Love and Drugs in the New Colombia

The story starts out much like ones you've heard before: boy meets girl, or girl meets girl, or boy meets boy. They chat, they smile, they connect. One invites the other home. But that's where this story departs from the rest. How the story differs and where it leads offer lessons in caution and hope - lessons especially important given Medellín's growing tourism and expat community. For these reasons, my friend Sam spoke with me one-on-one so that I could share his story here.

It was Friday night, and Sam had had an intense three weeks at work. He wanted to dance and let his proverbial hair down and emailed everyone he knew to gather folks to go out. He and a friend met up at a bar near Parque Poblado that, as Sam put it, "isn't a gay bar, but is a gay bar." Campy 70s and 80s music, including anthems dear to every gay man's heart, set the mood. Thirty-something and middle-aged guys sang and swayed to the music.

Not long into the evening, Sam went outside, in part to see if he could strike up a conversation with a potential love interest and in part due to mild frustration with the social interaction, or lack thereof, inside. Moments before, he had been talking with his friend about how it can be tough to break into existing social circles in Medellín. Bars are usually set up with tables and chairs - not the floor space for mingling that characterizes many US nightspots - and people come in tight-knit groups with whom they stay all night.

Sam's friend, a local, explained that Colombians like to hang out and relax with their close friends. "You don't know what other people's intentions are," the friend said. "It's safer and more fun this way." This was small comfort to Sam who, like many foreigners in a new country, needed to find ways to meet people - and preferably not just fellow expats - without the benefit of introductions from existing friends and family.

Outside, Sam exchanged hellos with a couple of people, tried unsuccessfully to strike up a conversation with the person who had piqued his interest and then ended up standing alone. That's when a well-dressed man in his mid- to late 20s approached and offered to buy Sam a beer.

"I like to take care of people," the guy said, handing him a bottle. "That's just how I am."

Beers in hand, they went across the street to join the small crowds that settled on the park benches each weekend evening. The man told Sam he was paisa, the term used for people from Medellín, but that he'd been working in the mining industry in Chile and had come back to town a few days prior. The man asked Sam if he'd seen The 33, a recent movie about a 2010 mining disaster in Chile, explaining that he worked near that particular mine, though not underground. He was a good conversationalist, and Sam's guard slipped down.

At one point, the man flashed some cash, subtly letting Sam know he had money. For Sam, this was a surprise - he understood the income inequality rife in Medellín and, as a dollar-earning American, was usually the one to pay. His guard came down further.

"Let's get out of here," the guy suggested. "But don't tell them," he added, referring to his uncle, with whom he was staying, and his cousin. Sam met the uncle and cousin who seemed "either curious about me or somewhat strange", and the thought darted across his mind that something seemed amiss. Dismissing it as baseless, he went to say goodbye to his friend inside.

Sam and his date then went to buy beer. When the guy asked how much to get, Sam shrugged ambivalently - he'd had one and a half and wasn't planning to drink much more. As the man grabbed a six-pack, Sam tapped his phone to request an Uber. Immediately, the man grew concerned, expressing hesitation about Uber and trying to convince Sam to hail a cab. When that didn't work, his reluctance shifted to curiosity. He peppered Sam with questions about the Uber app and asked to see it on the phone - perhaps another red flag that Sam didn't register.

During the Uber ride, Sam told his companion that he had roommates, and warned him to keep his voice down when they entered so as not to disturb them. But when Sam showed the man around his apartment, his new friend asked more than once whether Sam wanted to "check their rooms to see if they're here" - a request that made no sense given that Sam had already said he didn't want to disturb them. Sam declined. Once in Sam's room, the guy began opening closet doors, asking where the TV was. Sam explained there was no TV in the bedroom, and realized with some concern that his computers were on display; he hadn't been expecting to bring anyone home. But his concerns gave way to romance as the guy made his move.

As the night wore on, the behavior of Sam's companion became more questionable. He went into the bathroom at least three times. During kissing, he pushed beer into Sam's mouth along with something gritty. Sam swallowed most of it, chalking it up to bad hygiene. Perhaps more suspiciously, the man asked for lotion, and when Sam said he didn't have any, the man went looking anyway. When he opened a drawer with Sam's US passport and dollars, Sam jumped up, pretended to count the money, and closed the drawer with an emphatic, "We're not going to touch anything in there. That's my personal, private stuff."

By this point, Sam was on high alert: he decided to check the guy's pockets after he fell asleep to see if he'd stolen anything. At one point, while Sam was pretend-sleeping, the guy got up but Sam roused himself and they both went back to bed. Sam shut his eyes again, still resolved to wait it out.

That's the last thing Sam remembers until he awoke, groggy and disoriented, late the next afternoon to find his closet doors open, his computers gone, and his driver license and Visa debit card missing. All the Colombian pesos in his wallet were gone, as were the US dollars that had been in the drawer. Small electronics were also missing, along with his computer bag.

Sam ran downstairs to the doorman, or portero, and asked him to call the police. He also asked for a piece of paper to write down everything he could remember, adding reminders for himself to call Citibank, use the Apple "find my phone" feature and more. He then told the portero to send the police up when they arrived and ran back to the apartment to use his roommate's computer. When he called Citibank and the customer service representative asked whether he'd made charges that morning, Sam realized the guy had already taken his debit card out for a spin.

