2017 Update on Security in Medellín With Safety Tips for Expats

Police in Colombia

Security in Medellín is a major concern for expats planning to move to the city as well as for expats living in the city.

Several readers asked us to provide an update about security in Medellín in our 2016 Medellín Living reader survey results. So we are providing this article.

Even after living in the city for over six years, one thing that still comes up with my friends and family and coworkers in the U.S. is the security situation in Medellín. I still get asked questions like:

If I visit, will I get kidnapped? Will I get robbed? Is a taxi from the airport safe?

Talking about crime, safety and security in Medellín is a difficult subject so we will stick to some hard statistics and some tips. The perception of safety differs from one person to another based on a person’s experiences and perspective.

Medellín Living 2016 Reader Survey Results, N=243

Medellín Living 2016 Reader Survey Results, N=243

Security in Medellín Perception Problem

Medellín still has a negative reputation to overcome. When the average American hears “Medellín”, his thoughts still tend to be the scenes in the popular Narcos series – drugs, widespread violence and Pablo Escobar.

Our Medellín Living reader survey results demonstrate this perception problem. Security is the biggest concern of expats considering moving to Medellín, as seen above. But security in Medellín drops to the number six concern for expats actually living in the city, as seen below.

Medellín Living 2016 Reader Survey Results, N=201

Medellín Living 2016 Reader Survey Results, N=201

Once an expat starts living in Medellín, they come to realize that the current realty in the city is far removed from the time of Escobar and what is depicted in the Narcos series. Escobar died over 23 years ago and the city has achieved a remarkable turnaround.

Medellín Homicide Statistics, rate of homicides per 100,000 residents, Source: Medellín Medical Examiners Office

Medellín Homicide Statistics, rate of homicides per 100,000 residents, Source: Medellín Medical Examiners Office

Homicide Statistics in Medellín

Nothing demonstrates this turnaround in the security in Medellín more than looking at the homicide rates in the city historically.

Back in the 1990s Medellín was known as the “murder capital of the world”. In 1991, Medellín had a homicide rate of 375 per 100,000 residents. That is over triple the current most dangerous city in the world: Caracas, Venezuela.

But over the past 25 years the homicide rate has dropped dramatically in the city. In 2015, Medellín achieved the lowest homicide rate seen in the city in over 40 years: 20.17 per 100,000 residents.

As a result, Medellín has dropped off of the list of the 50 most dangerous cities in the world based on homicide rates. However three cities in Colombia are still on this list: Palmira, Cali and Pereira.

Also four cities in the U.S. are on this 50 most dangerous cities list.  St. Louis, Baltimore, Detroit and New Orleans are on this list so all have higher homicides rates than Medellín.

In 2016, there were a total of 534 homicides reported in Medellín, which was up 7.9% compared to 2015. Organized crime groups in the city such as La Oficina and Los Urabeños reportedly are responsible for over half the homicides in the city.

But homicides in Medellín tend to be concentrated in certain neighborhoods and are not very common in some neighborhoods like El Poblado. So it’s worth looking at crime statistics by neighborhood in the city.

Medellín Crime Statistics by Comuna, Source: Medellín Secretary of Security

Medellín Crime Statistics by Comuna, Source: Medellín Secretary of Security

Crime Statistics by Neighborhood in Medellín

Last year the El Colombiano newspaper had an article the broke out reported crime statistics by comuna in Medellin. The newspaper article with full graphics can be seen here.

Robberies/thefts of people reported in Medellin between January 1 and May 14, 2016, were 13 percent less than the same period in the previous year. 49 percent of these robberies/thefts during the period were in El Centro. The second most common comuna for a robbery was Laureles followed by El Poblado.

If you normalize these counts by population – El Poblado and Laureles have a similar population of about 125,000 while El Centro has a lower population of about 85,000 but it also has many visitors during the day doing shopping.

The most common items stolen were cell phones, followed by money and clothes and jewelry.

In El Poblado, robberies/thefts totaled 220 during the reporting period, which was up 15% compared to the same period in 2015. This may be due to thieves targeting the wealthy area of Medellín and tourists in the area.

