I just finished reading the book "Killing Pablo" by Mark Bowden. Its the story of the hunt to take down Pablo Escobar, the Colombian druglord who was listed as the #10 most wealthy person in the world by Forbes magazine. The book is an exciting read.
I was a bit astounded by the amount of violence described in the book however. Medellin was a really, really, really violent place. It was almost a war zone. Pablo Escobar had a Colombian presidential candidate killed, among thousands of others.
Yet, I lived in Medellin 5 years after Pablo Escobar was killed, in 1998 for almost a year! And I lived to talk about it. 🙂
I'd finished my time at AIESEC International and didn't really want to return to Michigan State University to finish 2 subjects remaning for my undergrad degree. I talked with the chair of my department and he offered for me to finish up in a Colombian university since I had spent some time there already. So I enrolled at EAFIT university in Medellin and took some classes.
Reading the book and learning about just how much violence there was made me rethink if what I had done – I had no idea things had been so incredibly bad. Brutal killings were happening on the streets of Medellin virtually daily in 1993.
While I like to travel to offbeat places, when I lived in Medellin I felt it was very safe. The overall level of violence in the country had gone down dramatically. People were travelling between major cities through 12 hour rides in buses, which meant that kidnapping was not happening. And there was no violence in Medellin itself. My rule of thumb is to always do what the locals tell me, even if its counter intuitive or things feel safe. So I just hung out with the local people all the time, stayed in the cities, and didn't visit the Red Zones, which are dangerous parts of the country to the north, near Panama. I actually met some Canadians who travelled all through the red zones by bus and said it was great fun travelling there and they had no problems at all. I thought they were crazy for taking that kind of risk, the locals would never have done it. I don't know any stats on the risk of travelling through the red zones, but my guess is that if you travelled through there on 100 trips, 99 times you would be safe, but one time you would be kidnapped.
I talked with my father about it yesterday (I'm at home in Tasmania for christmas right now) and it turned out he was pretty concerned that I had lived there. He was worried that he'd get the cut off finger in the mail and have to pay a large kidnap ransom to get me out.
But it really just didn't feel unsafe. At the time if you stayed in a large city like Medellin and didn't go out into the surrounding countryside, you were perfectly fine. There wasn't bombings and there weren't people being killed. Of all the thousands of people I met when I was there, I met one girl who's mother was a mayor in a surrounding area of Bogota and was killed as a result. I didn't meet anyone else directly affected. I would never have stayed there if I'd been seeing any kind of violence in the city. There just wasn't anything any different to any other city. I'm even hearing about carjackings in Sydney, Australia now, because people can't steal cars as much with good self-locking systems.
Before I moved to the Dominican Republic I was considering moving back to Colombia instead since I knew the country well. But people there told me how it was then (2001) unsafe to travel by bus between cities due to so much kidnapping and the only safe way to travel was by plane. That was a pretty big sign for me that violence was on the increase and I decided not to go back to Colombia. I also wanted to be closer to the USA for business travel.
I really enjoyed my time in Colombia, the colombians are some of the most hospitible people in the world. If you get the opportunity to visit the country, I would recommend it. Don't spend time in Bogota, its cold and not very interesting. Go to Pereira, Medellin and Cartagena, they are all very fun cities to visit. Just make sure you ask the locals about the security situation and follow their advice to the letter.
So the local situation in Medellin is variable. But if you go there at the right time, it will be safe to live there. Just be careful and do what the locals tell you.
Gracias a mis amigos colombianos!