First-Person Account on Medellín Hostel Violence, and How to Stay Safe

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poblado
El Poblado as seen from Pueblito Paisa
El Poblado as seen from Pueblito Paisa

By now almost everyone in Medellin knows the story. Or some version of it.

New Yorker Dennis Levy, 58, resisted a robber and was killed from two gunshot wounds to his chest late last month at El Tamarindo Hostel in the popular Parque Lleras area of El Poblado, one of the biggest tourist draws in Medellín.

He apparently was minding his business when the robbers came in, then tried to help the front desk. At least that’s one way it’s been told.

That led to discussion about other incidents:

The recent near-robbery at the nearby Tiger Paw Hostel, as well as two homicides last year — another U.S. tourist, this incident in the northern suburb of Bello, and a British tourist who was murdered in the Belén district west of El Poblado.

It makes Medellín sound so dangerous and some of the comments that follow on news websites only exacerbate the situation.

Unfortunately, in these situations, it’s hard to find out exactly what happened. People don’t want to be associated with violent crime, not even as witnesses, especially not in a place like Medellín, once the murder capital of the world with 381 homicides per 100,000 people during the peak of the drug violence — almost four times as high as the rate is today — according to the latest figures at the Brookings Institute, a left-leaning American policy institute

Finding someone to provide a clear, eye-witness account of what happened at El Tamarindo has proved futile. It’s almost the same with the Tiger Paw incident, although there is one person, someone who agreed to share what he knows as long as his name is not used, and I plan to respect that.

This is the email, verbatim, that I received from this person, who was staying at the Tiger Paw that night (and, again, I will not disclose their name):

So it happened around 2.30am on Monday 16th April. It had been a fairly busy night for the Tiger Paw bar for a Sunday. There were around 7 or 8 people still drinking at that time, sitting on the tables just outside and the security door was open. Most of them were backpackers from other hostels.

It seems that the robber (with his gun concealed) walked right in to the hostel without anyone even noticing him or questioning him and he proceeded straight up the stairs to the 1st floor.

The alarm was raised by the girl working on reception that night as she noticed that her handbag which she had left behind the reception desk was open and wet. When she looked closer she found that 100,000 pesos had been taken from her purse. She immediately told a couple of the lads (regulars at the bar that week) and two of them (one Portuguese) went to look around the hostel to see if there was an intruder.

The Portuguese guy (in his late 20s / early 30s) went upstairs and physically tackled the robber as he came out of a room. He told me that he tried to pin the robber against the wall but eventually backed off. The Portuguese guy was quite drunk as he had been at the bar for at least 3 or 4 hours by that stage.

By this time, the shouting and commotion had woken up a lot of people. The robber went back downstairs, shouting at people to put their hands up. The security door had been closed, so he smashed through the big glass window to escape, and he had an accomplice waiting in a car.

From talking to people afterwards, it seems that the robber only entered one room, possibly two at the most. A Canadian guy who was sleeping in there woke up and jumped on top of the robber from the top bunk which he was sleeping on. When he saw the gun, though, he backed right off.

So in total, the robber only got away with an iPad and the 100,000 pesos ($56 USD), possibly some other electronics as well. But he didn’t go for the cash register at the bar, or the money at the reception desk.

So we were lucky it wasn’t more serious and very thankful that no one was hurt, especially with these guys trying to play the hero.

Now let’s talk about two things: 1) Medellín, home to 4 million people, is a big enough city that violence is part of everyday life; 2) that’s why we need to focus on what can be done to limit our chances of becoming victims and what to do should we be confronted with trouble.

Safety Tips:

1. It’s always safer to go out in groups, especially at night.

2. Learn the city. There are neighborhoods you probably don’t want to visit even during the day. (Sound similar to some cities in the United States? I thought so.)

3. Try to blend in. That means no fancy jewelry or watches, no playing with your iPhone or Smartphone or Blackberry in public, and guys, please wear jeans. Nothing screams gringo like a guy wearing shorts in Medellín, unless he’s running, going to the gym, playing basketball, something that can be considered exercise.

4. If you’re confronted, be cooperative. Don’t resist. Sure, it sucks to lose an iPad, but is it worth your life?

5. Call the police immediately after an incident. But if you’re identifying someone as a criminal, or providing anything that could be used in court, you might want to refrain from providing your real address. You don’t want the bad guys to find out where you live through public records.

I have lived in Medellín for more than seven months and have yet to encounter anything serious. I hope it stays that way, and I plan to do the best I can to make sure it does.

The stories about Levy are the exception nowadays, not the norm. It just never feels that way when it happens.

For additional tips on staying safe, read this March 2011 Colombia Crime and Safety Report by the US State Department.

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26 COMMENTS

  1. On the one hand violence can happen anywhere, particularly in large cities. But robbers going into the hostels seems so brazen. Is this an escalation or has it happened in prior years as well?

