The Green Fields of Antioquia

by Adam Jones

[Somewhat garbled excerpts were published in Peace Magazine, Jan./Feb. 1995.]

Downtown Medellín (Photo by Adam Jones).

Downtown Medellin (Photo)

IS THERE any city in Latin America - barring Beirut, in the world - that evokes such images of crime, strife, and danger? Medellín, Colombia: home to the world's most powerful cocaine cartel until the elimination of Pablo Escobar in December 1993. Car-bomb capital of the western hemisphere during the Medellín cartel's ascendancy. The city of sicarios, hired assassins often in their early teens, who rampage and murder - and are murdered in their turn.

Well, it is a dramatic city, but not in the way one expects. Dramatic in its weather: from glaring morning sunshine to roiling stormclouds and thunder in the afternoon; cold enough for a blanket at night. Dramatic, too, in its vistas. This city of two-and-a-half million is surrounded on all sides by the towering mountain ranges that gave the original settlers (Jews, the story has it) the isolation they sought - from persecution, from the outside world.

Medellín is the industrial powerhouse of all Colombia - it accounts for eighty percent of the national textile industry - and its working-class foundations are everywhere evident, from the street-corner machinists to the men laying out six-metre lengths of sheet-metal on the sidewalks. At the same time, it is an aristocratic city. Old men stroll the streets in suits and fedoras. Women comport themselves in the latest European fashions, bejewelled, exquisitely coiffed and perfumed.

Everywhere walls and hoardings are spattered with political graffiti, much of it apparently the work of students at the University of Antioquia: "For a public education at U. of A.!" "U. of A. students on hunger strike against hunger!" "500 Years of Resistance - Indigenous, Black, and Popular."

MY GUIDEBOOK guidebook speaks glowingly of the countryside around Medellín, and so on a lazy Friday I hop a bus that takes me an hour out of town to Rionegro. The bus climbs a thousand metres into the hills, with the snaky Valley of Aburrá receding gradually below.

Ingrid sits down beside me and watches as I try to snap a panorama of the downtown core. "You should wait for the bus back, you'll get a better view," she offers. I take it as an invitation to talk.

She's a schoolteacher, and a staunch hometown booster. "Medellín is great. I've been all over this country and there's no place like it. The best climate, the best people. Not like Bogotá, which is just big and crazy."

I mention the reputation her city has overseas, and she bridles at the unfairness of it all. "Okay, we had a crisis here until, say, '92. A lot of violence, most of it by the state. But '93 was a big improvement, and '94 has been muy tranquilo. So far."

As with a couple of other Colombians I've met en route, she speaks with pride of the late drug-lord Escobar - "Pablo," she calls him familiarly. "The government was out to get him, but the people loved him. Why do you think, when he escaped from jail [in July 1992], he never bothered to leave Antioquia? Because he knew the people wouldn't turn on him.

"Do you know the neighbourhood here, Barrio Pablo Escobar? He built all these houses and facilities for the poor, which is something the government never did. And his hometown, Envigado, near Medellín - it's the only city in Colombia where the unemployed get municipal assistance, where there's no gamines [street-thugs], where you can live a decent life.

"You should have been here when Pablo was killed. First there was this huge outpouring of popular protest. Then, the funeral and its aftermath - eight full days of grief and observance. Longer than Jesus Christ gets at Easter! Tens of thousands of people lining the entire route to the cemetery, with hundreds of police and soldiers trying to keep them in line."

Were the public-works projects Escobar undertook just a cynical gesture by a drug baron with billions of dirty dollars at his disposal? Maybe. But it seems to be the sort of gesture Colombians are starving for, and one the civilian authorities have never bothered to make.

FRIDAY NIGHT. The bus back from Rionegro drops me many blocks from my hotel, and I push my way through the crowds celebrating the onset of weekend. Half the male population of Medellín seems to be three sheets to the wind, though it's only seven-thirty. It gets worse as the evening wears on: every few feet there's another tienda, with its retinue of stalwart drinkers propped up against bottles of aguardiente. Drunks careen down the narrow sidewalks or pass out in doorways and alcoves.

There's an unstable edge to the proceedings, a chaos lurking somewhere just beneath, and the security forces feel it too. They patrol now in groups of a dozen or more, in full battle gear, Galils and M-16s at the ready and pointed threateningly at the midsections of passersby. Their eyes are hard, and the spreadeagle searches of young men on streetcorners are more thorough and aggressive.

The bus to Santa Fé de Antioquia next day is emblazoned with a spray-painted message from the 5th Front of FARC, the largest and oldest of Colombia's guerrilla groups. We crawl through the congested downtown traffic before breaking loose to ascend another switchback-laden road into the hills to the northwest of Medellín. There's another high pass, around twenty-five hundred metres. Fleets of hawks circle; the air is cool enough to make me wonder if I should have brought a sweater. Off to the left, the mountains and deep valleys of Antioquia stretch for miles, laden with the rich olive-green bushes that are Antioquia's (and, officially, Colombia's) life-blood.

