In the barrios of Medellín, criminal groups set the rules for the tourism sector

by Patrick Naef

December 15, 2022

While Colombia experienced a significant boom in tourism in the past decade, the sector has often sprung up in weak legal settings. Medellín is a revealing case. In the country’s second city, tourism is a fast growing business, but public authorities are struggling to regulate it. Medellín is also frequently hailed for its resilience and innovation in international media and in global development programs. Yet, the influence of criminal actors on how it is governed is critical, especially in marginalized neighborhoods.  

This post offers a brief glance at some of my current research, in which I examine the way intimate relations shape criminal governance. I am interested in how interpersonal ties, like kin, friendship and long-term acquaintances, influence how criminal actors enforce their rules. I explore for instance the extortion of people working in the tourism sector, such as tour guides, street artists and business owners. Through a neighborhood-based approach, I seek to understand some of the micro-dynamics that shape what was often referred to as the rules of the game, in some of Medellin’s marginal areas that began experiencing the arrival of tourists.

A pedestrian path overlooking the city in the Comuna 13. Photo by author.

Tourism, crime and Medellín’s ‘miracle’

Tourism offers an innovative way of examining the integration of criminal actors into an emergent sector of the economy. Although many in Colombia, including entrepreneurs, landowners and social leaders, have suffered exploitation from criminal groups for many years through the extraction of the infamous vacuna (extortion tax), tourism became a target for them only recently.

Research carried out in the Comuna 13 (also known as La Trece) can help to demonstrate how tourism has been affected by criminal activity. Situated in the western outskirts of Medellin, La Trece was considered the most militarized urban zone of Colombia in the early 2000’s. It is now one of its most touristic areas. La Trece exemplifies the resilience of the tourism sector, which recovered quickly after an interruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Research from La Trece also demonstrates the resilience of criminal governance, as the street-gangs controlling the tourism business promptly resumed their extortive practices when tourists flocked back to the district. Exploring this process in more detail enables the deconstruction of what is often referred to as ‘Medellín’s miracle’ – what the municipality regularly describes as the transformation ‘of the most violent city to the most innovative city in the world’. Tourism is an important tool in the diffusion of this triumphalist messaging, and its criminal repercussions raise major questions about city branding, governance and urban changes.

Beyond its prominent role in city-marketing, tourism was also rapidly considered as a resource benefitting the communities of its poorest neighborhoods. In Comuna 13, the area known as Las Escaleras (The Escalator) served both objectives until it became a contested space where so-called ‘community tourism’ turned into mass tourism. These outdoor escalators were initially built to improve the mobility of residents. Along with some urban cable cars located nearby, they featured as one of the most important symbols of Medellin’s social urbanism. However, due to their innovative nature, but also to the surrounding street art, Las Escaleras shifted from being a local and social project, to becoming a tourist attraction mainly targeting international visitors.

Initiated by artists from the local hip-hop scene, tours in La Trece became increasingly managed by external entrepreneurs. New tour guides and tour operators moved in from other neighborhoods, but also from other countries, such as Venezuela, Argentina or France. This internationalization boosted competition and tensions which increased further with the dramatic drop in tourists during the pandemic. The fierce competition among tourism actors in La Trece provided a fertile soil for the take-over of the sector by local gangs. 

The rules of the game

At Las Escaleras, tours follow a specific itinerary: they generally start in the barrios of Veinte de Julio and Las Independencias, where tourists are led up the escalators. Afterwards, they reach the upper area known as el viaducto, a recently built pedestrian path overlooking the city, where souvenir shops, artisans’ galleries and street-artists abound.

Criminal governance in La Trece is fragmented among micro-territories, where approximately thirty combos – the colloquial name designating street-gangs in Medellín – control areas ranging from a whole neighborhood to a single block. Two criminal groups are mainly active in the tourist area around the escalators; when tour guides and business owners describe extortion, they generally refer to those from arriba (above) and abajo (below).

Amounts extorted are not fixed sums; they vary depending on the business involved (e.g. a local guide or an external company), the guide himself (e.g. if he has relatives or friends in the combo) or the time of year (e.g. tax increases and donations for Christmas and Easter). In 2021, tour guides paid around 70,000 Col$ (approx. 15 US$) every week. This amount was usually divided between those from arriba (50,000 C$) and abajo (20,000 C$).

