I spent the most important summers of my youth almost exclusively outdoors, in the days before the internet and cell phones and when video games existed largely as upright, quarter-gobbling monoliths. This, along with the bucolic pace of my rural town, ensured that I counted the days and hours with friends, playing baseball in the streets or endless games of basketball at the elementary school hoops, with their seven-foot tall rims and chain-link nets, the temperature and aridity of the high desert air causing our finger tips to crack and split with every dribble of a dirt-covered basketball; calling out Marco/Polo at the municipal swimming pool; or playing tennis with girlfriends at the weedy, faded-green tennis courts, trading kisses and serves equally errant. Few of us were rich by even the most generous definitions; almost all of us had working mothers and more than a few had absent dads and it seems to me, in hindsight, that we spent a lot of time unknowingly teaching each other how to negotiate life as young men.
Later, in high school and with the responsibilities of a job and a rusted-floor truck, carefree life in small-town Nevada diminished but never really ceased. On summer nights our doors remained not only unlocked but wide open to allow through the cool desert air. I had no curfew to speak of, and my life in rewind, were one to look for those moments where I could have strayed down a road less paved, could be safely boiled down to lying to Mr. Crow about the ownership of a mechanical pencil, playing cards while smoking Swisher Sweets, and one regrettable night with a bottle of Southern Comfort.
I was a freshman in high school in 1985; that year Medellin, Colombia, was well on its way to earning, and deserving, a reputation as the most dangerous city in the world, a title it wouldn´t relinquish until the nineties were well over. By comparison, today’s murder capital is San Pedro Sula, Honduras, with a rate of 171 homicides per 100,000 people – Medellin in 1991 had a murder rate more than double that. And it was essentially the work of one man, Pablo Escobar.
It is hard to tell the story of Medellin without mentioning Escobar, but Hernán Echevarria, who also grew up in the 1980’s, refuses to say his name, and calls him only “the famous criminal.” As a child, Hernán lived in Campo Valdez, a poor-but-not-the-poorest barrio of Medellin where his father moved as a young man, uneducated but dedicated, working twelve hours a day, seven days a week at a juice cart, showing Hernán by deed and word that hard work and education was the only true way out of Campo Valdez and into better worlds. “It was safe when I was a kid,” said Hernán, but the neighborhood grew worse as he grew older. Hernán had a bomb go off near him one day when walking to high school, and the driver of the motorcycle responsible for assassinating Luis Carlos Galán, a presidential candidate in 1989, was a childhood friend. “It was a poor area, and there were few opportunities to work, so being part of the narco culture was attractive.” It was ostensibly easy money, though mysteriously gained, and some started calling these kids “los magicos” – the magics – because they could make money appear. For Hernán, a man who clearly loves his city, the change in ethic was palpable, and he fears that it still exists, albeit manifested in a slightly different way. “Have you seen the mannequins?”, Hernán asks me (I have; there is no way to not see the mannequins, they are cartoonishly and anti-gravitationally well endowed and lined up outside storefronts beckoning you in). “You can sit in the café and watch the street and play the game of ‘real or not’ as the women walk by.” Hernán is adamant that this is not a show of wealth and prosperity, but something more insidious. “It is the descendant of the narco culture, about a perception of what it means to be beautiful and glamorous, and it’s not just for the women. It used to be okay that men could be ugly,” he continued. “We have a saying that means ‘men are like bears, the uglier the tastier,’ but I don’t think this is true anymore.”
Regardless of whether it is narco culture or just newly found materialism, being Colombian, and in particular a Paisa – someone from Medellin and the surrounding area – means interminably and frustratingly answering for the Escobar years, something they see as akin to asking a German to explain Hitler or a Russian to explain Stalin, as if it is their fault for producing such a monster and their duty to explain why and how it happened. For Diego (last name withheld), the questions are a bit more difficult to answer. The second youngest of thirteen children, he was close to his younger sister but a small child when his older brothers were in their late teens and early twenties; when Diego was playing a version of freeze tag in the streets, his brothers – at least one and as many as four – were forming the gang that would become Pablo Escobar’s most feared and prolific assassins. Diego’s last name is Italian and unusual in Colombia, and when the police started referring to the gang simply by his last name, life became, to say the least, difficult.
“My last year of high school was awful,” Diego says. “When a teacher would call out my last name, the entire room would go quiet. When grades were posted, my name would always be circled or underlined with some comment written next to it.” Diego was regularly followed (he believes it was usually the police), and one day, tired of seeing the same car tailing him for weeks, he dropped his books in the street and, crying uncontrollably, faced the car with his arms spread wide. “Kill me now!” he shouted. “If you’re going to kill me, do it now! I am just a student so leave me alone!”
The tailings stopped, but not the violence. Diego heard explosions around the city seemingly daily, and came home from school one day to see the windows of nearly every house on his block shattered, the effects of the bombing of a business near the family home. He saw a young man murdered literally in front of his eyes, and believes he lost at least ten friends to the violence, some of them personally involved and some of them not. “The police were powerless,” Diego says, “either from corruption or out of fear. Escobar put a price on every police officer’s head. At stop signs, other cars would stop a hundred feet away from the cops in case a bomb went off or if the gangs started shooting at them.”
