July 27, 2009
Seeing Moravia as a safe haven
In previous blog posts, I have talked about how difficult it is to effect true cultural and behavioral change in poor neighborhoods like Moravia. Indeed, violent crime and general social decay remain huge problems there. Nevertheless, I want to correct myself. Yesterday I visited some middle- and lower middle-class Medellin neighborhoods that were far more hostile and scary than Moravia.
I only have a couple of weeks left in Medellin, so I wanted to get some pictures of Moravia from a different angle as well as some pictures of San Lorenzo, a neighborhood near my house with cool wall art and a traditional Colombian cemetery.
I was a little hesitant from the start. I was driving with my grandmother in the passenger seat. I am just learning to drive stick shift and am not entirely familiar with certain areas of Medellin, so it was important to avoid sticky situations.
The angle I wanted of Moravia was from an avenue by the Medellin river, which was surprisingly hard to get to. Although the city has clearer road signs than most places in Colombia, getting around can still be very difficult. We ended up getting lost in Aranjuez and Manrique , lower-middle class neighborhoods with histories of violence. Admittedly, we did not go very far into either neighborhood and quickly found our way back onto familiar roads.
Nevertheless, my time in Aranjuez and Manrique was quite tense. People there are not used to seeing anyone from outside their neighborhood. We got hostile stares everywhere we went. Our aged Volkswagen Golf was by far the nicest car in the area. The streets were all narrow, one-way, and extremely steep. Somehow, I managed not to make any serious driving mistakes and weave through the area somewhat smoothly. Interestingly, the whole time I was in Aranjuez and Manrique, I was dying to get back to Moravia.
When we got back downtown, it was about noon. I thought I'd make a quick trip to San Lorenzo to take a few pictures. This time, I had to park in the neighborhood itself, which only made me more nervous. San Lorenzo is far more central and somewhat wealthier than Manrique , where I never would have thought of parking. I got off and started walking in and around the main park and cemetery, immediately across the street from a brand new library.
On my way out of the cemetery, the guard in charge of watching over it told me that I was making a mistake taking pictures there. Despite the fact that he was armed with a shotgun and I never wandered farther than 10 feet from his booth, he strongly advised me to leave as soon as possible because, sooner or later, someone would take my camera and he might not be able to do anything about it. I had left my grandmother watching over the car, so I was alone and, as the guard correctly pointed out, nearly everyone around me stared at my camera everywhere I went.
Elsewhere, the culture is far more territorial. When you wander into an unfamiliar neighborhood, you immediately feel unwanted. The city is composed of scores of individual neighborhoods where everybody knows each other and everyone can immediately identify strangers. Medellin is still a very divided city, and there is still a culture that treats strangers in the neighborhood either as threats or as targets for crime.
Moravia may be poor and crime-ridden, but its integration into the city as a whole has made it a far more inviting neighborhood than many others. The constant presence of city officials and visitors has truly transformed the local culture.
July 24, 2009
Bogota's Refugee Crisis
Bogota health officials are calling on the national government to recognize Colombia's massive displacement crisis and deal with the urgent needs of millions of displaced people nationwide. The city administration recently sent officials to investigate health conditions in theTercer Milenio park, where about 1000 recently displaced families have been living.
Their discoveries have been appalling. Among the families at Tercer Milenio, there are at least 131 potential AH1N1 cases as well as several AIDS patients and one man with tuberculosis. The poverty, cramped living spaces and horriblehygienic conditions in Bogotás tent cities make them fertile ground for health crises.
On a side note, it was recently discovered that six policemen raped a young displaced girl at the very same park.
Now, Bogotá officials are saying they expect another 1,200 displaced families to arrive very soon and the city simply cannot take any more refugees. There are already tens of thousands living in dire conditions in slums, parks, and public spaces around the city.
The capital is therefore calling on the national government to finally address the refugee crisis. Too often, they say, refugee tent cities are treated as invasions of public space. The country as a whole lacks an effective, coherent plan to begin to deal with internal displacement.
Meanwhile, unlike other countries with inefficient or indifferent governments, Colombia has little concrete support from the UN and generally receives very little international attention for its displacement crisis. Although there are, by some measures, almost 5 million Colombian refugees - 4 million of them still inside the country - nobody in power is focused on handling this huge social problem.
A representative of the UNHCHR is coming to Bogotá soon to serve as a mediator between the displaced people who have begun to protest at Tercer Milenio park and the national government. The refugees want attention and solutions from the neglectful national government.
There are a couple of obvious reasons why the government has so far refused to seriously tackle these issues.
The first is image. The FTA with the United States is pending congressional approval in Washington and Colombia desperately needs to improve its image in terms of human rights in order for the deal to pass. The government has already launched an aggressive English-language tourism campaign called 'Colombia, the only risk is wanting to stay.' Now, it is placing large monuments, TV screens displaying modern Colombian buildings and tourist attractions, and free coffee stands in strategic locations in downtown Washington, DC in an apparent attempt to improve the country's image in influential political circles.
The second is cost. Committing to its millions of refugees the way other war-torn countries do would be very expensive. Including reparations, such a project could easily cost dozens of billions of dollars, quite a sum for a mid-sized country fighting a decades-old civil war in the midst of an economic crisis.
July 23, 2009
The Death of Chicho and a Report on Extortion
Yesterday afternoon, dozens of men in cars and on motorcycles began to speed through four neighborhoods in the Northeast of the city ordering all commercial establishments to close and all buses transportation to stop operating.
Chicho, the alleged 2nd in command of the criminal organization known as Los Triana, had died of cancer, and his footsoldiers ordered the shutdown of those neighborhoods as a massive act of solidarity. Los Triana is a gang that has operated in the Medellin area for many years, surviving a series of battles and alliances with drug cartels and paramilitary groups.
Although the police set up checkpoints, stores remained closed and not a single bus moved through the area. Meanwhile, a caravan of 400 people, including 30 motorcycles, 20 cars and about a dozen buses, moved slowly through the neighborhoods for two hours while police and local residents looked on.
The police were also present at a cemetery in the town of Copacabana, about fifteen minutes north of Medellin, where Chicho was to be buried. Nevertheless, as the caravan approached, armed men on motorcycles came in and out freely to say their last goodbye to their leader.Chicho was buried amidst applause from dozens of his subordinates, without any interruptions by the police.
This is a city where the authorities claim to be in control, but in a lot of areas, that is clearly not the case. In Medellin, everyone knows who the big criminals are. Their names and photographs are in major newspapers and their stories are told onstreet corners throughout the city. Despite all this, powerful crime lords live in the city in relative comfort. There is a deeply rooted culture of tolerance for organized crime as long as it does not cause excessive violence.
To give another example, Q'hubo, a local street newspaper released an extensive article about extortion in Medellin. According to Q’hubo’s investigation, in the downtown area and poor neighborhoods, nearly every store, house, bus, street vendor and drug dealer pays protection money to criminal groups and CONVIVIR . An official who was interviewed said part of the issue was cultural: people want to pay protection money because that is how they've maintained safety in their neighborhoods for decades. Today, extortion is a normal part of everyday life.
July 21, 2009
Informal recyclers murdered in Cali, but celebrated in Moravia
I am currently working on an innovative recycling project in Moravia. We are planning on building a state-of-the-art recycling facility which will help to clean up the dangerously unsanitary neighborhood and encourage local entrepreneurship.
In Colombia, informal recyclers have been cleaning up cities for decades. They walk around trash dumps and city streets scavenging for recyclable items and then sell dozens of pounds of plastic, glass and paper for a few dollars. The international practice of organized recycling has slowly begun to make headway in Colombia and city administrations are eager to modernize recycling in their cities.
An obvious challenge, howerver, is to incorporate informal recyclers into the new system. To some, informal recyclers are nothing more than dirt-poor scavengers, but to those who have taken the time to understand their operations, they are innovative entrepreneurs who have helped clean up the city and may have some good ideas about the recycling process.
The Moravia recycling facility will seek to take advantage of the experience and knowledge of the dozens of recyclers who live in the area. In order to avoid displacing these symbols of the neighborhood, it will also incorporate them into the facility and provide them with employment.
Interestingly, one of the last articles about Colombia in the Economist (their coverage has lately been lacking) was about informal recyclers in Cali, Colombia's third largest city after Bogotá and Medellin. The article summarized efforts by Cali and other cities to handle the transition to formal recycling and criticized the attitude of many local politicians who treated them like mere scavengers, rather than entrepreneurs.
The Moravia project could not be more in tune with the Economist. In fact, they even want the recycling facility to honor (through art, cultural events, etc) the history of local informal recyclers.
However, judging from what you I hear on the streets of many Colombian cities, there are plenty of people view recyclers as social undesirables. Recently, two recyclers were killed in Cali when they opened a package containing a grenade, which they were told was a bag of food.
The recycling community and their neighbors were quick to call the attack an act of 'social cleansing'. Social cleansing, typically carried out by paramilitaries and drug cartels, has been common in many parts of Colombia. It consists of eliminating 'undesirables' such as drug addicts and street children through murder and intimidation.
As always, the police were quick to discredit the social cleansing hypothesis. Acts of social cleansing give people the idea that the police is not in control, that other armed groups are enforcing their own form of justice.
Nevertheless, fears of social cleansing have been growing in Colombia after alleged paramilitary pamphlets announcing social cleansing began to circulate in nearly every major city a few months ago. Those fears became national news again last week after the Cali grenade attack and a bloody 72 hours last week during which 17 people were murdered in South Bogota, including several drug addicts.
This is a country ravaged by intense and often violent social tensions and inequality. Fortunately, however, at least in Moravia, there is a commitment from above to recognize, celebrate, and take full advantage of largely untapped entrepreneurship and social capital in poor neighborhoods. While recyclers may be under attack in Cali, in Moravia, they are a central part of neighborhood's economic development plan.
Links between Ecuador's President and the FARC
Last week, a video emerged that surprised everyone, especially me. In it, 'Mono Jojoy', a top-ranking FARC military commander, mentioned that the FARC had contributed to Ecuadorean leader Rafael Correa's Presidential campaign.
First of all, it is pretty clear that the video was not falsified. There is little reason to believe that anyone would risk faking the video, which is already being analyzed by the OAS and Interpol. The images of Mono Jojoy are very clear.
Second, this is a revelation with huge international consequences. In essence, President Correa's campaign was partly funded by the hemisphere's most brutal terrorist organization (second only, perhaps, to Colombian paramilitaries), a guerrilla group that has murdered and kidnapped thousands of Colombians and has a huge role in international drug trafficking. It remains to be seen what political consequences the video will bring, but it comes at a horribly inopportune time for an already scandal-ridden Correa.
Third, there was absolutely no reason for Correa to collaborate with the FARC. He has generally been a very popular leader and it is simply idiotic not only to receive illegal campaign contributions, but to receive them from one of the most universally despised armed groups in the world.
I always thought that the Colombian government's accusations of FARC-Ecuador links were pure political theater. It is not unheard of for the current Colombian administration to use such accusations irresponsibly and dishonestly to politically discredit critics and rivals. in this case, I was wrong.
Will continue to update on this story...
My first encounter with paramilitaries in action
Last week, I saw local paramilitaries in action for the first time during this visit to Medellin. Before I get into any details, a bit of history:
In the mid-90s, Alvaro Uribe - then governor of Antioquia and now President of Colombia - encouraged and supported the creation of community defense groups known as CONVIVIR. These were essentially citizen militias authorized by the state to maintain order because, at the time, the state was overwhelmed by guerrilla and drug cartel violence.
Critics worried that these CONVIVIR would simply become absorbed into the broader Colombian paramilitary movement. At the time, paramilitary groups were joining forces throughout the country and growing in power. By the late 1990's, they were responsible for more violent crimes than all other actors in Colombia's armed conflict combined.
Critics' fears were soon confirmed. In downtown Medellin, the CONVIVIR became a powerful paramilitary mafia. Their main business was extortion, but they also collaborated in other criminal activities with the rest of the paramilitary forces. CONVIVIR have been known to demand protection money from nearly every business in scores of blocks in the center of Medellin. When people refuse to pay, they have been known to murder business owners and even detonate explosives in stores.
On the other hand, the CONVIVIR also provide protection. They are the main reason behind crime reductions in downtown shopping areas. Today, I can safely walk home from the office, which would have been impossible years ago.
On Thursday afternoon, while walking to a friend’s apartment, I saw a minor altercation between two people about a block from my house. As I walked by, one of the two men accused the other of trying to steal from him. Immediately, seemingly out of nowhere, about six or seven men rushed onto the street to handle the situation. They quickly dragged the alleged thief away, beating him up as they took him into a nearby building.
About an hour later, as I was walking back home, I saw alleged thief being taken away by the police, without handcuffs, on the back of one of their motorcycles. The men who had dragged him away were talking casually on a nearby street corner.
These men, presumably CONVIVIR or other local paramilitaries, are part of a broader phenomenon of informal justice in Colombia. What I assume happened is that they physically assaulted the alleged thief, warned him never to come back, and handed him to the police, who then gave him some form of minor punishment or even took a bribe.
Very few people denounce the existence of CONVIVIR to the authorities. Some of them are afraid, given their power and collaboration with the authorities. Most, however, are indifferent or tolerant of the phenomenon, either because they believe them to be an effective crime-fighting force or because they don't really see the CONVIVIR as abnormal in any way.
Informal justice is rampant in Colombia, and there is little evidence that it is going away. Decades of state absence or indifference has created deeply entrenched criminal organizations who enforce justice on their own terms. Many neighborhoods of Medellin are ruled not by the state, but by the law of 'survival of the fittest'. These days, the 'fittest' in some areas are indeed the police. In many other cases, however, they are armed gangs, paramilitary groups and CONVIVIR.
July 16, 2009
Displacement and AH1N1
According to Amnesty International, internal displacement in Colombia increased 24% between 2007 and 2008. Last year, 380,000 people were forced to leave their homes due to armed conflict, adding to the millions who have been displaced in recent decades. As I've mentioned in a previous post, Colombia has the world's second largest internally displaced population.
These tragic statistics indicate two things. First, they confirm recent reports that violence is increasing throughout Colombia. While actual homicide statistics may continue their gradual downward trend, the fact is that new paramilitary groups and drug organizations have begun to fill the territorial and criminal void left by the demobilized paramilitary fronts. Despite military gains against guerrillas and a peace agreement with paramilitary groups, the resilience of the drug trade keeps fueling conflict in Colombia.
It also shows a particular characteristic of Colombia's conflict. While Colombia's war does not claim nearly as many lives as it did years ago, it continues to drive hundreds of thousands of people from their homes in part due to the importance of territory for the drug trade. Drug production and trafficking are the engine of Colombia's conflict and armed groups are always conquering vast amounts of territory for drug production, processing and trafficking routes. Put together, all the land lost by Colombia's displaced population constitutes a territory about the size of Denmark.
One tragic displacement story is that of the Embera tribe. The Embera are an indigenous group from western Colombia who have for years been in the crossfire between guerrillas, paramilitaries and the Colombian military. Their ancestral lands are crucial drug trafficking routes and strategic military territory. They have been so devastated by war that, today, the Embera are an endangered tribe facing cultural and ethnic extinction.
To make matters worse, recent reports have suggested that many of the AH1N1 cases in Bogota are actually Embera refugees. Indeed, displaced people often live in terrible and unsanitary conditions, cramped in tent cities, shacks and crowded shelters.
Without proper attention from the state, the Embera refugee population has become the epicenter of Bogota's growing AH1N1 problem. Sadly, before flu fears became a reality, few people in Bogota or Colombia cared or did much about the living conditions of Embera refugees or hundreds of thousands of other displaced people in Bogota.
July 15, 2009
Column Link #2
Just published another opinion piece about illegal wiretapping, freedom of the press and human rights in Colombia. Check it out here: http://colombiareports.com/opinion/111-colombiamerican/4998-colombias-dirty-war-chuzadas-and-the-future-of-the-das-.html
July 14, 2009
Thoughts on Koyaanisqatsi and the Fragility of Public Housing Experiments
One of the best movies I've seen recently is Koyaanisqatsi, an unorthodox and revolutionary 1970s documentary about the absurdity of modern life. (Koyaanisqatsi is a Hopi word meaning 'life out of balance')
A particularly intense segment shows the demolition of a large housing project in St. Louis. The segment, I think, is supposed to show the failure of urban public housing in the 1960's and 1970's when, a few years after they were advertised as a solution to crime,unemployment and homelessness , public housing projects proved to simply exacerbate those problems. Since I started working on urban public housing in Medellin, I've had those images fromKoyaanisqatsi on my mind a lot.
The need for housing solutions in Medellin is pretty evident: shacks and slums surround the city and dozens of new ones sprout up every day. Unfortunately, however, the task of creating new neighborhoods for thousands of poor people is often quite difficult. During recent tours of public housing projects, I was reminded of the American stereotype of housing projects as crime-ridden and run-down.Unemployment , crime and drug addiction are evident everywhere. Within months, the buildings I'm monitoring go from looking like smaller versions of the red brick condos of wealthy Medellinneighborhoods to looking like the St. Louis projects right before demolition.
Part of this is our fault. Eager to meet project goals (and without proper inter-agency coordination), city workers have moved people from neighborhoods like Moravia into public housing without first equipping the new neighborhoods with schools, hospitals and employment opportunities. Often, the buildings themselves lack adequate construction and are falling apart. Residents have nowhere to send their kids to school, nowhere to seek medical help in the event of an emergency and nobody to help them get acquainted with their new living spaces and new neighbors.
There is an urgent need for social workers in these areas. The projects put together people from neighborhoods that used to be at war, making them fertile ground for more crime and violence. Without schools and public spaces, kids have just as much idle time as they did in the alleys of slums, which also exacerbates crime. Further, people who have never learned proper waste disposal throw their trash everywhere. Adding to the existing inadequacy of some buildings,unemployment and desperation has led some residents to break apart parts of the building to sell scrap metal.
Already, in some housing projects, armed groups, composed in part of demobilized paramilitaries, have begun to demand protection money from the buses that operate in the area. In some cases, they even control who comes in and out of theneighborhood. When the city fails to occupy all the apartments simultaneously , the empty apartments are turned into drug markets and brothels whose criminal bosses are literally the main local authority. In fact, in some areas I visited, there simply is no police presence.
This is all the more remarkable given the fact that the absence of the state in Medellin's slums has for a long time been identified as a major driving force behind crime, poverty and marginalization. The only state presence in some urban housing projects is a couple of police officers; in others there is no state presence at all. Some housing blocks, admittedly, have working public schools and childcare centers, but they do not meet even a small fraction of local demand. Meanwhile, there is still new housing underconstruction which, in a few weeks, will house hundreds of new residents who will also need schools and hospitals.
When I drive by these projects with friends I family, I've pointed them out with pride. After all, housing is one of this administration's main priorities and the sheer number of public housing buildings is impressive from a distance. Nevertheless, after my most recent visits, I realize that these areas are quickly entering the same cycles of crime, unemployment and poverty that plagued slums like Moravia. The pace of social decay is so fast that, within months, the situation may be irreparable.
