Reinventing The World’s Most Dangerous City

Medellin, Colombia is rebuilding itself two decades after drug baron Pablo Escobar was killed.


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Medellín, Colombia: reinventing the world’s most dangerous city” was written by Ed Vulliamy, for The Observer on Sunday 9th June 2013 08.00 UTC

The cable car floats over the mountainside above rickety rooftops, labyrinthine streets, palms and pylons of a barrio built by, and named after, the most renowned criminal of all time – Pablo Escobar. Below it lies what was until recently the fortress of the cocaine king, on the northeast edges of Medellín in Colombia.

There is strange silence up here where vultures soar above the bustle, but eventually the cable car reaches its terminus, disgorging passengers into the animation of the place now optimistically renamed Santo Domingo – after the patron saint of hopeful mothers. A donkey-drawn cart full of mangoes, an ostentatious SUV, many old Volkswagens and crowds of young people vie for right of passage along the vivacity of the main street.

The cable car is an articulation of the change since the street and warrens were Escobar’s fiefdom. As is the building that towers above the barrio’s skyline, a granite cliff of award-winning modernist design, the parque biblioteca, or library park, where some of the poorest people in the world come to study, use a computer or just seek respite.

These are symbols of defiance and resurgence in Medellín, two decades ago the most dangerous and murderous city on the planet. A place where several car bombs a day could explode as Escobar’s cartel went to war with the state, its apparatus, elites and society at large. They are part of a bold civic and political venture: to force breathing spaces into the desperately poor and exhausted barrios on the city’s frayed outskirts, in which peace and even opportunity might stand a chance of prevailing.

The enterprise had a face: Sergio Fajardo, mayor of Medellín from 2003 to 2007. He explained his project to a meeting of business people in, of all places, Ciudad Juárez in Mexico, which had inherited Medellín’s mantle as the most dangerous city in the world and epicentre of the global drug war. It was autumn 2009 and he gave a power-point presentation showing the parque biblioteca, literacy projects and arts centres housed in architecturally acclaimed premises on what were once narco-battlefields and landfills. “The [national] politicians told us we were dreamers,” Fajardo told the burghers of Juárez, but he and his team had, he insisted, “closed the door to crime and opened the door of opportunity”.

Now stepping off the cable car in Santo Domingo is Fajardo’s man in the field, responsible for masterminding the resurgence of Medellín on the drawing board and the ground – Alejandro Echeverri.

“Medellín is fiercely proud of its separate identity,” Echeverri says, introducing his native city. “It was colonised by Basques rather than Spaniards; people here call themselves Paisas to distinguish themselves from the rest of Colombia. One thing about Medellín is that things happen – for good and bad, but they happen. We replace our own cell structure. Things move. We provide presidents, academics, writers – and drug lords. Pablo Escobar could only have come from here; on the other hand, what we have tried could also only have started here.”

The city is “sharply divided”, he says, between a wealthy south and blighted north, and also cut east-west by a river.

The cradle of change, explains Echeverri, was the department of urbanismo social (social civic planning) at the Medellín Academy. There, during the mid-1990s, “a small group began to think in terms not of top-down policy, but of one that would begin with the poorest neighbourhoods and re-conquer spaces that had been lost to the violence; it was both a concept and a physical strategy, a mixture of ideas and bricks.”

The plan was helped by the fact that paramilitary groups which held sway in poor comunas in the wake of Escobar’s death in 1993 were decommissioning under a national government agreement just as the projects got started. But not at first: Echeverri and his pioneers still needed to work with warlords and gang leaders to achieve even a start. “We had to call on the guys who managed the barrio – and often the person we needed to deliver the plan was also one of the bad guys, part of the problem,” he remembers.

However, the fact that “we didn’t have any experience of how party and power politics operated helped us”, Echeverri continues. “We just had our ideas – get public transport into the poorest areas; open the spaces, build the schools and centres of learning, create jobs – and people listened. Most people’s map in a Latin American city covers only 20% of that city. We needed to connect these barrios to each other, and to the rest of Medellín.”

Beneath us in the cable car was a new bridge connecting a barrio called Andalucia with its neighbour. “They had been at war for decades,” Echeverri had said. “Now there’s a bridge, which is what it is, and does what it does.”

