“In modern business, it is not the crook that is to be feared most, it is the honest man who doesn’t know what he is doing.”
– Pablo Escobar
“I had a lot of friends die. All my friends. They died.” Freddy said as we drew closer.
A solid man in his mid thirties, his clothes matched his personality – loud, somewhat overdone, a bit confusing. The frames of his oversized eyeglasses held no lenses. Freddy grew up on the streets where we stood and he was anxious to share his story.
“Somehow I made it, somehow I am here with you.” he continued, as if trying to convince us. It was a sentence we would hear many times in the hours ahead.
We were outsiders. That much was clear. Looking up a steep, narrow street through crowds of camera-toting tourists we listened to his version of what it was like growing up in the world’s deadliest neighborhood.
One could understand why some people like him. Built a few houses. Offered a little cash. Provided a bit of relative security. Enough good deeds to release a mist of legend. Though it was a move to strengthen the infrastructure and lubricate the joints of his drug smuggling operation, Pablo Escobar at times nodded to the poorest neighborhoods of the Medellin Cartel’s namesake.
On the north-western edge of its valley, Medellin’s Comuna 13 district served as a critical artery for shipments of the global cocaine supply and the riches generated therefrom. For Escobar, control was good for business.
In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s Medellin was a sprawling city of over 2 million. Nestled in an Andes valley as central Colombia creeps northward, its geography helped define the contours of a global drug war.
Along the path between the cocaine producing Amazon basin in southern Colombia and the cocaine exporting Carribean in the North, Comuna 13 was to Escobar’s cartel what the port of Los Angeles is to Amazon and Walmart for cheap merchandise – a critical passage towards a golden market. Control of the people and access to the streets mattered. Escobar’s guarding of these gates ensured this.
This control resulted in an epicenter of death. Per capita murder rates peaked with 381 killings per 100,000 residents in 1991 far out pacing murders per 100,000 rates of theTijuana’s (138), Baltimore’s (51), and New Orleans’s (37) of today.
It was Escobar’s death, however, in 1993 on the round, disheveled clay tiles of a Medellin rooftop, that opened a geyser of violence and initiated a near irreparable fragmentation of power. Right-wing paramilitaries fought left-wing armies with a Rubik’s cube of smaller gangs, cartels and groups aligning as was most practical for wallets and survival. Control was up for grabs.
It’s a beautifully seductive idea. A petri dish of humanity’s worst being transformed, healed in less than a generation by expressions of art, dance and music. Freddy held tightly to the narrative.
As we climbed higher into the neighborhood, shedding layers and sipping from cheap water bottles, his interpretation of each mural offered shreds of aesthetic perspective.
Elephants walking. People coming together.
Doves flying. Peace arriving.
Lions staring. Courage to transform.
Children embracing. Hope for the future.
Men with hammers. Rebuilding homes.
Women praying. Lives lost.
Looks of fear. Intensity of conflict.
Faces of peace. Souls at rest.
Heads with bullet holes. Surgical precision of killing.
Though disconnected the graffiti murals were representations of the feelings produced by a history as tragic and sad as it was complex and violent. We stood listening, respectfully, intently.
Much however was lost in our own privilege and the tangled experience of the artists. We could learn facts, statistics and anecdotes to take home and recount but not understand what continued to linger on the streets and in homes once the days wound to a close.
“It’s a beautifully seductive idea. A petri dish of humanity’s worst being transformed, healed in less than a generation by expressions of art, dance and music.”
We paused and milled around a terrace overlooking the acres of depressed shanties.
“You can take pictures here.” Freddy told the group.
“You want beer?” he said, looking at two German backpackers. They shrugged weakly and walked into one of the corner stores. Why not.
“Ice cream is there.” he said, looking at Tiffany.
She shook her head and smiled, “No thanks”.
I made small talk with a retired French couple on vacation. “Qu’est ce que vous pensez?” I asked. “Je ne sais pas.” the husband replied without looking up from fiddling with his camera.
Residents glanced down from windows. Looks of blank disinterest across crowds they planned never to see. Children weaved through floating groups. Equally uninterested. Too young to know the depth of reason why we were there.
