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.
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.