La Candelaria (El Centro) remains the most dangerous part of Medellin with the highest counts of robberies/thefts, motorcycle thefts, homicides and sexual offenses.  That is why you will see an increased police presence in El Centro.

In terms of homicides, the highest counts during the period between January 1 and May 14, 2016 were found in La Candelaria with 28, Robledo with 21 and Castilla with 19.  During this reporting period only 2 of the 171 homicides in Medellín were in El Poblado.

Unfortunately I haven’t yet seen an updated breakout of full-year 2016 crime statistics by neighborhood.  Also Envigado and Sabaneta are not included as they are separate municipalities.

But in general the crime statistics I have seen reported in past years for Envigado and Sabaneta tend to be lower when adjusted for the size of the population than found in Medellín.

Foreigner Homicides in Medellín in 2016

Most foreigner homicides in Medellín I have seen reported in the news in over six years was a result of something the foreigners did.  These are typically related to resisting a robbery or being involved in shady activities like drugs or prostitution.

There were nine reported homicides of foreigners in Medellín in 2016. We’ll look at these in detail to demonstrate that a majority of foreigner homicides in the city tend to be the result of resisting robberies or being involved in shady activities.

  1. On June 4, Mexican national Jesús Estrada de La Rosa, aged 48, was shot dead in Belén when he reportedly tried to prevent the theft of a motorcycle in the Los Alpes barrio.
  2. June 15, Israeli Shay Azran, aged 37, was killed with a firearm near the Exito in Laureles. He was allegedly involved in drug and sex tourism according to news reports.
  3. June 16, Danish Tomas Willemoes, aged 41, was shot to the head in Provenza near Parque Lleras in El Poblado at about 9:30pm. News reports claim this was a murder for hire so it may have involved shady activities.
  4. September 29, the body of Australian Anthony Hasselback, aged 49, who was living in El Poblado was found along a road with two shots to the head in the municipality of Santo Domingo in Northeastern Antioquia. News reports claim he was involved in sex tourism.
  5. November 19, Ryo Izaki, a 22-year-old Japanese man was shot dead in Estadio on a Saturday at about 4pm after chasing a pair of suspects who had allegedly taken his mobile phone and tablet.
  6. December 3, a Venezuelan member of the LBGT community was murdered who reportedly had sentimental problems.
  7. In December, the body of a 23-year-old Dutch man was found in Laureles.  News reports indicate that on December 10 this backpacker had a discussion with a woman and was shot.
  8. December 14, American Jigar Patel from Illinois was attacked by a knife and killed in the barrio Miranda north of Medellín by two assailants.
  9. On December 16, a body of a man from Dominica was found buried in a wooded area of ​​the Santa Elena district.  He was reportedly kidnapped from a shopping mall in El Poblado in October.  News reports indicate this homicide was related to the collection of money by drug trafficking networks.

Also there were at least six foreigner deaths in Medellín in 2016 due to drug overdoses reported in the news.

Medellín Safety Tips

Medellin is safe to visit if you handle yourself properly and use common sense. We have a number of safety tips that should greatly reduce your risk of being a victim of crime in the city.

  1. Dress conservatively. Look to see how Colombians dress. If you have on shorts and flip-flops in Medellín you are broadcasting that you are a foreigner.
  2. Stay in groups at night. Don’t walk alone at night through unfamiliar areas. Take taxis at night.
  3. Never resist if you are a robbery victim. Most thieves will have a gun or knife and will not hesitate to use them. It’s not worth risking your life for a few hundred dollars.
  4. Don’t leave your drink unattended. It only takes a second for someone to drop something like Scopolamine in your drink.
  5. Don’t flash cellphones, cameras or money. Don’t display expensive electronics in public places or wear fancy jewelry.
  6. Don’t use ATMs on the street – stick to ATMs in malls or grocery stores. And be conscious of who might be around.
  7. Be wary of motorcycles – whether in a taxi or walking down the street. Robberies by people on a motorcycle are common. Be especially cautious if you see two men on a motorcycle.
  8. Be particularly careful in El Centro. There have been ongoing security problems in chaotic El Centro, especially at night. Some parts of El Centro are magnets for the homeless, drug addicts and drunks and street crime is common. The highest reported crime rates in the city tend to be in El Centro.
  9. Don’t be fooled by El Poblado. It may appear to be safe but the statistics indicate that robberies are increasing in El Poblado, which may be due to thieves targeting tourists and the wealthy area of the city.
  10. Don’t partake in activities that are probably illegal in your home country (even if they are legal here). Participating in shady activities increases your likelihood of being a crime victim.
  11. Stay away from the poorest neighborhoods of the city like Popular, Santa Cruz, Manrique and 12 de Octubre. Like any big city, Medellín has several neighborhoods that are more dangerous and are not really places for foreigners.
  12. Don’t carry your passport with you everywhere.  Lock it up in a safe location and carry a copy with you along with another ID like a driver’s license or cedula.  Only bring credit cards or ATM cards with you that you plan to use.
  13. Keep a low profile so you don’t become a target. Be careful about displaying your money or valuables and don’t give out information about where you live or are staying to strangers.