Now, in the barrio, we walk past one of the cedezos scattered through the poor ‘hoods – these are “entrepreneurial development centres”, explains Echeverri, “where people can get a cheap credit loan if they want to start up a small café or shop”. In the parque biblioteca is an atmosphere of diligence and purpose, people poring over books or computers. But the real attestations to change are the teenage boys mooching around beneath murals painted to commemorate las victimas del conflicto in Comuna 1 (they are vividly depicted: a thicket of crosses; a woman bound, gagged and chained, another violated; a man with his leg blown off).

The boys look like most others in the barrios of the hemisphere: lanky, savvy, oozing mischief and guile. But what they have to say is unusual in the extreme. “This was the most dangerous barrio in Medellín,” says Sebastian, aged 16, wearing an Oklahoma City Thunder basketball cap. “It was impossible to reach the centre of town; we were stuck here. All our elder brothers were on drugs or dealing drugs. I just lived in the house, and the bullets came flying in, during dinner…”

And now? “I use the cable car, I use the library – I have a card, I can take books out – but I also go there to do homework. I like history best – I like reading about Simón Bolívar, and what he did for the people.” If it wasn’t for all this? “I’d probably be dead,” he says, “or else I’d be in a combo“– the Paisa word for gangs that still patrol the city, carving turf and frontiers in the barrio dust.

Alexis is older, 18, and grew up with the stories still fresh. “When Pablo Escobar was alive, he owned all this. When he died, everything spilt up into combos – people made a lot of money from drug dealing and everyone wanted a share, to fight for a piece of turf. When I was little, living with my grandmother, they killed two people in the bedroom of our house. One of them with a knife, tortured to death by a man called Carnicero, the butcher.

“Then came the possibilities for changing this place. And there was a deal – peace in exchange for jobs. The government gave them a job, and they stopped killing. They promised: ‘Work and a good life if you put down your guns.’ My father helped build this thing” – and he gestures towards the library. “Those buildings are the important things: the library, the new school.”

But for all the physical amelioration, though, “the biggest change”, concludes Alexis, “is in the state of mind. We’re different people.”

Rosalba Cardona sees the changes through an opposite end of the generation lens. She was one of a human rights committee that challenged the paramilitaries, and is its sole survivor. She also lost her son and husband in the violence. “You cannot imagine this barrio even 10 years ago. They were offering money to little kids to kill the police. It was desolate and dangerous, they were even putting bodies in the church. See the stream down there? They’d dump them in there at weekends. Then the army came, took people to jail and killed them. We had a committee, but they were all killed – and I ran away. I couldn’t stay and watch it all. Now look. I’m back. It feels like a dream, and I don’t want to wake up.”

There is no arguing with this. Yet Echeverri declines to gloat: “You can have the ideas,” he says, “and try to manage them at the levels society will allow.”

An odd remark – how so? There remain what Echeverri calls “the externalities” – the forces out there that caused this tribulation in the first place, and Colombia’s long war.

Colombia is in the throes of bold self-examination that shames most other governments. It has three enterprises of seismic significance. They are, first, an attempt to end one of the world’s longest-running civil wars by bringing the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias Colombianas (Farc) guerrilla army into mainstream politics. Secondly, an attempt to restitute land to those displaced, in a country where politics is above all that of land ownership and which has suffered the largest internal displacement, through violence, of any nation on earth. And thirdly, a gauntlet, thrown down to the rest of the world, to fundamentally change the premises and language of global policy towards drugs and drug traffic after 40 bloody years of the failed US-led “war on drugs”.

Escobar’s death in a police raid 20 years ago was not, of course, the end of strife in the barrios of Medellín. Various forces pounced to fill the vacuum. Leftist guerrillas – Farc, M19, the National Liberation Army and others – penetrated some of the city’s suburbs. On the other side, right-wing paramilitaries were consolidated under the command of one of Escobar’s men, Diego Fernando Murillo Bejarano, aka “Don Berna”, dominating the barrios in the name of law and order.

The paramilitaries had what they thought was a champion in high politics – the iron-fist president Álvaro Uribe, whose father had been murdered by Farc. Between 2002 and 2004, Uribe used his credibility with the paramilitaries to persuade them to disarm, dismantle and “reintegrate” into society, with promises of education and jobs. He half kept his promise. The paramilitaries were for the most part decommissioned, but Don Berna and other commanders were extradited to the US, tried and jailed.

