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US Embassy warns citizens not to use Tinder or Grindr in Medellín after suspicious deaths of eight tourists

There is no evidence of a link between the cases but several of the victims had spent the last hours of their lives with people they met through dating apps

Medellín Colombia
A couple walks through the streets of downtown Medellín (Colombia), in May 2023.Santiago Mesa
Lucas Reynoso

Eight U.S. men have lost their lives in Medellín over the past two months. They died in different, puzzling circumstances, and there is no evidence of a link between the cases. But there is one factor in particular that is common to the crimes and has drawn attention: several of the victims had spent the last hours of their lives with people they had met through dating apps. The pattern is repeated to the point that on Thursday, the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá warned its citizens not to use platforms such as Tinder, Bumble and Grindr in Medellín. “Numerous U.S. citizens in Colombia have been drugged, robbed, and even killed by their Colombian dates,” the statement reads.

The warning notes that violent deaths of foreign citizens increased by 29% in the final quarter of 2023 compared to the same period a year earlier, according to data provided by the Tourism Observatory of the District Personnel of Medellín, a figure that does not take Venezuelans into account. U.S. tourists, notes the Embassy, account for the majority of those deaths. The figures, it adds, come in addition to an increase in complaints received by the diplomatic mission from Medellín, Bogotá, Cartagena, and other Colombian cities. “Over the last year, the Embassy has seen an increase in reports of incidents involving the use of online dating applications to lure victims, typically foreigners, for robbery by force or using sedatives to drug and rob individuals.”

The cases reflect all types of modus operandi, according to Colombian media. Hewett Jeffrey Hutson, a 55-year-old communications specialist, was found dead on November 11 in the apartment he rented through Airbnb in El Poblado. He had suffered more than 20 stab wounds and was allegedly the victim of an 18-year-old woman who had entered the apartment with him that day. Artist and lecturer Tou Ger Xiong, on the other hand, was found with stab wounds in mid-December in an inhospitable location: La Corcovada creek, in the northeast of the city. He had met a woman on the afternoon of December 10 and, hours later, a friend received a ransom demand of $2,000.

Not all of the deceased had showed signs of violence. Johny Jerome, a New Yorker who traveled in late October to celebrate his 45th birthday, was found lifeless in his hotel jacuzzi by his cousin. Both had spent the night with two women and were uninjured. Phillip Ryan Mullins, meanwhile, was found in his hotel with psychoactive substances in his blood that were possibly the cause of death. He was 32 years old and had last been seen at a party with friends on December 15.

The Embassy notes that not all the victims used dating platforms. However, it elaborates on recommendations about this particular risk, which is not limited to cases of heterosexual liaisons such as those recorded in recent months. “Be cautious if using online dating apps in Colombia. If meeting with a stranger, you should strongly consider meeting only in public places and avoiding isolated locations, such as residences or hotel rooms, where crimes are most likely to occur,” the alert stresses. “Tell a friend or family member of your plans, including where you are going, details of the person you are meeting, and the app you used to meet them. Victims who are targeted via online dating applications tend to have their electronic devices stolen, which often contain all evidence of communication with the assailants,” it adds.

Medellín
Tourists walk the streets of the Pablo Escobar neighborhood and take photos with the murals, in November 2023.Santiago Mesa

Tourism boom

William Yeffer Vivas, district ombudsman of Medellín, confirms via telephone that tourism-related crimes have increased in recent years. He also says that Americans are the main victims among foreigners — there is no breakdown between resident U.S. nationals or tourists. However, the official is emphatic that the use of dating apps is not among the main reasons for the increase in violence. “It is possible that some tourists make use of these platforms. But these are exceptional cases,” Vivas says.

The causes are diverse. One is connected to Medellín’s consolidation as a tourist mecca: it surpassed 1.4 million visitors in 2022, according to the Mayor’s Office. This implies a natural increase in crime linked to this economic sector. However, the ombudsman acknowledges that they have also identified a higher proportion of people interested in the consumption of psychoactive substances, sexual exploitation of minors, and medical tourism in unlicensed clinics. “They are the most prone to suffer these types of situations, which result in theft or death,” he says. At the same time, criminal organizations have taken advantage of the opportunity with tourist packages ranging from Pablo Escobar tours to drug consumption.

Daniel Duque, a former councilman for the Green Party, adds two other reasons. “The great tourism boom has combined with the fact that we have an inherited culture of drug-trafficking that stereotypes the paisa woman [from the region of Antioquia], who is hypersexualized compared to other Latin American cities. She is supposed to be voluptuous, with big breasts, a wide butt and blonde hair. This has generated expectations on the part of tourists who come to our city,” he explains by telephone. The politician also blames former Medellín mayor Daniel Quintero (2020-2023) for “ignoring the phenomenon” and being negligent in tourism planning policies.

Trabajadores sexuales con turistas extranjeros en Medellín
Tourists in the El Poblado neighborhood in Medellín, in July 2022.Santiago Mesa

Questions

The Embassy’s warning has raised some questions in the city. Mayor Federico Gutiérrez endorsed the alert, but pointed to tourists who engage in criminal activity. “[I want] to tell all nationals and foreigners that they are welcome in Medellín, but that they do things correctly and respect the rules,” he said in statements picked up by Caracol Radio. “We want them to come for a tourism that adds value. We do not want those tourists, national or foreign, who come to sexually exploit our children and adolescents,” he added in other remarks reported by El Tiempo.

Duque says the U.S. Embassy warning is stigmatizing the city and its inhabitants. “It is discriminatory because it is based on the fact that, if you come here, you will find women who want to murder foreigners, and that is a lie,” he said in a conversation with this newspaper. According to the former councilman, it is important to separate the cases of the deceased U.S. citizens from the broader and more complex dynamics of sex work and tourism. “There is a very big risk that when we talk about this phenomenon it is by blaming the women, that they kill the tourists. Or by blaming all tourists, despite the fact that most of them come for noble purposes.”

The president of the Antioquia Sex Workers Union, Valery Parra Ramírez, explains that there have always been foreigners with money who come to Medellin in search of sex. For her, the difference now is that criminal gangs are more interested in taking advantage of the sex trade. “As they see that foreigners attract a lot of money, they infiltrate among us. But we are not the culprits, we become victims of these pimping or trafficking gangs, who threaten us,” she says by phone. “All lives matter, but it seems that some deaths hurt more. Three trans women were killed in December and no one bothered to publicize that. But a foreigner dies and the media creates a social storm,” she concludes.

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