We studied the orange escalators in front of us and looked up.
“You want to go?” Freddy asked, waving us forward.
To understand Comuna 13, one must understand access. Both vertical and horizontal. During Escobar’s years of influence, control of Comuna 13’s roads up the mountainside and through to the San Juan Highway out of the city had been an essential corridor for vehicles stuffed with cocaine heading towards the Caribbean coast. Access was power. Power was money. Money and pride were ultimate motivators woven throughout. Selfish ends facilitated by destructive means.
Could the levers, however, which instigated and sustained such brutal violence also provide the solution? City planners thought so.
By opening opportunities for residents of Comuna 13 to more easily access Medellin’s rapidly growing legal economy, they believed that turnaround was possible. An immediate, obvious hurdle: the 1,259 feet of elevation separating the 140,000 residents from the world-class transportation system in Medellin’s valley. With that connection would come passage into a city ready to emerge. The money, security and the pride needed to construct a healthy, viable community would then be possible
The people however were poorer than the cartels and their power non-existent.
To overcome the initial challenge of access, the idea was novel. Engineers would cut a path up the sharpest inclines of Comuna 13’s primary neighborhood connecting the more regular bus stops below with the upper reaches of the seas of shacks clinging to the hillsides. Escalators would be inserted into the paths drastically cutting the time and effort required to access the city’s existing transportation lines.
Completed in 2012 at a cost of 5.5 million USD, the goal was to move 12,000 residents per day towards honest work and integration with the city’s services. Additionally, there was hope that an influx of income would encourage bottom-up growth for small businesses in the community.
It was a bold, creative and untested experiment in urban development.
A middle aged tourist nudged his partner after stepping off the escalator and pausing for a moment.
“I feel like I’m being assaulted.” he said. She nodded.
We turned and looked around. The Saturday crowd was chaotic. T-shirt vendors had picked up on North American’s affinity for Kobe Bryant whose recent death, they thought, could help make a sale.
“Kobe, Pablo…what size?” a vendor pulled down shirts with the images of the all-star and drug lord for us to see.
“No thanks.” we said, turning our heads.
Over the hours ahead break dancers, rappers and all manners of merchants would compete for our attention and pesos as we walked across the main road cutting the length of Comuna 13. For many, the art seemed secondary. For most, it was.
Attracting 25,000 visitors per month into the 5 square mile neighborhood wasn’t what planners had expected or even, necessarily hoped for. The majority of the escalators’ users are tourists and the bulk of economic development has taken the form of informal street vendors mixed with a few shops selling everything from Pablo Escobar beer to a handful of makeshift galleries selling local artists’ work. Most vendors have hugged tightly to within 100 meters of the paths leading up to and away from the escalators themselves.
Having emerged primarily over the past 4 years, the unexpected tourist zone is still working to find itself. Security after dark and off beaten paths remains a serious concern with recent rises in muder and violent crime an important asterisk throughout tourist websites and books.
Most work has gone to tour providers and English speakers who can facilitate outsiders’ glances into the previously closed world. The bulk of remaining work lies somewhere between selling snacks and tending souvenir shops for the passersby.
Easier somehow to serve the privileged in a place of familiarity than construct success and carve identity in places unknown.
Indeed, the mountain for Comuna 13 was higher and wider than the escalators could reach. Despite locals’ staunch desire to move forward, the effects of a 100 billion dollar cocaine industry were equally difficult to navigate. Unemployment in the neighborhood remains close to 25% and markers of poverty stand as qualitative and quantitative barriers to access the benefits of one of Latin America’s greatest and most widely told success stories.
Though questionable in delivering a channel for sustainable economic empowerment, the covered orange escalators of Comuna 13 have, importantly, established a focal point for a community in desperate need of a handle to sturdy itself.
There are, for the first time, injections of collective dignity with the gush of tourists willing to look past the otherwise uncomfortable crime rates to glimpse flickers of beauty in a notoriously legendary urban warzone.
And perhaps, therein lies the ultimate success of such a unique public works project. Unknown to the developers and architects, the escalators have laid a foundation of pride needed to begin the arduous construction of the social and economic infrastructure to move past the history it is trying so desperately to flee.
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