Therefore, I will spend most of this week preparing an urgent report about the conditions in some of these housing projects. If urgent action is taken, there is a possibility that we can turn theneighborhoods around. If not, one of the mayor's most important projects may become just another failed public housing experiment and another nightmare for the city of Medellin.
July 13, 2009
Updates: Emerald Violence and Illegal Wiretapping
Recent reports have indicated that the attack on emerald czar Victor Carranza's caravan (see previous post) was carried out by Cuchillo, a paramilitary warlord who is expanding his drug empire in the plains of Eastern and Central Colombia. Details about the attack suggest that it was a militarily sophisticated operation. A large truck blocked the road while 3 SUVs pulled up behind it and about a dozen men emerged from the vehicles, attacking Carranza's caravan with grenades and machine gun fire, before retreating, burning two of the vehicles, and leaving into the night.
Given the complexity of the assassination attempt, many attributed it to a different drug kingpin operating in the plains, El Loco Barrera. Barrera has long been considered one of the country's main druglords. He has strong business relations with the FARC, local drug gangs and organized crime groups in Mexico and Central America.
In contrast to many present-day drug kingpins, however, he has no private army of his own and instead hires the most expensive and effective 'sicario' offices to carry out his military operations. He has been linked to a number of high-profile murders: a mafia-style assassination that shook Argentina, the murder of a former Northern Valley cartel kingpin hiding in Venezuela, and the infamous recent assassination of a former Medellin cartel leader in a Madrid hospital.
However, recent investigations have uncovered that Cuchillo, who commands a private army of at least 500 men, was responsible for the attack. He has been expanding his empire in the plains and was trying to conquer some of Carranza's territory. Emeralds are a great way to launder money and it seems that Cuchillo saw Carranza as an obstacle to his expansion northward. Apparently, he had explicitly warned Carranza to be careful, as he was the new boss in the area.
Despite the fact that it failed to kill Carranza, or even all of his bodyguards, the assassination attempt was a sophisticated operation even for FARC guerrillas, much less a mid-size drug organization like Cuchillo's. The growing power and military capacities of emerging drug organizations has started to seriously worry the authorities.
Meanwhile, investigations into illegal wiretapping by Colombia's intelligence agency DAS have revealed widespread abuses. Apparently, DAS leaders created a secret group, separate from DAS but entirely capable of accessing DAS information by request, dedicated to monitoring opposition politicians, journalists and activists.
The private lives of leaders of the Democratic Pole party are covered extensively in DAS documents. Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director of the international NGO Human Rights watch, was also monitored closely. Vivanco was famously insulted by Presdient Uribe, who accused him and other human rights leaders of sympathizing with and even helping the FARC after Vivanco publicly criticized the President because of Colombia's human rights crisis.
This comes just weeks after it was revealed that in the 1980's, the Colombian government had a secret intelligence agency dedicated to monitoring, threatening and even torturing and killing people perceived as 'leftists', from union leaders to journalists.
Colombia is the world's most dangerous country for union leaders and one of the most dangerous countries for journalists. The fact that elements of the government continue to treat opposition leaders as threats to the state, without any real proof of criminal or violent activity, is certainly worrying, especially given the historical context.
Historically, when the government has described someone as a FARC collaborator, they have become military targets for paramilitary groups and elements of Colombian security forces. Indeed, as I mentioned in a previous post, many paramilitaries believe their central goal is to help the president preserve order, even though they spend most of their time participating in apolitical criminal activities. Therefore, President Uribe's tendency to publicly accuse human rights groups, opposition parties, foreign governments and journalists of helping the FARC is extremely irresponsible.
I recently wrote a column for ColombiaReports.com on President Uribe's recent decision to allow opposition Senator Piedad Cordoba to help negotiate the release of hostages held by the FARC.
After a visit to Cali, happy to be in Medellin
I just spent the weekend in Cali, Colombia's third largest city after Bogota and Medellin. As always, I had a great time there. I have plenty of family in Cali and it is a vibrant city very different from Medellin in terms of weather and culture. That being said, I came back from Cali very thankful that I am working in Medellin.
According to my dad, who grew up in Cali, the city used to be known for its culture of civility. Decades ago, it was the most livable city in Colombia with vibrant businesses and a relatively high degree of social cohesion. Its universities were active, its business leaders were committed to helping the city and its people were happy and proud to live in Cali, an ethnically and culturally diverse city in the beautiful Cauca valley of Southwestern Colombia.
Nevertheless, recent decades have eroded much of that tradition. Drug trafficking and the violence and cultural decay associated with it dramatically transformed the culture and behavior of local elites. Crime, corruption and social decay also destroyed the social fabric of poor neighborhoods. Displacement due to armed conflict and rural poverty created vast slums all around the city. Finally, the hugely important local sugar industry collapsed, and there was little to replace it other than drug trafficking. Meanwhile, corrupt and incompetent city administrations allowed Cali's cultural life, infrastructure and economy to crumble.
Today, even in wealthy neighborhoods, sidewalks are nonexistent in Cali. One of the most immediately noticeable things about the city is that where there used to be sidewalks there are now random chunks of concrete, broken glass, dust, and trash. Walking down some major streets in Cali is like walking through Moravia, the only difference being that residents of Moravia are more committed to cleaning and maintaining their own streets than Caleños.
I didn't see much pedestrian activity, either, despite the fact that most people in Cali cannot afford cars. The city simply doesn't have the public parks and plazas that make Medellin a relatively walkable city.
Cali also has no cultural life. There is little to do there at night but drink, dance salsa and, in some rich neighborhoods, listen to electronic music. In contrast, during my short stay in Medellin, there have been dozens of important cultural events, many of them organized by the city administration.
Despite all the problems I've encountered at my internship , my time in Cali reminded me of how much the past two Medellin mayors have transformed the city. There was a time, in the mid-90s, when my family was considering moving to Cali. In those days, we didn't give Medellin a chance. These days, the exact opposite is true.
On the other hand, it is my understanding that Cali has one of Colombia's most popular and well-respected mayors. He has created a new public transit system modelled after Bogota's highly praised Transmilenio and has started to turn the city around. I spent Saturday night at a relatively new bar and boutique area in a wealthy Cali neighborhood. This up-and-coming area is helping to diversify Cali's nightlife, although it caters almost exclusively to Cali's small upper class.
Cali's challenges are huge and the contrast with Medellin could not be greater. Despite significant problems with crime, unemployment and inequality, Medellin is active, dynamic and increasingly connected to the outside world. Cali, in contrast, is economically and culturally stagnant. Hopefully, Cali will follow in the footsteps of Medellin and re-create a public sense of optimism, belonging and commitment with regard to the city.
July 09, 2009
A Big Relief and More Paramilitaries
I just got out of a meeting which has been extremely hard to schedule. I am extremely relieved that it finally happened.
The meeting was about some commercial establishments built by the city around public housing projects in Moravia. The idea was for these stores to compensate local people for commercial space that was lost either because moving to public housing distanced them from the store they used to own or because the public housing was built on the space where they used to have their store.
In short, due to some bureaucratic delays, the commercial spaces were not given to their new owners, were not built with adequate equipment and were eventually stripped of whatever equipment they had by local thieves. Now, every window, shelf, door, electrical wiring, etc is gone.
The idea of the meeting was to define a clear gameplan to rebuild the commercial establishments and give them to the intended owners keeping in mind city budgets, a series of complex legal limitations and, of course, the needs of the community. We seem to be on our way to a solution, although we are starting literally from scratch.
As of now, there is no budget to rebuild the spaces, the spaces are totally empty, most of the spaces have no owner and nobody is really clear about what kind of small businesses could actually be put in those spaces due to legal issues. (public space laws, sanitation laws, etc)
Although I fear that my blog may be focusing increasingly on local paramilitarism, it is hard to avoid the topic: it came up yet again at this meeting. Given how little the topic is covered in the media, especially the international media, it is remarkable how frequently it comes in the most unlikely contexts, like this meeting.
Apparently, the city agency that owns 6 of the establishments is trying to solve some budgetary problem by trying to make some money by selling and renting the commercial spaces very carefully. The best plan they've come up with so far is to sell the spaces in a sort of auction system.
Upon hearing this suggestion, many people at the meeting brought up a couple of objections. First, the original plan was to sell the spaces to people who met a series of strict requirements: that they had a commercial space in Moravia prior to the start of the project in 2004, that they still live in the neighborhood, etc. The chaotic auction system may open up the spaces to people who don't meet all the requirements.
Second, there are fears that the system might attract paramilitary and organized criminal elements. Specifically, people fear that the auction system may allow paramilitary groups to prevent competitors from bidding through intimidation. Paramilitary and mafia groups are always eager for commercial control of crucial neighborhoods in order to launder drug money and become the backbone of local commerce, thereby deepening their authority.
Paramilitary gangs have begun to re-group in Moravia. I have already heard about paramilitaries taking control of public buildings and making aggressive appareances at local planning meetings. If we aren't careful with these commercial establishments, they may also stage a takeover of stores built and supported by the city administration.
For the Moravia project, paramilitarism is just one of the variables that we have to take into account as we move forward with projects. So far, budget issues are stressing us out much more than paramilitaries. For Colombia as a whole, however, paramilitary power is a growing menace that continues to deepen the influence of drugs and crime at all levels of socieety.
July 08, 2009
News from Colombia: The Business of Violence During a Recession (also: Corruption and False Positives)
Colombia is officially in recession, according to recent reports. Nevertheless, the private security business is booming. Private security is visible throughout Colombia. Nearly every bank, fancy restaurant, private school, expensive store and every other establishment that could ever be the target of crime has at least one heavily armed guard. In upscale restaurant areas, the streets are lined with bulletproof cars and bodyguards waiting for their clients to finish their meals.
This year, private security firms earned about double what hotels earned. This is especially ironic given the fact that Colombia's improving reputation in terms of security has recently contributed to a boom in tourism, both domestic and international. Apparently, however, the number of people who feel the need for armed protection greatly exceeds the number of people who have risked traveling in Colombia. Private security was bigger business than even the traditional banana and flower sectors. (If you look at a Valentine's Day rose package, it is likely to come from Colombia)
Meanwhile, morgues in Antioquia (the department where Medellin is located) are also struggling to keep up with demand. The rise in violence not only in Medellin but also in other regions of Antioquia where drug mafias operate has made it difficult for hospitals to perform timely autopsies. Fourteen people were murdered in Medellin this past Sunday alone. According to analysts, other forms of violence such as death threats and forced displacement are on the rise in the area.
In other news, the former head of Colombia's Notary and Registry system has said that notary jobs were given to Congressmen who voted in favor of the 2006 constitutional amendment which allowed Uribe to run for a second term. Notary jobs are infamous in Colombia because they are relatively easy and very lucrative, which historically has made them useful for clientelism and political corruption.
The scandal surrounding corruption in the 2006 referendum vote is growing. President Uribe himself, who is accused of fully knowing about the operation, has yet to comment on the latest accusations.
Finally, an investigation by the prosecution in a prominent false positives case appears to prove that higher ranking members of the army knew about and facilitated the killings of civilians to present them as guerrillas killed in combat. In fact, it argues that there was even coordination with other army units and that the extrajudicial executions could not have been carried out without significant support from colonels in various different battalions.
Thoughts on Colombia and Ecuador's Arrest Warrant Dispute
The big news in Colombia this past week has been a heated dispute with Ecuador. An Ecuadorean judge ordered the capture of former Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos. As Defense Minister, Santos ordered the 2008 bombing of a FARC camp in Ecuadorean territory that killed a top guerrilla commander and led to the discovery of some laptop computers that seem to have contained very useful intelligence about guerrilla contacts and activities.
At the time, the bombing was seen as a huge success. The FARC, who have been at war with the Colombian government for decades, were seemingly untouchable in the 1990's. Colombians saw guerrillas, previously confined to the countryside, establish a strong presence in large cities, not simply with large-scale bombings but with permanent militias in poor neighborhoods.
In the summer of 2008, after six years of gradual success in the fight against guerrillas, the Colombian military dealt a series of serious blows to the FARC. They killed the top two commanders and rescued several of their most prized political hostages, including former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three American military contractors. In Colombia, people were ecstatic. It seemed that President Uribe had, in the course of six years, come very close to ending a long national nightmare: FARC have, in the past three decades, become increasingly brutal and involved in the drug trade.
Ecuador, of course, protested that the bombing was a violation of their sovereignty. Colombia, meanwhile, did little to apologize for the episode and instead launched continuous accusations of sympathy for and even collaboration with the FARC not just at Ecuador, but also at Venezuela. The whole thing became a massive regional political crisis that resulted in some significant troop movements on both sides of the Colombia-Venezuela border.
The episode was a great example of Latin American political theater. Uribe, Chavez and Correa all benefited from spikes in nationalist sentiment. Name-calling and ridiculous accusations became the norm. On the Colombian side, local music stars held peace concerts in large cities and on the border with Venezuela.
Of course, the war between Colombia and Venezuela was never going to happen. The two countries are very interdependent in terms of trade and their aggressive presidents' insults and accusations were clearly baseless. There is no clear evidence that either Chavez or Correa is directly supporting the FARC. Otherwise, Uribe would never shake their hand has he often does (especially with Chavez during frequent conciliatory meetings). Nevertheless, there are people in Colombia who genuinely believe their government's accusations against Venezuela, which gives Uribe a significant nationalist/ideological political boost.
It is true, however, that both Ecuador and Venezuela are at least tolerant of FARC elements along their borders with Colombia. They have no political incentive to fight the FARC, which are still a powerful guerrilla group and, in the case of Ecuador, they probably don't have the military capacity to do so either. Given all the damage the FARC have done in Colombia, it would be unwise for Chavez or Correa to unleash such war and devastation on their own people when, for now, the guerrillas seem not to pose any significant threat to their security.
Moving along, while Colombia and Venezuela seem to go through cycles of insult and hand-shaking, relations with Ecuador have steadily deteriorated. The recent arrest warrant is a significant symbolic gesture, and has caused plenty of outrage in Colombia. President Uribe ordered the creation a special security team to protect former Minister Santos while several Colombian lawyers and politicians have been preparing not only Santos's legal defense, but an arrest warrant of their own against Ecuadorean officials for supposed collaboration with FARC guerrillas.
While there are very real sovereignty and security issues at the heart of the dispute, Ecuador and Colombia are clearly engaging in political theater on a large and possibly dangerous scale for domestic political benefit. Ecuador's President is currently dealing with a corruption scandal surrounding his family and Uribe, while still enjoying stable and high levels of popularity, could benefit from another spike in nationalist sentiment and a reminder of the good old days of the 2008 bombing, when Colombians believed they were close to the end of the world's longest running conflict.
This public dispute comes at an interesting time, as several governments throughout the region are engaged in a similarly strange combination of political theater and serious, urgent debate with regard to the political crisis in Honduras. Central America, like Northwest corner of South America, is going through a series of tense political processes and power struggles eerily reminiscent of the Cold War.
Nothing would be better for Latin America than to let go of Cold War-era rhetoric and ideology and their destructive by-products: violence, polarization and political stagnation. Unfortunately, as the challenges and debates of the Cold War drift away into total irrelevance and new, urgent challenges emerge, many regional governments on both the 'left' and the 'right' still resort to outdated rhetoric and ideology. Political incentives continue to create divisive leaders who generally miss the point.
Fortunately, there are a few presidents in Latin America, most notably Lula da Silva of Brazil, ready to lead the region into the 21st century. It is crucial, from a U.S. standpoint, that President Obama is also forward-looking and in tune with the region's new challenges and realities. The Honduras crisis is his first real opportunity to stand strongly for sustainable democracy and institution-building in the region.
So far, I think Obama has at least taken the right stance on the issue. In his first term, Obama should continue to do away with the inaction and polarizing Axis-of-Evil style rhetoric of the Bush era and collaborate with Latin American governments to tackle the hemisphere's most pressing issues: trade, inequality, the environment and the rule of law, among others.
July 07, 2009
The Eleventh Floor
As I may have mentioned before, I work on top floor of the 12-story Medellin city administration building. Because the mayor is often on this floor, there is tight security. In fact, there is no direct civilian elevator to the 12th floor and everybody except the mayor must exit on the 11th floor, climb the stairs, and pass an additional layer of security before entering my office.
Therefore, every day, I pass by the 11th floor at least twice. The 11th floor is home to the Personería, where people go to meet with government lawyers, mostly for human rights concerns. The lobby of the 11th floor is always full of people displaced by armed conflict and others whose fundamental human rights have been violated.
When I take the elevator, often the only people left after the 7th or 8th floor are me and some visitors to the Personería. Many of them have never used an elevator before.
They come with crumpled letters, some written on typewriters, that tell their stories. Their hope is that the letters will entitle them to some legal or financial help from the government. When they see that I have a mayor's office ID card, they immediately start sharing their stories with me and asking for my help. They've lost their homes, their land, their jobs, their families, mostly due to Colombia's armed conflict. There is little that I can do other than point them to the right office.
This is a city full of poor people who have endured devastating levels of violence for most of their lives. By some measures, Colombia has been at war for the past 61 years. Drug trafficking has devastated Medellin for much of the past 30 years. Having to go through the 11th floor is a hassle, but it is a nice break from the hours I spend in front of a computer. More importantly, my time on the floor below is a very direct reminder of who I'm working for.
Uribe's Political Capital
Adam Isacson, a Colombia expert at the Center for International Policy, just wrote an article in Foreign Policy about Uribe's political problems. Check it out at http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2009/07/03/uribe_falls_to_earth
The article identifies a series of political challenges that are considerably limiting the President's political capital both at home and abroad.
1. The Economy
The first problem is the global economic crisis. While Colombia has not seen the statistical devastation of the United States or Japan, the crisis has definitely hit certain areas quite hard. There are cities withunemployment rates as high as 20%. These statistics are even more troubling given fact that many informally employed or underemployed people are not officially considered unemployed.
The second problem is worsening security, especially in urban areas. Nearly every large city in Colombia has seen a significant rise in violent crime this year. In Medellin, the increase in violence has beenparticularly acute. Part of this rise in crime is due to local factors such as unemployment and flawed local security policies and part is due to the increased power of new paramilitary groups and drug mafias, as is clearly the case in Medellin. Meanwhile, FARC guerrillas have increased the frequency their attacks with small bombings and ambushes.
While the national murder rate may continue its downward trend this year, the fact that the millions of Colombians who live in its largest cities are feelingincreasingly unsafe undermines Uribe's recent success in reducing statistical indicators of violence. More specifically, the apparent power of the FARC and the growth of new paramilitary groups directly contradicts Uribe's message that the country is winning the war against the FARC and discredits his controversial peace process with the paramilitaries.
In Medellin, the influence of paramilitaries is palpable. In the Parque del Periodista, a block from my house, there is word that a new paramilitary boss has taken over the area and is planning to make his presence felt with a few shootings. In a vast crowded downtown bazaar area known as ElHueco , people used avoid wearing jewelery. Many people simply avoid the area altogether despite its cheap prices. These days people will tell you that the area is totally safe because it is controlled byparamilitaries. Indeed, a few years ago, a friend of mine saw armed men beating up a street kid in El Hueco after he had robbed a shopper.
