Is Medellín safe to visit? Medellín is generally safe to visit if you follow some basic safety tips, as you will reduce your risk of being a victim of crime. However, security in Medellín is still a major concern for expats living in Medellín and also tourists visiting the city.
Medellín still has a reputation of violence and drugs to overcome that hasn’t been helped by the popular Narcos series. What many people don’t realize is the timeframe depicted in Narcos was well over 25 years ago and that Pablo Escobar is long dead and buried. Furthermore, Medellín has experienced a remarkable turnaround over the past couple of decades.
I have lived in Medellín for over eight years. And probably the most common questions I get from friends and relatives in the U.S. are still related to the security and safety in Medellín.
I frequently hear questions like “Is Medellín safe?”, “Aren’t you scared living there?”, “What is the chance I will be kidnapped when I visit?”
In this article, we look at some up-to-date crime statistics and 18 recommended expat safety tips. Crime and safety is a major concern of expats and was included in our list of 11 downsides to living in Medellín.
Everyone’s experiences and perceptions about security and safety differ. Obviously if you or a family member or close friend have been victim of a crime your perception will be different than someone that hasn’t experienced this.
Note the above photo of Colombian police is by the National Police of Colombia.
Medellín Homicide Statistics
Nothing demonstrates the remarkable turnaround in the security situation in Medellín more than looking at historical homicide statistics.
In the 1990s, Medellín was known as the murder capital of the world. In 1991, the homicide rate in Medellín was reportedly 375 per 100,000 residents. This was almost triple the homicide rate in the current most dangerous city in the world, Caracas, Venezuela.
Over the past 25 years, there was a dramatic turnaround in Medellín with the homicide rate dropping significantly, as seen in the above chart. Medellín was even taken off the list of the 50 most dangerous cities in the world based on homicide rates a few years ago.
In addition, out of 10 cities in Colombia, Medellín experienced the biggest drop in its reported homicide rate from 2009 to 2015 as seen in the following chart.
Medellín now has a lower homicide rate than is found in St. Louis, New Orleans or Baltimore in the U.S. that are still on the list of the 50 most dangerous cities in the world.
During the full year 2017, 577 homicides reportedly occurred in Medellín, which was 33 more than in 2016 and 81 more than in 2015. Medellín closed the year with a rate of 23 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants.
This homicide rate of 23 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2017 was up from a homicide rate of 20 in 2015 in Medellín, which was the lowest in over 40 years. Of these 577 murders in 2017, 44 percent (318) were reportedly the result of confrontations with criminal gangs.
La Candelaria (El Centro) in Medellín remains the most dangerous comuna in the city. In El Centro, there were 103 homicide cases in 2017, five more than in 2016. This was followed by Robledo with 70 homicides and Belén with 50.
In contrast, the safest comuna in Medellín in terms of homicides was El Poblado with 6 homicides followed by Popular and La America had 12 each. And Buenos Aires had 13 homicides during 2017.
Foreigner Homicides in the Aburrá Valley Over the Past Decade
According to an early 2018 article in the El Colombiano newspaper, 50 foreigners were murdered in the last decade in the Aburrá Valley from 2007 to 2017. So, this is an average of one foreigner homicide every 2.4 months.
The reasons for these homicides vary but the majority were related to street robberies, drugs and sex tourism and crimes of passion.
In the over seven years I have lived in Medellín, a majority of the foreigner homicides in the city tend to be reported in the news that the victims resisted a robbery or were involved in shady activities such as drugs and prostitution.
These foreigner homicides over the past decade occurred all over the metro area and in seven of the 10 municipalities in the Aburrá Valley. Most of these foreigner homicides occurred in Medellín (37), followed by Bello (3), Caldas (3), Itagüí (2), Copacabana (2), Envigado (2) and Sabaneta (1).
In Medellín, the comunas with the highest counts of foreigner homicides over the past decade were El Poblado (10), Laureles-Estadio (10) and Belén (6), which are three of the most popular neighborhoods for foreigners living in Medellín.
In regards to the manner of homicide, 29 were perpetrated with a firearm, 12 with a knife, 4 by asphyxiation, 2 by dismemberment, 2 with a blunt object and one by poisoning. Five of the victims died in cases of massacres or multiple homicides.
The murdered foreigners came from several countries: 14 were from Europe, 12 from North America (U.S., Canada or Mexico), 9 from South America, 9 from Central America and the Caribbean and 5 from Asia-Pacific. Nine of the homicides were foreigners from the United States and seven were from Venezuela.
