Medellín is one of the century's most impressive comeback stories. Colombia's second largest city was once synonymous with the late cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar and drug cartel terrorism. Today it's a modern, thriving - and mostly peaceful - metropolis.
But Medellín still can't shake its bloody reputation, as evidenced by the popularity of 'narco tours,' which show visitors key sites from the city's criminal past.
Are they legitimate history, or are they offensive glorification of monsters like Escobar? WLRN's Sundial host Luis Hernandez asked Colombian journalist Jorge Caraballo Cordovez, who recently reported on the narco tours for the Spanish-language NPR podcast Radio Ambulante.
HERNANDEZ: Pablo Escobar - is he still that big a figure in Medellín?
CARABALLO: Unfortunately yes. He was killed 25 years ago but he's still a very, very important figure in this city. He did a lot of damage but also he was one of the richest people in the world. And Netflix and Caracol here in Colombia have been producing movies, documentaries, books about him.
What exactly is the narco tour - and there's more than one, right?
Yeah, there are at least 15 narco tours. But just a little bit of context: Medellín has changed a lot after Escobar died. The city has transformed itself from the most dangerous city in the world, the most violent, to the narrative of the Miracle City. And a lot of tourists are coming to learn more about the city - and also to learn more about what happened with this story, about Pablo Escobar. If you go to TripAdvisor, the most popular tour in Medellín is a tour [about] Pablo Escobar.
So you took one of these tours; you wanted to look into what they were telling people. What happened?
The first tour that I took called my attention because it was promoted by Pablo Escobar's top hitman John Jairo Velásquez, whose alias is Popeye. He confessed killing 300 people. So I was, like, OK I'm gonna do this one because it's where the narrative will be more real, right? The inside story of the Cartel de Medellín and Pablo Escobar.
Yeah, let's talk about these some of the stops. The first one is a place where there was the first car bomb, where the most violent war between the cartels started. That was the Monaco building. What happened when you got to that stop?
The Monaco building is where the Cartel de Cali, these enemies of Pablo Escobar, put a car bomb in 1988. Escobar lived there with his family. So the guide [started] telling us all these stories about what was there. All the paintings worth millions of dollars, Picassos - that's what she was saying - that one of the Castro brothers came here and stayed here during the night. And I was like: What?
At what point did you start to get suspicious that the tour guide was lying?
Well that was the first sign. I'm from Medellín; I lived those years. I've been reading about this all my life, because it's part of my identity, right? I grew up in this very dangerous city. So I was like, 'she was exaggerating a lot. This was a lie.'
I was with another tourist - a German - and the guide was so excited. So she asked him: I guess in Germany, Hitler tours are as popular [as] these Pablo Escobar tours, right? And he was like, 'Oh my god, how can you say that? No. In Germany we've been working very, very hard to not glorify the perpetrators but to honor the victims.' And she was like, 'Oh, OK.'
That's an interesting point, because here you have these tours glorifying Pablo Escobar and yet you also mentioned in the podcast that the tours promise that they're going to focus more on the victims. But they don't do that, do they?
No, they don't at all. And for me that was very offensive as a citizen of Medellín. I know many, many people who unfortunately lost relatives in this war, and they are just numbers [to the naro tour guides]. Maybe she said, 'Oh yeah, in that bombing 100 people died.' And that's it. Then she starts explaining how smart Pablo Escobar was.
So that was the big takeaway. We need to start talking about this - talking about what happened but not by this narrative that some people are making money from, but from the victim's perspective.