Coffee first arrived to transform the economy of the region in the early twentieth century. By 1932 Antioquia, together with the small department of Caldas to the south, was producing fifty percent of Colombia's crop. And coffee was grown, for the most part, not on large plantations, but on small or medium-sized farms - family operations. It was a tenure system encouraged by the region's harsh geography, and by the élite, which was anxious to promote a new product for export to offset declining gold revenues.

The small-scale agriculture, writes Jenny Pearce in Colombia: Inside the Labyrinth, "proved highly productive and cost-effective, able to ride out depressions thanks to the ability of the farmers to grown their own food" on land allotted them by the propertied class. This trend towards family farms, which persisted until about 1950, had two further ramifications for the region. It led to the creation of a class of small, fiercely independent peasant entrepreneurs, who resisted subsequent attempts to oligopolize the coffee economy through buyouts, expulsions, and expropriations. And it meant that, when the political winds shifted in the 1950s, this peasant class would be an early target of the terrorist campaign launched by the Colombian state and large landowners with their paramilitary death squads. Antioquia was one of the focal points of La Violencia, the massive, virtually unreported civil war that killed upwards of 300,000 Colombians between 1948 and 1956.

Has the militant tradition, and the savage reaction to it, endured? A map in Pearce's book shows the distribution of victims of "official" and "unofficial" state violence in 1988. Antioquia registered 895 casualties, half again as much as the next most ravaged department, Santander to the east. One suspects, though, that the focal point of the violence has shifted from the coffee zone to the finger of Antioquia that extends north to the coastal banana-growing region around the Gulf of Urabá.

As in earlier times, workers and peasants were attracted by the promise of work and land, or fled as refugees after being forced off their land in neighbouring departments. Urabá's population increased tenfold between 1964 and 1986. Union organizing accompanied the explosive growth, and the state response was swift. In March 1988, 17 banana workers were massacred; a subsequent state investigation found that "the massacre was carried out by hired professional killers who were directly supervised and assisted by the regional military command" (Pearce).

WHEN WE FINALLY pull in to Santa Fé, the plaza shimmers in muggy heat. This is the oldest town in the region, founded in 1541, and it served as the department capital until Medellín took over in 1826. (The short version of its name is officially Antioquia, but I use Santa Fé here to avoid confusion with the department of Antioquia as a whole.) There is no better place, it seems, to get a sense of the distinctive architecture that developed in Antioquia as a whole during the colonial period: the thatched-roof houses, the brick churches, the intricately-carved window grills, the cobblestoned streets worn by centuries of horses' hoofs and vehicle tires.

I check in to a tidy hospedaje and go for a walk. It's a peaceful Saturday: children playing in the street, the odd motorbike, and suddenly - screams. Commotion.

I round the corner to a surreal sight. A man is chasing another down the street towards a knot of onlookers, flailing a machete wildly, while his intended victim tries to ward off the blows. At the rear, a middle-aged woman howls, tears streaming down her face, begging for peace.

I've been on a photographic expedition, and my first - tacky - impulse is to raise my camera and to capture what the outside world, after all, expects to see of Colombia. But things are moving too fast. The machete-wielder is ten metres away and closing. I drop the camera from eye-level and run like hell - a short distance, until I can turn and see that the battle has rounded the corner and proceeded up the street, well away from me.

Still the machete flails away. Christ, how can the defenseless young man still have all his limbs? But he has his wits about him as well. Backing up the street, he spies a shovel protruding from a heap of dirt piled on the sidewalk. Grabs it, raises it. A well-aimed blow - there is a metallic clank, and the machete falls uselessly to the ground.

The tables are turned. The spade-bearer drops his tool, grabs the machete - and pivots away from the scene. Just walks off. His attacker stands impotently; the woman's cries become exclamations of relief.

The crowd dissipates. It is over as quickly as it began.

My heartbeat returns to normal and, swept up in the weird logic of events, I head off to an excellent dinner at La Última Lágrima, "The Last Tear" - a restaurant so named, according to my guide, "because of its location between the hospital and the cemetery." Joseph, who works at the hospital and has popped into the restaurant for a beer, seems unfazed when I describe the events of a few minutes ago. "Must've been drunk," he says. "Generally, things here are tranquilo."

INDEED. What less likely setting for a machete attack than the sleepy town of Santa Fé? But there is this side to the place, apparently - and to Medellín, and to the country that is by light years the most violent in the world.

The figures are like a punch in the stomach. Colombia's homicide rate is three times higher than any other country in the world. In Colombia between 1987 and 1992, there were an average of 77.5 homicides annually per 100,000 people. The countries next on the list - Brazil, Panama, and Mexico - are so far behind they're not even in the game: 24.6, 22.9, and 20.6 respectively. Colombia's murder rate is nearly ten times that of the United States, and almost four times the Colombian level of only twenty years ago.

In 1993, Cali's El País relates, 31,834 people died violently in Colombia, 27,215 of them in homicides. Eighty-eight percent of the victims were male. Three cities - Bogotá, Medellín, and Cali - accounted for over fifty percent of the deaths; Medellín, with a quarter of Bogotá's population, had virtually the same number of killings.