Details of the North American Homicides in Medellín
The following list looks at the 12 homicides of foreigners from North America (U.S., Canada or Mexico) over the past decade in detail to demonstrate that several of these victims reportedly resisted a robbery or were involved in shady activities such as drugs or prostitution. In some cases, details of these homicides are sketchy with a underlying cause not reported.
- June 28, 2010, Jason Correa Salazar from the U.S., age 24, was reportedly traveling in a Volkswagen Golf in El Poblado with a Colombian where he was killed by two men on a motorcycle.
- July 2, 2010, Jason Gil Galeano from the U.S., age 29, was assassinated in the bar Gurú during a massacre that killed eight people. Galeano reportedly had been visiting Colombia for two months where he had a daughter.
- July 7, 2010, Roy Guzmán from the U.S., age 52, was shot in the Florida Nueva barrio in Laureles-Estadio. He reportedly was shot during a robbery attempt when he was walking with three women.
- July 26, 2011, Juan Carlos Beltrán Carreón from Mexico, age 34, was killed with a knife, tortured with a hammer and hanged with an iron cable, in the house he had rented in the Los Colores barrio in Laureles-Estadio. He had a food business in the city.
- April 24, 2012, Dennis Ian Levy from the U.S., age 58, was shot during a robbery at the El Tamarindo hostel in the Provenza neighborhood of El Poblado. Reportedly he resisted a robbery when assailants asked for his wristwatch.
- May 30, 2012, Noah Goldberg from the U.S., age 46, was shot in a bar on Carrera 70 in Laureles-Estadio. Goldberg reportedly was involved in the sex tourism business.
- May 11, 2014, Frederic Lavoie from Canada, age 31, was found dismembered in four garbage bags in Sabaneta. He was using a false Bahamas passport in the name of Roberto Clementi Major. He had arrived with a woman from Cali and rented an apartment in El Poblado. Lavoie was a wanted drug trafficker in Canada. Reportedly his murder was believed to have been a settling of accounts.
- June 4, 2016, Jesus Gustavo Estrada de la Rosa from Mexico, age 48, was killed in the Los Alpes barrio in Belén while trying to prevent the theft of a neighbor’s motorcycle.
- September 25, 2015, John Mariani from the U.S., age 65, was shot while reportedly resisting a robbery in front of the La Estrada mall in El Poblado.
- December 14, 2016, Jigar Patel from the U.S., age 35, was reportedly attacked by a knife and killed by two assailants during a robbery in the barrio Miranda in north Medellín.
- July 22, 2017, Dennis Ruckel from the U.S., age 68, was found semi-nude and dead with three knife wounds in an apartment in the Naranjal barrio in Laureles-Estadio.
- December 2, 2017, Johnny Noel Simancas from the U.S., age 41, was killed with multiple stab wounds in an apartment in El Poblado. He reportedly was involved with an underage girl of 17 years who called a friend for help.
The bottom line is that resisting robbery or being involved in shady activities like drugs and prostitution are risky behaviors in Medellín. Furthermore, during the past decade, there have been many foreigners who died from drug overdoses reported in the news.
However, it is highly unlikely that any normal foreign tourists not involved in these risky behaviors would be shot and killed randomly. Safety in Medellin for most foreign tourists comes down more to muggings, robberies and thefts.
Other Crimes by Neighborhood in Medellín
Reportedly the highest counts of reported robberies and thefts in Medellín occur in the La Candelaria comuna (El Centro). This is followed by Laureles-Estadio and El Poblado, which are two of the most popular neighborhoods for foreingers in Medellín.
The most commonly stolen items are cell phones followed by money, clothes and jewelry.
Each year, El Centro has the highest counts of reported robberies/thefts, motorcycle thefts, homicides and sexual offenses. So, it remains the most dangerous area of Medellín. As a result, the police have been focusing many of their efforts in El Centro. So, you will see an increased police presence in El Centro in several areas like Parque Berrío and Plaza Botero.
As a result of an increased police presence in El Centro there has generally been a reduction in crime rates in the area over the past year.
Colombians living in Medellín generally feel safe in their barrio (neighborhood). In fact, in a survey of over 14,000 Colombians in late 2016, Medellín ranked higher than all 10 other cities surveyed in Colombia in terms of citizens feeling safe in their barrio.
