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The Drug Trade Brutalizes the Third World—But For Rich Western Travelers It's a Tourist Attraction

"The murder capital of the world” in the 90's is now a drug tourism mecca.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Pressmaster / Shutterstock/com

 
 
 
 
The following is excerpted from Cocaina: A Book on Those Who Make It by Magnus Linton (Soft Skull Press, 2014):
 
Among a sea of dancers Håkan, a young Swedish guy, towers over everyone else. After sticking his key in the three-gram bag he is holding and digging around a bit, he pulls up a small mound of snow-white powder that he holds up to his girlfriend, who snorts it with a quick nschh.
 
“Clubbing here is just a liiiiiiittle bit better than at home.” He licks off the powder that is stuck in the steel grooves of the key, paying no mind to the policemen, who have taken bribes in exchange for turning a blind eye to the goings-on inside the club. It is 4.00 a.m., and before the cocaine has even had time to kick in Håkan places a pill on his middle finger and shoves it into his girlfriend’s mouth, his arm outstretched. She swallows it with a gulp, licking his hand playfully in the process.
 
“I love Colombian women. They’re real women. So fucking female.”
 
She is barely half his height and tries clinging to his neck, but he keeps pushing her off; he isn’t in the mood to make out. Eventually he grabs her behind, lifts her up off the foor, and sticks his tongue in her ear. The club is in a hexagonal building in an industrial district. The pounding bass fills the room, where hundreds of dancers wearing sunglasses stomp away in the dark.
 
“Alexi Delano deejayed here a while ago,” Håkan says. “It was the best party I’ve been to. It was absolutely incredible. He’s Swedish, too.”
 
Swedish. He could just as well have been German, American, British, or Spanish. In fact, he could have been from almost any wealthy Western nation, for Håkan is just one of thousands in the latest crop of young globetrotters making their way to Medellín, the new mecca of drug tourism. The city that in the 1990s was known as “the murder capital of the world” has since been transformed into an urban paradise where the sky’s the limit—at least, for those who have the money.
 
In El Poblado, an area of Medellín filled with tranquil shopping malls, sushi bars, and internet cafes, a new hostel has opened every other month for the last year. Economic globalization has transformed the traditional backpacker into the flashpacker: a well-to-do traveler seeking a combination of comfort and adventure, reflecting the trend in tourism whereby travelers are more interested in themselves than in tourist attractions. For today’s young travelers, seeing the Amazon or Patagonia is nowhere near as thrilling as doing Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, or Medellín. Publishing powerhouses such as Lonely Planet now have more city guides than travel guides, as most traditional destinations have become so mainstream and consumerized that the so-called undiscovered places have to be sold in order to keep the money carousel going. Hanging out in, as opposed to visiting, the Third World is the new thing to do.
 
All this factors into the appeal and sudden success of Medellín. 
 
The city not only has superfcial attributes and attractions—a perfect climate, good shopping, wild clubs, and hip people, all conveniently kept separate from violent gangs—but what makes Medellín truly special, and so attractive to the new traveling avant-garde, is something best described as an electrical charge in the air. A myth.
 
In contrast to the tired old nostalgic stories of tango in Buenos Aires, of beaches in Rio de Janeiro, or of the revolution in Havana, Medellín has a more titillating product that, carefully packaged, can be sold with a great deal of success: cocaine. But cocaine packaged in such a way that the actual powder is just one aspect of the experience. 
 
Today, “Flashpacker” is an established term within the travel industry and an important demographic for hostel operators in many of the world’s poorest nations. Those who run the hostels are often former backpackers themselves, mainly from the United States or Europe, and they know perfectly well that what today’s travelers are seeking is not just high-caliber drugs at bargain prices, but also something that can add a bit of cultural cred to the experience. Consequently, experiences such as the Pablo Escobar tour—a guided excursion offering travelers a peek into the life of “the world’s greatest outlaw”—have become successful, and it is easy to see why: the violent story of the rise and fall of the Medellín Cartel is indeed an incredible and, of course, highly marketable chronicle.
 
Close to Medellín are the remains of Hacienda Nápoles, Escobar’s 3000-hectare ranch, complete with an airstrip, a bullring, and a private zoo. In its heyday in the 1980s, four planes a day took off from the property, bound for Miami and loaded with cocaine, and returned just as full with money. In Medellín there is also Barrio Pablo Escobar, a neighborhood of 400 houses that Escobar had built and donated to homeless families in the city. There are also the remains of La Catedral, the legendary prison Escobar designed himself and from which he fled effortlessly in 1992—an incident that brought shame to the White House and the Colombian government as the entire world watched. In another part of the city people can visit the roof where the man known as El Patrón, who in 1989 made Forbes’ list of the top-ten richest men in the world, finally met his death in 1993. The killing of Escobar was the result of a controversial joint effort in which the US Central Intelligence Agency, the National Police of Colombia, and the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (the DEA) conspired with hired assassins and the drug mafia—a cooperative operation that caused great political rifts and had an impact on both nations for many years to come.

But Medellín’s attraction as a destination for cutting-edge travelers also reflects an ever-increasing interest in visiting, albeit at a safe distance, the site from which one of the biggest criminal complexes in the world originates. The illegal drug trade today generates an estimated 300 billion USD globally—far more than the gross domestic product of most countries—and the world’s two main hard drugs, heroin and cocaine, are linked to two nations: Afghanistan, where 90 per cent of the world’s heroin is produced; and this country, Colombia, where 60 per cent of the cocaine consumed globally comes from.