The Bogotá daily El Tiempo for April 22 quotes Armando Montenegro Trujillo, the National Director of Planning, as saying that the violence in Colombia (and the relative impunity accorded to perpetrators) is one of the greatest obstacles to the country's economic development. According to Montenegro, for every 100 crimes committed in Colombia, only 21 are reported to authorities. Of these, 14 come to trial, and only three end in sentencing. "This indicates that the probability a delinquent will go unpunished is 97 percent," he points out.

(There is more to Montenegro's sanctimonious stance than meets the eye, of course. Many acts of violence go unreported to the authorities for the simple reason that the authorities themselves are the perpetrators or are beholden to them, if Amnesty International's careful investigations are credible.)

In Medellín, the physical liquidation of citizens continues at levels so high that they cause me to doubt my eyes and ears. Where are the corpses, the crowds? Where is the gunfire, where the screaming ambulances? But the killings are happening. Twenty-eight of them between Thursday night and Friday morning, for instance, according to the crime section of El Colombiano, "which is like the society pages for the poor people in Medellín" (as one "self-defence committee" member told Colombian researcher Alonso Salazar).

The majority of deaths seem to occur in the poor neighbourhoods and shantytowns clustered on Medellín's southern outskirts, and sprawling up the mountains to the west and east of the Valley of Aburrá. This is the other, more desperate Medellín: lawless roads where even the security forces fear to tread; populations deeply scarred by unemployment, poverty, and the attendant evisceration of family and community life.

IN 1990, Alonso Salazar, a Colombian social scientist, published a short, shocking book, No Nacimos Pa' Semilla, translated as Born to Die in Medellín. The book is a collection of oral accounts by the sicarios (assassins, usually gang members) of the poor neighbourhoods, their families and friends and priests, and "self-defence" vigilantes who take out hits on the hit-men.

In Colombian cities, especially Cali and Medellín, the spiralling drug- and state-related violence of the 1980s was aggravated by the brief presence of guerrilla organizations like the M-19, working to shore up their urban presence. The guerrillas trained "popular militias" to serve as protectors during the delicate period following peace negotiations with the government of Belisario Betancur.

When the peace accords collapsed, the militias remained: well-trained, with stockpiles of arms. "Things got so difficult we had to close the camps and head off into the hills again," an M-19 guerrilla tells Salazar. "Some of the kids ... stayed in the city and began to form gangs. They used the military training we'd given them for their own purposes."

Foreign weapons and mercenaries, particularly from Israel, flooded in around the same time, increasing the scale of the killing by offering training in exotic weapons technologies. And as gang violence erupted, "self-defence committees" arose in the barrios to assassinate the assassins and bring "law and order" back to the streets. "The gangs were very powerful," one committee member recalled, "so it's been a hard struggle, but we've made some progress. ... I don't feel any remorse. ... None of the killing is on my conscience. I've never slept more peacefully."

Guerrillas and self-defence committees aside, it is impossible to read Born to Die without thinking of the trauma of gang life in U.S. inner cities. There is the stunning youth of most of the assassins and victims (often one and the same). In 1989, seventy percent of homicides in Medellín targeted fourteen-to-twenty-year-olds.

There is the Clockwork Orange-style ultra-violence, mixed with heavy doses of nihilism and fatalism. "I reckon I've killed thirteen people," one twenty-year-old sicario tells Alazar. "That's thirteen I've killed personally, I don't count those we've shot when we're out as a gang. If I die now, I'll die happy. Killing is our business, really ... We don't care who we have to give it to, we know it has to be done, that's all there is to it. Whoever it may be: I have no allegiances."

There is the theme of the Absent Father. The elimination or absconding of the male from family life lies at the core of family breakdown, and seems to have several results. The first is an almost pathological mother-worship: "You only have one mother, but any son of a bitch can be a father," runs the saying in Medellín.

As in the U.S., too, the cult of the Mother (and of the Virgin Mary) spills over into much greater respect for female life than male - hence those wildly disproportionate casualty rates. "What happens is if one of the gang or one of your relatives gets killed, you go out and get the bastard who did it, or one of his family; but we never touch women."

The Absent Father motif also feeds into an extreme machismo that, in Colombia as in the U.S., is tantamount to gender suicide. From Salazar's book: "'It's hard to find a boyfriend these days, there aren't many men left,' a young girl jokes, putting curlers in her hair."

The gang lifestyle allows an underprivileged youth to lead a briefly opulent existence, in imitation of the films and T.V. programs gang members watch devotedly - studying Rambo movies and old episodes of The A-Team for everything from fashion tips to military strategy. "There's lots of eighteen-year-old kids round here who've got luxury flats in El Poblado, farms, cars, motor bikes," says one Medellín priest. "The only problem is that very few of them live beyond twenty or twenty-three to enjoy it."

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Created by Adam Jones, 1998. No copyright claimed for non-commercial use if author is acknowledged and informed.
Last updated: 10 October 2000.