My Experiences in Medellín and Colombia
I have lived in the Medellín metro area for over eight years in five different neighborhoods. And I have been traveling to Colombia since late 2006, when I first discovered Colombia.
During all this time living in Medellín and traveling to Colombia, I only experienced two problems and both were on the Medellín metro. Once was a few years ago when I was traveling on the metro with a backpack during rush hour. And a small camera was in the small pocket in the backpack.
When I arrived at my destination, I later discovered the camera was gone. Someone had taken the camera while I was on the metro that was packed during rush hour. And I didn’t notice anything.
And I was a victim of a pickpocket on the metro in August 2018. I normally try to avoid rush hour on the metro when people are packed like sardines. But I wanted to use the metro to go to El Poblado and avoid rush hour traffic.
I had my cell phone in one front pocket and my wallet in the other. I had one hand on my pocket with my wallet and my other hand was holding on. And when I arrived at my destination, I realized someone had taken the cell phone from my pocket. And I didn’t notice or feel anything. Note that cell phones are the most commonly stolen items in Colombia.
Luckily this was an older Samsung J3 model cell phone that I was planning to replace anyway. And since the cell phone was registered in my name, it was easy to report it stolen to block the IMEI, buy a new phone and get a new SIM with the same phone number.
I have not encountered any other security problems while living in Medellín and traveling throughout Colombia. But I am safety cautious and take taxis at night and don’t go to certain parts of the city.
18 Medellín Safety Tips for Expats
Medellín is generally considered safe to visit if you use common sense and take some precautions. There are a number of basic precautions you can take to be vigilant about your personal safety while in Medellín and Colombia.
Here are 17 safety tips in no particular order that should greatly reduce your risk of being a crime victim in Medellín:
1. Don’t flash your cellphones, cameras, jewelry or money around. In addition, pickpocketing and purse snatching is common in some public places. Distraction is frequently the strategy, so be alert and keep an eye on your belongings. In addition, be aware of your surroundings when using your cellphone, as cellphones are the most commonly stolen items in the city.
2. Never resist if you are a robbery victim. Many homicide victims in Medellín resisted robberies. It’s not worth risking your life for some money and/or possessions. Don’t try to be a hero.
3. Be careful in El Centro. Chaotic El Centro has the highest crime rates in the city. Street crime in El Centro is quite common. And there are areas in El Centro that are magnets for drunks, drug addicts and homeless people. After dark, El Centro becomes even more dangerous.
4. Be careful on the Medellín metro. As my experience demonstrates, it’s possible to be a victim on the metro by pickpockets during rush hour that you may not even realize until you arrive at your destination.
5. Stay away from drugs, sex tourism and illegal activities. Participating in shady activities increases your likelihood of becoming a crime victim and historically many of the foreigner homicides in Medellín have been related to these activities.
6. Dress conservatively and lose the shorts and flip-flops. Try not to be such an obvious foreigner tourist that can make you a target. See how typical Colombians dress. An expat in shorts and flip-flops speaking English loudly on an iPhone is likely to attract some unwanted attention.
7. Use ATMs in malls and grocery stores. Avoid ATMs on the street or in areas with few people around. And be conscious of who might be watching you.
8. Avoid bad neighborhoods. The poorest neighborhoods in Medellín like Popular, Santa Cruz, Manrique, San Javier and 12 de Octubre are not really places for expats, even during the day unless you are part of an organized tour like a graffiti tour.
9. Never leave your drink unattended. It takes almost no time for someone to drug your drink with something like Scopolamine (aka Devil’s Breath), which eliminates free will and can wipe the memory of its victims.
10. Take care even in El Poblado. Street crime is possible everywhere in Medellín. El Poblado is touted as the safest part of the city. But robbery statistics have been increasing in El Poblado. This is likely due to criminals targeting the wealthiest area of Medellín where most foreign tourists say.
In addition, take care in Parque Lleras, which has been experiencing problems with street crime, drugs and prostitution resulting in an increased police presence.
11. Don’t carry lots of cash with you. Only carry what you need for the day or night with you.
12. Late at night call for a taxi. During the day, hailing a taxi on the street will likely be fine. But at night calling for a taxi or using an app like EasyTaxi or Uber is safer and will ensure you are getting a legitimate driver.
13. Don’t walk alone at night. It’s safer in groups. And if walking alone, stick to well-lit streets where there are plenty of people.