A reformist alliance then emerged: between the man who was Uribe’s defence minister, now Colombia’s president, Juan Santos – seeking to “socialise” the centre-right – plus elements in the rival opposition Liberal Party and the politically independent Fajardo movement, united behind reform and against the war on drugs.

“Whichever way you look at it, the war on drugs has failed,” says Colombia’s ambassador to the UK, Mauricio Rodríguez, “and the more the ‘producing’ countries suffer, the more the ‘consuming’ countries blame them for contaminating ‘our poor innocent youth’. That is not how it is, and we now need radical and urgent change. Basta! We in Latin America have had enough.”

As hosts to last year’s summit of the Americas, Colombia launched an initiative “to re-think the whole issue from scratch”, explains Ambassador Rodriguez. “To devise an expert global analysis of the drug trade – the economics, the social cost, the laundering of the profits by major banks, everything. And to devise a new and radical global strategy.”

This initiative is based in part on calculations of how little the country benefits from the trade that has torn it asunder. Daniel Mejía, economics professor at the University of the Andes in Bogotá, and former colleague Alejandro Gaviria, now a minister, concluded that only 2.6% of the street value of what is produced in Colombia remains in the country. Mejía explains the stepping-stone price index of a kilo of coke. “In the Colombian jungle: $2,500-3,000. On the coast: $6-8,000. Once into Mexico: $15,000. Once across the US border: $35,000 wholesale, and on the street – between $150,000 and $250,000. The price rises exponentially after it leaves Colombia’s influence or gain. The only person who ever came near covering the whole chain was Pablo Escobar.”

In 1993, says Mejía, Colombia’s homicide rate was 420 per 100,000 – the highest in the world, “and Medellín was twice that”. Now, the national figure is 33 per 100,000, “but in Medellín, the figure has increased from 75 to 150 since Don Berna was captured [in 2008]. Some people say he made a deal with Fajardo, to keep things calm.” Everything that has happened for good and bad in the city is explained, says Mejía, “by the fact that it lies at the crossroads of routes in the cocaine- trafficking business”.

So Medellín, despite all the changes, the city that, 20 years ago, was the bastion of global cocaine traffic, is still a place through which vast quantities of the drug pass, and from which its passage is controlled. The question is: by whom, and how? As the failed war on drugs moves centre stage in global strategic thinking, debate rages over how to tackle the cartels.

Medellín still hosts the descendant of Escobar’s cartel, called the Oficina de Envigado, which contests territory against the paramilitary Urabeños from the Caribbean coast, who are on the offensive. In addition, Farc has itself become a major cocaine cartel. At the international level of supply, the Urabeños are allied along the Gulf Coast with the Zetas of Mexico, the most ferocious criminal syndicate in the world. Farc is reported to be in negotiation along the Pacific Coast with Mexico’s dominant Sinaloa cartel, the planet’s biggest, led by one of its richest men, Joaquín “Chapo” Guzmán.

What affects daily life in Medellín, however, is the way that cartel war operates nowadays, in the “post-pyramidal” epoch of narco-capitalism: those loose affiliations of organised and barely organised crime, gangs and what are in Medellín called combos or supercombos (depending on their size, clout and make-up). The other relative novelty, as in every Latin American city, is the rise and rise of domestic addiction to hard drugs – and crack cocaine in particular. For where the river runs through, people will drink – yet another scourge bequeathed by the rich “consumers” to the poor “producers” – and their young become consumers, too. Crack cocaine is now as much a curse of Latin American barrios as it is to Uncle Sam’s ghettoes.

When one is shown around Medellín by young functionaries from the mayor’s office, the news is all good. Questions about new gang formations and the complexities of post-Escobar drug turf are met with a shrug. On a day walking around Comuna 13, to admire an impressive escalator built into the barrio, there is no mention of the fact that, a week before, three children who were delivering food to make a little money, crossed a frontera invisible – an invisible demarcation line between gang turf and zones of operation. An eight-year-old was spared and sent away, but two 11-year-olds were taken, tortured and dismembered. So I returned to Comuna 13: to seek out the man who grew up eight doors away from where the mutilated children lived. He goes by his stage name, Jeihhco, and wears his heart on his T-shirt: Hip-hoppers por la paz (for peace). “After it happened, there were so many people taking to the street, there wasn’t a single murder in the barrio for eight days.”