Paramilitaries have always presented themselves themselves as defenders of order in Colombia. When they take over a town or a neighborhood, they often kill local street kids, criminals, prostitutes and drug dealers in what they call 'social cleansing' to rid the area of crime and undesirable people. A man who sellsempanadas near my office recently met a paramilitary at a bar and asked him who his ultimate boss was. The paramilitary answered, 'President Uribe, because our job is to keep Colombia safe and orderly.' Of course, paramilitary groups are also responsible for most of the drugs that flow out of Colombia and many of the murders that continue to devastate its society. Worryingly, however, this is a country with a remarkably high tolerance for criminal groups as enforcers of law and order.
3. Scandals: Murder and corruption
The third problem is a group of diverse scandals. The first scandal is 'false positives', the murder of hundreds of innocent civilians by the military, which I've talked about a few times on this blog. The second is the wiretapping scandal, in which Colombia's equivalent of the FBI was found to be monitoring opposition politicians, civil society leaders, etc and even selling delicateintelligence to drug trafficking organizations . The third is the rising murder rate for union leaders. Colombia accounted for about half of union leader murders worldwide in 2008. Fourth is the scandal regarding the vote to change theconstitution to allow Uribe to run for a second term in 2006: there are active investigations into allegations that legislators were bribed to support the reelection referendum. Finally, there is the very old and gradually expandinginvestigation into dozens of politicians, most of them Uribe allies, with links to paramilitary and mafia groups.
Isacson sees the fact that Uribe's approval rating is now in the low 70s, its lowest point in two years, as evidence of a general downward trend in his popularity. On theinternational front, many long-time Uribe supporters have expressed growing concern over the human rights situation in Colombia and many, including President Obama, have directly discouragedUribe from running for a third term.
Nevertheless, I think Isacson is slightly misreading Colombia's domestic political climate. As I see it (admittedly Medellin is a particularly pro-Uribe city), Uribe is as strong as ever on the domestic front. While the economy has tamed Colombians' enthusiasm about the direction of the country,Uribismo has suffered only slightly.
People don't necessarily see the worsening security situation as a reason for a change in leadership. Instead, they often say that Uribe's security policy, which has been so successful in rural areas, should be 'expanded' to urban areas, whatever that means. In reality, Uribe's policy has always had a strong focus on urban areas. The rise in urban crime, the increased frequency of FARC attacks and the emergence of new paramilitary drug trafficking groups may simply give people even more reason to support Uribe or one of his protegés in the 2010 elections.
Precisely because of Colombia's current security challenges and long history of violence, the vast majority of Colombians are not very concerned with the domestic human rights situation. Many simply don't know about or understand the scandals. Colombians are so accustomed to violence, including state violence, that they see false positives and human rights abuses almost as natural. To many voters,Uribe's brand of state violence is a mere side effect of his aggressive security policy, which they see as necessary in order to rid Colombia of guerrillas and drug traffickers.
Further, Uribe has managed to distance himself from many scandals. Even those Colombians with a decent knowledge of false positives, the wiretapping scandal, and theparapolitics scandal (politicians with links to paramilitaries) do not hold the Presdient accountable for them. The President has presented all scandals as cases of a few bad apples, fired some people, and sent some people to prison. That has been enough to save him from blame not justdomestically, but to some extent even internationally.
Deciding whether or not to run for a third term in 2010 is Uribe's true challenge. Since 2002, he has counted on the strong support of the United States and Europe, who have ignored or forgiven the Colombian government's terrible human rights record and growing tendency toward autocracy. If he decides to run for a third term, that support will probably disappear. Colombia, which depends heavily on American military aid and trade with the United States, has to manage itsrelationship with the U.S. very carefully.
So far, Uribe has refused to take a definitive stance on the third term question while his political allies in Congress have continued to push for a change in theconstitution allowing a third term. The President is very carefully maneuvering as he waits for the right opportunity to declare himself a candidate for 2010. If the opportunity does not arise, he will simply not run and Colombia's next president will likely be anUribista.
The Uribe coalition's main challenger for the moment is former Medellin mayor Sergio Fajardo. He is intelligent, likeable, thoughtful, serious and, unlike Uribe, openly respectful of human rights and mindful of the needs of Colombia's most marginalized people. Not all of these qualities seem to help Fajardo get political support, but, where he is known, he is well-liked.
People in Medellin seem to wish that Fajardo could be a viable Presidential candidate because they like him so much, but just don't think he has what it takes to handle Colombia's security problems. While voters don't feel any animosity toward Fajardo, most of them certainly don't want him to win because they feel that he might lead Colombia back into the intense violence of the 1980's through the early 2000's.
It would take plenty of political genius for Fajardo to change the security debate in Colombia because, in fact, there is no debate. In terms of security policy, Uribismo is the national religion.
Despite all these obstacles, Fajardo is gradually making some progress in the polls. While he is still very far behind Uribe and his allies, he is travelling the country and spreading his message. He is a charismatic politician with a very convincing success story. If he managed to transform Medellin - even in terms of security - why can't he do the same on national scale?
Although, as I've said in previous posts, Medellin's improvement in terms of security in the Fajardo era may be attributed to factors beyond the former mayor's control, I think he is capable of convincing at least a few people that he is ready for the Presidency. For now, he is simply making himself known throughout the country. Most people in Colombia have no idea who he is.
If he manages to even compete with the Uribistas, that alone will be a significant political achievement. Nevertheless, if anyone is capable of such a miracle, it is Fajardo. The more established left-leaning opposition is in the midst of bitter internal conflict and, even in times of more cohesion and coherence, has only managed to gain the support of about 15% of the Colombian population.
July 06, 2009
This week at the office
This week I have a couple of interesting and hopefully productive meetings. I'm finally scheduling meetings and running them myself (without my boss), so I feel far more productive. It's a little intimidating. Last week I scheduled a meeting at a horrible time, changed the time of the meeting several times, finally had to cancel the meeting, and irritated plenty of people along the way. Hopefully this week will go better.
The first meeting is about the old problem of the abandoned houses in Moravia. As I've mentioned in a few previous posts, the city administration bought 3 houses inhabited by 9 families, but did not pay for the third floor of one house. Consequently, one family is still living there and the buildings cannot be demolished to make way for the intended park. The abandoned houses have been used by express kidnappers, drug dealers, street kids, displaced families, and others to commit crimes or otherwise live there harmlessly but illegally.
The meeting will consist of various agencies getting together to sort through the problem as quickly as possible. It's really as simple as getting a lawyer to describe the necessary steps to buy the house, getting the budget and planning office to provide the money to pay for the house, and getting the various agencies executing the Moravia project to negotiate the purchase and finally demolish the building. Maybe that doesn't sound so simple, but the reason it hasn't happened already is because of lack of inter-agency coordination and the fact that everyone is already so busy.
My job will be to coordinate the meeting and to argue for a quick purchase and demolition. There may be some people who want a clear plan before moving forward, but, having been to the site myself, I understand that the abandoned houses have caused a very urgent crime problem for the very neighborhood we are supposed to be helping.
The second meeting will be about the new housing projects in the Pajarito sector. One of this administration's main goals is to provide 15,000 homes for the city's poorest residents, many of whom are homeless or living in unstable shacks. Pajarito is a sector high up in the hills of Medellin where the city has put a MetroCable station and built dozens of public housing buildings.
Unfortunately, while there are many social workers in Moravia, once people are relocated from Moravia in Pajarito, they are outside of the Moravia project's jurisdiction. In other words, nobody is monitoring the social and economic situation in Pajarito. Crime, conflict between neighbors, vandalism and otehr problems have become rampant. There may be plenty of other problems that we don't know about simply because the city administration does not have a strong presence in the sector.
The meeting will consist of a discussion of the problems in Pajarito, recent attempts to have an agency monitor the social situation there and the necessary next steps. I will also visit Pajarito next week to see the situation for myself, identify problems that the city may not know about, take some photos to provide for a visual effect when trying to convince various agencies to help out and prepare an official report summarizing the problems in Pajarito.
The third meeting will be about the recycling facility in Moravia. The city has decided to build a recycling facility in the neighborhood for various reasons.
First, it will send a strong message of change as Moravia consists of shacks built by poor people on the city's old trash dump. Second, it will begin to solve the serious problems of public health and hygiene in the neighborhood. Third, it will hopefully become a commercially successful recycling facility for the entire area of North-Central Medellin that will provide employment for Moravia residents.
Finally, it will serve as a model solution for Colombia's (and many other countries) informal recycling problem. Medellin, like many cities in developing countries, is home to hundreds informal recyclers who search the city's trash for recyclable material. The new facility will employ those people and organize them in a way that will make their lives more comfortable, dignified and sanitary.
Unfortunately, bad planning and bureaucratic processes have delayed the project. It is many months behind schedule. Meanwhile, a private recycling facility has just launched not too far from Moravia.
It is unclear whether or not Moravia's facility will be commercially sustainable in spite of the new competition, but we are proceeding with the project anyway partly because it was a promise made to the city and, more importantly, to the neighborhood and it would be politically difficult to rethink or delay the project any further. There are many people counting on the project and, given recent local opposition to some project initiatives, the city cannot afford to further strain relations with Moravia residents.
I may or may not have a fourth meeting about problems at another housing project, this one within Moravia itself. The building has plenty of physical structural problems, but the main concern is its proximity to the Medellín river. Because there is no barrier, residents fear that their children may fall into the river, especially during the rainy season. Again, the idea is to visit the area, produce an official report and meet with various city agencies to plan the building of a barrier.
Colombia's Blood Emeralds
From 1989 to 1996, my family lived on the North side of Bogotá. In those days, while Colombia's capital city had some of the highest violent crime rates of any capital in the world, it did not experience the level of political and drug-related violence that devastated other regions of the country. Despite frequent muggings and carjackings and occasional murders, few places in Colombia were calmer than Bogotá's wealthier North side.
Nevertheless, the business district down the hill from my neighborhood saw frequent mafia-style shootouts. In Medellín or Cali, people would immediately attribute mass shootings to drug cartels or, less frequently, political violence. In this area of Bogotá, however, passersby immediately knew that the violence was between rival emerald traders.
Colombia is famous around the world for its emeralds. When Colombians come in contact with foreigners, most of them eventually give a laundry list of the country's redeeming qualities, including biodiversity, beautiful women, modern urban transportation, etc etc. Often, the list will include emeralds.
Sadly, however, Colombia's emerald trade has a dirty, corrupt, violent history.
I chose to bring up emeralds because over the weekend, Victor Carranza, who is known as Colombia's emerald czar, survived an assassination attempt. While travelling in a caravan with several bodyguards in central Colombia, he was attacked with mortar fire and grenades. At least three of his bodyguards died, but he survived and managed to walk to safety. The attackers fled from the scene, but it is thought that they may have been from some unknown paramilitary faction.
Recently, top paramilitaries speaking from prison have detailed their links to Carranza, who allied with them in the Boyacá department (directly east of Bogotá) to traffic drugs, fight guerrillas, expand his emerald business and eliminate any competition. Carranza, who still operates a successful emerald business, has denied such links.
Given recent global awareness campaigns exposing the hidden human tragedy caused by the trades in diamonds, minerals used to make cell phones, gold and other products, I wanted to take the opportunity to add Colombian emeralds to this list.
Although, in all these cases, one must avoid generalizations, it is pretty clear to me that the emerald trade has always had a criminal dimension and is responsible for plenty of death and corruption. The fact that the country's largest emerald trader is quite obviously involved with some mafia groups and paramilitary death squads only confirms the rumors about emeralds that used to circulate around crime scenes in Northern Bogotá.
June 30, 2009
Medellin Street Art
I have a few memories of trips to Medellin from when I was 3 or 4 years old. Among the most vivid is one of a large religious mosaic or mural that occupied an entire wall of a 5 story building. Since I came to Medellin late may, I have been looking for that mural. Having been to almost every area of the city (and certainly every area I could have conceivably gone to when I was young), I can say with certainty and sadness that the mural no longer exists.
Nevertheless, I have discovered in recent weeks that all over the city are plenty of other murals just like it. Medellin has a reputation for great weather, hospitality, beautiful mountains, attractive women, violent crime, etc, but it also deserves a reputation for great public art.
The city, as I've mentioned in previous posts, is littered with vast sculptures by Fernando Botero. Right outside my office is a HUGE monument to the people of Antioquia by Rodrigo Arenas Betancourt. His sculptures are epic structures with dozens of characters involved in some sort of chaotic battle. Hard to explain, but please google it.
What has surprised me about Medellin, however, is its wall art. Looking outside my window, I can see a replica of a Botero painting of two dancers on the wall of a downtown building. Two blocks in front of the mayor's office is another replica, this one much larger, of a Francisco Antonio Cano painting of early 20th century Antioquian peasants. About ten feet from that mural is another one honoring Medellin's tango tradition. Directly below it is another mural of downtown Medellin in the 1920's.
All of these murals, and hundreds of others like them, have been painted with great pride and care. Almost every mural in the city is a tribute to its culture or history. People paint their pride on walls. In one of the housing projects I'm overseeing, someone painted a mural of Moravia, honoring their former neighborhood.
I also discovered on this trip to Medellin that the city had its own avant-garde muralist, Pedro Nel Gomez.
Medellin also has some great graffiti. With the exception of soccer fans, Medellin's graffiti artists mostly refrain from merely writing random stuff on walls. In part, this may be because, years ago, scribbled graffiti often carried a very real message of violence. When I last came to Medellin in 2003, I saw plenty of FARC and paramilitary graffiti. Entire neighborhoods were covered in ugly, threatening scribbles. Criminal gangs used nearly every wall in sight to instill fear and declare their control over a certain area.
In contrast, graffiti in Medellin today consists of large, colorful, elaborate paintings, often with positive political messages. There are plenty of murals honoring victims of violence in Medellin and asking for lasting peace in the city. Street artists seem to put as much thought, heart and effort into their graffiti as Botero put into his paintings. Sometime this weekend or next, I will try to tour the city and get some photos of wall art.
Obama and Uribe Get Together
Presidents Obama and Uribe met yesterday at the White House to talk about some crucial topics in Colombia-U.S. relations, notably the free trade agreement and the second reelection.
1. The FTA
The U.S.-Colombia FTA is a project that dates back to the Bush administration. It has taken years to pass in part because the debate about the trade pact coincided with a period of increasing awareness within the U.S. government of the tragic human rights situation in Colombia. The United States has signed FTAs with several Latin American countries, and it seemed natural that Colombia would follow. Both Bush and Uribe were strongly committed to it and Colombia was, and remains, the U.S.'s most loyal ally in the region.
In recent years, however, protecting human rights has become a prerequisite for the passing of the Colombia FTA. A series of scandals have made it increasingly clear that the Colombian government and several multinational corporations have tolerated and even taken part in serious human rights violations. Most worryingly for U.S. lawmakers, these violations have often targeted trade unions and labor leaders.
In other words, in Colombia, business is often done through death threats, assassinations and forced displacements. Chiquita, the international fruit company, recently went through a difficult legal ordeal after it was proven that they paid Colombian paramilitary death squads for protection.
Colombia is by far the world's most dangerous country for union leaders. In one of the Obama-McCain presidential debates, Obama brought up union leader assassinations as a cause for concern in relation to theFTA. McCain responded that such murders had in fact decreased under Uribe and that the murder rate for union leaders was actually lower than the rate for Colombians in general.
With regard to the first point, murders of union leaders have again gone up both in 2008 and 2009 so far. With regard to the second, the point of comparison should not be the general population, but the murder rate in other countries. If the FTA passes, the U.S. will be signing a trade agreement with a country where union leaders are murdered in far higher numbers than any other country in the world.
Beyond the Chiquita scandal, human rights groups have found other ways to communicate effectively with American lawmakers. One interesting approach has been to expose the suffering of Afro-Colombians. Colombia's afrodescendant population has suffered disproportionately as a result of the country's armed conflict. Further, many Afro-Colombian communities have been threatened, displaced and attacked by paramilitary groups as a result of their opposition to business projects in their lands, particularly palm oil cultivation. African American leaders in Congress have repeatedly gone to Colombia and experienced first-hand how big business has participated in the displacement, exploitation and murder of Afro-Colombians.
2. The Second Reelection
As I have explained in previous posts, the dominant topic in contemporary Colombian politics is the possible second reelection of the hugely popular Alvaro Uribe. Uribe has already changed the constitution to allow a second term. It is one of many political power grabs by the president. There have been a number of serious allegations that politicians were bribed to support the referendum to allow a second term. Because most Western countries have two-term limits, the possibility of a second referendum for a third term has become a huge scandal.
Most people believe that, were he to run again, Uribe would win. The difficult thing for Uribe supporters will be to convince Colombia's lawmakers to allow a third term. A far more complex challenge to maintain Uribe's strong relationships with the U.S. and Europe if he does run again, given international opposition to a second reelection.
During the meeting, Obama apparently told Uribe that, in the United States, two terms are enough because people want change. Of course, the reason there is a reelection debate in Colombia is that many people don´t want change and would vote for Uribe's third term. Obama clearly could have used stronger words.
Uribe apparently told Obama that he saw it as inconvenient to keep himself in power. The President has used the word 'inconvenient' before, and it is notable that inconvenience, not democracy, is what is keeping him from running again. Many Colombians believe that Uribe is still very open to running again when the political climate at home and abroad allows it.
While it is never entirely clear what happened behind closed doors, this meeting was more about continuity than it was about change. A recent Washington Post article argued that the Obama-Uribe meeting would have a markedly different tone from that of the Bush-era Uribe visits. Indeed, Bush and Uribe really disagreed about very little. What is remarkable, however, is how friendly the tone was.
Few contemporary governments in the Western Hemisphere have faced such serious allegations of corruption and human rights abuses as Colombia's. One can only imagine Obama's attitude toward Rafael Correa of Ecuador (a nearby Chavez ally) if his government, not Uribe's, was accused of overseeing hundreds of murders of innocent civilians by the military and widespread wiretapping of opposition politicians or if dozens of his political allies had links to drug traffickers and warlords.
Obama, like every American president before him, has been very forgiving of Colombia's failures in terms of democracy, human rights and political integrity for two reasons. First, Colombia and the U.S. are held together by a common commitment to the fight against drug trafficking. Second, the Chavez phenomenon makes Uribe seem like a precious ally in an increasingly hostile region.
Indeed, in the presidential debates, Senator McCain argued that the FTA should be passed regardless of what he saw as minor human rights concerns in order to improve relations with the region as a whole. In his view, criticizing Colombia for human rights abuses would be seen as Yankee imperialist intervention.
In my opinion, McCain could not be more mistaken. Historically, Latin Americans have viewed the U.S. as an arrogant, selfish superpower that respects human rights and democracy selectively and very inconsistently. While Americans like to think of their country as a nation held together by a set of values, our neighbors in the South view the U.S. as a country of soldiers and corporations. Today, Colombia-U.S. relations simply confirm this negative stereotype.
Indeed, the problem has never been that the United States insists too much on human rights and democracy. Rather, the problem is that America seems to care about human rights and democracy only when it is convenient.
In order to start to improve relations with the people of Latin America, Obama should be more consistent in his defense of democratic values. In that sense, his condemnation of the coup in Honduras is an important step forward.
