The US Embassy has warned tourists about the dangers of using dating apps in Medellin, Colombia following the deaths of eight tourists.
It is unclear if an organized gang was behind the US deaths.
In the first 10 months of 2023, Medellin’s tourism observatory had already recorded 32 violent killings of foreigners in the city – including at least 12 Americans and three from the United Kingdom – a 40% increase from the previous year.
Johny Jerome was killed on his 45th birthday.
Another man, Phillip Mullins was drugged and died of an overdose, according to local media reports.
The embassy says several of these cases began with a dating app used to lure victims, part of a concerning increase in people who end up “drugged, robbed, and even killed by their Colombian dates”.
Neither Tinder nor Bumble, both popular in the city, would comment.
Carlos Calle, the former director of the city’s tourism observatory, said it’s common for criminals to drug tourists with scopolamine, an odourless substance known as “Devil’s Breath”. The US embassy also warned about the drug, which sedates victims for up to 24 hours.
“There’s a negative profile of the tourist in the city that looks for a certain type of opportunities,” said Calle in an interview. It’s usually related to sex work, he said.
A spokesperson for the tourism observatory confirmed that the “majority” of victims last year were men, but added that many cases are still under investigation.
Alok Shah, 36, thinks scopolamine is what caused his vision to “go sideways” when he brought a woman back to his hotel room in late 2022. It was like his short-term memory was disappearing, he said.
The Texas resident had matched with a Colombian woman in her mid-20s on Tinder. They first went out for coffee, but Shah later decided to buy beers and bring her to his hotel.
He says he hadn’t felt unsafe during his previous frequent visits to Medellin, or like prostitution was as prevalent when he first came in 2017. But he knew women were a draw to the city. “If you’re a single guy, the women are very lovely here,” a friend had told him.
Before his watch, jacket and $200 in cash disappeared that night, he remembers his date rubbing a powder on his neck. But he stayed conscious enough to realise something was wrong, threatening to call the police and chasing her away.
“I generally don’t interact with the locals there now,” he said. “There’s just too much danger, there’s too much risk.”
The new US embassy notice recommends its citizens avoid taking dates to private places like hotels, plus inform friends, family or building staff about who they’re with. And don’t resist a robbery because that could be fatal.
Medellin’s city police would not comment on the recent increase in violent deaths and referred BBC News to the mayor’s office.
“We want more and more foreigners to come to the city,” said Mayor Federico Gutierrez, but added that tourists coming purely for sex and drugs were not welcome. He said he’s directed the police to crack down on what he says is a related underlying issue – the sex trafficking of minors.
Police have been directed to begin “special interventions” in the neighbourhoods where tourism is most prominent, a spokesperson for the mayor told BBC News, including the popular nightlife area called El Poblado.
More than 1.4 million foreigners visited the city as tourists in 2022, a new record over previous years, and over a quarter were American, according to statistics released by the mayor’s office. The numbers for 2023 are expected to be even higher, partly because Medellin has become a top destination for remote workers.
Last week the brother of one of the murdered men came to Medellin himself for the first time, to carry out a family tradition by calling his brother’s spirits back home.
“We’re not mad at the people of Colombia,” he said. “I truly believe that he would have forgiven the people who did that to him.”
Parts of this story were written by Austin Landis who is a multimedia journalist based in Medellin, covering migration and stories from Colombia.
Source: BBC News.