Jeihhco, with his bear frame and sharp wit, is becoming a street leader in Medellín, against the violence of gangs and cartels, and against power for its own sake. He attracts huge crowds and an international internet following with his songs, which rail in equal measure against gangland violence and official corruption. Played under a banner he calls revolución sin muertos (revolution without the dead), Jeihhco calls his music “songs of Medellín, and songs of recognition for the people”.

“I put myself on the frontline, like all my brothers and sisters who do this,” he says. “I don’t feel like anyone wants to kill me, and I’m respected in the barrio and the community. But bad news comes often – several of my friends in the hip-hop peace movement have been killed. Sometimes they cross the invisible frontiers, sometimes they get caught in crossfire or by a ricochet and sometimes it’s no accident at all.”

We walk the streets of Comuna 13, over a small bridge across a dirty stream and into a quieter part of the barrio, where a little boy stops Jeihhco to ask for an autograph in his Harry Potter exercise book. “If you work for culture in Medellín, you’re working against war,” continues the rapper for peace. “We can’t do much about the guys who are already in the combos – not that we don’t try – we just don’t have the resources to tempt them from what they’re doing and the money they’re making. But we can present an alternative role model to everyone else – music instead of violence; we urge the youth not to harm others. We protest against the media and glorification of the narcos in telenovelas, all that shit.”

Surveying the changes under Fajardo and since, Jeihhco says: “Yes, there’s been a transformation. And of course we agree with the changes. But they need to keep attacking the causes, not the effects.” Jeihhco draws a diagram: a nucleus around which satellites rotate, marked “Robbery”, “Kidnapping”, “Drugs” and “Murder”. “That’s what they’re attacking, the satellites.” What’s in the middle? “Inequality, bad education, no jobs or opportunity – that’s where we need the changes,” he says. “There have been some good things, but I went to school every day through a war zone, and every day I take my eight-year-old son to school through a war zone. It’s not so much changed as different. Before: narcos, guerrillas, paramilitaries. Now: combos, mini-combos, supercombos – it’s all fragmented, but it’s still war.”

There is a lurking sense of the old days waiting in the wings to return if the opportunity arose. At her flat in the more comfortable part of town, ornamented with bright flowers and splendid works of art, I meet a gracious lady serving delicious cakes. She is accompanied by her stepson, who wears a pressed white shirt. He starts the conversation, asking where I have just been.

“Comuna 13,” I reply, to cover the story of the dismembered children. “Ah,” he says, “we know those boys. They were criminals, thieves. It was the will of the community that they be eradicated.” This is paramilitary talk – and, indeed, he shows a bullet wound. I have just met Michel Pineda Ramirez, lawyer for Don Berna himself.

Pineda Ramirez is the Don’s public face, now that the super-capo is jailed in Florida. Ramirez is clear in his own mind why mayor Fajardo was able to proceed with his reforms. “Why did we have peace while Fajardo was mayor?” he asks rhetorically. “Because Don Berna was able to guarantee it. Because of the accord.” Between who? “Between Don Berna and his reputation, and Fajardo and his reputation. Crime was down, on Don Berna’s orders.”

Conversely, he points out: “You now have the Oficina and Urabenos, but you don’t have any capos to secure order. The children are in charge, no one can control this – and that’s a political situation. When the head is cut off, the children are free to be stupid. If Don Berna was here, we wouldn’t be having these problems.”

But something burns Pineda Ramirez in this narrative – that after the negotiated demobilisation of the UAC and other paramilitary militias from 2004, President Álvaro Uribe “tricked” his client. “The condition for de-mobilisation was amnesty and political status,” he insists. “Then Uribe changed the rules. He arrested the capos and extradited them, my client included.”

But Don Berna pleaded guilty to drug trafficking, didn’t he? Ramirez insists on a distinction: “A self-defence force which uses drugs to raise revenue is a different phenomenon from a drug cartel. When you permit the dealers to move tonnes of cocaine, and charge money – that is a tax. The Farc whom we fought are in the same situation – these are men in uniform. This is not the same as Chapo Guzmán or Pablo Escobar – they are narco dealers, without political intentions.”

Pineda Ramirez is, predictably, unconvinced by the present movement’s navigation of a route to peace through urban reform, reform of drug policy and peace talks with Farc. Colombia, he posits “is divided basically between [right-wing] Uribistas and the anti-Uribistas of the left”. Which are the Fajardo reformers? “They are the swine in the middle.” Which are you? “I’m a lawyer.”

