities. As with all stories, there is truth and wisdom behind them, but there can also be a lot of embellishment which may just be steeped in the history of the past.

That being said, here are my general recommendations for not doing stupid things in Medellin:

  • Don’t carry tons of cash around on you at any given time. Carry what you need for the day/evening and that is it.
  • Don’t flash valuables (cameras, electronics, nice jewelry, cell phones, etc) in strange or overly public and open areas. You put yourself in a more vulnerable place by even taking phone calls out on a busy street.
  • Don’t use street ATMs–stick to malls or grocery stores–and be conscious of who might be loitering around.
  • Don’t partake in activities that are probably illegal in your country of origen (even if they are legal here)–you increase your likelihood of getting robbed, ripped off, etc, dramatically.
  • Don’t walk alone late at night through unfamiliar areas.
  • Do be wary of motorcycles–whether in a taxi or walking down the street–you are most likely to be robbed by people on a motorcycle. Be especially cautious if you see two men on a motorcycle–that is illegal here.

That is about it.

I want to stress that I feel safe here. There are times where I do have a heightened vigilance about my surroundings, like if I am venturing to parts of El Centro in the evening, if I am in an unfamiliar place, etc. But I feel pretty much as safe here as in any other major city around the world.

Bad things can and do happen here, but in the grand scheme of things, they are still pretty unlikely.

What do you think? Is this city far more dangerous than I have portrayed? Is it far more safe? Sound off in the comments below with your own thoughts about safety and security in the City of Eternal Spring

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