Inside Colombia’s Transition from Narcoterrorism to ‘Narcos’ Tourism
Acclaimed photojournalist Mads Nissen spent eight years on the ground with FARC rebels, coke smugglers, and ordinary civilians
In recent years, Colombia has consistently topped lists of “The Best Places to Travel”. At the same time, it remains near the top of another, more grisly list – that of the world’s most murderous countries. We spoke to award-winning photojournalist Mads Nissen, who’s covered some of Colombia’s most brutal conflicts as well as its recent brittle peace, about the realities of traveling in this fascinating country.
Mads Nissen spent almost 20 hours behind the wheel of his rental car before arriving at a FARC guerrilla camp, buried in the depths of the Colombian rainforest. On the car’s radio, the national government was playing military advertisements.
A voice asked: Are you able to fight hard for your country? Can you carry a dead terrorist on your shoulder? Nissen thought, “Hang on. Aren’t you in the middle of the peace deal?”
“Colombians would say ‘We’re more than cocaine and coffee,‘ but they also can’t ignore that over 90 percent of America’s cocaine comes from Colombia”
The Danish photojournalist – who’s been documenting Colombia’s civil conflict since 2010 – was working on an ambitious portrait of the country as it navigated the complexities of newfound peace, following five decades of conflict during which some 220,000 lives were lost.
The historic 2016 peace deal signing united President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC rebel leader Timochenko: a man who was once designated as a terrorist, and who once tweeted a photo taken with Nissen (“I felt used,” the photographer jokes now).
In the photos that comprise Nissen’s new book We Are Indestructible – taken mostly after the peace deal – he wanted to show the wider picture. That is: the guerrilla rebels, the gang members, the cocaine production, the ordinary civilians whose lives had been uprooted.
He shows you vast fields of cannabis plants; masked gang members wielding weapons; a schoolgirl on her phone, casually standing on a mountain strewn with landmines (“There was a person killed by a landmine not far from where that was taken").
As Nissen entered the guerrilla-controlled territory, he was a little bit scared. Men with guns surrounded him. The first thing he noticed about these men – whom he describes as mostly in their mid-20s, well-read, and intellectual – was that they had their own subculture. “You see it in their appearance, the way they dress, that they were smoking more cigarettes than ordinary Colombians.”
He was nervous, so he tried to crack a joke. One of them said, “Are you not afraid of us?” Nissen answered, “Why should I be afraid of you, just because you’re narcoterrorists?!” There was complete silence. Nissen remembers it was unbearably tense. And then, finally, they all cracked up and he could breathe again.
Then they were asking him, “What is this Facebook, what is that about?” They aren’t allowed phones because the government can pick up the signal, so for them, Nissen was a window to the outside world.
At this point, headlines about Colombia’s rise as a tourist destination were popping up everywhere. Forbes listed it as one of the 10 Coolest Places to Visit in 2015; the Culture Tripwrote an article on The Meteoric Rise of Colombia’s Tourism; The Telegraph posted a piece called Colombia: from failed state to Latin American powerhouse about how the country had transformed over the past decade, citing Bogotá’s streets lined with Zara, Louis Vuitton and Armani. Many articles point out the increased political stability post-peace deal, economic growth, investment, and a rising middle-class.
“They have a big middle-class,” Nissen confirms. “There’s definitely a young, creative environment in places like Bogotá. There’s a lot of galleries, a lot of university students, great cafes, great restaurants, great food like ceviche. I eat it all the time!”
Colombia Reports, a non-profit news website, says, “Colombia’s tourism industry has grown more than 300% since 2006, when only one million foreigners visited the country.” It reports that, in 2017, the country received more than three million foreign visitors. It lists Bogotá as the most popular destination, followed by Cartagena and Medellín – the country’s former murder capital, and hometown of Pablo Escobar.
Which brings us to Narcos, Netflix’s insanely popular TV series about Pablo Escobar and the war on drugs in Colombia. Most of the show was filmed in Colombia, in Bogotá and Medellín, including the scene where Escobar is gunned down on a rooftop (filmed just two houses away from the actual shootout).
There is some evidence that the current surge in visits to places like Medellín is at least partly attributable to Narcos, and a renewed interest in this dark chapter of Colombian history. Today, tourists can book private tours of Escobar’s old haunts, or join the Pablo Escobar Is History Tour around his hometown, or countless other tours that capitalize on the popularity of the Netflix show.
