Colombia is a country still recovering from a violent past, with children looking forward to a more vibrant and better future. Nowhere was this more visible than in District 13 in Medellin, where we visited people and saw vestiges of the drug cartel days alongside the much newer and certainly more vibrant public transportation system of tramways. But Colombia’s violent past can be seen everywhere. I learned all about this country, its history, and its various cultures on the Overseas Adventure Travel trip Colombia’s Colonial Jewels and Coffee Triangle.
Once we got to Medellin, we used the city’s public transportation, an intricate cable car system, and made our way to a section once known as Assassin’s Corner. There we purchased some food in a local market and gave it to a woman who had been a squatter, had been allowed to keep her area, and her sons helped her build her home in what is essentially part of a shanty town area known as Santo Domingo. Her face at 86, had all the character marks of someone from Central Casting for a movie of the life of Pablo Escobar, since her neighborhood was where he did his recruiting.
The coffee region wasn’t as affected by the drug trade which apparently allowed it to flourish as a coffee producing region. but much of the surrounding area was. Some of the most prominent drug lords lived outside the coffee region near Medellin such as Carlos Lehder, a big John Lennon fan in both Colombia, where he famously had a bronze statue of him, as well as in New York City, where he befriended the former Beatle.
But violence is part of this beautiful country’s sad history. The period known as ” the violence” was from 1948 to 1953, with a two year lead up. Drug lord Pablo Escobar was active from the 80s until his death in 1993. However, there was still violence from 1954 onward (due in some part to the revolutionary armed forces known as FARC, and reaction to working conditions as a result of United Fruit Company’s presence in the area), and Escobar’s family was affected greatly by that. After Escobar’s death, other drug cartels and their violence took over. So this country has seen nonstop violence, to the point that they were trying to have a vote on a peace when I was there, and even that fragile peace initiative was having trouble passing, largely because people were afraid to come and out to vote. One of my guides told me that people are afraid to speak up too much because of the country’s history of people disappearing. In all of these violent periods, hundreds of thousands of people were killed or ” disappeared.”
One famous piece of art I saw in a Bogota museum (Museo de Arte del Banco de Republica) was called ” The Violence.” It was a modern piece and showed the hills of Colombia as breasts on a woman laying down, all pretty much in black and white. The write up in the museum stated that it was the beginning of using the human form in Colombian art. Sure enough, when you look at all the local street art, there are eyes, faces, and many human forms. I think the human form is an important part of Colombian history because of all the inhumanity that has gone on for decades.
Today so much of Colombia it is so vibrant, I heard Saturday night music playing outside as normal life went on. But just as I experienced in Central America, the intense beauty of the country is deceiving. These people have had a hard life, beyond anything we can imagine.
Signs of a new awakening were all around me. Who keeps parakeets under the stairs in the dark in Medellin? Well, someone who likely needs to keep things quiet in a neighborhood recruited by drug lords. And children and dogs joined us on our walk. One little boy wanted to be a tour guide. He was joined by friends, one of whom was wearing a shirt that had the word ” traveler” written on it. These kids were eyeing a way out.
The little boy, maybe 10 or 12, had a cast on his arm, but wanted to practice being a tour guide. So he told us in English about the buildings that surrounded us. His English was somewhat forced, not all that clear, but as the cable cars went by, he stayed with It as we overlooked the shanty town of Santo Domingo. Then in true tour guide fashion he said to our amusement, “Now, any questions?” We all laughed and took photos as his friends looked on. These children are living the stark reality of hardened adults. But they are Colombia’s future, and hopefully the illumination they receive as part of helping travelers will help them find a way out of the country’s darkness, as it still struggles in a tentative peace and fractured political parties.
There is a socio-economic layer in Colombia that ranges from 1 to 6. I actually saw the motorcade of the president of Colombia as we drove through a neighborhood ranked a 6..It included an ambulance as part of the motorcade because well, people get shot and killed there. But with the help of a child and an elder woman in Medellin which has seen so much lost to violence, we spent time in a neighborhood classified as a 1. The disparity between 1 and 6 is as you would expect. And people refer to the areas in exactly that fashion.
But the children have hope.