Cycling above the Clouds

Riding the Andes by Bicycle

The light and dark sides of Medellín

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The next day we arrived together to Medellín, with plenty more exploring to do.

Medellín, Pablo Escobar and the Drug Cartels

For our first morning we had a tour to visit some of the old locations previously used by Pablo Escobar and the Medellín cartel. It is no secret that the drug cartels were the cause of extreme violence in Colombia during the 1980s and early 1990s, with Escobar being a significant component of making Medellín the cocaine capital of the world. Medellín and Bogotá had some of the highest homicide rates on the plane. According to a statement by Colombia’s Defence Minister, in 1993 Bogotá had a rate of murders per 100,000 residents – now significantly reduced, to 15.8 in 2016. Colombia has just experienced it’s lowest murder rate since 1974 when the drugs wars first began.

The violence finally began to abate from 1993 onwards, following the death of Escobar (things have also continued to improve with the more recent peace agreement between the Colombian government and FARC). Medellín is now a far safer place. Many Paisa’s (people of Medellín) today are sick of hearing Escobar’s name and are fed up of the city’s identity being tied to a murderous criminal. There is optimism in the air and people want to move on.

But I’m afraid given it’s such an extreme history (brought even further into the popular mainstream by the Netflix series Narcos – which Paisas are also very critical of), not least given how one man apparently managed to wrap (bribe/blackmail) an entire country’s government round his little finger, that curiosity got the better of us. So we went to see a few of the remaining sites in the city that marked the rise and fall of the Medellín cartel:

Escobar bought the land opposite Medellín’s famous Country Club then built a huge condo for himself when the club refused to grant him membership. It was his ‘fuck you’ to them that every day they’d have to look over at his building. ESCOBAR used to be spelled out in big letters down its right hand side. Allegedly this block contained a swimming pool, a helicopter landing pad on the roof and was built to be completely bomb resistant, thus making it very difficult to demolish. The local government has of course now repossessed it, but is apparently stuck in limbo, not knowing what to do with it.

Escobar’s (formerly lavish) condo in Medellín

At one stage, Escobar struck an astounding deal with the government: to hand himself in so long as he could build his own prison for himself. He picked a location on the hilltops overlooking Medellín. The site was accessible by only one road, yet had numerous steep footpaths riddling their way down the steep hillside. Escobar had watchers down the bottom of the hill radioing up to let him know exactly who was coming. This is how he eventually escaped, having received a warning that the Colombian government had sent up the military to ‘re-capture’ him. Escobar had finally gone too far even for all the corrupt government ministers on his payroll, by ordering the bombing of a commercial aeroplane.

Escobar’s self-made ‘prison’/estancia, on the hillside above Medellín – now being used as a care home for the elderly.

Just a couple of rooms remain. They are full of some very bizarre decorations and – perhaps as an indication of the extent of Escobar’s self-delusion – many religious items.

A nativity scene and statue of Christ on the cross, flanked by model guns. Can this really be how the place was decorated or was it hyped-up after the event? I really don’t know.

Team Sara(h) and the amazing view from Escobar’s ‘prison’

When Escobar escaped down the hill, he was protected and hidden by people in the south of Medellín. Whilst being a hardened criminal, he had still managed to win the hearts of many locals by building schools, houses and a football pitch (still there) for the local community. Despite his huge wealth coming from dirty drugs money (the Colombian cartel leaders were so extremely rich that at one point they offered to pay off the country’s entire national debt and, if I remember correctly, had possession of 25% of all printed US dollars worldwide), some people saw him as a Robin Hood figure who had done far more to help them than their government had. In this way, for a time Pablo Escobar enjoyed a lot of public and political support.

The grave of Escobar and some of his family – grateful individuals still come to place flowers on his grave today

Not far away in the same cemetery is the grave of Griselda Blanco, the ‘Black Widow’, who set up the Miami cocaine drug trade and went on to ‘own’ New York and California. Known as the Black Widow due to killing 3 husbands, she was a ruthless murderess who is also thought to be responsible for killing and/or ordering the execution of up to 200 people. She was arguably far more significant and devastating than Escobar in the cocaine underworld. To learn more about her and the impact of the Colombian cocaine industry on the US in particular, the docu-films ‘Cocaine Cowboys’ and ‘Cocaine Cowboys 2’ are well worth a watch.

The grave of ‘The Black Widow’ – this woman was responsible for a huge number of deaths but unbelievably her grave is decorated with fresh flowers by grateful members of the public every couple of weeks.

Day Trippers

On a lighter note, after learning about the heavy recent history of Medellín, we took a day trip out to visit the beautiful shores of Embalse Guatapé – an artificial lake/reservoir. To get to these stunning views, you have to climb 659 steps up a huge solitary rock – La Piedra del Peñol. It was a good reminder to my legs not to get too relaxed – they’d be climbing those Colombian mountains again before too long.

The view out over the finger islands of Embalse GuatapéIt was a good climb up to the top!

Looking down on the houses below

Enjoying the view – we were blessed with good weather

Trying a local sweet and salty lemonade beer at the top – it’s supposed to be refreshing but you can see for yourself what I made of it!

Sitting on the edge of the lake, the small town of Guatapé itself is very pretty, with lots of brightly painted traditional houses. A lovely place to meander around.

The church in Guatapé with classic painted fresco designs seen on many buildings in the town

The colourful window of a nearby house

The beautifully decorated Tourist Information office!