    Keep safe,

    Michael

    • Hey Michael, I agree about armed robbers entering a hostel as being an especially brazen act. Wherever I’m sleeping at night (usually a hostel) is where I expect to feel most safe in a foreign city. That’s what makes these recent robberies especially frightening (for me personally).

      What we’re seeing in Medellin seems to be following a trend which began in La Candelaria neighborhood of Bogota a year or two ago.

      Unfortunately, it took at least a half dozen hostel robberies before the situation seemed to reach a boiling point.

    • definitely brazen. and it’s happened before, mainly in bogota, as dave said. but still too soon to call this a trend in medellin.

      • The reason it’s more common in Bogota is because the hostels are all in La Candelaria, which border neighborhoods like Egipto, Los Laches, and of course la L and el Bronx. The criminal element is within short walking distance.

        It’s surprising in Medellin because the hostels are in Poblado, quite a hike from the slums.

  2. It’s such a shame to hear about these events as Colombia is working so hard to change its image from the kidnapping/murder central it used to be. I spent 3 wonderful weeks in Medellin, staying in a hostel in the area of these attacks and I have a very good friend from Medellin – these attacks are NOT the norm any more yet, as you say, many news sites only exacerbate the situation.

    I don’t wish to downplay the situation as these are truly terrible events but they can happen anywhere. A friend was recently attacked with a machete as she rode through the streets of Saigon, Vietnam, on a motorbike – yet many travellers say that Vietnam is a safe destination.

    Thanks for the safety tips, common sense goes a long way when travelling. I would like to second the tip about guys wearing jeans – in Medellin I watched four guys leave the hostel wearing shorts, flip-flops, and Asian beer logo t-shirts. Their whole look screamed ‘tourist’ and must have drawn attention from would-be opportunists. The same with girls, Colombian women DON’T wear scruffy hippie pants, flip-flops and bracelets all the way up their arms. The best thing to do is try to blend in as much as you can.

    • thanks for your feedback. let’s hope this is just a fluke. i’d like to think medellin is getting better every year. it’s my home now.

  3. I have been here 2 months and I haven’t seen any trouble although I have talked to people who know of others that have been robbed. I don’t think I would live in Poblado – It is a v upmarket area with a lot of nightlife. Consider taking taxis from late clubs etc. Don’t hang out in conspicuous gringo groups – get to where you are going with purpose. I think hostels need to up their security checks – door management can be lax. I am in Cali at the moment in Jovita Hostel where they seem pretty security conscious and I feel pretty safe. In Medellin I stayed in Luareles and Belen and both seemed fine.

  4. dear all, I am living here 5 years and have been to all sorts of spots in the city. Often robberies with shooting are connected with drugs. The story of Tiger Paw looks like an ordinary robbery. The story about shooting someone? It looks different.

  5. I have been living in Medellin 3 yrs and have noticed an upswing of crime issues right here in Poblado. I am wondering if the police presence is less.

    My guess is that hostels don’t usually have security at the door and can’t afford security so maybe they have been targeted somewhat recently.

    I would add that in your advice for safety you need to address transportation such as calling yellow taxis from a phone or asking your bartender to call for you and avoiding taking taxis on the street.

    The best method for safe transportation is to have a “taxista de confianza” or trusted driver who is someone who really looks after you. This is how I travel within Medellin. I find this is something people often overlook.

    • Good point Charles, about having a trusted taxi driver. I’ve had many, many drivers give me their card, in an effort to start that kind of relationship, but I never made the effort. Part of it’s a lack of confidence in my Spanish to be able to call them up and give them the necessary info over the phone.

      And then there was the one time I had a really cool driver, and I actually did text and call him to schedule a drive to the airport, and he never responded.

    • i like your point about the taxis too. i should have had that in there. it’s something i usually do, depending how far i have to go.

  6. My US hometown being murder thug capital St.Louis,I feel completely safer in El Poblado. North Americans and Europeans need to loose the hippy look,take a shower and comb your hair,tuck your shirt in ,entiendo?

    • the hippy look does suggest gringo, that’s for sure. as far as feeling safer in poblado than st. louis, i guess it depends on the neighborhood, right? i mean, i think poblado is relatively safe, and, if you’re talking about north st. louis, then yes, i understand.

  7. Really sad to hear of these events and I agree, a hostal is suppose to be a neurtal zone… you may get something stolen but you should not ever fear for your safety.

    I added the link to article in my page about Medellin as a cheap place to live (though I know costs in Colombia are rising steadily). Thanks for the info, Molly

  8. I was shocked to hear about the shooting at Parque Lleras. I’ve lived between Medellin and London for the last 4 years and own a property in what I would call a mediocre area of the city and never had any problems. This could be due to being married to a Colombiana and we have a large family circle.

