The names of some cities stick to your mind more than others – Medellin is one of them. For one, it is pronounced somewhere between Meda-yeen and Meda-jin depending on which side of the Atlantic you come from. And two, in a Netflix addicted world, very few are likely to have not heard of Narcos (for those like me who don’t watch TV series, there is, of course, National Geographic’s fabled Banged Up Abroad). In either case, trouble protagonists (antagonists, really) are lured into illegal smuggling with financial rewards that show potential to uplift their otherwise morbid lifestyles: a mythic underpinning of a narrative otherwise punctuated by ethnic rhetorics. The missions are rarely a success.
In the eighties and early nineties, Medellin was one of the most dangerous cities in the world – it dubiously boasted a statistic of 400 murders per hundred thousand inhabitants, while still being a commercial center for banking, trade, coffee and textiles. The hillside slums of Medellin – called Communas and not Favellas, as they are known in Brazil – dealt with the country’s most notorious and illegal export under the drug cartel led by Colombia’s most infamous son, Pablo Escobar – a man who continues to divide opinions between those who were oppressed and those oppressed as a result of him.
Narcos was blocked from filming on the actual rooftop where he was hunted down and shot, an unprepossessing building in one of the more exclusive neighborhoods in town. His family, however, continue to insist that he had shot himself on the head when he realized he had little chance to escape. The truth remains a mystery.
Having visited Medellin, it is perhaps disrespectful if I fail to highlight the side of Pablo Escobar that documentaries and movies rarely expose: that he was known as the ‘Colombian Robin Hood’ for uplifting the lives of many living under poverty is often, and rightfully, masked by his ill-gotten wealth that transformed a thriving city into a murder capital. The damage he inflicted on the country’s image and many a resident, while well documented, falls short of offering a balanced view on one of the world’s most dangerous, and richest, drug baron.
Medellin is known as the city of eternal spring. Located high in the Andean range, amidst lush green hillsides, it is ironic that a lot of the city’s tourism, today, is an influx of ignorant Narcos fans wanting to experience the darker side of the city. The chaos and commotion that hovered around the hills of Medellin were non-existent during times when the hills carried itself with the dignity of a maitre d’ commerce when coffee and bananas from the region constituted the country’s biggest exports. The power of the decaffeinated bean was proportionate to the strength of the Colombian economy.
When Starbucks decided to enter the Tinto (coffee) market in Colombia, the ‘selling-ice-to-eskimos’ analogy was quoted in every joke that targeted the news. Statistics later went on to confirm that the sales of Juan Valdez coffee went up by a further 30 percent after Starbucks entered the market.
What followed since was a madness of a roller-coaster economy, which not only took commerce away from Medellin but tourism too. Tourists started flocking the beach towns of Barranquilla and Cartagena instead.
One gets a feeling that Medellin suffers somewhat of an exalted standing on its own back catalogue , thanks to Escobar and the seeds of danger he had sown. Had it been a high Andean outpost anywhere else, without its nagging history, travel guide books would have dedicated more pages to this city focusing around its famous botanical gardens, cafe culture, and a thriving square that boasts of its equally famous and proud son – the artist and sculptor Fernando Botero.
Plaza Botero, in Medellin’s city center, is an open air museum showcasing Botero’s bronze sculptures depicting men and women in exaggerated volumes. A museum in the vicinity displays his art work and it is worthwhile paying attention to his paintings depicting the violence in Colombia.
Which, sort of, is Medellin’s history in a nutshell – it is as if while an effigy is being burnt, it is still an intricately decorated one burning in a spectacular fire. But as the city aims to rebuild its reputation, it still has many fears to evoke and it is fair to assume, perhaps, that recent developments have pointed to the positive. In an attempt to bridge its violent past to a bright future, the city invested in cable cars connecting the center of town to the previously inaccessible and dangerous hillside communas. You would never have dared set foot in these territories in the 80s or the 90s. But times have moved on, residents from these communas frequent the city center markets for their weekly groceries or a day out in town.
Pueblito Paisa, a mock setting of a typical Colombian hillside village, pueblo, is a center of attraction in a hill in center of town – Cerro Nutibara. Depicting The square features a fountain in the center surrounded by a Mayor’s Office, Church, a Barber’s shop and – to cater to the tourists, away from the setting – a cafe and a restaurant. The setting is representative of most pueblos across Colombia.
But there is of course the elephant in the room – tourists and agencies who want sledgehammer replicas of the communas during the dark days, overlooking the fact that those were some of the most emotionally grueling experiences families had to go through. Fathers, sons, brothers were lost to violence that the gangs engaged in. These neighborhoods are now so well connected to the city center that residents do not want to be percieved as those inhabiting once geographically eshrouded drug-cartel epicenters.
I took the cable car ride up to the hillsides – it was an overcast day, and as if to add to the eeriness the neighborhood self-contained, everything seemed to move in slow motion.