My Experiences in Medellín

I have lived in Medellín for over six years. During this time I only experienced one negative incident. I traveled on the metro with a backpack and in the small pocket at the back of the backpack I had a small camera.

I was traveling on the metro during a busy time with passengers packed in fairly tightly. When I arrived at my destination, I realized that the camera was missing. Someone had taken the camera out of my backpack on the metro. And I didn’t notice when this happened.

After this experience I never put anything of value in the small pocket in my backpack. And I frequently use a lock on my backpack.

I have never encountered a security problem anywhere I have lived in the city (knock on wood).  But I am also safety conscious and take care not to flash cellphones/cameras/money plus I take taxis at night.  In addition I don’t go to certain parts of the city after dark.  I even installed security doors in two apartments.

During my time living in the city I have met many other expats living in Medellín that haven’t experienced any crime. I also have met several expats that have experienced crime. For example, Dave, the founder of this website, was robbed during the day while in a Taxi in Belén.

The longer you stay in Medellín, the more likely you are to experience getting robbed at some point or another. But if you take the precautions as we recommend the possibility should be greatly diminished.

The Bottom Line

Medellín still has a bad reputation to overcome from decades ago. But the security in Medellín has improved dramatically over the past two decades.

Where you chose to live or stay in Medellín plus your activities and behaviors can have a major impact on your security in Medellín.

There is a famous and often-heard quote in Colombia that says “no dar papaya” (don’t give papaya), which essentially means don’t put yourself in a position where you become vulnerable to be taken advantage of.

If you follow our above tips and use common sense you are less likely to “dar papaya” and become a victim of crime.

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About Jeff

Jeff first discovered Colombia back in 2006 and has traveled to all the major cities in Colombia. He is fortunate to have lived over seven years in Medellín. He is also studying Spanish to become fluent.

Comments

  1. To all Americans,stay away from Medellin, crime is everywhere and the women are horrible.

  2. Michael Joseph says:

    I have lived in Barranquilla and Medellin only time I was robbed was in Bogota on a packed city bus, once in Medellin had a taxi driver think he could get out of his taxi and try to rob me, until I showed him 200 feet away were 5 Police officers standing he quickly jumped in his taxi and speed away. While living in Medellin I lived in one of the poorest barrios on the eastern mountain side in Medellin without issues, each vacation I return there to visit friends I made there. I have walked around Centro Medellin late at night ( heading from one point to another of Centro) alone or with friends without issue. For me I have found Medellin no less safe than walking around my home city of Boston Ma. only difference is the Police in Medellin ( which are few at night) are not a professional force like one finds in the States

  3. Michael Rasmussen says:

    For Americans wishing to compare Medellin with US cities view https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_cities_by_crime_rate

    The table for individual cities shows there are 10 US cities with comparable (Cincinnati, 20.2 per 100,000) or higher murder rates.

    Facts are your friends.

    • Thanks for those comparison stats in the US! This Medellín Living article has a good list of safety tips. I agree with “Don’t be fooled by El Poblado” as a friend was robbed of her bags and purse by someone with a knife in front of Oviedo mall recently during the day. Another friend had her cellphone stolen in Parque Lleras at night. You can be a victim anywhere at any time of the day so be careful.