14. Try to keep a low profile. If you keep a low profile you are less likely to become a target. And never give out information about where you live to strangers.
15. Watch out for motorcycles. A disproportionate number of robberies and crimes in Medellín take place by criminals on motorcycles due to the ability for a quick getaway. So, take care brandishing phones in taxis or on the street as you may attract unwanted attention from a criminal on a motorcycle.
16. Don’t carry your passport with you. Carry a copy of your passport with another ID like a driver’s license. Only bring ATM and credit cards which you plan to use. Leave your passport and other cards locked up in a safe location.
17. Change locks and buy a security door. When you are living in a place long-term in Medellín always change the locks. No telling who else will have keys. For even better piece of mind change the door to a security door reinforced with steel inside and around the frame. But make sure to get permission from the owner if you rent before replacing a door.
I travel often so I bought security doors for two apartments I have lived in. Thieves are looking for doors that are easy to break into and many apartments in Medellín have front doors that are quite easy to break into.
18. No Dar Paypaya. Don’t give papaya. This is a famous quote in Colombia, which means essentially don’t put yourself in a position where you become vulnerable to be taken advantage of. Many of the above tips are ways to “No Dar Paypaya”.
These common sense safety tips apply not only to Medellín but also generally apply to other cities in Colombia and other countries in Latin America.
Reporting Crimes in Medellín
If you are a victim of crime in Medellín you can report this. A police report, known as a denuncia, may be filed at the nearest Unidad de Reacción Inmediata (URI) of the Colombian judicial authorities. You may also file a report at a police station but it will not have the same validity for legal process. So, it is recommended that victims of a crime go to the nearest URI to file a formal report. And be sure to get a copy of the report.
The National Police (Policía Nacional) have police stations located throughout the Medellín metro area and a list can be seen here. And the police station in El Poblado is located at Carrera 43B # 12-20 with the fijo phone number of +57 4 266 8826. This police station is only three blocks from Parque Poblado.
Location of the El Poblado police station
In addition, Guala is a special division of the police that handles cases involving extortion and kidnapping. They can be reached via phone at 165. And their office in Medellín is located at Carrera 51 #14-259.
Colombia Travel Warning or Advisories
Several countries provide a Colombia travel warning or Colombia travel advisory.
For example, the U.S. Department of State has a Colombia Travel Advisory that is currently at Level 2 – exercise increased caution. In this travel advisory, it is advised to reconsider travel to several departments in Colombia including Arauca, Cauca, Chocó, Nariño and Norte de Santander Departments, with the exceptions of the cities of Popayan (capital of Cauca) and Nuqui (capital of Chocó) by air.
Also, Canada has travel advice and advisories for Colombia that says to “exercise a high degree of caution”. It also recommends avoiding all travel within 20 km of the border with Venezuela, within 20 km of the border with Panama and the ports of Buenaventura and Tumaco.
In addition, the UK has UK foreign travel advice for Colombia that advises avoiding all travel to the ports of Buenaventura and Tumaco. And Australia also has its Australian travel advice for Colombia that recommends avoiding all travel within 20 km of the borders with Venezuela and Ecuador except the Pan American Highway crossing at Ipiales and avoiding all travel to the ports of Buenaventura and Tumaco.
The Bottom Line: Security in Medellín and Safety Tips
The biggest question I have received since living in Medellín has been “Is Medellín Safe ?” And my answer has been “yes”, as long as you follow some common-sense guidelines.
Medellín unfortunately still has a bad security reputation to overcome that is for the most part undeserved. The reality in the city is that the security situation has improved dramatically over the past couple of decades.
This biggest concern of expats planning to move to Medellín is security. But once they start living in the city, security becomes less of a concern once they realize that the reality doesn’t match the perception many foreigners have.
I have talked to many foreigners living in Medellín over the past several years. And I have only encountered a few expats that have experienced crimes. Most of these were robberies on the street or metro. And the most commonly stolen item was a cell phone. And in some cases, these crimes could have been avoided if they followed the common-sense security tips listed above.
The bottom line is if you take the precautions we recommend above with our safety tips, your risk of being a victim of crime should be greatly reduced.
In addition, “Is Medellín safe?” is a very common question asked by expats visiting Medellín. So, we included this question in our list of Medellín frequently asked questions (FAQ).
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Editors note: updated on September 17, 2018 with Jeff’s experience of being a recent victim of a pickpocket on the Medellín metro and added a section with Colombia travel warning and advice from several countries.