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Americans Looking for Love Are Getting Killed by Gangs in Colombia

by: Kejal Vyas
Posted: Jan 22, 2024

BOGOTÁ, Colombia—Minnesota comedian Tou Ger Xiong had fallen in love with the expat lifestyle in the vibrant Colombian city of Medellín: stock trading by day, fine dining and dance clubs by night.

He was one of a rising number of Americans and foreign nationals who began flocking to the country after the Covid-19 pandemic, some on new digital nomad visas introduced to help spur a growing startup scene.

But hours after prosecutors say he went out on a date on Dec. 10, he was calling family and friends back home to wire him $2,000, telling them he had been kidnapped and held for ransom. The next day, police found Xiong’s lifeless body with multiple stab wounds and bruises after being tossed off a 260-foot cliff along the side of a stream in a lush, wooded area of a city renowned for its eternal spring climate and rolling green hills.

“It’s surreal that in a place so beautiful, my brother died,” Xiong’s older brother, Eh Xiong, said in a phone interview from Minneapolis.

Xiong is one of at least eight Americans who died in Colombia’s second-largest city in November and December amid dozens of cases involving male tourists who were held captive and robbed, often after meeting women on dating apps, Medellín officials said. The deaths, some after the victims were drugged, and a spike in attacks against foreigners led the U.S. Embassy in Colombia to issue an alert this month urging caution for U.S. citizens meeting people through online dating platforms.

The warnings are a stain for Medellín officials who have spent decades cleaning up the city’s image, from 1990s murder capital under cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar to tourist hot spot with a flourishing nightlife. Homicides are down 97% in three decades.

But some criminals these days are targeting foreigners, many of whom flock to the city looking for drug-fueled parties and sex workers and are reluctant to report crimes if they are victimized, U.S. and Medellín officials said.

The attacks on foreigners come amid a robust rebound in tourism to Medellín, which residents, city authorities and even longtime expats blame for gentrification and a higher cost of living. The number of apartments listed on rental apps like Airbnb has nearly doubled to 7,000 in the last four years, according to data aggregator Rent has nearly tripled in the affluent El Poblado district, where Xiong had stayed and where many of the crimes occurred, and which is popular with foreigners who the city has tried to attract in an effort to make Medellín over as a remote tech workers’ paradise.

“We want more and more foreigners to come, but we want them to take part in tourism that adds value,” Medellín Mayor Federico Gutiérrez said after the U.S. warning. “Anyone who thinks they can come here for that sex and drugs tourism, we don’t want any of that here.”

In some of the deaths, which the U.S. Embassy deemed suspicious, American men were found dead in their hotel rooms or rented apartments after outings with local women. In other attacks, thugs robbed and killed them on the street while they were on dates, according to police reports. Others are believed to have died from mixing heavy drinking and the kind of mind-altering drugs gangs slip into drinks to incapacitate a victim before a robbery.

Social-media sites and internet travel message boards are rife with commenters encouraging middle-aged American men to indulge in the libertine dating scene in Colombia’s major cities, where prostitution is legal.

Many men tout their prolific dating through hookup apps like Tinder and Bumble. “Tinder has so many beautiful women in Colombia,” reads one post on TikTok where a woman kisses a man as a banner reads “Passport bro date,” the colloquial term to describe foreigners dating local women.

But there are also scores of social-media accounts warning foreigners of the risks of falling victim on dates in which crime gangs use drugs to sedate unsuspecting marks, to rob them.

“It’s become a huge, huge problem in the last few years,” said Jeremy Kreisler, a California native who lived in Medellín and runs a service helping young digital nomads embark on the expat life.

On his X profile, Kreisler in October offered a checklist of “Dating 101” tips, urging followers to choose the meeting site, closely watch their drink and avoid getting drunk. He also advised against mingling without speaking Spanish.

Even seasoned travelers can unwittingly become prey, Kreisler said, recalling how a friend was drugged at a bar and found most of his belongings gone when he regained consciousness at his apartment two days later. Kreisler said that he has also seen a noticeable jump in the amount of street prostitution, a problem that the city government says has become acute in tourist-heavy neighborhoods.

“I was blown away,” he said. “The question is what is Colombia going to do about it?”

The Attorney General’s office said it arrested about 50 people in 2023 for allegedly working with criminal groups that targeted foreigners in Medellín. In September, prosecutors arrested 14 members of one alleged crime syndicate that included underage girls used to create fake social-media profiles to draw victims, all of whom were men between the ages of 27 and 60. They were accused of robbing money and jewelry worth nearly $100,000 over a 10-month period.

William Vivas, Medellín’s top official who fields and investigates citizen complaints, said a fraction of the 1.3 million visitors to the city last year came for sex tourism. But those who do are particularly vulnerable to scams by gangs that subdue them using drugs like scopolamine, a powder or liquid that is sneaked into food or beverages to leave people in a drowsy zombielike state.

Vivas said his office has been alerting Medellín authorities of the rise in cases over the last two years.

“Unfortunately, the economic boom that we see through tourism also creates spaces for criminal structures to make money for themselves,” Vivas said. “There are women and men who are hunting to seduce you and mug you. My advice would be don’t let yourself get seduced.”

The city’s tourism advocacy board noted that thefts against foreigners had tripled during the third quarter of 2023, compared with the previous year. Murders in general, meanwhile, have fallen precipitously, with Medellín logging a homicide rate in 2023 of about 13 per 100,000, down from 395 per 100,000 in 1991, according to city data.

Xiong’s family said he never spoke about using dating apps but had told some of his brothers about a girl he had met in Medellín in July on one of several trips to Colombia he had made.

“He would tell me, ‘You have to come down with me,’” Eh Xiong said, recalling their last Thanksgiving, when his brother showed off photos of new friends in Medellín. But Xiong didn’t tell his family who he was meeting on Dec. 10.

On Thursday, prosecutors arrested two men, a woman and a 17-year-old adolescent in Xiong’s kidnapping and murder. Colombian investigators say the 50-year-old set out to an apartment to meet a woman he had connected with on social media. He was then tied up and beaten before being forced to call loved ones to send money to a PayPal account. A total of $3,140 was quickly sent to the account, prosecutors said, but Xiong was killed anyway.

“I couldn’t believe someone would try to hurt him,” said Eh, describing his shock when he learned Xiong was being held for ransom.

One of 11 siblings, Xiong had become a prominent member of the ethnic Hmong community around the Minneapolis-St. Paul area where his family had relocated in the late 1970s after the communist takeover of Laos. Xiong had made a name for himself on local comedy tours, and local schools in the Twin Cities contracted him to talk about his refugee experience and train teachers on working with immigrants, his family said.

Earlier this month, Eh traveled to Medellín to repatriate his brother’s body. He visited the ravine where his brother’s body was found to perform an ancestral Hmong ritual. Escorted by police, Eh burned incense and laid paper money on the ground to call his brother’s spirit ahead of a traditional three-day funeral in St. Paul that begins Jan. 27.

“It was a little secluded, you could hear echoes of the water running through the creek,” Eh said. “I thought, at least he died in a peaceful place.”

The post, Americans Looking for Love Are Getting Killed by Gangs in Colombia first appeared on Wall Street Journal.

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