  4. Thanks, pretty balanced article that equates with my view of the city over 6 years of visiting, around a year in total. The tips are sensible and I haven’t felt vulnerable but take reasonable precautions. On the other hand I have lost stuff to pick pockets in London and my daughter had her phone snatched by a bmx cyclist at Kings Cross. On the plus side, young people in groups, for example leaving school are generally well behaved. There is quite a bit of dope smoking and it worries me that often it is young men on motor cycles. Traffic is more worrying than crime and as a pedestrian and cyclist I never take other road users for granted.

  5. You have to take into account the number of unreported crimes, especially robberies. I always take these kinds of stats with a grain of salt, due to the fact that many people don’t even bother reporting incidents of street crime. The police in Colombia don’t exactly have a sterling reputation, and many people view filing a police report as a waste of time. I wonder how many robberies go unreported for every one that is reported? There is a mentality of blame the victim here in Colombia. If you’re robbed, then it’s your fault because you were doing something to attract attention to yourself or doing something that you weren’t supposed to be doing (dar papaya).

    • True that you have to take into account the number of unreported crimes — particularly street crime. But that is an issue everywhere – not just Medellín or Colombia.

      • Crime stats, especially street crime, here in Colombia, are worth less than the paper they were printed on. Sure, crimes go unreported in other countries, but in more developed countries like the US, where the police are a more respected and competent force, the culture of not reporting a crime because the police aren’t going to do anything about it, doesn’t exist like it does here in Colombia. I haven’t been a victim of crime here in Colombia (knock on wood). The police are not exactly a respected institution here in Colombia and are often derided for their rather ineffective approach at combating crime.

    • Good point. Even this article when talking about the nine murders in 2016 basically says they were the victim’s fault. Sure involvement with drugs or sex trafficking will put someone at higher risk in any country, but talking to a woman, or being shot during a robbery is not the fault of the victim.

      On a good note, while we have only been in Medellin three weeks we have felt pretty safe and really love this city. We do try to be careful.

      • Tomi Pontynen says:

        It’s good to take into account those security instructions given in Medellin Living newsletters. But there is one type of crime I fell offer some week ago, causing me lot of problems. Luckily my passport is still with me and one (1) bank card.

        BEWARE OF DUPLICATE KEYS TO YOUR FLAT!

        Yes, that is what happened. The thief did not break in. He or she entered my rental flat simply with keys!

        You have to insist on the change of lock when renting a flat! You can’t know how many duplicates do exist, given to boyfriends or girlfriends.

      • Trying to justify the murmured of nine tourist a year in Medellin,
        for any reason, is irresponsible and disturbing !!!

  6. I travelled in Colombia a couple of times in the 1990’s. Most of Colombia was dangerous, and Medellin and Cali were “no go” areas because of the crime and violence.

    But I just got back from a week in Medellin. I was shocked to find that it is one of the cleanest and safest cities in Latin America (Bogota is still sketchy, and I’ve heard that Cali is pretty bad). I didn’t ask myself “why” until one day I was on the metro. There were people yelling on the platform, and I could see that a group of men and women had surrounded a pickpocket. The crowd was getting ugly, but there were a lot of police around (there seem to be a lot of police throughout the metro) and they rushed in to take the criminal away.

    I asked a local person about this. He said that the people of Medellin are very proud of their city, and they are fed up with the prior crime and violence. They therefore take things into their own hands- he said that it is very common for people to chase down criminals and beat the crap out of them. He claimed that in El Centro (which is a very poor area, and I’ve heard that it’s sketchy at night), it’s possible that a criminal will be killed by a mob.

    Tough justice. But, as I said, Medellin is clean and safe.

    • Michael R says:

      Wow Jeff, thanks for sharing.
      Vigilantism isn’t good, but it can lead to a better place.

      • I have seen people chasing down criminals in El Centro a couple times recently. But with the increased police presence in El Centro they were quick to react and drag the criminal away before the mob turned violent.