Flying into Medellín, one gets a sense of the heart-stopping beauty of where it sits, among rolling, verdant mountains. Towns and villages perch atop sheer slopes – some wooded, others carpeted with steep meadow. In this terrain, of a weekend, one of Colombia’s great minds and greatest writers takes refuge from his city.

Héctor Abad is no bystander in Medellín’s history – it is carved into his soul: his father, a respected practitioner of public medicine, teacher and tireless activist for rights, was gunned down by paramilitary assassins when Héctor was a teenager. Abad’s account of his father’s life and death, Oblivion, is a timeless classic of Latin American literature which, philosophically, recalls Albert Camus’s La Peste. Like Camus, Abad sees violence as a plague that spreads while “happiness”, he writes, “is a flimsy substance”.

In modern Medellín, Abad is the sage, the seeing eye, filter of both the ominous shadows and lambent tropical colours that vie for hegemony over the city.

After his father’s murder, Abad left to live in Italy. Now back, he has a useful metaphor to illustrate the difference between his native city and the capital, Bogotá. “It’s the difference between Palermo and Milan. Different ways of doing business, different attitudes to life and qualities of life. The Paisa will greet a stranger and look you in the eye, as they do in Palermo. But there’s always that hidden reason for things…”

The changes to Medellín had their roots, he says, in “ideas that can sound idiotic, cretinous to some people, hippy even. Spend money on the poor to build peace, belief in education, science, medicine, poetry, books, learning. Why not? Give it a try! What is there to lose in a place like this, where my father and so many other people’s fathers were murdered for similar beliefs?

“It has gone well, for a while at least, in many parts of the city, but the whole thing is precarious. They rightly built the best libraries in the very poorest areas, the areas that needed them most. But these are also the areas in which it can all turn back again. It could turn around any day. It could be derailed, defeated. That is what purgatory is: the same as hell, but there is hope; it’s not infinite. People have a sense that maybe things can get better.”

The scale and ferocity of internal displacement is a curse in Colombian society which the Santos government seeks to confront – with deep implications generally and for Medellín, a city full of people who once owned a small holding, but were driven off it. In a piece of cornerstone legislation, the government gave los destierros, as they are known, a right of return to their land. It sounds wonderful in theory, but dark forces are still at work in Colombia, and it may be too fundamental to put into practice.

The independent National Office of Protection monitors attempts to return to the land, run in Medellín by Diego Herrera. The proportions of displaced people in Colombia’s major centres is daunting, he explains: “400,000 out of 5 million living in Bogotá, and 200,000 out of 2 million in Medellín – and still it goes on, people arriving from fighting between narco cartels, and the arrival of mining companies anxious to get to commodities and minerals… The coercion is direct,” says Herrera, “and it is armed.”

But: “Finally,” he continues, “we at least have a law which recognises the existence and rights of the victims of displacement. As such, it is the recognition of a civil war, rather than the language of ‘security’ we’ve had so far – and in this regard, there’s an important connection to the Farc peace process. So the law is fundamental. But in reality, it’s limited by the fact that in a country of 8 million displaced people, it has an objective to return only two million. More important, there’s no guarantee that the people will not be displaced again, or killed, when they return.”

There is also a new phenomenon: “Displacement within the cities themselves, as the Urabenos try to control routes through Medellín, and gang violence becomes fragmented.” The worst affected zone is Comuna 8, where last year, we registered 334 families gone.”

The performance of a play was due one fine March morning in Comuna 8 – scheduled for that time of day because the shooting tends to abate while gunmen sleep off the night. But even this was considered too dangerous, so the venue is moved to the lush and plentiful botanical gardens, themselves part of a junction in town bringing the city centre together with the university, the edge of Moravia, a science park and leisure gardens.

Two women enact the drama: “Let’s go back!” declaims one, named Rosney. “The land is where my grandparents are buried – I can’t leave. I’m crying for my land. My land is in my fingernails.”
“We must leave, don’t be afraid,” counsels her companion, Blanca, carrying the other end of a long stick from which their possessions hang. “We weren’t to know that at 4am we’d have to go, and that our fathers would be killed by the Black Hand.”