June 29, 2009
Thoughts on the Political Crisis in Honduras
Although I'm quite far from Honduras, the military coup and general political crisis in that country has made headlines in Colombia. Latin America is an increasingly interconnected (but perhaps not quite integrated) region and coverage of Honduras in Colombia has been extensive.
Much of the analysis in the Colombian media and, from what I've seen, the American media, has placed this coup in a larger historical context. Central America (and Latin America as a whole) saw frequent coups for many decades until the mid-1990's. This coup has sparked fears that the trend may return.
Those fears are not unreasonable. Regional polls have shown that Latin Americans are not entirely convinced that democracy is the best form of government and are generally very distrustful of government institutions, from national legislators to local police. These days, every Latin American country is at least technically a democracy, but regional attitudes, social inequality, and corruption make those democracies worryingly weak.
On the other hand, this coup is entirely unlike the coups of the Cold War Era. Every government in Latin America, regardless of ideological inclinations, has condemned the coup. So has much of the West. Despite the fact that ousted Honduran president Zelaya was an ally of Hugo Chavez, even Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, the region's foremost anti-Chavista, did the right thing and expressed opposition to the coup.
The region's governments, at least in their rhetoric, respect the institution of democratic elections regardless of their results. Regional leaders have temporarily forgotten political disagreements to express support for democracy. This, at least, is a significant step forward from the late 20th century.
June 26, 2009
Another Movie Suggestion
Free time again:
I was thinking about my mention of la Virgen de los Sicarios, and wanted to recommend an even better movie. Keep in mind that both la Virgen and the movie I am about to recommend are bittersweet topics for local people. They depict what many would consider the dark side of Medellin: poverty and violence.
In my humble opinion, however, both movies are far deeper than that. They show the strange, admirable and beautiful expressions of humanity that are common in a city with such a difficult past. Many Medellin residents would love to see a feature film about the city's beautiful women, famous flower arrangements, tall buildings and gourmet restaurants, but I think that would be a lost opportunity to show what is truly remarkable about this city: its people, their strength, and their desire to survive.
On that note, I VERY highly recommend La Vendedora de Rosas, or the Rose Seller. I don't know if that's the official English translation. This highly praised movie hired real street kids as actors in a fictional but very realistic story about life on the streets of Medellin.
Given the great success of the heavily fictionalized Slumdog Millionaire, la Vendedora de Rosas is even more valuable as one of the most realistic depictions I've seen of childhood and adolescence at the lonely, violent bottom of a highly stratified society.
A warning: La Vendedora de Rosas is a very intense movie, without a traditional happy ending. It is an honest depiction of an unimaginably horrible reality. Nevertheless, if you are capable of digesting human tragedy on film, you will find it to be a movie that says a lot about humanity's ability to survive and find happiness in an environment marked only by death and abandonment.
I also encourage everyone to research the stories of the movie's actors after filming. Some have found success and formed families, others have been killed, and others are in prison.
End of the Week
This week I essentially put together all the information from last week's Moravia meetings and tried to identify solutions to specific problems.
The Edith situation continues to be a concern. She calls me almost every day asking for a solution to her living situation. Obviously, as I am new and have very little information, I repeatedly tell her that I am waiting for the Moravia people to take care of the problem. The Moravia office is an absolute mess: it has about 10 computers, 12 phones and 20 desks for the 30 people working on the project. It is entirely understandable that, given their limited resources and dozens of pressing concerns, they have been unable to visit Edith.
At my office, we are also trying to solve the serious social problems plaguing the housing projects in the hills of Pajarito, which now house thousands of people. Already, these areas are affected by crime, conflict between neighbors, waste disposal issues and general chaos and confusion. When people discovered that some residents were paying more than others for utilities, many started refusing to pay. The delicate social fabric of these new neighborhoods seems to be disintegrating. It seems that next week I will have to go toPajarito to prepare a report on the issues, which will hopefully put more pressure on the appropriate agencies to address these problems.
Indeed, housing is one of the current mayor's most important initiatives as a personal commitment of his, a major campaign promise, and one of the largest and most expensive campaigns underway. It is crucial that public housing remains livable, presentable and attractive to potential residents.
Directly below a separate housing project located in Moravia itself, the city created dozens of spaces for commercial establishments. The idea was that residents of the public housing projects would have clean, safe spaces for economic activity that would hopefully reinvigorate the local economy. For weeks, these spaces were empty and without clear owners due to abandonment, confusion and bureaucratic inefficiency. That was, to some extent, expected.
The problem, however, is that without proper monitoring, these spaces were essentially torn apart. Glass windows and doors, metal frames and shelves, and pretty much everything else were stolen from these commercial spaces. Now they are nothing but empty concrete rooms. I am trying to identify the appropriate agency to make these spaces usable again and get them to their intended owners quickly. This process also requires plenty of money and I have no idea where I am supposed to find it.
Another problem has emerged at the new daycare center in Moravia. One of the Moravia project's most presentable achievements, the daycare center nonetheless has recently been criticized byBuen Comienzo, the city's early childhood initiative and the daycare center's administrators.
Buen Comienzo says that the daycare center has only classrooms and activity rooms, but no real public space for the young children. Consequently, as more local families have sent their kids to the daycare center, overcrowding has led to fights and restlessness.
Another problem is the fact that the spaces designed for the youngest kids are on the second floor. While I think this was done for safety reason, this has made it very difficult for the center's employees to keep track of all the children, as they have to physically carry them to the second floor one child at a time, leaving the others downstairs.
The proposed solution is an expansion of the daycare center, which will be a nightmare to coordinate. This requires purchasing nearby houses, relocating the owners of those houses, designing the new space with the help ofBuen Comienzo , etc, etc, etc. As I have explained in previous posts, the purchase and relocation process alone is an ordeal that in other cases has lasted months and cost the city plenty of money.
Stress is building in my office because plenty of similar problems are, to varying degrees, plaguing nearly every project. This is by no means unusual in Medellin or, for that matter, any other city with an honest and ambitious administration. Indeed, at the office it is almost normal to be stressed out and angry at another agency for some sort of delay or mistake. Fortunately, however, the weather is quickly improving and, this afternoon, everyone will leave for a third consecutive long weekend.
June 25, 2009
A Few Interesting Projects
I´ve also been hearing about a number of cool new projects in the city:
There is an interesting initiative to install huge escalators in Comuna 13. Like many hillside slums, it is essentially a maze of dangerous, twisting alleys and nearly vertical concrete stairways. The initiative would complement metrocable with outdoor escalators all over the sector's many hills. It would certainly make the daily pedestrain communte much shorter and safer, but I am skeptical that the system would survive the heavy rain, mudslides and shootouts that plague Comuna 13.
There is another aerial tramway project in the planning stages that would link up the Santo Domingo MetroCable en route to Parque Arvi, a cold, damp, mountainous nature reserve. The vast majority of Medellin residents cannot afford to travel for leisure even to Parque Arvi, which is less than 20 minutes away. This project would begin to offer poor people affordable opportunities for tourism and would certainly increase tourism in the slum of Santo Domingo.
Since 2008 (if not earlier, I´m not entirely sure) Medellin has had several 'schools for teachers' where teachers can get together to attend free training sessions, share ideas with one another, and prepare joint projects and initiatives.
Finally, I went to the San Javier Park Library in Comuna 13 yesterday and, as always, it was an incredibly inspiring visit. Despite all the bad news about Medellin and my recent skepticism about the sustainability of its transformation, every time go to one of Fajardo or Salazar's libraries, I come out fully convinced that Medellin has a bright future.
The libraries are essentially large community spaces. Walking down a hallway, I saw poor elderly people learning to use computers, a lecture about marketing, a movie screening of the Cat in the Hat for kids who have never been to a movie theater, a recreational area full of ecstatic hyperactive five-year-olds. The libraries are full of contagious optimism and a palpable culture of peace. Everything is entirely free and open to the community. There are dozens of smiling employees everywhere helping people to use the facilities.
There is no sense in these libraries of the tremendous social problems that plague Comuna 13. Nor did I ever get the feeling that crime and violence were winning the silent 'culture war' in poor Medellin neighborhoods. These are truly revolutionary spaces. Hundreds of kids, who otherwise would spend their time in dirty, bullet-ridden alleys, are reading books and leraning to use the interent.
The library is by far their favorite place in the entire neighborhood. The houses around the library and the nearby MetroCable station are freshly painted and clean. I often hear that Fajardo and Salazar's building projects inspired neighbors to gather up their savings and tidy up the entire neighborhood.
In reality, however, the battle for the hearts and minds of Medellin's underprivileged children has not been won. Criminal groups are sitll more powerful than the state in many peripheral areas. There is still a sense, which is probably somewhat accurate, that there are more criminals living in luxury than there are criminals suffering in prison.
Finally, marginalization remains a huge social and pyschological problem despite integration projects like MetroCable: the young kids who make a few cents as informal tour guides at the Santo Domingo MetroCable station often ask tourists 'Did you come from Medellin?' as if Santo Domingo was a separate city.
The Past Few Days: Violence in Moravia and The Fragility of Colombian Democracy
On the Monday after fathers day, just two days after our relocation ceremony (which, I was pleased to find out, was covered in every local newspaper) there was a triple homicide in Moravia, one of 8 murders that day in Medellin.
Ask any Medellin resident, and they will tell you that the city is perfectly safe. That, in part, is due to local pride and an active campaign against Medellin's reputation for violence. It can also be attributed to the fact that, to most people, the difference between less than 800 homicides in a year (as was the case in 2007) and 1600 or more (where the city is headed in 2009) is almost negligible in the larger historical context. In 1991, when Medellin was a smaller city, there were over 6000 homicides.
Yesterday, I rode on the Comuna 13 MetroCable and heard plenty of optimism about local security. People there emphasize that, years ago, they would pray for their own safety before walking two blocks to a local store, even during the day. Today, they can walk relatively safely around the whole neighborhood.
I recently met a Comuna 13 resident who sells candy on a street near my apartment. He is saving money to move out as quickly as possible because of crime in his area. He says kids as young as 13 patrol the streets with assault rifles and Uzis in broad daylight. As always, local reports about security are contradictory.
I had a conversation with a local security expert, though, which in general made me more pessimistic about crime in Medellin. When asked about the recent rise in the homicide rate, he somewhat sadly and reluctantly explained that, in his view, the city was simply returning to its 'natural' levels of violence. The fact that almost 800 homicides in 5 months are considered natural certainly doesn't say great things about the city.
He also explained that, in many neighborhoods, the absence of the state justifies the emergence of armed militias. Often, kids form armed gangs in order to protect their neighbors and families from other gangs, especially larger, more powerful paramilitary and mafia groups. Evidently, the police is either absent or unwilling to protect local residents from powerful armed groups. In some ways, his statement was a recognition of the failure of Medellin's security policies, even today.
On the other hand, he explained that the city now has a very impressive crime map that helps police identify problem areas and establish temporary patrols. However, there are far too many problem areas. It took 15 days for police to establish patrols in four adjacent square blocks in the Aranjuez sector. During that time, 17 people were murdered there.
He also happened to be in charge of security policy with regard to casinos. Casinos, as I have mentioned in previous posts, are said to be controlled by the Office of Envigado. There are dozens throughout the city. Unfortunately, when two officials were brought in from Bogota to investigate the situation, they were murdered before they set foot in a casino.
The expert, however, was quick to explain that the city had a great multidimensional long-term security policy in place that combined an expnasion of the police force with social programs and infrastructure projects that would dignify and integrate poor neighborhoods. He was quick to point out that recent homicides can largely be attributed to a mafia war and not a more generalized culture of violence. Classic Fajardista rhetoric. Nevertheless, as every day people continue to be killed on the streets of Medellin, Fajardo's 'security policy' begins to sound more like empty optimism.
In related news, Don Berna, a former Office of Envigado leader currently imprisoned in the U.S., recently accused Medellin's police and military units of collaborating with his paramilitary organization in Operation Orion, which rid Comuna 13 of guerrilla militias in 2002 and 2003.
Another former paramilitary warlord who began to speak about his links to politicians and the military recently died in prison in Bogota. The cause of his death remains unclear, but there are signs that he may have been poisoned.
Politicians and the military continue to reject most accusations of collaboration with paramilitaries. There are clearly some powerful people eager to silence former warlords, even through violence. Nevertheless, it is widely known in Medellin and throughout the country that paramilitaries had close ties to every level of government.
The real problem is that people here seem not to care. Indeed, what people most value, with good reason, is their own safety. Human rights and democracy are abstract concepts in Colombia partly because, sadly, most people have rarely seen them in action.
On my Comuna 13 MetroCable ride, a couple of visibly poor men - one from Medellin and one from southern Colombia - were discussing politics. They simply did not understand why anyone opposes changing the constitution again to allow Alvaro Uribe to run for a third term. There has been plenty of domestic opposition and overwhelming international opposition to such a move on the basis that it would be detrimental for Colombian democracy. The two men did not find such arguments insufficient; they simply did not understand them.
If there is someone in charge who is improving security, most Colombians will gladly sacrifice human rights and democracy to keep him in power. In fact, they don't really see that they are sacrificing anything at all. The general view here is that all politicians are surrounded by corrupt murderers. For voters, the real question is whether a politician will be 'man' enough to deal with Colombia's security problems.
For now, Uribe has established himself as a macho father figure for the entire country. His aggressive approach to politics and security was, according to most people, necessary to bring Colombia back under the control of the state. Whether the state under Uribe is honest, law-abiding, democratic and respectful of human rights is almost irrelevant.
June 22, 2009
Relocation Updates and the UN's Take on 'False Positives'
Saturday's relocation, from what I saw, went very smoothly. I was really only in Moravia for less than an hour, standing alongside some project coordinators in an unpaved, smelly intersection watching families load their belongings onto city administration trucks. From what I saw, they were happy and eager to leave.
We then left Moravia and went to Pajarito, an area far up on a hill above Comuna 13 and Robledo, a neighboring sector. The area is home to a school, a hospital, a police station and at least forty public housing buildings, some built under Fajardo and some under Salazar.
There are obvious problems with the living situation there. Pajarito is somewhat close to the last MetroCable station in Comuna 13, but it must be at least a 15 minute walk. The station itself is very very far from the city. There are virtually no commercial establishments in the area, at least not yet. People living there are used to having everything they need in their neighborhood: family, friends, stores, transportation, etc.
Further, many of the buidlings have some plubming and sewage problems and, despite being only months old, have smelly puddles in hte hallways. My understanding is that the criminal violence that plagues Moravia and Comuna 13 is becoming a larger problem in Pajarito as well.
Nevertheless, once we saw the families arriving, I realized what a great project this was. Nearly every family was in disbelief: they could not belive that the city was simply giving them such a respectable apartment. All the arriving families, for now, seemed ecstatic and extremely thankful.
In other news, I just read an interesting article on the 'false positives' scandal I've mentioned a few times in this blog.
The UN sent an official, Philip Alston, to investigate the issue last week, and Semana, a Colombian news magazine, recently published an analysis of his investigation. Basically, Alston's report has three fundamental points:
First, the term 'false positives' does not accurately and fairly describe the scale and brutality of the scandal. According to Alston, the term sounds technical. Instead, he implied, the scandal should be understood as large-scale cold blooded murder of innocent civilians by government security forces for political and financial gain.
Second, he found that the family members of false positive victims face persistent harrassment and even death threats, presumably by security forces. Indeed, while the state has been murdering civilians for many years, virtually nobody spoke out against security forces until very recently.
Third, he found that the false positives were not simply isolated cases or 'bad apples' in the military. Instead, Alston found that such murders were carried out more or less systematically by many members of the military with implicit and explicit encouragement from the state.
For more UN views on Colombia, check out the following quotation and link from ColombiaReports:
Christian Salazar, who has just started as director of the UNHCR in Colombia, said extra judicial execution committed by the army, illegal wire-tappings, forced displacements and paramilitary violence are of primary concern to his office.
He said that Colombia was "divided and polarized" over key issues such as peace and human rights.
The Colombian government is at odds with NGOs over the country's human rights record.
Prosecution investigators have revealed that Colombia's intelligence service DAS was wiretapping Latin America director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), José Miguel Vivanco.
Vivanco has clashed regularly with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe about human rights violations in Colombia. Uribe has accused the HRW executive of being a FARC ally.
June 18, 2009
Relocation on Saturday
On Saturday, I will attend my very first relocation ceremony in Moravia. As I have explained in previous posts, a large part of the Moravia project is relocating people, either because they live on the trash dump, because they live in unstable shacks or because one of the Moravia building projects will affect their living situation.
Relocation has become increasingly controversial in Moravia in recent months: community leaders have distributed angry pamphlets describing the process as deceit by the city administration, residents have refused to leave their illegal residences unless forced to by police, the alternative public housing offered by the city has been for many reasons unsatisfactory, etc. Further, criminal groups in Medellin have shown increasing power and audacity since late 2008. Combined, these two phenomena will make the relocation process particularly tense.
Security in general for Moravia project employees has been deteriorating rapidly. Last year, the leader of a local 'community organization' who happened to be a demobilized paramilitary, died for reasons unknown to me. This, I hear, has led to increased tension locally, which leads me to speculate that he was murdered.
Since then, this 'community organization' has made some threatening appearances at local Moravia assemblies at meetings. According to my friends at the project, groups of young men will show up asking what the meeting is about, what the project plans to do in the neighborhood, etc. It seems that the group they represent - a mix of alternative local government, community organization, and local paramilitary criminal group - want to control everything that happens in Moravia. It is quite scary that this group has enough power and audacity to interrupt official city meetings.
Some neighbors have recently asked that the Moravia project social workers take over a local education facility which has come under the control of the 'community organization'. According to them, that facility has become a space for drug dealing and prostitution. Of course, the city can only do so much and, for now, in order to maintain stability in the neighborhood, social workers will stick to their original tasks and try to prevent any confrontations between police and such gangs.
These days, no city employee can go to Moravia alone and everyone in the group must have a clearly visible city administration ID. In the event that belonging to the city administration is not enough to protect them, the project has repeatedly sent requests for 'vests' to the agency responsible for such equipment. They still haven't received them.
By vests, they may mean the safari-like city administration attire that I often see, which would make it even clearer to Moravia residents that the workers are there on official business. The reason I think they may be bulletproof vests is that I can't imagine that getting a few cheap grey vests would be such a bureaucratic nightmare.
At Saturday's relocation ceremony, we will be accompanied by a large police unit that will prevent any violence. At the last relocation ceremony, this 'community organization' staged sit-ins at many of the houses, even though they didn't live there. Another potential problem could be reluctant residents. Earlier relocations were easier because the first people to be relocated were the most willing. On Saturday we will relocate at least 31 and hopefully as many as 45 of the last families left on the trash dump and most are still there because negotiations with them have taken a very long time.
The city technically has a legal right to evict many of the residents of Moravia. The neighborhood was gradually built on city property by migrants from the countryside and other poor people with nowhere else to go. They have never owned the land. Ideally, however, the entire Moravia project should be executed with the support of the community. Local people, of course, are the ones who are supposed to be benefiting from the transformation of their neighborhood.
