Updated: Mar 29, 2021
Take a stroll through the heart of Medellin, Colombia, a sprawling city nestled amongst the verdant Andes mountains, and you will see many things.
You will pass stunning street art that will make you pause for a better look. You will see vendors offering an enticing array of fresh fruits for sale. You will undoubtedly
hear music wafting through the humid air-guitar, vocals, a distinctly Caribbean rhythm. There will be sleepy, mangy dogs on every corner. Men napping on benches. Young women, skin exposed, eyes daring, strutting about outside an old church in the city center. A young child chasing pigeons. Police officers making their rounds, drug-sniffing canines at their sides. Bronze statues everywhere, all plump, disproportionate, and larger than life, donated to the city by renowned Colombian sculptor Fernando Botero.
What you will see is a place that has been transformed.
If you are bold enough to make it to the Parque San Antonio, a place few foreigners venture even today, you will come across two bronze bird statues, typical Boterismo style, standing side by side. They are identical in every way, except that one bird has a gaping hole through its belly, exposing through its wound a jagged view of the park beyond.
In 1995, during the height of drug-related violence in Medellin, a bomb was planted in this statue during a music festival. The resulting explosion left 30 dead and more than 200 injured. The destroyed statue was scheduled to be removed from the park, but the artist, Botero, decided to leave it standing. He wanted it to serve as a reminder to the Colombian people of the old Medellin, ripped apart and ravaged by violence and death. He would then create a new statue and place it by the old one.
The new bird, perfect and whole, was to represent Medellin’s future.
It’s been over two decades since that bomb went off, and today I am standing in Parque San Antonio, staring at those birds.
I’m listening to Monsa, a native of Medellin (or paisa, as they call themselves), describe the heart-breaking history of a city, her city, once labeled The Most Dangerous Place In The World. Her pride is palpable as she tells endless stories of heartbreak, of loss, of death. At the end of every tale, she reminds us of how far Medellin has come.
Like the statues standing before us, she reminds us that while Medellin has a dark past, perhaps its future doesn’t have to be so sad.
Ask most Americans what comes to mind when they think of Colombia, and the answer rolls easily off the tongue, often accompanied by a knowing smirk or a sheepish laugh.
Cocaine, they will say.
That addictive white powder that our politicians and actors love so much, romanticized in Hollywood with films such as Scarface or Blow, offered at high-end parties and rapped about by hip-hop artists.
While cocaine is often glamorized in American culture, it remains a subject of great frustration for the average Colombian citizen.
“Countries like us-Colombia, Mexico, Ecuador-we are getting the worst part of this” Monsa explains. “We are not getting the fun, the glamour. No, we are getting the corruption, the violence, the stigma. It is not making us a better society.” She points out that the world tends to blame Colombia for the drug dilemma, while in reality it’s a global problem. “The driver of an industry is always the demand for the product” Monsa says. “And where is the demand for cocaine?” She gestures with her hand. “It’s abroad.” She smiles, an attempt to assuage any guilt that this could have stirred up in her American audience. But there is truth in her statement that Americans cannot, and should not, ignore.
We are responsible, too.
Back in the 1970’s a black market developed in Colombia when people realized that the same methods they were using to import highly taxed products such as alcohol and tobacco could be used to also export cocaine. When an external market for cocaine emerged in the United States, various clans were formed to keep up with the incredibly high production demand. One particularly power-hungry entrepreneur saw an opportunity to gain control of all the groups, eventually creating his own enormous illegal empire. This man, the infamous Pablo Escobar, managed to unify Colombian’s cocaine trade under a single brutal leadership.
The center of this industry, Medellin, soon became known as the most dangerous city in the world.
Sentiment for Pablo Escobar remains varied among the paisas. As Monsa tells us about Escobar and his influence, she speaks in a soft voice and refuses to say his name out loud, referring to him only as “P.E.” Escobar is still a cause for tension around here, she explains, and even the mention of his name in public could spark a heated argument.
The majority of those who witnessed Escobar's violent reign feel nothing but loathing for a man who murdered thousands and turned a country’s political system upside down. However, Monsa explains that the educational system in Medellin omits any mention of Escobar in history classes, leaving young generations to form their own ideas of a man who, removed from the context of violence and death, may only represent glamour, wealth and power to young, impressionable minds. And there are still some of the older generation who continue to show support for the late drug lord, arguing that while he killed thousands, he also provided support for the poor.
Monsa doesn’t accept this line of reasoning.
“How many houses do you need to build to kill someone and still be a good person?” she asks. “Do we have an equation in this country, one life for one house?” She shakes her head sadly. “An estimated 38,000 people are killed here in Medellin due to Pablo Escobar’s influence…was it worth it?”
It’s now been 25 years since Escobar’s death, and both Medellin and Colombia as a nation have made drastic measures toward reform.
However, the cocaine dilemma still remains at the forefront of the country’s politics.
In 2002, President Alvaro Uribe, better known as the “Iron Fist” promised to use a military approach in an attempt to eradicate the drug cartel and paramilitary groups. Under his watch, reported kidnappings in Colombia were reduced by 90%. People began feeling safer. But Uribe’s methods were not benign. During his time in office humane rights were violated, with civilians murdered by the army and dressed up like rebels to look like the enemy. Colombians were made to believe they were winning a war when perhaps they were not.
In 2010 a new President was elected, and for the first time in the nation’s history, peace negotiations with “FARC” or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, were attempted. The Colombian people were divided in their opinions regarding the negotiations, and this political division remains pronounced today. With negotiations still underway, and the level of violence in the country at an all-time low, there may be some light at the end of a long, deep tunnel fraught with sadness and death. The job market has improved. Coffee farms are replacing cocaine plantations. A previously non-existent tourist industry is slowing gaining ground. However, a recent bombing in Bogota, with FARC claiming responsibility, has sent the country into turmoil once again.
Despite a troubled past and a slightly unpredictable future, the paisa remain optimistic. And this optimism is palpable-it can be felt through the bright colors, the music, the laughter of the children.
“We Colombians are a happy culture. We try to focus on the happy things” says Monsa. “We can take on happy thing and stretch all the joy from this one thing. And in this way the reality of life does not kill us.”
Today in Medellin there are examples of positive transformation everywhere.
The lively neighborhood of El Poblado caters to the up-and-coming tourist industry, boasting chic eateries and a hopping night life. A new metro cable, a ski-like lift system, has been implemented to allow downtown access to the poorer residents living on the outskirts of town. Comuna 13, previously known as the most dangerous area of Medellin due to high homicide rates and paramilitary influence, has perhaps seen the biggest transformation. Its walls now covered in beautiful artwork, kids playing soccer in the street, new shop owners proudly showcasing their wares, this place is the definition of hope after tragedy.
Monsa gestures proudly across the park, in the direction of the metro station. From my vantage point I’m looking directly through the wounded bird. “You see that metro? You may be thinking ah, but it’s just a metro. But we started building that when were were still considered the most dangerous city on the planet. We built it under the worst circumstances. And look at it now! It’s a reason to clean the tears from our faces. That metro is telling us that we can live the life the way we want. That we can find happiness.”
Special thanks to Monsa and Real City Tours. If visiting Medellin, Colombia check out realcitytours.com!