Along the way, Blanca is violated, though this is referred to rather than performed. “The life of a woman is not a game,” she reflects, while Rosney can only lament “the incense of the jungle” she has left behind. “The war,” says Blanca, as they rest, “took away my peace.”

“It took away my mountains, my tranquillity,” affirms Rosney. Later, in the city slums, she recites how “the women of my race were slaves, but their braids were their weapons; they sang songs of freedom while platting their braids”… and Blanca yearns: “I dream of going back to my land.”

The twist to the performance is that both women are playing themselves; amid the abundance of the gardens, through which the morning heat rises, they recount their own lives. The project is the work of a remarkable psychiatrist, Adriana Ospina, who herself fled, in a way, from Colombia to Central America to work with prostitutes and violated women. Drama of this kind, says Adriana, “is an attempt to recover and register the testimony of the displaced – to give people the chance to tell these stories, that need to be told.” The enterprise has a name: Yo Te Quento – I’ll Tell You. “There was a third, in this play, “says Adriana, “a really natural actress, but her husband wouldn’t allow her to.”

“It turns us,” says Blanca, “from victims into survivors.”

“When I was a child, I was always singing,” recalls Rosney. “But after running away so often, I stopped. Since doing this, I’ve started singing again.”

“I was born in 1975,” continues Blanca, a woman who exudes hard-won strength, whose expression remains focused and fixed though she kneads her fingers hard while talking. “My father was manager of a finca, and we’d been told the owner was in a ‘murky business’. One night, some paramilitary men arrived and told my dad to call them when the boss returned. My mother said we should put on our coats and go. Dad said not to worry – we’ve done nothing wrong, and went to work. When the owner arrived, 15 men surrounded the finca, and Mum told me they had taken Dad and three others. It was, she said, The Black Hand, the paramilitaries. At 4am, we left as we were told, for a place called San José, my mother like a crazy woman looking for help, pregnant, plus with me and a baby in her arms.” On the flight, “there were bodies, beheaded or shot in the forehead” loaded by those on her convoy and “carried in a truck for five hours, for burial in a communal grave.”

After settling in Apartador, where Blanca bore a son, she moved again, in 1996: “The AUC heard that the Farc was near. They were supposed to be fighting the guerillas, but all they did was attack people in the country. My father-in-law was a taxi driver, accused of driving for the guerillas, and they started killing taxi drivers. Then they came to our door, told us the house had been used by the guerillas, and if we didn’t leave, not even the children would live. Yes, they had their way with me – more than once and more than one – but that’s normal in Colombia.”

There is a line in the play: “Where are all those men who harmed us?” an allusion to the systematic rape that accompanies displacement. “People don’t seem to realise,” adds Rosney, “that almost every woman has been raped by either the paramilitaries or the guerillas, or both. I know a 90-year-old woman who was raped by 15 guerillas before she was evicted. She acts like it’s normal, she didn’t even file a complaint.”

Rosney had espied something way off, on the fluorescent lawn, and run to fetch it – the huge husk of a palm. Throughout our conversation, she caresses the curve of its inner skin with her fingertips, as though it were a child or the body of a lover, this mnemonic of the jungle’s incense. Even when she speaks the unspeakable, she smiles, intermittently.

“They tell you to leave, or they’ll kill you,” she introduces her story. “There was a war between two armed groups, the Farc and the paramilitaries. My cousin was killed by the paramilitaries, and we were ordered to leave… We arrived in the city at midnight, at my sister’s house. After four months, I started selling fish, and a year later, bought a small house. Our lives became almost normal. But after all that, now, I want to go. Comuna 8 has changed completely – I heard that Uribe used to pay the paramilitaries a subsidy, but now it’s been taken away. Now, there’s fighting between the combos and my house is like a kitchen colander from the bullet holes. We can’t cross the invisible frontiers, but we’re afraid that we might. There are curfews, and people have to hide in their homes. They shoot from hidden places; you know who they are, but you dare not point to them. Nine days ago, they shot a car full of people, and killed a bus driver.

“I’ve sent my two youngest daughters back to Choco, little Abril only five years old,” she produces, photographs she keeps with her always, all three little girls, at different times, wearing smiles and white dresses for first communion.

