Not all that long ago, Medellin, Colombia was called the murder capital of the world, and best known as the epicenter of the violent war on drugs. But there’s been a stunning turnaround in one of the western hemisphere’s most notorious cities. Scott Thuman takes us there to see how it happened.
When it comes to transformations, Medellin, Colombia could hold the trophy.
For decades, Medellin was the murder capital of the world — almost 19 killings a day at its worst, and its streets run by drug kings and gang leaders. Most notably, Pablo Escobar — once, the seventh richest man in the world and the leader of its largest cocaine cartel — leaving a path of destruction and rich story for a hit show.
"Narcos" trailer: During the early 80s, the best smuggler in the world was Pablo Escobar.
These days, tourists line up to take photos at his gravesite. And the curiosity of a chaotic past, enough to entice visitors like Lara Fuhrer and Blair Tanenbaum from California.
Scott: You were saying that when you told people you were coming here, different reactions.
Fuhrer: Our friends were all very excited and wanted to hear all the recommendations when we get back. And then our parents, who were young in the 80s were...
Tanenbaum: Were nervous for our safety, even though if they got on Google, they would realize it's a very safe place.
While Medellin still has its share of problems, drawing a crowd isn’t one of them. Even in a barrio once largely considered a "no-go" zone for police years ago, Comuna 13 is now a haven for 12,000 tourists a week. Snagging up Escobar T-shirts, cocktails, and taking in the view, often ignoring the bullet holes that still pockmark walls from a siege between soldiers and gangs, from a deadly battle to push out the pushers.
For the city's leaders, the visitors a welcome sight, even if part of the draw isn’t ideal.
Ledys Lopez is the under-secretary of tourism.
Scott: Does it bother you that there are things like narco tourism, where people come here specifically because they want to know about Pablo Escobar or because they watched "Narcos"?
Lopez: We do recognize that it is our history, a history that cannot be erased. A history must be recognized in order to not repeat it.
Scott: Is it still difficult, then, to get rid of, to erase that reputation?
Lopez: Yes, it has been a difficult process. But when people come, they really take that message that this is a transformed city, that it is a beautiful city.
While tourists stop by to see Escobar safe houses and the site of his death, the city, expecting its best tourism year yet, with 1.3 million visitors, is pushing its own narrative at this memorial park built on property Escobar once owned.
Scott: The allure here is a combination of curiosity, notoriety, and respect. The 46,000 bullet-like holes in this memorial represent each of the victims killed during Escobar’s reign. To put that in perspective, that’s more than 15 times the number of those killed in 9/11.
Tanenbaum: I think for us to come here and to worship or idolize someone who's done so many terrible things is awful. But to understand how it shaped a place is important for anywhere you go, whether it's drug trade or the killing fields.
Fuhrer: Similar to other terrible events in history, it's important to remember, recognize, so you don't repeat, and see what happened, and have people be educated and remembering the victims and hearing their stories.
So while the legend of Escobar may drive the tourists’ curiosity, the true colors of the horror and history are on full display.
For Full Measure, I'm Scott Thuman in Medellin, Colombia.