In that sense, any security precaution taken by the Moravia project simply distances it from the community. A lone city worker in humble attire sends a far better message than a frightened city worker surrounded by police. But the project is determined, first and foremost, to guarantee the security of its workers.
On Saturday I will get a better sense for the atmosphere in Moravia. Maybe I will even get a sense for what this 'community organization' is all about. I still don't quite know exactly what the crime/security situation is in the neighborhood.
What is clear, however, is that the relationship between Moravia residents and the city administration is increasingly fragile and that mysterious groups are emerging to challenge the authority of the city administration and the independent community leaders that have been orienting the project for years. Moravia is one of the oldest Strategic Projects currently underway. It started under the Fajardo administration and has visibly transformed the neighborhood. It would be sad to see the project stagnate or, even worse, to see criminal groups undo much of the progress that has been made.
Red Juvenil de Medellin
For the past couple of months, I have been in contact with a fellow Brown student who is studying youth crime in Latin America. She recently brought to my attention a group called Red Juvenil de Medellin, or Medellin Youth Network. I have always heard the name mentioned as if the group were a radical political organization. When I visited their website ( redjuvenil.org ) I realized that the group's public reputation was yet another example of how the Colombian politics tends to demonize groups who denounce paramilitarism.
The group's main goal is to prevent young people from becoming involved in crime. Unfortunately, this is a goal that, in Medellin, simply cannot be achieved through small-scale interventions alone. Therefore, Red Juvenil has also focused much of its energy on exposing the influence of criminal groups in the city and denouncing their use of young people as messengers, couriers and footsoldiers.
As I have said in recent blogs, in Medellin, complaining about crime in general is almost a daily routine, but exposing corruption and organized crime is taboo and very dangerous. Red Juvenil does just that. Its vast network of youths throughout the city constantly publish detailed and otherwise unknown and unreported information about paramilitary and criminal organizations. Most reports are anonymous and anectdotal, but remarkably well-written and detailed.
These anonymous reports present an image of Medellin that could not be more different from the one presented by Fajardo and Salazar: armed men representing Don Mario's organization came from Colombia's Caribbean to invade part of Comuna 13, the Los Paisas criminal organization competes with local gangs for control of Comuna 3, nearly every block in the nearby town of Bello pays protection money to hundreds of footsoldiers representing the Office of Envigado, etc, etc.
Given my current work on the mayor's social programs, perhaps the most interesting thing on the Red Juvenil website is complaints about Fajardo and Salazar's belief that getting kids to 'paint, jump, sing, and play instruments' is the solution to a neighborhood's problems. They may have a point. There are eepstructural issues behind poverty and violence. In my opinion, however, they are tough for a mayor's office to solve overnight and there are plenty of serious short-term and long-term poverty-reduction initiatives underway.
Even riskier are the Red's accusations of police indifference to organized crime. They claim that many local policemen and criminals are in fact personal friends and that, wihtout direct orders, most cops won't attack criminal groups. While there may not be broad, large-scale collaboration, there certainly is no policy to deal with organized crime in many Medellin neighborhoods.
Red Juvenil's claims simply confirm what I have heard from many people throughout Medellin. My friends in poor neighborhoods are surprised when I tell them that many prominent American newspapers have reported on the supposed 'end' of violence and organized crime in Medellin. People downtown readily acknowledge that they regularly pay protection money to paramilitary mafias. People in wealthy neighborhoods can readily point to nearby apartments that everyone knows are owned by mafiosos.
As a result of Red Juvenil's activities, their members have frequently been threatened by police and criminal groups. Sometimes, even political figures have accused them of collaborating with leftist guerrillas. Few organizations are braver, more honest and more nonviolent than Red Juvenil. I don't know enough about the organization to say for certain that members have been killed, but given deaths of hundreds of human rights defenders, labor activists and community leaders in Colombia, it would not surprise me.
It is clear that there are powerful people - politicians, criminal groups, the military, law enforcement organizations, corrupt officials at all levels - with a strong interest in maintaining an illusion of peace and lawfulness of Medellin and keeping organized crime out of the public eye. They have succeeded. While mainstream media outlets have in recent months reported on the Office of Envigado, they have only begun to expose a few branches of a vast criminal empire.
Outside of Colombia, few media outlets are reporting on the continued strength of paramilitarism. Indeed, they have been more likely to report on how social programs have ended organized crime in Medellin, or how President Uribe has defeated 'narcoterrorism' in the country. While they are quick to sensationalize the truly problematic violence and corruption plaguing Mexico, American newspapers say almost the opposite about Colombia.
Indeed, most foreign newspapers are almost entirely unaware of the existence of paramilitary groups in Colombia. After the peace process with paramlitary umbrella group AUC, the view from abroad is that the only criminal/terrorist/drug trafficking group in Colombia are the FARC guerrillas. Unfortunately, given the mediocrity of mainstream Colombian media, the view from Colombia is not very different.
Nothing could be further from the truth. While the FARC are quickly losing territory and soldiers, new paramilitary groups are quickly emerging in Colombia. Just to give an example of the gravity of the Colombian situation, in the 18 months prior to his recent capture, paramilitary Druglord Don Mario (who operated in the Northwest corner of Colombia but had plans to conquer Medellin) was responsible for 3,000 murders. Don Mario's organization is only one of at least six powerful drug gangs in the country. The Colombian justice system recently failed to effectively prosecute his number 2 and a prominent businessman accused of serving as Don Mario's link to the Medellin Attorney General. Both men are now free.
There are tremendous structural problems that preclude victory in the fight against organized crime: corruption, poverty, inequality, a flawed judicial system and robust demand for cocaine in the U.S., Europe and beyond. Of course, people who talk about structural problems are never popular in the political world. Far more popular are those who declare war and then declare victory. Many in Colombia and abroad have been talking about structural problems for years, but few people in power here and abroad (most importantly in the U.S.) seem to want to listen.
June 17, 2009
Good News about the Displaced Family From Cali and More Bad News About Colombia
My coworker El Negro has just informed me that his displaced friend, who has been supporting her family with almost nothing since coming from Cali about six months ago, has finally gotten all her government benefits together and has found a house. Of course, I can imagine that the house is little more than a room in a poor, violent neighborhood, but it is at least a foundation for a new life in Medellin.
Interestingly, at the same time that I write two posts dealing with displacement, the UN has just released a report that ranks Colombia's displaced population as one of the largest in the world. More specifically, about 3 million Colombians (in a country of 45 million) have been displaced by violence. Most statistics on Colombian displacement hover between 2 and 4 million, depending on the research methodology, how recent displacement has to be in order to count as displacement, etc.
The Economist Intelligence Unit has also recently ranked Colombia as the most violent country in the Western Hemisphere according to a system that takes into account such figures as militiary expenditure proportional to GDP, violent crime rates, internal political conflict, etc. Quite a bad position to be in for a country so proud of its recent progress in terms of security, especially given that Latin America is, statistically, the world's most violent region. The Economist also ranked Bogota, Colombia's capital, as the worst capital to live in in the Americas, mostly because of pollution, traffic and violent crime.
The Miami Herald, which is generally a pro-Uribe newspaper, has been investigating the false positives scandal form months. Just as a reminder, the scandal involves allegations of hundreds (maybe even thousands) of murders of innocent civilians by the Colombian military, who then presents such deaths as guerrillas killed in battle. According to the Herald, the entire Colombian military structure encouraged such abuses. The government has repeatedly insisted that the few proven false positives are isolated cases in a very complex civil war, rather than a broad structural problem.
Whenever these foreign reports come out, they make news in Colombia. Interestingly, foreign rankings and reports are pretty much the only mainstream news stories that remind Colombians of just how difficult life here is. While there are frequent reports on crime, poverty and corruption, Colombians remain convinced that this is generally a 'normal' country with a great government.
Not to get political again, but I think these views on Colombia from abroad confirm that whatever progress the country has made in combatting violence, social inequality and the influence of criminal groups (in my opinion, very little progress under the current administration) has been insufficient.
In Medellin, I hear more and more every day that security here is guaranteed not by the state, but by the Office of Envigado. Many people I know have told me that, if there is a problem in their neighborhood, most people go to the Office before they go to the police or local administration.
The Office is no longer a myth; it is a very real drug trafficking organization with a firm hold on Medellin. Recently, they were found to have links with Hezbollah, with whom they collaborated to ship drugs throughout Asia. They have plenty of contacts throughout Mexico and Central America. While they don't have a single identifiable leader or a clear number of footsoldiers like rival druglords Los Rastrojos, Cuchillo and el Loco Barrerra, they may be the most powerful criminal organization in all of Colombia.
Needless to say, there are plenty of well-honest people working for Colombia. I'm lucky to be surrounded by many such people at my office. Nevertheless, despite all my pessimism and criticism of the Colombian government, I really did not expect to find Medellin - the crown jewel of Colombia's transformation under Uribe - crippled by so much poverty, violence and corruption.
June 16, 2009
This afternoon, I got a visit from a family friend who works on the floor below me. She kindly brought me some fruit in a tupperware container and a bag of Colombian cheese snacks. The obvious expectation was that I would return the tupperware tomorrow when I will have lunch with her, but I lost it.
When I got on the elevator this afternoon, I had to hold the door for a man who was nervously picking up three or four tiny strips of paper. When he got on, we started talking. He is a recently displaced person from northern Antioquia and was trying to get all his documents together to get displacement benefits.
Being displaced is difficult, party because proving displacement is time-consuming and expensive. This man has been living on the streets around the mayor's office because he goes to the 11th floor every day to process yet another document. He is making slow process and may or may not be on his way to some very helpful government subsidies.
Once I saw his place of residence on the street and his official displacement letter, I was reasonably convinced that he was telling the truth. One of his biggest problems is that both passersby on the street and people at the mayor's office are reluctant to help him. Many people have lied about being displaced in Colombia and many more who are actually displaced often expect the government to solve all their problems.
Therefore, most people hesitate before trusting someone who claims to be displaced. They don't want to feed liars or encourage begging. I have gradually learned to be the same way, but as I rushed to my taxi, I gave the man my tupperware full of fruit.
As my taxi slowly made its way through a traffic jam, I looked for the displaced man through the afternoon crowds and found that he was already halfway done with the fruit. If he wasn't displaced, he was at least hungry. But I still feel guilty about losing the tupperware and have to find another one by lunchtime tomorrow.
Coca, Corn and MetroCable
This past weekend was a long weekend here in Colombia. On Sunday, I went to Sonsón, the hometown of many of my relatives on my mother's side. Sonson is a small town about three hours of Medellin in the war-torn region of Eastern Antioquia.
It was my first time visiting. My grandma and her sisters have many fond memories of their time there and I've always been interested in going there to get in touch with my roots, knowing fully that life in Sonson is the exact opposite of my daily reality. Eastern Antioquia is a vast, dark green region located in Colombia's Central Andean mountain range. It is cold and foggy because of the altitude, but the region is great for agriculture. The land is extremely fertile, and driving through the region I saw hundreds of hills, most of them half-covered in dense forest and half-covered in rows of corn or coffee.
Sonson was once a booming corn town. It is not quite as desolate as some small towns in the U.S., but poverty, war and abandonment by the national government have definitely robbed it of its former dynamism. Of my grandmother's classmates, only one is still living in Sonson. Most moved to Medellin, Bogota, other Colombian cities, or foreign countries. The streets of Sonson were simply undriveable. It would be wrong to speak of potholes, because most streets were simply one huge pothole: broken glass, uneven terrain, chunks of concrete and lonely cobblestones. The only decently paved streets were in and around the town square.
Sonson used to be a main coca growing area and, looking at the dense forests and seemingly endless rows of complex hills, I wondered whether it still is. During my drive there, I saw very clearly how difficult crop eradication must be. Although FARC guerrillas have largely been driven out of the area, it remains heavily militarized.
Indeed, in Sonson, there are more soldiers than paved streets. I've heard numerous time since coming to Colombia that the government simply has no commitment rural development and my trip to Sonson confirmed those claims. Once we got out of the areas immediately outside Medellin where the city's wealthiest people go on vacation, the towns we saw were simply falling apart. Everywhere we went were signs of poverty and unemployment. Whenever we parked in Sonson, large groups of local kids immedaitely stormed the car, desperate to make a few cents watching over our cars. Around the town's periphery, nearly every house was abandoned or for sale. It seems that the only thing that the state has to offer Colombia's peasants is militarization.
Admittedly, it must be difficult to have a development plan for towns that the government has only controlled for the past 7 years or less. At one point, according to statistics I have heard a lot, 60% of Colombian towns were under the control of guerrilla forces, and many more were controlled by paramilitaries. Many of those towns are now under the control of the Colombian military, but peasants need more than just guns if Colombia is to reduce poverty and violence in the long run.
Seeing Sonson, which is in fact a relatively prosperous town, it is evident to me why rural Colombia is such fertile ground for recruits for illegal armed groups and one their main sources of funding, coca cultivation.
Those peasants who decide to migrate to larger cities often settle into marginalized slums and find few opportunities for employment and education. It is no wonder that Medellin is growing as quickly as it is. Every year, new slums form around the city, inhabited by people from places like Sonson.
On a more positive note, on Monday I visited one of Medellin's MetroCables. MetroCable is an aerial tramway/gondola system (difficult to describe, but please Google it) that currently serves two of Medellin's poor hillside sectors. More MetroCables are in the planning stages. Previously, residents of Medellin slums could not even access the economic and cultural opportunities of the low-lying downtown sector - jobs, universities, cultural events, etc. - because armed groups restricted their movement and because there was simply no cheap, easy way to get downtown. Most slums don't have streets, where there are streets, many residents cannot afford cars, motorcycles or even busses. Poor people in Medellin were essentially excluded from the city and living in a seemingly endless cycle of poverty, violence and marginalization.
Former mayor Fajardo's Metrocable changed that. The system links up with the Medellin Metro and offers poor people living far up in the mountains a safe, cheap way to get downtown. I had already visited the Santo Domingo MetroCable. Yesterday I visted the San Javier MetroCable, which serves Medellin's 13th Ward, Comuna 13.
Comuna 13 was the site of high-intensity conflict in the early 2000s. I encourage readers to Google Comuna 13. Most results will talk about the intense battles between the government, paramilitaries and guerrilla forces in the slum in 2003. The military operation which rid Comuna 13 of the guerrillas has recently come under much criticism because of alleged military cooperation with paramilitary death squads.
MetroCable is a truly inspiring project. Each car features a large sign that reads "Here, we also have Metro culture", referring to the culture of civility and respect that characterizes the Medellin Metro. The Metro, which goes through downtown Medellin, was built in the 1990's and to this day remains remarkably clean, safe and calm for such a dirty and violent city. The message on the cars emphasizes that poor neighborhoods can also have such a great culture of peace and respect.
Indeed, on the MetroCable, people patiently wait in line, gladly orient each other, etc. I can't help but to think that MetroCable can do wonders for neighborhoods like the ones that make up Comuna 13, where violence was once a way of life.
On every MetroCable trip that I've made, the ten people or less in the car immediatley start talking about social and political issues. Most frequently, people refer to how great MetroCable is as a force for economic dynamism and social change in slums, how much poverty they see below and how much work remains to be done, how pretty Medellin looks from so high up and what a great city it is, what a great job Fajardo did, etc.
The most remarkable thing about these conversations is that they usually occur between tourists from wealthy neighborhoods and poor regular MetroCable riders. For about fifteen minutes, people who otherwise don't encounter or speak to each other reflect on the city together. MetroCable encourages not just civility, but also social integration on a small scale.
On a larger scale, the potential of MetroCable is seemingly limitless. By allowing slum residents to go downtown, it can stimulate employment. By bringing tourists to slums, it can stimulate local economic activity. Further, the MetroCable projects were not constructed in isolation: at every station there is at least a new library, a new school, a new park, such that MetroCable is part of a far larger program of urban renewal. The mere fact that I could visit Comuna 13 and ride up to such poor neighborhoods accompanied by slum residents themselves, is proof of the project's success.
Nevertheless, given all the recent news of violence in Medellin, one of my first thoughts as I looked down at the labyrinthine streets and paths of Comuna 13 was that, down there, powerful armed groups were at war. Comuna 13 remains one of Medellin's most violent sectors where intimidating pamphlets, shootouts and forced displacement are a daily reality. Needless to say, today's violence does not compare to massacres of 2003, but it is clear that MetroCable and a larger police presence alone have not eliminated violence at its roots. Therefore, unfortunately, homicide rates are rapidly rising.
It was definitely a strange ride full of contradictions: an award-winning high-tech transportation system surrounded by shacks, tourism in what was once (and to some extent still is) an urban warzone. But I guess that's the point of Medellin's past two administrations. The city's crisis of violence and poverty could not be confronted with gradual, cautious policies. Fajardo and Salazar brought the most investment, the prettiest buildings and the best schools to war-torn slums. It remains to be seen how much peace and prosperity their policies manage to achieve.
June 12, 2009
Community Policy-making in Action and Indirect Contact with Spanish Royalty
Yesterday I got my first taste of community policy-making and it was definitely a mixed experience.
The meeting was yesterday afternoon at Casa Museo Pedro Nel Gomez, an old house/museum that housed plenty of avantgarde muralist Gomez's work. Gomez could most easily be described as Medellin's own Diego Rivera. Both were twentieth century artist famous for vast murals displaying mostly local people. They painted portraits of society as it really was, not wealthy individuals but the poor masses.
The Museum is well-guarded but severely lacking in resources. The parking lot is little more than a plot of grass, weeds and cigarette butts, but the inside is beautiful and silent. It is located in the Aranjuez neighborhood in Medellin, a more or less centrally located working-class neighborhood. Unlike the far poorer neighborhoods in Medellin's surrounding mountains or parts of Moravia, Aranjuez is one of Medellin's original neighborhoods and most houses are well-built, legally owned, and many decades old.
The meeting was, more than anything, chaotic, but from what I gathered it was a kind of follow-up meeting to the neighborhood assemblies held throughout the city a few days ago. There were all sorts of people there: interested residents of all ages, representatives of government agencies, lawyers, business leaders, University students, etc. The Moravia has been holding these kinds of meetings for years; there was a core group of people who clearly had experience in these assemblies and knew each other. This meeting built on those precedents to try to ensure that the 12 basic goals determined at the recent neighborhood assembly (from an original list of 101) would be integrated into the formal Moravia Project plan.
I came a little late and sat behind a very poor couple who each had a notebook. It is quite inspiring to see college-educated idealists and Moravia residents who probably didn't finish high school and have no reason to trust government institutions come to these meetings and make plans together as equals. Soon after I got there, however, the meeting had already descended into anarchy and confusion.
Each attendee expressed a different opinion about the scheduling of such meetings. The residents in particular had several problems with the schedule as it was. Some veteran community leaders complained about changes in the schedule, as they had already made sacrifices and adjustments to be able to work with the original schedule. Other residents complained that most meetings were scheduled during school vacations, when mothers had to stay home to take care of their kids and when many Moravia street salesmen migrate to small towns in pursuit of tourists. Finally, for many community leaders it is difficult, expensive and time-consuming to migrate all the way to Aranjuez to attend the meeting.
In short, the planners of these meetings did not fully take into account that the sheer poverty of Moravia residents would prevent many of them from attending. If the community couldn't attend, residents strongly emphasized, then all the meetings were pointless.
