According to Wikipedia in 2009 there were 2,899 violent deaths in Medellin, or about 110 deaths per 100,000 people. 2.5 times the average homicide rate in Colombia and 20 times the average homicide rate in the United States for that same year. This is a stark comparison with the 2015 number of 20 per 100,000 people.While only numbers on a page these statistics reveal a past dark with crimson and terror, but a future which has clearly been illuminated. How did this happen? What did this city really feel like now? And why on earth did a country vote no to peace?
This post is dedicated to my Mum, and Steve’s Mum and all the Mums that are worried about us (as the collective backpackers) travelling through Colombia. Having been here 2 months now I feel I’m in a solid position to reassure you, of all the countries I’ve travelled in over the last 8 years this is the friendliest and most inspirational of them all. Medellin is just one heartwarming example of the shining Colombian spirit we have been privileged to experience from the bottom to the top of this beautiful country.
If you only do one thing while you’re in Medellin make it the Real Tours free walking tour. Go onto their website and register beforehand because although it’s free, it’s run with the upmost professionalism. As was demonstrated by our wonderful guide Pablo when he made a point to memorise all 24 of our names and use them throughout our 4 hour tour to make each one of us feel connected to the powerful narrative he wove about his colourful and complex city.
The thing to note with the whole of Colombia is that it’s a country that has been torn apart. First by civil war which started in the 1960s and is still being resolved, and secondly by the notorious Pablo Escobar and the various Colombian drug cartels. It’s this second point that relates most directly to Medellin, because you see this was Pablo’s home, and home is where you sort your dirty laundry.
During our tour our guide (who I’ll call The Good Pablo to save confusion) stopped at various points throughout the city to paint vivid pictures through animated stories of the terror and tragedy that darkened the streets and how each area had been tactically redeveloped. The Square of Lights for example is a square illuminated at night by a forrest of tall light sabres, and was transformed literally from the ashes of an old market where non desirables would go to do bad things. Or the burnt out buildings nearby that were cesspits and home to junkies were transformed into the ministry of education, while the prior residents were relocated to new shelters. All of this sits in front of a shiny new library. The perfect way to say “Hey, we are a city of hope and intelligence and this is the way forward. Here is the light”.
The metro was also built during a time of deep despair, investing in the future of the citizens of Medellin by connecting the far reaching outskirts, to the resources in downtown. A way to say to the youth that even though they may have been born in an undesirable suburb, this doesn’t have to define them because now the university is only a $2 train ride away.
On the day of our tour there was a demonstration through the city, a march for peace. The historic peace vote had been only one week prior, and with the No votes winning by a hair and the future with the FARC still hanging in the balance, it was a very raw and sensitive time for Colombians. The Good Pablo helped us to understand that the agreement had been structured through 4 years of negotiations and, like the past of the country, was very complicated. What is important is that it is a very forward thinking step in the right direction. What is also important to note is that the opposition to the treaty was lead by the ex president Álvaro Uribe Vélez (president from 2002-2010), a local Medellin boy lovingly referred to as “Iron Fist” for his take no bull tactics in cleaning up the country. Iron fist has strong opinions on the terms of the agreement and has made a campaign against giving in to the FARC. Love him or hate him he did a great job of making Colombia a safer place and his heavy handed tactics are the reason we are able to travel freely in this wonderful country. But, there was a time for war and now is the time for peace.
Another thing to note is that the FARC initially formed as a voice for the working class before they were forced underground and picked up the opportunity Pablo Escobar left behind in the cocaine industry to fund their war against the establishment. So all of the opinions on right and wrong, and history aside, a modern democracy should hear voices from all sides and the current government have taken a giant leap to move forward into the future. The demonstration we witnessed was a peaceful march, and all over the country both the yes and no voters all dressed in white and walked happily through the centre of the main cities as a reminder to the politicians that Colombians all want peace. So now the pressure is on to come up with a revised agreement to make it happen. I felt overwhelmed with emotion by the attitude and the unity of these inspiring people.
The whole time we have been in Colombia I have been asking people “how come everyone is so happy and friendly here?” And this question was answered perfectly by The good Pablo. Through a powerful story depicting numerous acts of terror and how the people of Medellin had managed to forgive and forget. When a man is slowly drowning, the water rising rapidly above his chest, his throat, his chin, his nose… and someone offers him a branch. That man must focus whole heartedly on that branch and the feel of the new found earth under his feet, and feel happy to be alive! I feel this is a fantastic reminder to those of us who are still sitting on the bank complaining about being wet.
As Steve and I were riding the wonderful cable car we were looking out over this sprawling city contemplating its past and its current situation and the kind hearted thoughtfulness and planning it took to reconnect its heart. We couldn’t help but think, what would’ve happened if the revolution had been a success and the FARC had won the war? Or what if Pablo Escobar had never realised the crazy money that could be made through cocaine? Or, and this is my personal pick of the scenarios, what if the war on drugs had never happened. What if the Colombian government had said “Sorry America, but cocaine is legal here and Pablo Escobar is a fair, tax paying businessman employing hundreds of farmers and contributing greatly to our society. If you have problem with drugs I’m afraid you’ll have to sort it out on your side of the fence.” How many addicts could be in rehab instead of in prison? And how many deaths could have been prevented by a regulated transparent system rather than a dirty criminal underworld which resulted in so many thousands of civilian and criminal deaths in the war. But that’s just a little food for thought on what is right and what is wrong and how we justify different acts of terrorism under the umbrella of justice and politics. It’s time to look at Colombia through a different perspective. VIVA COLOMBIA!