I got to know Medellín a little through the Netflix show ‘Narcos’. For me the series has a perfect balance between history, action, social commentary and boobs.
Through it I knew a bit of the history of Pablo Escobar and was happy to visit the ruins of his holiday house in Guatape. On that tour the guide said that people in Medellín were a little funny about Escobar and many tours won’t even mention his name.
A few days later, we went on the ‘Free City Tour’ in Medellín, which is exactly what it says on the tin, and only a tip is asked for (they recommend 20-40,000 COP per person, which is about AU$8-16, for a really great 4 hours tour. I strongly recommend it.) It takes you through the downtown area of the city, which is a mass of humanity and history and the guide helps you really understand the city’s past.
The pre 1970’s history is pretty simple; the conquistadors came, didn’t find gold, set up a capital 80km away in, the very hot, Santa Fe de Antioquia, and stayed there until they realised it was too bloody hot (it took us half a day to work that out). The railroad then came to Medellín, government went there and it rapidly expanded. Some of the expansion was planned (in the valley) the rest was not (the favelas in the hills).
The hills and the valleys
By the 70s there were millions of people, most of whom were living in poverty with no government support………… and the world (and in particular the good old US of A) discovered cocaine. In the background, left wing organisations were fighting for the rights of the poor, right wing organisations were fighting to stop communism and the government were fighting the left, right and narcos.
The 70s to the late 90s were really horrible for Medellín and mostly civilians suffered. At its peak, Medellin had a murder rate more than 3 times higher than the most dangerous city on earth right now. Can you imagine that? I am sure no one would dream of going to any of the top 10 in the world right now and this place was 4 times worse.
Medellín was particularly bad because of one person; Pablo Escobar, so you can see why they are not so keen on him. One of our teachers’ brothers was killed when serving his national service in the army, another person we met lost her uncle. You do not have to look far to find someone affected by the conflict. Some are angry about shows like Narcos. They feel that the young don’t understand the reality and now aspire to the narco lifestyle. Others feel that whilst he was a bad man, he built some houses for the poor, so that’s ok…… “How many houses make up for killing your family?” was the question posed by our guide. Most hate him.
Botera’s take on Escobar’s death
After his death in 1992, things began to improve, but it took a while. Successive hard arsed governments and some genuinely inspiring government investments have turned Medellín into a lovely city, though one still with challenges.
The metro, mentioned earlier, is a huge deal. It really does break down the invisible barriers between rich and poor areas and provides an affordable lifeline to a better future. The locals love it and respect it. You will not see a cleaner metro system outside Japan.
In the centre, they are cleaning the place up. The old market area, once only used by prostitutes, criminals and the homeless is now a lovely public space. There are public libraries with computers for all to use and free classes. There are shared bikes that are free for an hour and that people use to get from A to B on cycle routes. These bikes do not end up in rivers or get trashed at the bike racks.
It is not finished yet though and outside one of the old churches is the area the prostitutes now hang out. Why outside a church? Well, as the guide said, a man can come along, take a women to a local ‘love hotel’, then confess his sins all in one very convenient location, then start again. The joys of being a Catholic……
We got up close to the favelas on a tour of the area known as Comuna 13. This was, until quite recently, the most dangerous part of the worlds most dangerous city and was ruled by the drug gangs. In the late 90s, two large scale military operations tried to take control of the area. Both failed and many civilians died or disappeared. Then the government tried something new. They invested in the community. We are not talking huge bucks; building a library and a school, putting in escalators so that people can get up the hills more easily (there are no roads after a point), building a reasonable footpath etc. The residents did the rest and now it is safe enough for it to be a significant tourist attraction and people come there to learn about the history, see how 60% of the cities population live and look at the rather great street graffiti.
Seeing how a city can turn itself around really is inspiring. It is not perfect. I think there is still corruption, narcos still exist, crime is high compared to the places most of us were lucky enough to be born in and many still don’t have the basics, but it is changing rapidly and with the support of the majority. If you live in a nice area with all the amenities you need, you pay extra to subsidise investment in the areas that have nothing and as far as we can see, people understand the need for this.
I can’t help but contrast this approach to the austerity of the UK, that is causing the gap between rich and poor to widen, that sees library’s, public toilets and parks shut in the most needy areas and sees crime rates rising. Do we need to hit rock bottom before we understand a different approach may be better? I am not being a foaming at the mouth commie here. I am not suggesting that Buckingham Palace should become a hostel for the homeless and it’s gardens allotments, only that in a society that has some of the richest people in the world, that could ensure that the richest were bailed out in the banking crisis and has so much spare money that we can decide to have a poorer UK for the next fifteen (to fifty years) as long as it means we ‘take back control’ (whatever the fuck that means), can probably afford to not have increasingly large amounts of people going to food banks, can probably afford to have fewer homeless and should be ashamed that there is an increase of children below the poverty line. (I know I live in Oz now (which is not far off the UK in its approach to those less well off) so shouldn’t go on, but I love the best of the UK and am sad to se it destroy itself).
Some of the reward of travelling is not just seeing the lovely stuff but learning about how others live, how a good society can develop for all and just how lucky we are to have been born in developed countries.
The bird on the left had a bomb put in it, which killed 30. The artist Botero insisted it stayed in place and he donated a new one. He wanted to acknowledge the past and show the future was better.