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.
Posted by Pablo Rojas at June 11, 2009 12:40 PM