    Unfortunately, there is wide spread poverty in Colombia as in most of South America. Even though Medellin is a very industrious city there is still a lot of unemployment. The city has grown exponentially in the last few years but I feel is not ready for tourism. It is frightening that Hostels are no longer safe havens and because of this I would definitely do more research before booking one!

    Colombia is a beautiful country and one day I do not doubt will be another major tourist destination, but not yet!

    As a lot of people on this site have already said. It is important, ‘don’t give papaya’ meaning don’t walk around wearing an expensive watch, or flashing an expensive phone etc. Don’t talk loudly so everyone can here you are there! and get rid of the shorts and flip flops!

    • Hi Brian, I think the scariest part of these recent incidents is that the travelers were INSIDE the hostel minding their own business. Therefore, while people shouldn’t show their wealth openly on the street, that advice doesn’t really help in these two cases where armed robbers walked into the hostels unchallenged.

      The hostels need to do more security wise. Aside from not tackling a robber once inside the hostel, there’s not much you can do to defend yourself in that situation. Just hand over the valuables and try not to get yourself hurt.

  9. Hi Dave, thanks for your reply to my post.

    Yes it is scary. You should feel safe in your home, hostel, hotel, or any public place really. There are a number of places in Medellin where I would not like to walk after dark, which is the same though in any city.

    The report on the Tiger Paw Hostel says the security door was left open. It’s called a security door for a reason.

    The point I was making about doing research before booking a hostel is, make sure they have 24 hour security, in the way of a guard. As a tourist I would still try to stay in El Poblado even though 2 of the incidents occurred there.

  10. If you can afford it, use airbnb and stay at one of the nice apartment complexes in poblado. Me and my friend did this for a week long stay. It was awesome, and walking distance to everything. Best part 24/7 gated security with cameras everywhere and friendly people who are REAL colombians that you meet.

    All social networking….

    • Airbnb is good, but on the whole, I believe the apartment prices are inflated (because tourists often don’t know any better, or because of the exchange rate, they think they’re getting a good deal). If you do some searching on your own once you arrive in Medellin, I think you can get more for your money.

      I’m making this observation not just about Medellin, but other cities I’ve rented in recently, including Buenos Aires and Lima.

  11. Guys stop writing usless things. Medellin s just a dangerous place, and just people who do not value their own life would take the risk. If you appreciate the gift of life you would not even start thinking about going there.
    Murders rates are still very high, and police is prettu much usless.

    Of ocurse you take frugs and dont value your own life and health you ll go there ans say is safe till the day they ll kill you. And even then you ll say it can happen everywhere.

    No
    This things dont happen in developed asian country , most of europe, or even chile or Argentina.

    Most of the people who go there have low budget and risk their life to afford a decent material life.

    I think they should accept to be poor and value more their life instaed of feeling rich and trading their own life fot that.

    Medellin is a like a lager.
    And i know more than all of you …

    • Jimmy, it’s ridiculous to say people who go to Medellin “do not value their own life”. That’s exactly the kind of hyperbole I’m trying to counter by showcasing the positive aspects of travel and living in Colombia.

      Unfortunately, theft and robbery do affect tourists, in addition to Colombians, but far more people visit every year and do not have these problems.

      There’s no escaping the poverty that exists in Medellin and Colombia. Combine that with a long running internal war and the drug trafficking (which is fueled by Western countries’ appetite for cocaine), and it’s no surprise there’s a crime problem.

  12. Hey there. Just saw your recent post about staying safe in Medellin and then clicked back to this older post about the hostel violence in 2012. Can you offer any updates on the general feeling these days about security in hotels near Parque Lleras? Thanks.

    • Parque Lleras feels pretty safe but criminals also realize that it’s an area that’s rich in targets. They’re not going to make a lot of money waiting for targets in San Javier after all. This spring (2015) they killed someone for his motorcycle just a couple blocks from Parque Lleras. And just a few days ago an American was killed apparently on Ave. Poblado in front of his hotel. Colombia is a beautiful country but life is cheap here. Life is very, very cheap. Read up on “Popeye” if you want to know exactly how cheap it is, or about the “false positives,” where even the army was willing to kill innocent people just to meet a quota.

      The murder at Tamarindo Hostel might be the most shocking because it was in the heart of Provenza, but it’s not surprising that criminals have no fear of getting caught, because there are practically no security cameras anywhere around. They always get away with it.

      Tourists, despite their best efforts, stick out like a sore thumb here. The rich Colombians are very low-key and do not make themselves targets. They do not roam around town like tourists. Many of them know somebody who has been kidnapped or murdered. Aside from the violence associated with narco-trafficking, there has been more than 50 years of continuous armed conflict in this country involving multiple groups.

      These are just the facts. There are a million reasons to love Colombia, but if you go there as naive as some people do you will end up dead. It’s almost a sure thing.