It is clear that, once Moravia residents were presented with the opportunity to participate in the policy-making process for their own neighborhoods, they latched on with enthusiasm. The question, however, is how much patience they will have as they wait for the changes they asked for. Numerous times at the meeting, residents complained about delays, problems and flaws in the project's execution. They obviously appreciate that the city invites them to important conversations and that it is committed with turning around their neighborhood, but what they really want is results. In other words, to them, an ineffective city administration is almost as bad as an indifferent city administration.
By the time I left, the meeting had not really even gotten started. The original idea was to divide up into small groups, each dealing with one of the project's components: Economic-Financial, Sociocultural, and Urbanistic-Environmental.
Outside, I ran into the Moravia project administrator who toured me around Moravia during the Spanish journalists' visit. He had brought about a thousand copies of a letter and was clearly stressed out. He said he was about to quit the project, and showed me the letter to explain why. It was harshly written response from ISVIMED to a pamphlet distributed around the neighborhood. The pamphlet, my friend said, sounded almost like a guerrilla pamphlet. By that, he meant that it was aggressive and almost spoke of class warfare.
According to the anonymous authors, ISVIMED had promised an effective relocation of residents to public housing projects but then left many people on the streets. It urged people not to accept the relocation plan and to resist any approach by ISVIMED or the city. Pamphlets are an effective way of doing dirty politics in poor Colombian neighborhoods. Guerrillas use it to stir up chaos and paramilitaries use it to make public death threats, impose curfews and announce social cleansing. This time, the pamphlet was being used to protest against bureaucratic inefficiency, which had resulted in serious problems for participants in the relocation process.
Political tensions are quickly developing in Moravia, and if public resistance to relocation grows, it could threaten several of the project's basic goals. On that note, I just got a call from Edith, who lives on the third floor of an abandoned house (read previous post). Nobody has visited her from the city, despite the fact that I had sent a woman to solve Edith's problems on Monday. She's growing impatient, and wants to be in constant contact with me to make sure that her problems are solved quickly.
It's an uncomfortable position for me to be in, but Edith is not wrong. The Moravia project is failing many of the people it is meant to serve, despite the fact that it is run by highly skilled and committed people. Ambitious urban renewal is very difficult, and Moravia residents have expectations as lofty as the goals set in the project's original plan.
On another note, the man who drove me to the meeting yesterday was a mayor's office driver who was hired to help drive a bulletproof car around the city during the recent visit by the Prince and Princess of Spain. He was lucky enough to have the princes themselves in the backseat, and told me that they treated him as an equal. Days later, he was still ecstatic and showed me a picture of the three of them together at the airport. They told him to call if he ever went to Spain and even gave him their number and even told him the Spanish origin of his name, Ramiro. Not only was he starstruck, but after learning the origin of his name, he seemed to even have a stronger and prouder sense of identity.
Homosexuality in Medellin's Underworld
I just had a conversation with a friend of mine, whom I will refer to as Pepe for security reasons, about the word 'parcero'. It is a slang word loosely translatable as 'friend' which was originally common in poor neighborhoods in Medellin and spread to many other areas of Colombia in the 1990's. He asked what it meant in the United States, and I started to tell him that, not only did it obviously have no meaning in American English, but I had no idea the word existed until I watched La Virgen de los Sicarios, a movie based on a book about young hitmen in early 90's Medellin. I left Colombia in 1996, well before the use of parcero had become widespread in my home town of Bogota, and I saw the movie probably around 2003. I recently read the book for a Spanish class at Brown.
According to Pepe, the filming of the movie was under constant threat from local sicario gangs. When they got word that their subculture was being associated with homosexuality, sicarios moved immediately to correct the 'mistake' and eventually got the lead actor to quit the project. According to Pepe, the actor playing the protagonist changes at some point in the movie, but they look too alike for anyone to notice.
Colombian culture is very hostile to homosexuality and it makes sense to me that homophobia would be even more acute in the subculture of sicarios. Nevertheless, I had read somewhere that the book, written by Fernando Vallejo, was a semi-autobiographical account of his return to an urban, gritty and brutally violent Medellin after decades living in Europe and that, during this period, he actually developed romantic relationships with some sicarios.
Pepe, who is from a neighborhood with a history of violence, told me that if any sicario came out of the closet, his own gang would kill him to avoid seeming weak. He told me that some paramilitaries from his neighborhood immediately kicked out a loyal soldier after they discovered he had a boyfriend. In fact, after their unit had taken control of the neighborhood, this discovery was pretty much their most severe emergency. Pepe himself was the one who alerted the local commander that he had a homosexual in his unit, probably in full knowledge that the information could lead to the man's death.
In the two weeks that I have been in Medellin, I have seen for the very first time evidence that Colombian society is dealing with homophobia, which has really surprised me. Since I moved to the United States, I have seen Colombia slowly make changes that Americans pioneered years earlier: organized public transportation, a somewhat enforced drinking age, a gradual rejection of cigarette smoking, etc. While I don't necessarily agree that all these changes are good, they are symptoms or side effects of Colombia's development into a slightly more organized society. Nevertheless, I really never thought that, in 2009, Colombians would even treat homophobia as that, as a social ill.
Homophobia is extremely widespread and acute in Colombia. Latin America in general and, in my opinion, Colombia in particular, has a very strong macho culture and a very strict, old-fashioned definition of manhood. On multiple occasions, family friends who have visited us in the United States have had trouble dealing with the way some American media outlets and the very liberal D.C. area in general have gladly accepted homosexuality. Interestingly, most of these family friends have been mainstream, upper-middle-class, relatively open-minded Colombia. Yesterday, at the soccer game, most of the many curse words launched at the referee and the Peruvian players were homophobic in nature.
On that note, while Latin Americans are quick to criticize the political, cultural and military influence of the United States throughout the region, it is clear that the spread of American mass media has positively transformed Colombian culture and forced it to rethink attitudes that, for many generations, have been treated as entirely normal. If I am quick to attribute Colombia's new awareness of homophobia to American influence, it is because I simply do not think that this is a change that could have come from within, at least not as soon as it did. Colombian society would be very reluctant to deal with homophobia without the knowledge that the United States, the world's wealthiest country and political and cultural superpower, has taken steps to do so for years.
The U.S. serves as a great cultural and social mirror for Colombia, whose relationship to the Superpower and the paradoxical things it represents is equally confusing and paradoxical. On the one hand, we know there is much to learn from the United States and admire its great wealth; on the other, we are very proud of our own culture and are increasingly aware of supposed flaws in the American lifestyle. While we complain about supposed breaches on our sovereignty through military aid, bases, etc., most Colombians (not including myself) strongly support President Uribe's security policies, which could not exist in the form that they do without Plan Colombia, an anti-drug aid program started under President Clinton.
So, at a time when Colombia-U.S. political relationships may be entering an era of change and, consequently, my mind is frequently how destructive that relationship has often been for Colombia, I wanted to express my gratitude for America's capacity to effect positive cultural change worldwide. In addition, I also want to recommend La Virgen de los Sicarios. While I preferred the pace and tone of the book, whose power really was in the satirical narration which got lost in the film version, the movie does a great job of realistically explaining sicario culture, showing one dimension of 1990's Medellin and challenging the city's violent macho culture by juxtaposing urban warfare with homosexual romance.
June 11, 2009
A Victory for Colombia, Several Losses for Moravia, and Busses Honking in Harmony
Yesterday's game was a great experience. In many ways, it was not unlike an American sports event. The stadium was filled with overpriced food and military propaganda. The atmosphere, however, was intensely tribal.
I sat on the Western end of the stadium, right below the only box seats where I saw mayor Salazar and Faustino Asprilla, a true legend of Colombian soccer that during his rollercoaster career gave his fans equal doses of inspiring genius and heartbreaking lack of discipline.
To my right, on the South end, were supporters of Atletico Nacional. Nacional is one of Medellin's two major teams, a traditional powerhouse with support in Medellin's wealthier sectors, most of which are in the South of the city.
On the North side were fans of Independiente Medellin, a team with more traditional support among the working class, which can really be seen throughout all of Medellin. Nevertheless, their position in the stadium also has some socioeconomic significance, as the poorest of poor neighborhoods are generally located in the far North of the city.
Rather than engaging in verbal or physical violence, these two sections (both of them entirely dressed in Colombia shirts and jerseys, rather than Independiente Medellin or Nacional attire), engaged in a friendly competition for control of the crowd. They would each start chants and waves and try to make them spread quickly throughout the entire stadium. In my opinion, the Nacional fans in the South, partly because of their larger and louder drums, slightly edged their rivals in the North of the stadium. Their clearest display of dominance over the stadium was during the very beginning of the game, when they threw literally hundreds of toilet paper rolls onto the field, creating a surprisingly beautiful blizzard of long white strips which seemed to float in midair.
I saw plenty of evidence of an active anti-violence campaign in the stadium. Colombia, embarrassingly enough, used to have a team of heavily padded, baton-weilding riot police at every corner to guard players against projectiles thrown by fans during corner kicks. As a symbolic gesture of peace between law enforcement and fans, the corners are now 'demilitarized' and feature cops in white jumpsuits whose only protection is a single riot shield.
Colombia dominated the first half of the game and repeatedly ran right through the Peruvian defense, although they did not have many great ideas when it came to finishing their plays and scoring goals, which has been a problem for Colombia for months. A goal was finally scored after some confusion and chaos, not the prettiest of goals but certainly one which the Colombian team deserved. For the last 25 minutes or so, Peru's attackers outran and outplayed Colombia's tired veteran defenders. They never scored, but the fans left the stadium relieved that the torture was over, rather than jubilant about Colombia's performance. Colombia, however, is still alive and I hope that they play better in the four crucial games left in the qualifying round.
At the end of the game Camilo Zuniga, a player who started his career with Nacional and now has a far more lucrative contract in Italy, ran to the South end of the stadium to recognize the fans who supported him during his years in Colombia. Rather than exchange jerseys with the opposing team, as is customary, he gave his jersey to the fans. He was showing that he does not forget his roots. The episode was also indicative the somewhat paradoxical role of violent fan sections. Their drug- and alcohol-fueled antics can cause significant disturbances and even tragedies and have been credited with discouraging more casual fans from turning out to games. On the other hand, the players appreciate their support, whether it comes in the form of inspiring chants or Molotov cocktails.
Today I attended a meeting to improve the flow of information between the Moravia Project and my office. Indeed, we have received so little information from the project that we simply had no idea about many of the problems brought up at the meeting.
First, their budget is about 20% of what they had needed and what they had foreseen. Needless to say, they had to severely prioritize.
Second, the Moravia project is frankly putting many people in problematic situations. A large part of the project is relocating the residents of the trash dump in distant public housing, but the project itself is not responsible for meeting the needs of the people once they are relocated simply because those people cease to be residents of Moravia. In fact, nobody is.
The people I met with are acutely aware of the problem, but don't have a budget to deal with it. They funded a few economic collectives in the new public housing, but since then most of their resources have been stolen. Further, the social fabric of those new neighborhoods is quickly disintegrating due to violence, frustration and the fact that many neighbors are strangers. Security is becoming a far bigger problem in the new neighborhoods than in Moravia itself. Even more worrying, these problems may erode the fragile trust that many poor people have placed in the city administration and discourage others from participating in voluntary relocations.
Third, although they have trained hundreds of people in technical skills, business knowledge, etc., the project had no initial plans to help people get basic papers and identification. Many graduates of Moravia's business training programs may know plenty about machinery, agriculture and marketing, but they cannot succeed in the formal economy without birth certificates, Colombian government IDs, and other documents required by companies. They have trained hundreds of skilled but unemployable workers. With the significant budget problems mentioned above, it will be difficult for the project to solve this problem in the short term.
In fact, one necessary document is essentially a verification of each person's legal background, which many people are reluctant to pursue. In Moravia, crime was not just a way of life, but often a means of survival. In the 1990's, people there could not even safely leave the neighborhood to pursue legal and respectable jobs and often took up arms joined one armed group to protect themselves and their families from a rival group. This problem is indicative of the general challenge of re-integrating former fighters and criminals, who in Medellin may number in the tens of thousands, into society. Worryingly, if Colombian society fails to offer them a viable alternative to crime, law enforcement agencies in cities like Medellin may have to deal with thousands of new threats. As I've mentioned in some of my previous posts, this fear is already becoming a reality in Medellin.
Other problems are purely bureaucratic. A badly planned recycling facility, however, has taken a long time to take off. Its architectural designs are flawed and do not take into account several important factors. Most importantly, as the facility is going to be located in a densely populated hill, the project must first relocate all residents before building can start. In the Medellin area loose soil is a significant problem and mudslides are common. For people who live in improvised shacks, mudslides almost always mean death and the loss of all their property. Therefore, the entire building plan has to be revised and must wait for the relocation process to finish.
THAT process is also in bad shape. The public housing agency is behind schedule in delivering alternative housing for relocated people.
Basically, the entire project is not living up to its goals because of limited budgets, bad planning and lack of coordination. On the other hand, people here seem quite used to it. Every day, I realize more and more that Medellin's highly praised transformation since Fajardo has essentially been a series of creative, groundbreaking and inclusive but almost always incomplete projects. These projects, nonetheless, have begun to effect deep and far-reaching changes in the city's social landscape. I guess most cities are consistently behind schedule, cutting projects and rethinking priorities. Nevertheless, as long as the projects have the right fundamental idea - and Medellin projects certainly seem to - something will eventually get done that will positively transform an entire neighborhood.
Just as I was finishing up this last paragraph, I suddenly heard some honking. Frequently, I hear chain effects of honking that eventually end. This time, it was different. There were literally dozens of cars honking at the same time. All of us rushed to the window saw the entire street in front of the office, a major street in downtown Medellin, full of honking busses. The private bus companies which operate in the Aranjuez sector of Medellin blocked a main road and began honking simultaneously to protest, people here are assuming, the planned implementation of an integrated public transport system that will essentially destroy their business.
The planned project is a public bus system with independent lanes specifically for buses. Already a big success in Bogota and Pereira, this type of transportation can greatly reduce the chaotic system of private bus companies, which often influenced by criminal groups. In Medellin it is not uncommon to see two or more buses racing each other down streets, competing for passengers ahead. The drivers each play their choice of loud music.
Every public transport system of this kind implemented in Colombia has faced strong resistance from the mafias which operate private busses. Nevertheless, most have gone through and receive high praise from citizens. Even when there are complaints, at least someone is held accountable for the problems. Here in Medellin, the honking is over, and nobody here at the office is rethinking their plans.
June 10, 2009
A Frustrated Fajardo Fights Back
There was an interview with Sergio Fajardo in today's El Colombiano, Medellin's main newspaper, dealing directly with recent criticisms related to organized crime in the city and other doubts about the popular but troubled former mayor, who is now a major candidate for the 2010 Presidential Election.
In response to claims that he had a silent implicit agreement with organized crime, Fajardo simply responded that there was no proof behind the accusations. He frequently referenced a rigorously-researched report by an independent, well-respected Colombian organization that concluded that Fajardo's Medellin was indeed Fajardo's and not don Berna's. In fact, the report praised Fajardo's approach to organized crime.
Fajardo inherited a city filled with paramilitaries, guerrillas, and other entirely apolitical drug gangs. He was mayor of Medellin as President Uribe was rapidly changing both Colombian politics and the nature of Colombia's armed conflict. Starting in 2002, President Uribe drove guerrillas out of major cities. Meanwhile, he signed a 'peace' agreement with paramilitary forces, which resulted an immensely complex process in which tens of thousands of paramilitary fighters (including thousands in Medellin) surrendered and, with government help, attempted to re-enter society as civilians.
In this complex and uncertain security context, the report claims, Fajardo chose the best approach possible. Avoiding both appeasement and direct confrontation, he instead tried to peacefully erode the power structure of armed groups and criminal organizations. For example, by bringing the state to previously stateless neighborhoods with schools, hospitals, police stations, and libraries, Fajardo effectively invaded the headquarters of armed criminal organizations. The report essentially argues that Fajardo, rather than directly attacking organized crime, transformed Medellin into a city where organized crime could not thrive as it once had.
I generally support Fajardo's self-defense campaign. It seems to me that, as an honest politician treated recently as something of a Messiah, Fajardo is now held to incredibly high standards. Judging from the tone of the interview, he is clearly frustrated with all the recent criticism. As one of Colombia's most honest, serious and genuinely independent politicians, he has been far more distant from criminal groups than pretty much any other political leader and deserves to be treated that way.
Hundreds of mayors, senators, and every other type of public figure in Colombia have been proven to work directly with illegal armed groups, almost always with paramilitaries. It is clear to me that there is at least an equal number of unknown cases, as many of these illegal collaborations are concealed by Colombia's powerful paramilitary structures and even more powerful political establishment. If Fajardo failed to eradicate criminal groups in Medellin, it was certainly not out of lack of interest and commitment.
On the other hand, the report's view of Medellin as a city entirely hostile to organized crime is clearly outdated today, and may have never been accurate. The Fajardo-era corruption scandals, while not directly attributable to the former mayor himself, certainly indicate that his hold on the city was weak and incomplete. Drug trafficking money, the deterioration of the national paramilitary reintegration process and a culture of corruption in some local governmental organizations seem to have overwhelmed Fajardo's attempt at honest government in a few areas, notably the police and judiciary.
Reading the interview, I mostly felt pity for Fajardo. In recent days I have heard countless Fajardistas express plenty of pessimism, which is ironic given that Fajardo's motto was 'From fear to hope' and that he is a politician credited with achieving the impossible in Medellin. They will vote for Fajardo but they also concede that he will never defeat Colombia's political establishment. The notion of such an establishment has greatly evolved in the 7 years since Alvaro Uribe was elected. President Uribe has re-shaped the national political landscape, challenging the power of the traditional Liberal and Conservative parties by forming his own political bloc.
Uribe, who was born into a wealthy and politically powerful family, has created an entirely new political establishment around himself. The political atmosphere in Colombia today is entirely polarized, not between Liberals and Conservatives, but between Uribistas and antiUribistas. Uribe has broad popular support, mainly because he has greatly improved security in most urban areas through 'mano dura', or hardline security policies.
On the other hand, many human rights abuses have been committed during his Presidency and most of the people charged with collaborating with paramilitaries are strong Uribe allies. There have been countless other corruption and human rights scandals during his Presidency, but there is simply no room to cover all of them.
President Uribe has already changed the Colombian constitution to allow for his second term. The central question of Colombian politics today is whether he will try to change it again to allow for a third. His political supporters are already trying to do so, but the President himself has largely avoided the question. Indeed, it would be quite worrisome for Uribe's many supporters in powerful countries (including President Obama) indeed if the president, who is seen as South America's anti-Chavez, as the man who has made Colombia a functional democracy, pulled such an undemocratic, Chavez-like move. If he does not run, it is likely that the favorite to win will be one of his many disciples.
These younger Uribistas may actually go farther than Uribe in terms of the President's already controversial security policies. For example, dozens of innocent civilians have been massacred by the Colombian army (there areinvestigations into hundreds of other cases) and recorded as guerrillas killed in combat and thereby claim military victories. In response to the scandal, Andres Felipe Arias, Uribe's former Agriculture Minister, has recently stated that NGOs, human rights organizations and political elements within Colombia are using false allegations of such massacres to harm the Colombian military.