“It’s interesting to see Narcos,” says Nissen, pausing to think. “It’s always difficult, because you see this series but you don’t necessarily read a historical book about it, so your impression will be based on something between documentary and fiction.”
“Sailing down a river, driving on crappy roads, even riding a mule into a minefield – Nissen knows the dangerous areas better than the safe areas”
He tells me that a lot of Colombians would hate the show. They’d say, We’re more than cocaine and coffee. And they are, he says, but they also can’t ignore that over 90 percent of all cocaine on American streets comes from Colombia.
“They have never produced as much cocaine as they are doing right now. I know they want a different reputation than Narcos, but it’s just like- it is there, it is happening, so maybe it’s time to face it a bit more.”
I ask how the Netflix series differs from the reality he saw. “I think the really high-level drug people aren’t running around with guns anymore. They’re running around in suits and maybe they’re not even living in Colombia,” he says.
“What I hear from a lot of places on the ground, including the diplomats and the people in charge at the UN anti-narcotics division, is that the drug production in Colombia has been taken over by the Mexican cartels.”
Narcos’s portrait of Colombia as a country ravaged by drugs and violence is one that tourist companies like Visit Colombia have attempted to dispel. Their tourist-targeted video shows a bikini-clad woman enjoying an empty beach and people dancing in candle-lit bars, all smiles and happy times.
It ends with a man saying, “The only risk is that you want to stay,” alluding to the genuine risk that existed in the days of Escobar. It as much as says, That was then, this is now.
Yet today, still, the question on the lips of tourists and travelers everywhere is: How safe is Colombia?
In the UK Government’s official travel advice for Colombia, there’s a map in which a huge swathe is marked as “advise against all but essential travel”. None of the tourist hotspots – Bogotá, Medellín, Cartagena, Cali – fall in this zone.
It also lists a bunch of rural areas that you definitely shouldn’t go to, with the latest update mentioning a “deteriorating security situation along the Colombia-Ecuadorian border”, where there has been a spate of kidnappings. Lastly, it reassures travelers that, “Despite the high levels of crime, most visits to Colombia are trouble-free.”
Nissen has his own advice for travelers. He says to “be cautious a bit.” Some of the guys that he photographed would kill people for money. “Just make sure they get something,” he says. “Don’t ever try to fight them, don’t be brave. That’s the stupidest thing you can do, because they have far less to lose than you.”
He also says to never take a taxi from the street. Why? “Because they might take you somewhere and rob you.” I ask, What about street cabs in modern cities like Bogotá or Medellín? There too, he says, “but I wouldn’t do that in many countries.”
The best thing to do, he says, is to book a cab through an app, because then you can track it. Or ask a restaurant to call one so they will have a code. “But everyone kind of knows that, so it’s quite easy to avoid it.”
I didn’t realize that was the case, I say, and he quickly assures me that I could easily go as a tourist. “I think in Cali, Medellín, Bogotá, a lot of people are surprised at how modern and well-functioning it is,” he says.
“They have amazing restaurants. I’ve also been to the coast but not the kinds of places you want to go as a tourist. Usually, speaking with the locals, they will know everything, so they can tell you where is risky.”
Obviously Nissen saw a different side of Colombia. Journeying from one vast territory to the next, taking 14 planes, sailing down a river, driving on crappy roads, even riding a mule into a minefield, the photographer knows the dangerous areas better than the safe areas. Despite that, he tells me Colombia is still one of his favorite countries. “I would go there with my kids,” he says, adding that he needs to do a bit more research first.
One of the last memories he shares is of when he was about to leave Colombia. He was nervous again, but this time it wasn’t because of the armed guerrillas. It was because of the anti-narcotics dogs at the airport.
“I was afraid because I had been in the cocaine lab,” he says. “Whenever you take a plane, they always have dogs at security that can smell any trace of the drugs. I was trying desperately to scrub my clothes!”
In the end he made it through. “[The cocaine producers] explained it to me, because they know very well what the dog can smell and what it can’t. They were basically telling me how to smuggle cocaine – which I never did,” he laughs. “But I always got nervous when I saw a dog at the security gate.”
Oliver Lunn is a London-based freelancer. Keep up with him on Twitter.