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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

Posted by Pablo Rojas at June 8, 2009 04:50 PM

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