Fajardo's main political problem now is the temendous power of the new Uribista establishment. Indeed, while Fajardo is a local hero in Colombia's second largest city, Uribe, a Medellin native, enjoys at least as much local support and is a far better-known messianic figure nationwide. His other problems include recent skepticism about the transformation of Medellin and a general sense that he has yet to take a position on some of Colombia's most pressing political questions, especially security-related ones.
Putting all those problems together, there is a growing sense that, while Fajardo was creative in dealing with local social problems, he is unprepared to deal with Colombia's significant security problems. Many Colombians are still recovering from the brutal violence of the early 2000's and, while Colombia is by no means a peaceful country today, they simply will not risk electing a president who they feel might mismanage their safety.
The past seven years have created a sense here that a hardline security policy is the only security policy. Growing insecurity in major cities and some rural areas, rather than discrediting Uribe's approach, has simply confirmed to many people that the country is still at war and needs some continuity in its leadership. Therefore, it will be quite difficult for Fajardo to present a politically viable alternative to Uribe´s mano dura.
June 09, 2009
Bureaucratic Stalling and Soccer Violence
I've had an incredible amount of free time recently, hence the blog posts.
Our monitoring of the Moravia project is facing some bureaucratic obstacles, but we'll have a very long meeting on Thursday to sort out all the issues. Like I said in a couple of my previous posts, it is simply dangerous for any part of the project to slow down. On the other hand, while people often refer to bureaucracies when complaining about governmental institutions, what I've found in Medellin is that, even in a relatively well-run city like this one, bureaucracies are somewhat natural and inevitable. In that sense, as I've seen how long it takes to get things done, I find it amazing that cities function at all.
My Medellin Solidaria work is stalled too because I need to be trained in a kind of software that will allow the mayor to monitor the project's progress from his computer. What makes me nervous is that the project has been mentioned in two newspaper articles this past week. This is a city where the local administration has a huge presence and is very involved. Therefore, a lot of things that happen here make the front page.
In my free time, I wanted to talk a little bit about soccer in Medellin. One summer, as part of a program I did at the University of Michigan, I had to present for about on hour on any topic and I chose the book 'How Soccer Explains the World'. It is a book that touches on the relationship between soccer and far more important things like geopolitics, ethnic conflict, global cultural exchanges, globalization, etc. My presentation emphasized that soccer is an important political, social and cultural force in the world because it both reflects existing political, economic, cultural and social phenomena and affects those phenomena.
Soccer's tremendous importance would not be possible if people didn't care so much about it. For many people, their local team represents their history, their neighborhood, their social class, their ethnic group, etc. Similarly, national teams are a force for national unity and in many countries the national team is seen as a direct representation of the country itself.
In Medellin, people care a lot about soccer and I chose to bring this up for two reasons.
The first is that I am going to a soccer game tomorrow. It is a qualifying match for the 2010 World Cup, which will be held in South Africa, between Peru and Colombia. Simplifying things a little bit, all South American national teams have been involved in a long tournament for months to determine which five of them will go on to the World Cup, the single most important sporting event in the world which is held only every four years.
This is significant because I haven't attended an official Colombian national team match or a match in a Colombian stadium ever and because the match will be crucial if Colombia hopes to make it to the 2010 World Cup. Further, it is the first time in many many years that a national team match of such importance has been held in Medellin and people here are very happy to host the national team. This being a very proud city, the atmosphere is sure to be particularly exhilarating. The stadium is requesting people to wear only white or Colombian flag-colored shirts and to bring Colombian flags. Attendees cannot wear belts to prevent fan violence and most food will be provided by street salesmen allowed to enter the stadium, so I can´t bring food, either.
Colombia hasn't gone to the World Cup since 1998 when, as in 1994, they lost in the first round. Many of my first memories of intense passion surround the 1994 World Cup, when a very talented Colombia team had a real chance to win, according not just to optimistic Colombians but also to many soccer experts. A country very weary of violence mobilized around an incredible team with great hope and optimism. By 1995, not only had we exited embarrassingly early, but one of our best players had been killed by some angry Medellin mafiosos who had bet heavily on Colombia advancing. Because he was a native of Medellin and played for one of Medellin's top teams, he is a very popular local figure. In fact, I saw some graffiti honoring him in Moravia.
The second reason I bring this up is that Mayor Alonso Salazar has tried to use soccer to reduce violence in the city. Like many Latin American countries, Colombia has recently been affected by soccer violence. Groups of local team supporters frequently clash in stadiums, charge fields and even selectively murder fans of other teams on the streets for wearing the wrong jersey. Medellin is home to some of the most passionate fans in Colombia and, consequently, to plenty of soccer violence.
Mayor Salazar has on more than one occasion invited members of both local teams´most violent fan groups to play symbolic and peaceful games against one another, paint murals together, etc. I find the entire phenomenon fascinating. On the one hand, it is very indicative of the mayor´s personality and background. It is just one display of Mayor Salazar's influence in the lower classes, as many fan groups are composed mainly of working class supporters, and of his awareness that, just as soccer has a potential for violence, it can be used as a force for peace.
Further, it is the kind of initiative that has become common in Medellin, where people and political leaders remain committed to the idea that a crucial element of any successful anti-violence campaign is a plan to directly reform culture and behavior. In this case, the hope is that the display of unity by these mortal enemies will serve as a lesson for the city as a whole.
Thoughts on Fajardo, Salazar and Organized Crime in Medellin
I just read an interesting opinion peace on security in Medellin. The author, who I think is from Bogota, argues that people in Medellin should seriously question former mayor Fajardo's paramilitary reintegration model, rather than current mayor Salazar's security policies and integrity. Building on the idea that Fajardo governed during an unsustainable and almost artificial period of peace, the author goes as far as to say that the Medellin which Salazar inherited from Fajardo was deeply corrupt.
The local attorney general and various heads of police who served under Fajardo have since been linked to new paramilitary drug trafficking organizations, meaning paramilitary groups which formed after the massive demobilization of paramilitary forces or that quietly did not participate in the demobilization process. Fajardo´s much praised model of paramilitary reintegration, the author argues, did not actually integrate thousands of criminals and warlords into society, but rather allowed their basic structures to survive.
Salazar, on the other hand, has been much tougher in dealing with organized crime in the city and has sought to tackle the corruption and extortion with which paramilitary gangs have taken control much of the city. Under his administration, several Fajardo-era figures have been charged with corruption-related crimes. This confrontation, which the author describes as courageous and admirable, is yet another reason why violence in the city has increased under Salazar: criminal groups under pressure are much more erratic than criminal groups which have found a stable, comfortable niche.
On that note, it is worth noting a zero-tolerance policy against organized crime is often not politically beneficial, as local public opinion clearly shows. These days, every Colombian politician claims to zero tolerance for organized crime, but those politicians who, in practice tolerate and even work with organize crime often reap significant political benefits. In the extreme but sadly frequent cases where politicians cooperate with organized crime, these benefits can include illegal funds and voter intimidation. In cases of tolerance and appeasement, as the author describes Fajardo's administration, the benefits can include an implicit peace deal that improves local security. On the other hand, when politicians confront organized crime as Salazar has done, the political costs of growing insecurity can be huge.
These are obviously generalizations and there is often overwhelming political pressure to confront organized crime. Nevertheless, for the past 5 years in Medellin, it seems that political incentives have encouraged tolerance for organized crime as long as it is not excessively disruptive.
There is plenty of proof that Fajardo's Medellin was not free of organized crime. The entire Medellin underworld was run by a paramilitary warlord nicknamed Don Berna, now imprisoned in the U.S. on drug trafficking charges. A veteran of Medellin's drug trafficking business, Don Berna managed, after the defeat of urban militias associated with the FARC (the main enemy of paramilitary forces), to bring most of the city's youth gangs, murder for hire offices and pretty much every other criminal network under his control. After he turned himself in and was sent to a high-security prison in Colombia, he was found to still be controlling Medellin from his jail cell. Don Berna became a huge political problem not just for Fajardo, but rather for Colombian President Alvaro Uribe's entire security policy and Berna was quickly extradited to the United States, where he is entirely powerless.
During Fajardo's administration, there were increasing reports about the 'Office of Envigado', as Don Berna's organization was called. In recent newspaper reports about underage assassination squads, many of the anonymously interviewed young hitmen refer to the Office of Envigado as the top of the city's entire criminal hierarchy, a mysterious and almost invisible leadership whose influence is nonetheless palpable in many areas of the city. The Office has been said to control most gangs and assassination squads, the city's casinos, a popular downtown bazaar, the private bus companies that operate in the city, and even Medellin's large agricultural marketplace, la Mayorista.
El Cebollero, or the Onion Man, an alleged head of the Office who recently turned himself in, claims that he is a successful businessman who was asked by the Fajardo and Salazar administrations to help with the reintegration of paramilitaries by giving them jobs at la Mayorista. In other words, the administration needed his help. His allegations are both attempts to claim innocence and displays of his power. Criminals in Medellin manage to exert tremendous influence, blurring the line between legal and illegal business and, more importantly, between organized crime and society in general.
For example, I am writing this, I have just sent my grandmother on an errand to buy me a phone card that allows me to call to the U.S. for 72 minutes for just 5,000 pesos (about $2). In Medellin, people see these unnaturally cheap prices as evidence of money laundering schemes. Similar things are said about the low prices at a vast bazaar downtown, about the proliferation of casinos in the city, etc. And they are often right: Colombia had its own Ponzi scheme in 2008, one in which tens of thousands of poor people got amazingly favorable loans and one which turned out to be a massive money laundering operation involving politicians and leading businessmen. The genius of the operation was how much popular support it developed. When the government finally took down the scheme, there were violent protests by poor clients throughout Colombia, the most intense ones in coca-growing regions. The mafia is very much alive.
These days, especially in Medellin, it seems quite obvious that organized crime has not been defeated. Nevertheless, until recently, it seemed to people throughout much Colombia and particularly in Medellin that the country was finally winning the war against criminal groups. On the opinion pages of Colombian weekly Semana, there was a heated debate on this question that lasted months. On one side were pro-Uribe columnists who attributed rumors about the mafia's resilience to baseless anti-government propaganda and outdated Colombian pessimism. On the other side were a few locally-based columnists who remained convinced that Medellin's unprecedented peace was simply concealing the strong influence of paramilitary groups and their unprecedented monopoly on crime in the city. It seems clear to me that the latter group was more in touch with Medellin's reality than many people here and throughout the country realized. As I see it, the city's current security challenges demand that the policies both at the national level and at the local level that were credited with saving Medellin from decades of violence have to be re-evaluated.
There have been many more corruption allegations launched against Salazar than against Fajardo, but in my opinion the evidence does not support such unequal treatment. In fact, there is no clear evidence that either mayor is actively corrupt and I think there may be some class-based discrimination involved. Salazar is essentially a Fajardo disciple, but, unlike Fajardo, he is from a working-class background and was elected in part because of his intimate knowledge of and commitment to the needs of the city's poor majority. On the other hand, evidence is growing that supports what many Medellin residents have known for decades: that organized crime is extremely difficult to eradicate and that local politicians often have very few political, economic and personal incentives to wage war against criminal networks and their immense influence.
June 08, 2009
Mass Cat Poisonings and A Welcome Visit by Llin
The crack den below:
Today I visited the area of Moravia where the city administration had purchased buidlings that have since become a place for crime and safety problems for the neighborhood.
On my way there, I saw a street fight in an impoverished industrial area just three blocks from the mayor´s office. Two young men knocked each other to the ground several times and even started hitting each other with some of the tools and equipment around them. Nobody, including my driver and the people working just a few feet from the fight, reacted to the situation with anything more than a quick glance.
This time, we approached Moravia from a different angle. We stopped at a public housing block still under construction to ask for directions. Directly in front of the building was a police checkpoint with about five heavily armed policemen. They were searching every car and motorcycle that went through the area. As I walked through the neighborhood later, I heard kids quickly spreading the news of the police´s arrival. They spoke of thirty and forty police motorcycles, far more than the ones I had seen on the side of the road, racing through the neighborhood.
I asked one of the construction workers for directions and moved on to an entirely different area of Moravia. The neighborhood is much larger than I had realized. Beyond the core of Moravia, where I saw the cultural center and new infrastructure projects, are blocks and blocks of unimproved areas. Admittedly, the core of the neighborhood is the area that originally needed the most help, but in terms of infrastructure and housing these peripheral areas are now falling behind.
We ended up in a larger, inhabited public housing complex. The simplicity of these public housing units is remarkable. They are little more than small rooms with grey concrete walls, floors and stairs. Nevertheless, it is stable housing with running water and electricity. My driver pointed out that neighbors had been asked not to let their clothes dry on their balconies, and when I looked up nearly every balcony was full of drying clothes.
I asked an elderly man sweeping the outside of the buildings if he new about the problematic abandoned buildings. He seemed almost to take offense, and pointed out that as far as he knew, he was keeping the area very clean. Although he was not familiar with the problem, he was as helpful as he could be and showed me around the entire base of the complex. As we walked around, he took my visit as an opportunity to show me other problems in the housing complex: neighbors threw trash anywhere they could and some areas were already becoming almost unwalkable because of trash; some of the water from yesterday´s rainstorm and water that residents throw out their windows does not drain properly, creating rotting puddles around the building; a ramp meant to connect a nearby hill to the complex was already falling apart.
I ended up walking around the area by myself with my camera. It was pretty scary. I kept my driver informed of my every move and tried to look confident, but in such tight-knit neighborhoods, it is hard to avoid looking like an outsider and people stared at me everywhere I went. I saw a harmless-looking elderly woman who was kissing her granddaughter goodbye as she left for school and asked her if she knew about the problem. She knew exactly what I was talking about and pointed to a few houses accross the street. While they don´t look any more decayed than all the houses in Moravia, when I looked inside all I saw was trash and, in the corner, some newspapers an extremely old and dirty blanket.
I looked up to the third floor where there were some clothes drying, and asked a woman if I could come inside. She 'unlocked' her door by removing a few bricks and pieces of wood from in front of it and, scolding her angry barking dog, led me upstairs. She introduced herself as Edith and said she had been living in that very apartment her whole life, 43 years. The apartment is a concrete room divided by improvised half-built brick walls. It has few decorations other than a few pictures of Jesus, her cats and her two sons, as well as plenty of graffiti supporting Atletico Nacional, a local soccer team. She has about five cats and I was introduced to all of them, but she was quick to point out that she used to have many more. Her neighbors in the nearby housing project, who only recently moved in after being relocated from Moravia´s trash dump, have repeatedly burned, hit and poisoned her cats, to which she has responded by threatening to hire hitmen, an obviously exaggerated threat but one which, in Medellin, should also be taken somewhat seriously.
Edith is eager to move out. According to her, the city has bought all the apartments in the three houses on her side of the street except for hers and they owe her a housing subsidy as a poor head of a household as well as an additional payment to help her move out of the building. In the four years since the city began to buy these houses, her neighbors below and down the street have moved out, but, as she has not received her subsidies, she has stayed. As her side of the street has slowly been emptied, the area has become increasingly dangerous. She can´t even leave the house to yell at her cat-abusing neighbors or go to the mayor´s office to complain about her situation because local homeless people, displaced people, drug addicts and street kids start invading her property, making it into their own house or stealing her few possessions. Each time that she has sent a complaint to the mayor´s office, she has had to send one of her sons when they are not studying or working so that she can stay home and guard her apartment against any intruders. After I heard everything she had to say about the housing issue, we proceeded to talk more specifically about the problems she has had with illegal neighbors in recent months.
The second floor, she says, has been inhabited in recent months by a street kid, whom she quickly kicked out. He managed to enter the locked apartment through a window and unlock the door, which has made it much easier for other illegal inhabitants to move in. A displaced family stayed there for days and she finally had to call the police, who sent two cars and and a motorcycle to help kick them out. Most recently, drug addicts and criminals have used the uninhabited second floor to use and sell drugs, steal, rape, and conduct express kidnappings. Edith frequently goes down there to kick them out, threaten them, and extinguish their fires and crack pipes with water so that she and her kids don´t inhale the fumes as they sleep. Further, the only thing separating her from the second floor is a loose wooden door. This woman clearly has some authority and plenty of experience in dealing with criminals. As Edith told me these stories, she pointed to a stick and a crowbar, hand weapons that she alternates between when evictions get complicated. I asked her, out of curiosity, how she felt about local security in general, and she rolled her eyes as if to complain and confirmed the rumors about forty police motorcycles.
In this area of Moravia, the city administration successfully built thousands of square meters worth of public space and housing. Nevertheless, crime has already begun to threaten the project´s success in the few square meters where bureaucratic obstacles have prevented rapid progress. In fact, it could be said that, by failing to finalize the purchase and demolition of these houses and by leaving them empty, the city administration has allowed or even caused dozens of muggings, rapes and express kidnappings. Medellin's transformation is worryingly delicate, and minor slip-ups like these can threaten the success of entire projects and the security of entire neighborhoods.
Security in Medellin:
More generally, security in Medellin continues to worsen. Since the murder of the pregnant lawyer a block from my apartment building, my aunt has heard of two additional homicides in the nieghborhood, one in an apartment and one in the Park of the Journalist. The park was the site of a massacre of innocent civilians by the police in the 1990´s. Today, there is a memorial there to honor the victims, but these days it is better known as the preferred late night hangout for Medellin´s urban subcultures - punks, hippies - as well as drug addicts, lonely alcoholics and street kids.
The lawyer´s muder has also sparked a national debate about juvenile delinquency. A major Colombian newspaper recently did a special report on hired underage assassins that identified several 'offices' in charge of the murder for hire business in the city, employing mostly underage kids. Locally, it has raised fears that what began as a war between rival mafia organizations is now infecting all sectors of society with violence, not unlike in the 1980's. In a city which has recently received praise for expanding access to high-quality education, it is indeed worrying that young kids are murdering for less than Colombia´s monthly minimum wage. According to news sources, the lawyer´s assassins were sent in a larger group - perhaps five - by one of her clients in jail either because she had lost a major case or because she owed him money.
The rising homicide rate and sense of insecurity has become a major political problem for Mayor Salazar. When I mentioned to a family friend that I was working with the mayor, she immediately asked about how insiders at the city administration viewed the security situation.
To be honest, people at my office have not discussed it very much. So far, the perception here seems to be that we are working to execute projects which help the city independently of how the security situation evolves. Outside, the perception is dramatically different. It seems that people think that worsening security is unraveling much of the city´s social and economic progress since 2004 or, in other words, that Salazar is reversing Fajardo's transformation. Indeed, although Medellin's transformation has been very multidimensional, the reduction in homicides was former mayor Fajardo's main proof of success as he toured the world advertising his brand of urban politics: if his inclusive social programs could reduce violence in the world capital of violent crime, they could do wonders worldwide.