Many of the houses have wonderfully decorated bas-reliefs. We had a lot of fun checking them out – here’s one that looks like it’s owned by a family that runs a construction business

Can’t sleep, counting sheep??!

Hope on the streets of Medellín – La Comuna 13

For our final day together in Medellín, we went on another walking tour, this time to Comuna 13, historically one of the most notorious parts of Medellín. We had a superb guide, Sergio, a young guy in his early twenties. He was extremely articulate and shared with us his first hand experiences of growing up in Comuna 13.

With Sergio, looking out over Comuna 13

The people of Comuna 13 have experienced some of the worst of the violence in Colombia over the past 30-40 years. A relatively poor part of the city, the shacks and red brick homes of Comuna 13 are tightly crammed together, sprawling over a large area of Medellín’s hillsides.

Being a socially-disadvantaged area made Comuna 13 prime pickings for gang and criminal activity. The drug cartels and guerrilla groups also held and fought to keep a tight grip on the area, in large part because one of the main roads used for trafficking/smuggling arms and drugs runs straight through Comuna 13, from Medellín to the coast. If you ever watched Narcos and saw clips portraying children being recruited (as runners/informers/even shooters) by Pablo Escobar and his cartel, this is one of the main places where it happened.

Even after Escobar’s death, crime and violence remained extremely high, as the other drug cartels fought to gain control over the area. In the 1990’s guerrilla groups became the prominent players, hiding in the Comuna and continuing the steady stream of violence. Sergio told us that growing up he couldn’t walk anywhere except in his own immediate neighbourhood – walk up the streets on the hillsides into any other part of the Comuna where people didn’t know you, and you’d be swiftly forced to leave, if not worse.

The violence came to a head in October 2002, when the government ordered the military into Comuna 13 in ‘Operacion Orión’, aimed at overthrowing all rebel groups. Hundreds of police, military and paramilitary (including with overhead helicopter support) stormed Comuna 13 and held it under siege, whilst they captured all known rebel leaders and their people. Sergio told us he remembered seeing a soldier in the street holding a list, pointing out apartment blocks to be stormed.

Comuna 13 was kept under siege for a number of days, with inhabitants being unable to return to, or leave their homes due to the ongoing gun fights in the streets. Apparently nine people were killed (3 children) and hundreds wounded. The siege meant that innocent people were unable to get out to seek medical attention – never mind to get to school or work. Eventually the inhabitants of Comuna 13 decided enough was enough, and came out onto the streets waving white handkerchiefs in protest and for peace and in solidarity with the wounded. Eventually the fighting stopped.

A piece of famous street art depicting the day the people of Comuna 13 came out into the streets waving white handkerchiefs, desperate for the military action to stop. The artist used elephants because of their emotional intelligence and long memories.

Operacion Orión was hugely controversial within Comuna 13. It was seen by many as an overly heavy-handed act of violence by the government, causing unnecessary injury and loss of life. The wounds ran deep and the community was angry.

Another piece of graffiti again gives a voice to the people of Comuna 13 ‘Military intervention – never again’

But eventually, with time, the community sought ways to heal, make peace and move forward. Many grass-routes initiatives started up, using art, local positive role models, sport, education and sponsorship for local start-up businesses (something which Sergio was keen to pursue). As with many major cities in South America, street art has also played a big role in terms of helping people to vent frustrations, reflect and express themselves.

Better connecting people throughout Comuna 13 has also received investment, in both a cable car system (1996) and an outdoor escalator (2011) – as many of the steep streets and alleyways in Comuna 13 aren’t accessible by car, and take a long walk to reach. There is however some cynicism about these initiatives, seen by many as vanity projects by past mayors, given they have required millions of dollars of investment but have realistically only given increased access to a small proportion of the Comuna 13 population.

Combining all these initiatives together though, and from what Sergio told us, has meant that in recent years Comuna 13 has become a much safer, more vibrant place to live. It is certainly no longer an issue for him to walk in neighbourhoods outside the immediate streets of his own. We saw kids playing out in the street and evidence of new businesses starting up. As with much of Colombia, these is a strong sense of optimism and hope for the future. Sergio told us that only now are the people of Medellín starting to ‘explore their own back yard’ and learn of all their city has to offer. There is of course still some way to go, so long may this progress continue.

Using art and creativity to remember those who were killed or disappeared during Comuna 13’s darker years – street art such as this has helped local people express their anger and pain and begin to move forward, whilst also making it a more attractive place to live

Riding the elevators that connect parts of Comuna 13

Looking out over the Comuna 13 rooftops – you can see the orange of the elevator project in the foreground

More businesses are opening up in Comuna 13 as increased tourism comes to the area through walking tours, just like the one we did. A young boy, carrying a small chick in a cardboard box, was begging from us as we sat next to the road – something that Sergio strongly discouraged, instead telling the kids to go and get an education. You could tell that he felt a certain responsibility to act as a role model. I do wonder though to what extent the benefits of increased tourism reach any further than beyond this one main street. These initiatives will need to continue for many years (decades?) to come to fully undo the damage of the past.

Comuna 13 has become a centre for Medellín’s street artists. These is some amazing work on show. Here are just a few of the pieces we saw.

‘Vida’ = ‘Life’

The right eye looks to a brighter future, the left reflects back on a more painful past

And so our time together as Team Sara(h) in Colombia comes to an end. It’s been a marvellous few days with lots to see and learn. Time to say our farewells over one last tasty dinner.

The sun sets on our last night in Medellín – tomorrow, I’ll be back on my trusty bicycle with a big climb to conquer.

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