    • “Bogota is still sketchy” – It depends where you go. People that visit Bogota and never leave El Centro/La Candelaria, don’t exactly get a very good impression of the city. It would be like me visiting Medellin and only seeing the area around the Botero Plaza. The center of tourism in Bogota isn’t exactly located in a very good area, whereas Medellin’s touristic center is located in the city’s best neighborhood. Having lived in both cities, I definitely wouldn’t say that Medellin has a leg up on Bogota in terms of being less sketchy. I haven’t looked recently, but the numbers have historically been in Bogota’s favor in terms of being less dangerous

      • I hope that my comments don’t scare anyone away from Bogota. Bogota and Medellin are both great cities.

        And Colombia is one of my favorite places. Friends often ask me for travel recommendations, and I always put Colombia on that list. I hope to see more regions of the country in the near future.

        BTW- Medellin has been rising to the top of an online list of cities that attract “digital nomads” who work from a laptop and who are looking for a wonderful place to live. That list includes Chiang Mai, Ubud, Buenos Aires, and Cape Town. That’s a great sign of the fact that the world is discovering how wonderful Medellin is!

    • Wow, I love to see people who take pride in the place they live. We spent an afternoon touring the graffiti near the escalators in Comuna 13. One cafe owner there was telling us about “his neighborhood” with pride in his voice. I loved it.

  7. Martins Strikis says:

    What to do if you are robbed?

  8. I thought I would share a few things about my recent trip to Medellin. I went to visit with my girlfriend, who is from Medellin. I am pleased to say the trip was wonderful. She took me all over the city on the metro. We went outside the city to see the granite mountain via a car we rented. We also visited San Antonio for some great dessert. The last night we went to a really cool discotech, where I was likely the only American. I must say at no point was I ever worried about my safety. All the people we came into contact with were extremely friendly and inviting. The bottom line is, it’s about the choices you make. I do not purposely go to the south side of Chicago and walk around flashing money/jewelry or looking for prostitutes. You avoid the same in Medellin and you can have a great trip.

  9. Tomi Pontynen says:

    I came to live in Medellin, currently not exactly in the town, but in Copacabana little north of the city. The reason to leave Ecuador was my 3 week’s Xmas and New Year in Medellin, living near Parroquia de San Anselmo, really nice place near to big shopping malls.

    Now I have been three weeks in Copacabana living with one colombiana friend of mine, very attractive and artistic lady, having a great common hobby, karaoke.

    All my friends here; I have got a lot of them in short time; are local people. They are a bit of worried of my sporting, walking and running with poles up to mountains and alone. Of course, I have to use shorts for this and definitely look like “extranheiro” with my Scandinavian looks.

    I am trying to get somebody to my company, but most of my friends are not fit enough.

    What do you think about my safety? Of course, I do not carry any valuable with me, but the “ladrones” do not know this.

    Been used to live in Guayaquil and Salinas, Ecuador I do not feel any worries of this issue.

  10. pavlaki says:

    Whilst Medellin has its previous reputation and, like any major city, its fair share of criminals, I often feel there is an obsession with security on the part of many Colombians I meet, particularly when I stay in the relatively comfortable neighbourhoods. To me it seems to be part of a broader Hispanic culture; the grills on the windows etc. Obviously in public areas we all need to exercise reasonable caution as you suggest, but I have rarely encountered any problems here, including in the centro, wearing shorts!. In fact, the first time I went there to meet someone, who was typically very late, on a Saturday afternoon, when it was heaving with people, I was surprised that nothing happened to me.

    I wonder if the Colombian security forces are waking up to more sophisticated crimes, such as cyber crime. In the UK and Europe there has been a huge increase in this, and penalties are much lower than physical crime, whilst the rewards are much greater financially. The other thing that bugs me is the total disregard for security at JMC airport check in hall. People leave luggage lying unattended, and the airline and security staff are totally nonchalant about it. It’s not that long ago that a plane full of passengers was blown up on a national flight, and various other activities of a violent nature related to drug trafficking. Also the number of Americans and Europeans going through .JMC represent an attractive target for terrorists. Never underestimate them!

    • You said “It’s not that long ago that a plane full of passengers was blown up on a national flight”.

      That isn’t true. That actually happened way back in 1989 when an Avianca flight shortly after takeoff flying from Bogotá to Cali was blown up. That’s almost 30 years ago during the time of Pablo Escobar. Pablo Escobar bombed the plane in an attempt to assassinate presidential candidate Cesar Gaviria Trujillo, who was not on the plane.

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