While the gangs’ involvement in tourism is mostly limited to extortion, they occasionally provide some governance to local businesses and tour guides. They can influence the distribution of plots to businesses and intervene in conflicts between tour guides. Yet, as one guide indicated, it seems that economic benefits came before social order: ‘What they did was the complete opposite. They said: “the more people who want to be guides, the more money we will make”.’

Inspired by the tourism boom in La Trece, other gangs are now also capitalizing on the increase in international visitors in other places. The area known colloquially as Barrio Pablo Escobar[i] is a striking example. With the growing interest of tourists in this neighbourhood, the local combo transformed some of its walls into a colorful comic strip on the cartel’s history and recently even commissioned a successful street-artist from the capital to contribute to these fiercely contested memorabilia. As in La Trece, tour-guides must pay a fee to this illegal business.  

The main mural of Barrio Pablo Escobar. Photo by author.

Calma tensa in Medellin’s touristscape

Criminal governance can paradoxically foster security: the control of tourism spaces provides an illustration of this process. Medellín’s city center, despite being an open market for drugs, prostitution, and stolen goods, also has a longstanding history of tourism, mainly due to its renowned Museum and central square.

The center is controlled by dozens of criminal groups known as Convivir, a name that originated in a program of a paramilitary neighborhood watch before it was dismantled due to political pressure. As the former Peace Adviser, Luis Guillermo Pardo, explained, they control Medellín’s center through violence, but also take care of foreigners’ security: ‘Not the police, but La Convivir… I assure you that if someone robs a tourist… they will beat him and give back everything to the tourist.’ In the Comuna 13, a similar process taking place. One gang member commented: ‘The objective is to avoid problems. That everybody lives well together.… Nowadays, you are more likely to be robbed in [the wealthy district of] El Poblado than here.’

In some of the violent and informal barrios of Medellín, tourism entrepreneurs and criminal actors, but also the tourists themselves, contribute to the security of these spaces. They foster a climate often described as calma tensa (tense calm), which Adam Baird defined as ‘the psychological grip, generated by fear, that gangs hold over the community’. In many accounts I heard, tourists were seen as untouchable, and their presence contributes to the (tense) calmness of the place.

Moreover, intimate relations embedded in these neighbourhoods are critical to the persistence of the tourism vacuna. Gangs often favour friends and kin, and local tourism entrepreneurs express very little resistance. In addition to the risk of retaliation, many are less reluctant to pay a tax to a gang well known in the community, than to give money to legal but external institutions, such as banks or tax authorities. The increasing involvement of outsiders in the tourism sector, such as large tour companies and foreign tour guides, significantly reinforces this dynamic.

Extortion in Medellín’s tourism business, thus, contrasts with the ethnographic findings of others, like those of Anthony W. Fontes, who exposes the spectacular violence created by the maras (gangs) in Guatemala City. For him, the ‘smoothness’ of extortion only works in spaces where violence is controlled. In Medellín, many testified to what they described as the ‘naturalization’ of the vacuna. Extortion is entrenched in the social fabric and violence is contained. Both tourism entrepreneurs and criminal actors are dependent on the calma tensa to facilitate the smooth running of the tourism sector.

A political economy analysis of tourism and violence raises questions about the so-called ‘miracle’ of Medellín. Behind the well-polished image of Medellín’s transformation promoted by the tourism sector, a situation of profound inequity and silenced violence prevails. The second city of Colombia experiences a double-edged process, in which tourism brings socio-economic resources to peripheral neighbourhoods, but at the same time contributes to the victimization of their residents.

[i] The name of the area is associated with the former boss of the Medellín cartel, Pablo Escobar, who helped deprived families settle there in the 1980’s.

Patrick Naef is an anthropologist at the University of Geneva. He works on criminal governance, informality and collective memory. His current research looks at violence in ‘resilient cities’ in Colombia, Kenya and the United States.  

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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the Word on the Street blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Urban Violence Research Network.

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