When the police showed up, they told Sam he needed to go the hospital - he was still suffering the effects of whatever he'd ingested. They explained that there would be no ambulance, but kindly offered to give him a ride. With a start, Sam realized he didn't know how he would pay at the hospital as he had neither insurance nor cash and the emergency room required upfront payment. To get some help, Sam tried to contact his boss and friend Gio from his roommate's Skype account and sent some Gchats - all to no avail. Finally, he posted a desperate status update on Facebook, stating that he'd been drugged and robbed and was headed to the hospital, and asking friends to contact his family in California.

I happened to be sitting at my computer when Sam's post came across my newsfeed. Since I was familiar with Sam's status updates, I knew this post lacked his customary upbeat content and meticulous grammar. The post read like a scam email, complete with misspellings and poor punctuation - a result, I would later find out, of Sam's drug-induced state and his roommate's foreign keyboard. My first reaction, as was the reaction of some of Sam's other friends, was to think his Facebook account had been hacked. But then I noticed that the people tagged and the reference to the theft of two laptops were too specific to be spam.

I immediately called Gio (who is also my ex). Gio, in the car on his way home from a conference, turned around to head to the hospital. After about 30 gut-wrenching minutes, with Sam's mom anxiously messaging on Facebook as to his whereabouts, Gio located Sam at Clínica Medellín del Poblado. Gio had arrived before Sam and put down a deposit for his care. Hospital tests revealed Sam had been drugged with benzodiazepine, a tranquilizer sometimes used as a "date rape" drug that can, in high doses and especially if combined with alcohol, lead to drowsiness, slurred speech, weakness, difficulty breathing and even coma.

Thanks to Facebook, Sam's family received quick updates on his health status and a phone number to speak with him directly. The Facebook post also caught the attention of Kate Gallego, a Phoenix councilwoman and wife of U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Arizona. She alerted her husband who, in a bizarre twist, happened to be traveling in Colombia. To Sam's amazement and gratitude, the Congressman set aside past rivalries - Sam had criticized him harshly as spokesperson for the opposing candidate during a closely fought primary - and sent a direct message to Sam with a phone number and offer of help.

For those living in Colombia and elsewhere, the story is a reminder that all crime statistics count when it comes to quality of life. While rates of homicide and classic kidnappings have declined dramatically, common street crime has been on the rise, so-called express kidnappings remain a risk, and the use of drugs for robbery purposes - called a "common and particularly dangerous method" by the US State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security, occurs roughly 50,000 times a year in Colombia. Regarding the latter crimes, the State Department's Colombia 2015 Crime and Safety Report states, "...usually men, perceived to be wealthy, are targeted by young, attractive women."

Sam's story also highlights the importance of effective social service supports in the aftermath of a tragedy or criminal act. Health care systems not equipped to accommodate people who don't have money or to provide emergency transport deepen the impact of trauma. With respect to ambulance service, dialing 123 in Medellín connects the caller to the Sistema Integrado de Emergencias y Seguridad de Medellín, which can send police, fire or medical services. (Unlike the United States' 911, the caller needs to provide the address, which could be problematic if the caller cannot or dare not speak.) In writing this piece, I called 123 and was told that ambulance services are available in life-threatening situations to persons with and without insurance. However, I remain unclear on whether emergency transport is available in all situations. While not an issue in Sam's case, also of concern is the so-called paseo de la muerte, or "Death Ride", in which hospitals or other health institutions deny assistance to a person experiencing a medical emergency because the institution is not part of the individual's health network. Legislation has been introduced in Colombia this year to impose penalties for this negligence.

But Sam's story also brings with it many positives. It's a powerful example of how apps like Facebook can and do help in real world situations, whether through Facebook's Safety Check for natural and manmade disasters (e.g., the earthquake in Nepal or the Paris terror attacks) or on an individual basis through status updates. Sam's case is also a prime illustration of the safety net that friends and family can provide. Congressman Gallego's heartening response provides a model of public service that rises above politics. Sam said it best himself: "As I've shared with my friends and family back in the States, I'm incredibly grateful for the community of people here in Medellín that took care of me and watched out for me - both before and after this incident. Unfortunately bad things happen sometimes - and they can happen anywhere. I'm glad to know I can count on people here to have my back when I'm in a jam."

For Sam, one of the saddest parts of this story is the message he fears it sends about Colombia to people who have not had the opportunity to experience the country firsthand. For years now, Sam has sought to show the best of Colombia and Medellín to those in his circle of influence - to be part of helping the country and the city shake off the ill repute acquired during the drug-related violence in the 1980s and 90s. Sam wants to show that Medellín is no longer the city-at-war on display in Netflix's Narcos, but instead a place of beauty, hospitality and innovation. But with that desire is a newfound awareness that Medellín - and Colombia more broadly - must address not only homicides, but also crimes like this one. Failure to do so can hinder the growth of tourism and foreign investment, and perhaps more importantly, keep all people in Colombia - locals and foreigners alike - in a social system where fear legitimately constrains normal human interaction.

Sam's next step was to take his case to the Fiscalía General de la Nación, the governmental branch tasked with administering justice. Next, we'll look at whether justice was pursued and achieved. The answer is key to whether Colombia can rise to its full potential as a nation.