The misery, of course, was particularly personal to Diego. One brother was murdered in Bogota in the late 80’s; another died in 1991, along with sixteen other people, in the bombing of the Macarena bullfighting stadium in Medellin. A third brother committed suicide, and two others were killed, probably by police, in targeted raids on the same day in different parts of the city. “My father died of a heart attack,” he says, “but I am convinced my mother died of a broken heart.” After the death of a husband and five sons, Diego says his mother essentially shut-down. “My best memories of my mother are of her singing and cooking. Her voice was my alarm clock, and she never let any of us, no matter how early, leave the house without making breakfast.” But she quit cooking, then quit singing, then seeing – Diego says she closed her eyes one day and refused to open them – and then, finally, quit talking. The last words Diego heard his mother say was in response to his asking why she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, open her eyes: I don’t want to see the world.
I asked Diego if he, or his parents, knew what his brothers were doing. “I knew when I was older, and was able to read and understand more, and I think my parents knew. We just never talked about it.” Sometimes we don’t ask the questions to which we don’t want to hear the answers.
But for as much as Diego and Medellin would like to leave all that nonsense behind, those who came of age in Pablo’s kingdom are generationally intertwined with cartels, cocaine, political terrorism, murderers, and, perhaps most importantly, helping the rest of the world to see Medellin’s citizenry for who they are – generous, optimistic, and kind, with an acknowledged but well-intentioned self-importance and sense of pride in belonging to something bigger than themselves. Which are all things not Pablo.
Perhaps. To a small extent, I can sympathize with Hernán’s plight. Being a Nevadan means having to regularly explain that the state is more than just Las Vegas, more than just gambling and legal prostitution (we have more mountain ranges than any other state save Alaska, damn it). Humans are naturally inclined to embrace the good while deflecting the bad when pride is at stake, but this seems a bit disingenuous. Maybe we do have to account for where we’re from. Because for all the demurring of narco culture and Pablo Escobar, Hernán also shares a telling Colombian proverb, one he says everyone knows and labels the “eleventh and twelfth commandments”: The first (or eleventh) is that “when someone offers papaya, take it.” Easy to mistake this sentiment as something similar to “never look a gift horse in the mouth” or the more pedestrian “don’t pass up an opportunity,” until you hear the twelfth amendment: Never offer papaya. Essentially, don’t present me with an opportunity – even one at your expense – because if you do, I’m going to pounce on it. This might be the culture of industriousness and optimism, but it also contributes to a culture of conflict and a history of violence that has played out, ironically, almost entirely within Colombia’s own borders.
Hernán tells another story, his recollection of an uninformed childhood discussion over the reasoning behind Escobar’s declared war against the government. Escobar was angry at Colombia’s extradition policy with the United States, which aimed to prosecute the drug cartel’s leadership in the U.S. judicial system. Escobar said “a grave in Colombia is better than prison in the U.S.,” and one of Hernán’s friends said that his father supported Pablo, likening the extradition policy to a bad kid getting disciplined not by his own father, but by his neighbor’s. “I can understand this,” says Hernán. “But I don’t think we were very good fathers.” And here is an element both Hernán and Diego raise, the importance of not forgetting. Both say the current generation, who embrace narco culture but do not fully understand the havoc Escobar and his cronies wreaked upon lives in this city, run the risk of living through the same hell through which Diego and Hernán lived.
So how do you do this? How do you simultaneously ask the rest of the world to stop picking at the scab that is cocaine and Pablo Escobar and see instead the beauty that is Colombia and Medellin? How do you convince people to move on, but to not forget? This is the same message the city is trying to share through social urbanism or, as Hernán calls it, “democratic architecture.” Medellin installed a grand public library, a beautiful cubist building, on the top of the hill in a dangerous neighborhood, and outdoor escalators grace the steep hillside in the depressingly named “District 13” where, before the escalators, residents had to walk up and down more than 300 steps to get to the city center and home again. The idea is not only to make life easier for the city’s most destitute, but to let them know that the government cares about them and that they should care about themselves as well. Whether the projects have improved the quality of life of the residents isn’t clear – we saw the escalators used only by a jubilant dog and a smiling little girl taking out the trash – but that the residents take pride in their community is: both neighborhoods are clean and active and colorful, District 13 particularly so. Locally-painted murals grace the walls of the homes that press in around the stairs, and house plants are in abundance. Medellin is also mall-crazy, and has a smoothly running metro system that is the pride of the city. There is not a piece of garbage or stain of graffiti to be found in any station or on any train. The city turned the dirtiest, druggiest, prostitutiest area of downtown into a public library with a neighboring bamboo garden and monumental park of towering lights; there is free Wi-Fi in every public space; and prodigal son Fernando Botero donated a new sculpture of his peace dove to sit next to – but not replace (move on but don’t forget) – the original Pajaro de Paz that was blown up in 1995. This is not reinvention necessarily, but reinforcing pride and focusing the positive. And maybe it works. Medellin, once the murder capital of the world, was named 2015’s “City of Innovation.”
Diego today is single and lives with two of his sisters in Laureles, an upscale area of Medellin. For a living he teaches Spanish and English to businesses around the city, and a few days a week he volunteers in the Ocho de Marzo barrio, where he gives free Portuguese lessons to children who live in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Medellin, one where you can be killed for wandering across the “invisible frontier” and into the territory of the la Sierra barrio. People ask Diego why Portuguese, why not English, but for him it doesn’t matter what he teaches. “It’s the message that is important,” he says. “I’m telling them they don’t have to be what other people expect them to be. They can be something different and better. They can be someone.”