The man who gave me a tour of Moravia last week had an interesting view of the situation. As a former journalist, he has travelled to all areas of Colombia, mostly to investigate security- and conflict-related issues and has plenty of knowledge about all aspects of violence in Colombia: crime, war, drugs, corruption, etc. Despite being a staunch Fajardista, he gives Salazar more credit than most. Fajardo ran the city in a unique (almost miraculous) but inherently temporary period in Medellin´s history, when the demobilization of paramilitary forces and the expulsion of guerrillas from the city greatly reduced the criminal underworld's hold on the city. This period of low violence allowed Fajardo's administration to go into formerly war-torn neighborhoods and build schools and libraries. The rise in homicides, the former journalist argued, can readily be attributed to factors outside Salazar's control and, equally importantly, factors that Fajardo was fortunate not to have had to deal with.
These include the reorganization of criminal networks, the return to arms of many paramilitaries disappointed with the national government's reintegration program and the effects of the global economic crisis, which has left plenty of people in Medellin unemployed and eager for easy money. Indeed, crime in Colombia is extremely hard to reduce in the long-term. Interruptions in criminal activity are almost inherently temporary simply because of the resilience of the drug trade. When drug 'lords' are taken down, violence increases as the 2nd and 3rd leaders and rival organizations battle for control of routes and territory. In the unusual case when an entire network is dismantled, as has happened very slowly since the paramilitary demobilization, the networks themselves reorganize or new ones inherit their basic skeleton and structure because the economic incentive behind the drug trade is simply too strong. In a city like Medellin, where 80% of families earn less than three minimum wages, about 600 dollars per month, crime will always be a tempting career path.
On a far more positive note, I was just interrupted by the arrival of Llin (as in Medellin), pronounced 'Jeen', the mascot for the South American Games, an international sporting event which Medellin will host in 2010. He was on a tour of the 12th floor and I was the first to greet him. Before long, he was taking pictures with everyone until he got shy and ran away. Indeed, he was totally silent, which has led to plenty of speculation about Llin´s true identity. For photos of Llin with mayor Salazar, go to the 2010 South American Games website : http://www.medellin2010.org/NoticiasDetalle.aspx?comunica=27
June 06, 2009
Pictures of Moravia
For photos of my first tour of Moravia, go to: http://picasaweb.google.com/pablorojasmejia/Moravia#
June 05, 2009
Trouble in Moravia
My latest responsibility is to ensure the safe and timely demolition of some buildings in the impoverished sector of Moravia that have recently become a haven for crime, drug use and urban decay. As part of its local urban renewal program, the city purchased some houses and shanties in Moravia to be demolished. The space was to be used in various functions that would help achieve the main goals of the Moravia Project: increase public space, improve housing, revitalize the local economy and recreate the social fabric destroyed by decades of violence.
Unfortunately, despite acquiring the space relatively quickly and painlessly, the city has neither demolished the buildings nor monitored their status for at least a few weeks. Since then, the area has become a hideout for criminals, an open air drug market and an improvised local trash dump. It is the very sort of urban decay that the Moravia Project seeks to reverse and prevent.
When I visited Moravia last week, I saw a neighborhood booming with small-scale entrepreneurship, neighborhood solidarity, and optimism. Freshly painted houses, newly paved streets, a modern cultural center, and a brand new day care center were some of the achievements that greatly impressed some Catalan journalists who came to see Medellin´s transformation.
The recent developments surrounding these abandoned buildings are worrying and disappointing. Next Monday I will go to take pictures of the area, talk to neighbors, and see what steps have to be taken to quickly remedy the situation.
The problems surrounding this space are evidence of how fragile Medellin´s transformation is. An urban transformation as ambitious as Medellin´s requires constant attention, care and monitoring by the local community and the city administration. On the other hand, the mere fact that local residents can express such complaints to the city without fear of violent retributions speaks to the new culture and new government-citizen relationships that have begun to develop in Medellin. The community now monitors and takes care of itself, and fully expects the city administration to do its job quickly, honestly and according to their needs and desires.
The Refugee Camp in Front of the Mayor´s Office
One of the people who works on my floor - I know him only by his nickname 'el Negro' - just grabbed the phone next to me and took an urgent phone call. He urged the person on the other line to calm down and asked them if they knew where they were going.
He came back a few minutes later to take another strange phone call, and finally opened up to me about the situation. He took an urgent break from his usual work because he is trying to orient a young mother of two who came with her children more than six months ago from the southwestern city of Cali. Her family was under constant threat from armed militias in her home city, and she took off with her kids, leaving most of her family behind.
El Negro found her crying and begging downtown near the mayor´s office months ago. Nobody paid her any attention. He asked her about her situation, and since then he has been guiding her through her stay in Medellin. She shares a run down hotel room downtown with dozens of other displaced people from conflict-ridden areas of Colombia. The father of her children came a few days after she did and sells candy around Medellin, but they simply don´t have any money and my coworker has been supporting them for months.
El Negro just took me to the window and pointed to the 'hotel' where she lives, which is about four blocks from the mayor´s office. He explained that the hotel is full of displaced people. They support each other, but living in Medellin is difficult. Displaced people here often don´t know where to go for help or support, and when they find it, it is limited. Most of them are black or indigenous and face racial discrimination. The city already has a high unemployment rate, and it is difficult for displaced people to find employment. When they first come to unfamiliar cities like Medellin, they hover around it for months, homeless. Eventually, they might settle in slums in the city´s periphery and start a new life. The closest they come to having a decent job is as an informal street vendor or factory worker. They often don´t have formal identification, their homes are illegal squatter settlements, and what few possessions they had were mostly left behind as they rushed out of their hometowns to safety.
The gravity and maginitude Colombia´s displacement crisis is difficult to digest. In the past 25 years or so, over 4 million Colombians (1out of every 11) have left their homes due to violence. While Colombia has made significant gains in security since 2002, displacement due to conflict does not seem to have slowed down and some human rights organizations claim that it has even increased. The current administration´s relationship with human rights organizations is tense at best, and the displaced population does not seem to be one of the national government´s main priorities.
This is my first time staying in Medellin for more than a few days since the 1990´s, and the effects of displacement on the city are obvious. Its black and indigenous populations have visibly skyrocketed and the city itself has grown exponentially. Most of the growth is on the lush mountains surrounding Medellin, where displaced people and other migrants from the countryside have built their homes. Shantytowns that used to reach only the foothills now go all the way up to dangerous peaks. During my last visit to Moravia, I visited a part of the neighborhood called 'Chococito' after the Choco region of Colombia, a largely AfroColombian and indigenous region where violence has driven many people to cities like Cali and Medellin. Most residents there were displaced people, and conditions there were by far the worst that I saw in all of Moravia. Indeed, displacement is not only the main failure of Colombia´s recent security policy, but also one of its greatest social problems.
The state does not have the capacity - and some would say that it does not have enough of a commitment - to support Colombia´s displaced population. Since this woman has come from Cali, she has not managed to establish a new life. Her children are not receiving medical care or an education, although they do have electricity and running water. My coworker is trying to convince her to go back home to her family. After living here for months, neither she nor her husband have found formal work, and still partly depend on his small donations. Many people in her position unfortunately cannot count on the help of a local resident like my coworker and, while she seems to be considering returning to Cali, most displaced people cannot return home because of continued threats of violence and lack of resources.
Displacement definitely puts a lot of pressure on offices like the one where I am currently working. Every day, people here strive to meet the most basic needs of Medellin´s poorest people, but we are all aware that thousands of people with urgent needs migrate to the city every month. While we try to reverse three decades of violence, marginalization and social decay in Moravia, as we look at the mountains that surround the city we know that new Moravias are already forming there, and that perhaps the people who most need our help have not even come to Medellin yet.
June 04, 2009
The Park of Dreams, 11-year-old assassins and Botero´s Fat Birds
Today I attended a coordinating meeting at the recently inaugurated EPM library downtown. EPM - Empresas Publicas de Medellin - is Medellin´s public utilities company. For many years it has been the pride of Medellin, an honest, well-run organization in an otherwise anarchic city. EPM guidance, leadership and expertise has been crucial to the success of many of Medellin´s Strategic Projects, including the library which bears its name.
The EPM library is located right in front of the mayor´s and governor´s offices in a large plaza that used to be one of Medellin´s many equivalents of Skid Row. It was inhabited mainly by street children, drug addicts and criminals and was the epicenter of the urban decay that gradually engulfed most of downtown Medellin. The plaza is now El Parque de los Deseos, or the Park of Desires/Dreams/Ambitions, which is an open, well lit area surrounded by refurbished and equally well-lit pedestrian corridors which have restored downtown Medellin´s traditional commercial dynamism.
The library is at one end of the park, surrounded by fountains. It has mostly science and engineering books, several high-tech computer clusters, and some media labs and auditoriums. It is heavily guarded but inside the atmosphere is inviting. My coordinating meeting lasted from 8 AM to 12:30 PM, and during that time I saw people of all ages come to learn computer skills from dynamic teachers, read periodicals and books and enjoy a clean, quiet and air conditioned oasis in Medellin´s hot, humid, loud and dynamic downtown area. I don´t quite know the history of the library, but I am quite sure it was funded by the city and EPM. Indeed, the city administration has never lacked money; the money was simply badly managed and often stolen. Similarly, EPM is a very lucrative enterprise and is quickly expanding into information technology and cell phone service and even starting some operations in Venezuela and Panama. EPM simply needed a city administration they could trust and respect, while the city needed the honesty and clarity that the past two administrations have provided. Recently, EPM and the city administration have worked together very well on their common goals of providing Medellin residents with basic services.
More than anything, the library is a sign of the city´s optimism. The areas around it are still dirty, somewhat dangerous and inhabited by some of Medellin´s most marginalized people: internally displaced persons, drug addicts, street children and the disabled. Still, the library and the park offer an atmosphere that could not be more different from the plaza of a few years ago. The area now inspires respect and a sense of belonging. The mere presence of a free, inclusive educational institution in the heart of the city seems to have changed local behavior. As I left the meeting, a local homeless kid kindly was walking past some of the EPM employees watering plants outside the library with large, elaborate hoses. He kindly asked for his daily 'shower' and thanked them as he walked away, shaking himself dry. So far, people seem to respect what the city has built for them in the Parque de los Deseos. Just a few years ago, this was an area where benches and street signs were ripped apart to be sold as scrap metal. Now, in the very same place, there is a multimillion dollar computer and library complex.
Nevertheless, it is difficult not to notice that these projects can solve only some dimensions of Medellin´s many problems. The poverty and violence in which many people grow up still prevents them from enjoying many of the resources that the city administration is attempting to offer. The Strategic Projects and other symbolically important initiatives have definitely done a great deal to stop the cultural cycle of structural violence, crime, mistrust and exclusion which used to characterize areas like downtown Medellin where people of all social classes interact. However, they have only started to deal with Medellin´s more concrete problems.
Yesterday, just in front of my apartment building, two young hitmen - one of them 11 years old - shot and killed a local lawyer who was 8 months pregnant. They were both caught, and local doctors quickly performed a C section on the victim, saving the baby. The phenomenon of teenage hitmen, known as sicarios, used to be widespread in Medellin and even developed into a local subculture with its own religious mythology and vocabulary. This year´s 66% increase in the local homicide rate has some people nervous that the city may return to its brutal past.
Indeed, as I am beginning to work on some of the details of Medellin´s social programs, I realize how difficult it is to serve so many needy people. Many more are arriving every day driven by poverty and violence in the countryside. Medellin Solidaria, which is supposed to work closely with 45,000 of the city´s poorest families, is taking quite a while to take off and we don´t quite know exactly how to achieve our still vague goals.
Judging from what people tell me, however, Medellin residents understand that the city is off to a good start. If anyone complains about crime, poverty, traffic, unemployment, or any other social problem, they are quick to point out with the local pride that characterizes Medellin that they love living here, that it is the best city in the world (regardless of whether they´ve been anywhere else), and that the city´s problems were far more acute before Fajardo and Salazar.
One interesting initiative that is inspiring confidence in this administration is community-based policymaking. The Fajardo administration brought urban development policies to neighborhoods where the state was previously absent. Now, the Salazar administration is striving for many local policies to be decided by the community itself. All over the city, at bus stops, on billboards and on thousands of flyers, signs explaining the community policymaking initiative have replaced the typical cigarette and beer ads. The Salazar administration seems to be aware that a major challenge in Medellin is simply to make sure that people know about the resources available to them.
This very moment I am working on moving Fernando Botero´s birds. Botero, a famous local artist whose satirical sculptures and paintings feature exaggeratedly obese people, has famously painted Pablo Escobar and the abuses at Abu Ghraib. One of the round bird sculptures he donated to the city was damaged in the late 1990´s in a bombing linked to local organized crime. He made a nearly identical one and placed it beside the damaged sculpture in a main plaza in Medellin. The Salazar administration moved both birds to Medellin´s new convention center as a symbol of Medellin´s transformation for the IADB assembly which took place here a few months ago, and I am in charge of making sure they get back to the Plaza Botero, where all of Botero´s other donated sculptures are. For a picture of Botero´s birds, click here: http://www.historiadeantioquia.info/wp-content/uploads/2009/03/dsc_2507.jpg
June 03, 2009
Today I visited Moravia, a neighborhood located on Medellin´s old trash dump. I toured the neighborhood with one of the people working directly on the Moravia project and a lifelong Moravia resident who now works at the neighborhood´s new cultural center.
The ambitious urban transformation project underway in Moravia is simply astonishing. I arrived with two Spanish journalists, and we were given a tour of the cultural center. The brand new center is an example of the kind of public space that did not exist in Moravia just five years ago. Medellin aims to provide all its residents about 4 square meters of public space per person (the UN standard is about 12 square meters). In Moravia, public space was previously negligible. The Cultural Center offers music and arts classes for children, as well as entrepreneurial training for adults, but perhaps its most important role is as a safe place for neighborhood socialization and recreation and as a dignifying symbol in a previously marginalized community. There, children whose families earn less than $300 dollars a month have access to musical instruments, personal contact with well-trained teachers, and high-tech computers. There was a palpable sense of pride, belonging and optimism at the cultural center, and our tour guide was eager to tell us the history of his neighborhood.
Moravia has a long history of marginalization and violence. The city administration kept the municipal trash dump there for ten years despite the growth of an entire community of people, many of them displaced by violence in neighboring regions of Colombia, on the site of the dump. When a terrible fire broke out in the late 1980´s and destroyed thousands of homes there, druglord Pablo Escobar relocated the victims of the fire in a neighborhood he built for them in Medellin, now called Barrio Pablo Escobar. Other drug trafficking organizations and armed actors would come to Moravia throughout the 1990´s to recruit footsoldiers. Further, Moravia´s strategic location near a local bus terminal, downtown Medellin, and several important roads made it a battleground where paramilitary groups, drug gangs and urban militias associated with Colombia´s guerrilla groups battled for control of drug routes and territory.
By the early 2000´s, Moravia had become a virtually impenetrable and uninhabitable neighborhood. The state had very little presence in Moravia. Electricity and water were acquired largely illegally, school attendance was limited, and the police rarely dared to enter. The health and public safety issues associated with the trash dump - toxic chemicals, methane gas, carcinogens, water pollution, etc - went entirely unaddressed by the city.
When recent administrations decided to intervene in Moravia, they faced several challenges. It is one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in Colombia. 98% of its families earned less than the established minimum wage in Colombia (about $200 dollars a month). Entire areas had to be cleared of residences to make way for schools, public spaces, environmental rehabilitation, etc. After a long process of resident relocalization, planning and building, Moravia now features the Cultural Center mentioned above, as well as a day care facility, several parks, a bike route, newly paved roads, and several public housing units.
Many problems remain. Student dropout rates remain high, some criminal violence still plagues the neighborhood, some residents are resistant to leave their houses on the trash dump, and it remains a impoverished area. Still, Moravia is an example of how multidimensional urban interventions can end self-perpetuating cycles of poverty, violence and marginalization. It is visibly dynamic, with many stores and small businesses. Its residents are mostly committed to keeping its public spaces safe and clean. People can now move from one block to another safely, and seem to enjoy their neighborhood and all its new recreational and educational facilities. The Moravia Megaproject has transformed not only the neighborhood, but also how its residents feel about it and, by association, themselves.
May 28, 2009
Arrival in Medellín
Welcome to my blog! This is my very first time writing a blog and I'm pretty excited by the whole idea. I am a rising Junior concentrating in Political Science and possibly Economics or Latin American Studies. My Watsonblog will consist of updates and observations while I am here in Medellín, Colombia working with the mayor's office. I am very fortunate to have received support from the Watson Institute in the form of the Richard Smoke Summer Fellowship.
My work here in Medellín will consist of supporting the mayor's office as they develop, monitor and evaluate what are known here as Strategic Projects. Medellín's Strategic Projects are for the most part urban development projects that the current mayor, Alonso Salazar, wants to leave behind as his personal mark on the city.
The history of Strategic Projects really begins with the administration of former mayor Sergio Fajardo (2004-2007) when the entire city of Medellín, after many years of crippling violence and social decay, took on the challenge of drastically transforming its own social, cultural and economic landscape. The city's problems were massive and seemingly insurmountable: powerful organized crime organizations, vast social and economic inequities, the rapid growth of slums along the city's periphery, the simple absence of the state in many poor neighborhoods, and violence associated with Colombia's armed conflict. When he came into office in 2004, Fajardo envisioned a series of ambitious urban development projects through which he sought to break the cycles of violence, social inequality and urban decay that had made Medellín a virtually unlivable city.
Fajardo's Strategic Projects focused on improving education, reducing inequality, creating more public reacreational and social spaces, improving security, encouraging entrepeneurship and improving the relationship between the city's administration and its inhabitants. By 2007, Medellín had high-tech educational and recreational centers in poor and formerly war-torn neighborhoods, a new transportation system that reached into formerly impenetrable slums, a homicide rate 90% lower than the rate in 1991, and perhaps most notably and importantly, a new culture of optimism.
Current mayor Salazar's strategic projects feature a similar commitment to equality, good government and education, with a strong commitment to improving the dire housing situation faced by many residents of poor neighborhoods.
Specifically, I will be working on three of these projects.
The first is the transformation of the Moravia neighborhood. Moravia is a slum built on the city's old trash dump. Most of its residents are poor, with many living in shacks. The trash dump below them poses significant health challenges. Further, Moravia once was home to illegal armed groups and criminal organizations, who took advantage of the dire economic situation and social exclusion faced by many residents. Today, the city administration is making Moravia an experiment in complete urban transformation. The Moravia project seeks to improve education, relocate residents in high-risk housing situations, prevent potential health crises related to the old trash dump, create public spaces for education and recreation, and encourage local entrepreneurship.
The second is Medellín Solidaria, which targets 45 thousand of Medellín's poorest households and provide them with accessible and efficient social services, ranging from nutrition to housing to employment assistance. This project requires the integration of different agencies at various levels of government, as well as the development of working relationships with the households themselves.
The third project is Modelo Medellín, which seeks to organize Medellín's experience in urban transformation since 2004 in a way that is accessible to the public. This project is still in its infancy, but the ultimate goal is to clearly identify the city’s achievements and challenges as model for cities worldwide.
For some really cool interactive pages and further information about Medellín’s Strategic Projects, I encourage everyone to check out laboratoriomedellin.com
Please check back for further updates.