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How Medellín Became Colombia's "Open Air" Brothel

Medellín was once a mix of conservative values and hidden perversions, but socio-economic troubles and the pandemic have coincided to make the city, in the words of locals, "Sodom and Gonorrhea."

Photo of a sex shop in Medellin

Sex shops in Medellin

Reinaldo Spitaletta


BOGOTÁ — In the 1940s, Medellín wasn't just Colombia's chief industrial city but also boasted the most brothels, sex workers and "red light" districts.

As a columnist from Bogotá wrote, "You enter Medellín through a brothel." One conservative daily newspaper proclaimed in an editorial that the city was a "branch of Sodom and Gomorrah."

Tolerance zones

The "tolerance zones" permitted by the city council were a handy earner in terms of taxes. In those days, the city was embarking on an architectural revolution, with the construction of new landmarks like the Hotel Nutibara, the Fabricato building and La Bastilla passage. It was a time of all kinds of excesses, which oddly belied Medellín's essence as a conservative small town (with big-city aspirations).

There were crusades against venereal disease and immorality. Quietly and furtively, people mentioned gonorrhea, touting lemon drops or potassium permanganate as the cure, and suggested an "urgent" post-coital wash to avoid catching it. By the 1980s, when the drug cartels took over the city, the word gonorrhea could be heard out loud and frequently, entering daily language both as an insult and term of endearment, depending on the tone. The same was true with hideputa (son-of-a-bitch), as Sancho Panza says beautifully in the novel Don Quixote.

The love district of Medellín

That era in Medellín saw the birth of a district of elegant brothels, with "high-class" madams. It was the aptly named Lovaina. The ladies were more attractive, costly and "modest" (many had sex under a blanket so the Heart of Jesus they had on the wall wouldn't witness their acts). And while the city heard sermons against perversion, brothels increased as did the range and variety of sexual practices. Copulate and commune were frequently conjugated verbs of the time.

Not that it was all peace and roses in the city before.

Lovaina was a district frequented by ministers, mayors and industrialists looking for novelty. They would quip — and it wasn't such a far-fetched observation — that Colombia's National Front period (when the two main political parties agreed to rotate power) was decided in that district of vices.

Not that it was all peace and roses in the city back then. In the early 1950s, when one of the mayors ordered all the vice to be moved to a single district, Barrio Antioquia, the two sides had already begun settling scores across the city. The decade of violence — with its multiple forms of refined cruelty and unspeakable practices — had begun.

Photo of a street view in Medellin

Street view of a market in Medellin


A hell of a city

Today, Medellín, the home of a once-vigorous (and fading) conservatism, is being termed an "open air" brothel. Cheaper prostitution dens formed around the downtown Church of Veracruz some time ago. The sex work industry there has flourished in line with the city center's degradation. Drug peddling is rife, and the pimps and their "girls" (as some still insist on calling themselves) are common. Boys and girls are available — and often forcibly so — in the Berrío park and Botero square, by the sculptures that are the city's pride.

Some blame the pandemic and migrants for its dishevelment.

People are indignant these days that prostitution should have spread to the city's fancier districts, such as Parque Lleras and El Poblado.

Once an industrial city, Medellín seems to have lost its dreams and become a den of inequality. You'll hear some people blame the pandemic and migrants for its dishevelment. It may be a convenient pretext as always, but these two elements have worsened the many social, economic and planning problems that no local government has addressed.

No, the city is no Sodom or Gomorrah (or as some here say, "Sodom and Gonorrhea"), but a little hell of its own with more than the nine circles of an Inferno.

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