How Should Medellín Deal With 'Escobar Tourism'?

Medellín authorities want tourists and youngsters to be mindful of the victims of drug trafficking, not view mobsters as merely rogues or 'Robin Hoods.'

Pablo Escobar neighborhood in Medellín
Pablo Escobar neighborhood in Medellín

MEDELLÍN — The city of Medellín wants to find ways to properly honor victims of drug violence, with actions including demolishing an abandoned building that once housed the family of infamous drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, boss of the Medellín cartel.

The structure, called the Monaco Building, has become a tourist attraction to the dismay of local officials. In January 1988, the rival Cali cartel set off a massive car bomb outside the Monaco, hoping to kill Escobar and his family. The explosion shook the neighborhood and marked the start of a brutal war between the Cali and Medellín cartels.

Medellín's city hall sees it as a symbol of pain, and a misused one at that if it helps to impart a bit of glamor on bloody criminals. Mayor Federico Gutiérrez wants to demolish the structure and have it replaced by late 2019 with a park to honor victims who, in contrast with the man who rained bullets on them, are slipping into oblivion.

"We do not want to negate history," says city official Manuel Villa.

The municipality wants to "change our references as a society," says Villa. "So the children who didn't know who Pablo Escobar was do not see him as a kind of Robin Hood as some try to portray him. Too many, instead, have never heard of Guillermo Cano, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, Luis Carlos Galán or Colonel Valdemar Franklin Quinter — people who gave their lives fighting lawlessness and they are the ones we must highlight." Villa's list includes prominent politicians and a senior policeman killed during Colombia's war on drugs in the 1980s.

We allowed fiction to tell our story.

Others in Medellín want the building left in place, precisely to remember Escobar's crimes. Since his death, it has served variously as head offices for banana companies, private health providers and shipping firms. Repairing it is thought to cost 20 billion pesos (just over $6 million) more than destroying it, and the municipality wants its park ready by late 2019.

Villa says "unintentionally, we allowed fiction to tell our history," referring to various television and web series on Escobar's life. He says institutions now want to recover the initiative on telling history, "the one that honors the victims and heroes, not the capos. Tourists still visit places like the Monaco building where Escobar died, or his tomb. Now we want people to respect the pain and stop excusing crime. Let them know the real history that left thousands dead. We mustn't hesitate in saying we still have symbols of illegality, like the man dubbed Popeye who justifies what he did 30 years ago. These people can't be our references anymore."


A mug shot of Pablo Escobar in Medellín in 1977 — Photo: Colombian National Police

On April 4, to show the government's support for city plans, Colombia's Ministers of Defense and Justice joined the mayor and formally began knocking down the Monaco Building.

The head of the city's House of Memory museum, Adriana Valderrama, says other sites may be treated similarly. "Escobar's victims are angry that the Monaco should become a tourist site without an understanding of its context," she says. "It is not just about knocking down a building. The demolition is intervening in a particular space to make it public again, and allow civic reflection. There are other places we want to integrate in this strategy. We had bombs in the 1970s ... by the end of the 80s we had four bombs a day. If tourism is coming to ask what happened, what they must recognize and visit are places honoring victims."

Gonzalo Enrique Rojas, whose father was one of 107 passengers killed on a flight Escobar had bombed in 1989, says changing the meaning of these places will allow people to reflect on how they themselves must change. "Only five of Escobar's victims have been recognized in the framework of the Law of Victims," he said, adding that such initiatives will help "heal wounds."

The program has coincided with moves to reshape the Colombian image by Colombians living in the United States, where the drug reputation fed by television series is tiresome to many. U.S.-based Colombian artist Ciro Sarmiento has for months been orchestrating an online campaign including short videos, where "shifty" looking Colombians discuss, not "deals' or drugs, but science, cultural heritage or literature.

"Our first objective is the U.S. audience, because it is their perception of Colombia we would like to change," says Sarmiento.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!