Reporter Explores Colombia's 'Offensive' Narco Tourism Industry

May 30, 2018

The city of Medellin, Colombia has changed dramatically over the past few decades. But the city's past as the home to one history's most violent drug cartels still lingers.

Pablo Escobar, the notorious Colombian drug lord, remains an iconic figure 25 years after his death, despite the violence and murder he wrought. Now, tourists travel to Medellin to learn about Escobar and his infamous Medellin drug cartel.

Colombian journalist Jorge Caraballo Cordovez co-reported on these “Narco Tours” for a recent episode of the Spanish-language NPR podcast Radio Ambulante.

“Pablo Escobar died 25 years ago but still today, walking along the streets of Medellin, it’s common to see a mural with Escobar’s face, t-shirts for sale downtown with his image or bumper stickers on buses,” Caraballo Cordovez said.

Tourists can see the building where Escobar placed his first car bomb, the cathedral-turned-prison where he spent years and the cemetery where he was buried. The tours can go for $30 to hundreds of dollars.

Carraballo Cordovez joined Sundial from Medellin to discuss these Narco Tours, and the moment he realized the tour guide was lying.

WLRN: Let's talk about some of the stops [on the tour]. The first was a place where there was a car bomb, the Monaco building. What happened when you got to that stop?

Caraballo: So [it's] a building that is now abandoned. There is nothing there. It's empty. It was white but now it's gray because it's been abandoned for years. The Monaco building is important because it was the building where [the] Cartel de Cali -- that was this evil, these enemies of Pablo Escobar -- put a car bomb in January 1988. But the building had been built by Escobar in the early 80s, and he lived there with his family and it was full of luxuries. So when we got there the guide started telling us all these stories about what was there. So all the paintings of millions of dollars, Picasso -- she was saying this. Then in the basement he had classic motorcycles, these classic cars. This was a place visited by politicians [from] all around Latin America. One of the Castro brothers came here and stayed here during the night. I didn't know any of that.

You're going through this tour and there were two other big stops and I'm wondering at what point did you start to get suspicious that the tour guide was lying?

Well that was the first sign. I [started] feeling that she was exaggerating a lot of this narrative. I'm from Medellin. I lived those years. And when I was a child [I read] about that a lot because it's something that interests me -- it's part of my identity. I grew up in this very dangerous city, so I'd been reading about this all my life. And when I went to that tour and she started saying that I was like 'No. I haven't read this before and I don't think that's true.' I was suspicious.

In the Radio Ambulante podcast you referenced this German gentleman who was with you and you reference him as a voice of reason of some sort. There was a particular exchange between him and the tour guide, Doris.

[Jorge]: I started to feel like this was more of a performance in a historical tone. I can see she has this desire for us to go out and repeat all of these grandiose stories, rather than help up understand what really happened in Medellín.

[Daniel]:  Jorge started to feel that not everything was true. But there was something that made him uncomfortable. Doris asked the German…

[Jorge]:  “I imagine it’s the same in Germany. People visit all of the places Hitler went, where Hitler died”…And he looked at her like: “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” I mean, he said to her: “No if we learned anything after the Second World War it was to care for our memory. The people who go to Hitler sites are Nazis, people who adore him. But the population in general is focused on what happened to the victims.”

The tours promised that they're going to focus more on the victims but they don't do that, do they?

No, they don't at all. [This] tour was a narrative exaggerating and glorifying Pablo Escobar. And for me that was very offensive as a citizen of Medellin. I suffered that. I know many, many people who unfortunately lost relatives in this war.