Blanca’s fortunes ebbed and flowed after she reached the city. She began in Santo Domingo (before the cable car), then “bought a house in Moravia, and was re-housed in Comuna 13,” during the clean-up around the landfill. “I had a house, then a lovely flat. I had it all – three children, all in work, and received a loan from the mayor’s office to open a small shop selling gifts, love-hearts and soft toys. I thought that my suffering would end at last… but there’s always a stone in the shoe.”

The heart sinks, Blanca draws breath, and continues. “My boy was 16, a good boy, but the combos wanted to recruit him. I would not accept it. He locked himself away for a month, while I tried to talk to the combo, and it was explained that the rules had changed, there was a new gang running the turf. They told me: ‘Arm your boy with us, not the others.’ I said, ‘I’m not raising a criminal,’ and the guy tapped my shoulder and said: ‘In that case, get him out of here’. So he went to Santo Domingo, then a message came: ‘Because you didn’t send your son, we’ll take your daughter instead.’ That night, we got in a car, and went back to my sister across the river, where we’d started all those years ago.”

“I’m just so tired of running,” says Rosney. “I just want to be old, sitting in a place where my children are safe, back home. I was born where the jungle meets the sea, in Choco. I love it, I still love it, it was my life, from sunrise to sunset. Now, I lie awake at night with the shooting outside, and pretend that I am walking barefoot along the shore, with sand between my toes.”

While the rich world begins, very slowly, to take account of what Medellín is trying to do, and has already achieved, it does so with a patronising sense of some distant and exotic place which has learned to be less violent and more like us. The New York Times jauntily reports that tourists can now paraglide in Colombia. There is no sense that this was, and is, our war – our society’s need to gorge on drugs, our banks, complicit in the slaughter.

But in Medellín and Bogotá, the view is quite the reverse; Colombians are quick to join the dots between their own modest miracle and the rest of the world. In Bogotá the leader of the opposition Liberal Party, Simón Gaviria – son of former Colombian president César Gaviria, on whose watch Pablo Escobar was killed – moves quickly to the global plane, and what he calls “the deeper agenda. I’m not sure,” he says, “that the consuming countries are playing their part. The banks laundering drug money operate in easy conditions, free of exemplary measures. While all you do is fine them, you cannot expect results. They need to be dealt with in a stronger manner.”

The new mayor of Medellín, Aníbal Gaviria (same political party, but no relation) – the man who inherited Fajardo’s office – sees his tenure of office as a link in a chain: “What is being done here has to be committed to by successive administrations,” he says, “or else you lose momentum. None of this can be achieved in a single term – it needs me to take on what Fajardo started, and for whoever follows me to share these principles and values.

“I’m not trying to hide from the reality,” he insists. “I’m trying to face it.” Mayor Gaviria says he hopes that within another five years “Medellín will have reached a point of no return”, depending on its being able to “face this particular phase in the violence, along with the rest of the country” while “taking advantage of this moment, in which young people are coming out of our public institutions with better education”.

He agrees that the wider context – the global setting, of which everything being done in Medellín is part – is crucial: “We also need the consuming countries – the United States and Europe – to accept co-responsibility for that cycle. The rich, consuming countries have built a dam across a flowing river. And the waters rise, and we in the poorer, producing nations are drowning. We do not demean our own responsibility, and we are trying to stop drowning here in Medellín. But until the rich world breaks away the dam, we will drown.”

As a result, the city that is big on achievement is short on triumphalism. “One can never say the work is done,” says Alejandro Echeverri, architect of so much of this, as we descend from the barrio that was once called “Pablo Escobar”. “We’re doing what we can,” he asserts, “but meanwhile: what is the rich world doing? I see nothing. We know what we’re doing here and we’ve come a long way. But everything is fragile, precarious. Medellín has done some successful things, but you can never say: ‘It is finished.’ The forces which caused the problems in the first place were formidable, and they still are.”

Jeihhco, the rapper for peace, makes a cup of herbal tea he calls agua erotica – erotic water. “You feel like you’re jumping upstream,” he says of what he does. “But even if we lose in the end, that doesn’t mean you stop. You’ve got to keep fighting. I sometimes think I should leave Colombia and leave all this. But even if we lose, I have to be able to say I fought. If you don’t fight, you might as well be dead. We have a saying here: Vivir va más allá de solo respirar – Living is not only a matter of breathing, my friend. And the only thing I want to see die over here in the west side of town is the sun at the end of each day.”

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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