I recently received news that I will be moving to Bogotá next week to finish out the last 2 months of my internship at CCCM’s national office. With this news, I am hurriedly organizing, packing and preparing to depart from Medellín and set up anew in Bogotá. As always when preparing to leave somewhere that has become a temporary home of sorts, I am feeling reflective on my time in Medellín and what I’ve learned while here. With this in mind, I wanted to write a post about common outside perspectives and the extremes that I have noted of Medellín. At the heart of this reflection is that Medellín really is, in most ways, two different worlds in one.
Medellín is an incredibly beautiful city; surrounded by lush, striking hillsides, and home to a rich and vibrant culture. The city is the perfect size, has a calm and positive feel about it, the people are so warm and kind, and there’s always so much going on. However, I’ll be honest – before I arrived I expected to be going to a somewhat underdeveloped city where I wouldn’t be able to find little treats I like to bring when I live abroad like peanut butter, for example, but the reality is that Medellín is generally very developed (not to say that I judge development based on the availability of peanut butter). It boasts a clean and efficient metro system, potable water to 90% of the city, great restaurants and all the same trendy foods as in Canada (sushi, frozen yogurt, donuts, etc.) and designer shopping malls. All of these things were what I really experienced as “culture shock” upon arriving, as I truly had not expected such wealth. If one were to do as many travelers and expats do here and live in Poblado and rarely, if ever, leave the confines of this neighbourhood, Medellín’s wealthiest, the above description really would be the only impression one would have of the city. One would most likely leave thinking that it is a very livable, exciting, safe and prosperous place.
Of course, it remains that what comes to mind for most people who have not personally been to the city when they hear the name Medellín is Pablo Escobar, drug cartels, and extreme violence. Medellín has without a doubt had a horrific past and was at one point the most dangerous city in the world; however, the city has seen many notable transformations since the 80s and 90s, Pablo Escobar’s era. Medellín was recently awarded the title of most innovative city in the world. As I mentioned in a previous post, the local government has made many efforts, such as the construction of local community centres and creating metro cable lines joined to the main metro to facilitate access from the poor barrios to the city centre. It also received this title for the city’s growing number of opportunities and successful community-based economic development, attracting foreign and domestic investors, etc. It is known for boasting an active and engaged civil society and visionary political leaders. Once synonymous with narcotrafficking, corruption, and rampant guerrilla and paramilitary violence, this city has certainly experienced many remarkable changes in a relatively short period of time. For some, however, the so-called transformation of Medellín is more like an illusion; and the reasons the city has been voted the most innovative are quite controversial. As one study stated, “Innovation is not equal to development or poverty reduction, it can convert Medellín into an investor´s heaven and local people´s hell”.
On that note, I have personally found it incredibly striking that within one city, you can go to a Porsche dealership or pay $15 for a cocktail in Poblado, but head down the road 10 minutes and you’re in a barrio popular where many people in Poblado have never, and would never, dare venture. There are roughly 300 gangs controlling the slums on the mountainsides of Medellin and one area in particular, Comuna 13, is currently home to Medellín’s most horrific gang violence. A major aspect of the present gang control in Comuna 13 is the presence of fronteras invisibles (invisible borders). The warring gangs set up invisible territorial boundaries and expect that all those who live within their controlled area will know where not to cross. I was informed that these borders are so strictly enforced, that if someone falls in love with a person who lives across an invisible border, for example, they must apply for a visa from the gang leader in order to be able to cross and visit their significant other. The same holds true for visiting family, or anyone else. The most difficult aspect of these invisible borders is that it is not always obvious or known where the borders lay and this puts uninvolved residents at a huge risk. Earlier this year, two 11-year-old boys were abducted by armed gang members in Comuna 13. The police discovered the bodies of the boys dismembered and stuffed in sacks. Allegedly, they had crossed one of these so-called invisible borders, and these gangs think nothing of brutally murdering innocent kids in order to warn rivals and make a point. In my work assisting landmine victims, I have also met a number of young boys who have lost their sight, hearing, or been seriously injured in some other way by stray bullets which often hit innocent inhabitants of the Comunas.
What has also been surprising to me in my experience is how little wealthier inhabitants of Medellín actually know about violence, gangs, landmines, the conflict, etc. When I talk about my work, or my interest in learning more about gang violence in the city, I get some of the craziest looks I’ve ever received and regularly worry that I might give the Colombian I am talking to a heart attack. There is a strong culture of fear among residents who are not directly affected by violence or poverty. The general idea seems to be that it is better to ignore it, remain uninformed, and stay as far away from the affected areas as possible. I have even met Colombians and foreigners alike who have never taken a bus or the metro out of fear, though they have lived in Medellín for years. The stigma associated with the Comunas and gang violence is so extreme that many residents of Medellín are not at all aware of the reality in which more than half of their city currently lives. Now, I say this fully acknowledging that I have not grown up in a country with such a baffling history of devastating violence and could not possibly understand how one learns to cope in such surroundings; however, it still astonishes me how easily one can live in this city and truly have no idea, and not be affected by, what is happening a kilometre away. That is to say, for those who are wealthy enough to have the option to choose to live on the other side of the city, away from the violence.
A journalist who wrote an article on Medellín’s recent award stated:
The city is changing and it is coming up with some interesting and innovative solutions to structural problems, but this is far from stating that it is the safest, richest or best city in the world to live in. It doesn’t ignore the reality, but rather focuses on attracting more investment to continue a positive trend that is already taking place. We must however, recognize that this increased attention given to the city can work against its purpose.
I feel that this quote is a perfect reflection of the opinions of most people I have had the opportunity to discuss the city’s current situation with, as well as how I could best describe the controversy over the city’s new title of most innovative in the world. Medellín is a city full of hope, innovation, resourcefulness, and dedicated people. However, it is also a city in which most citizens do not live with a consistent level of security and are often forced to live amidst urban conflict, of which no one is quite certain of the motive. It is a beautiful city, which I will miss dearly, but feel very grateful to have learned a lot from and will always hold dear.