Moving up on shiny stairs in Comuna 13, Medellin.
For generations, the 12,000 residents of Medellin’s Comuna 13, which clings to the side of a steep hillside, have had to climb hundreds of large steps – the equilavent of walking up a 28-story building – but now they can ride the stairs.
The 6.7 million dollar escalator is in one of the poorest districts in Medellin, a place where drug related gang violence results in an average one murder every day or three hundred sixty-five murders a year.
We toured the escalator Sunday during the televised semi-final National Championship soccer game featuring Medellin’s team playing the team from Bogota. We figured that most of the gangs would be watching the game instead of us. We spoke to several residents of the area about how the moving stairs have made their lives easier.
We were escorted by two policemen who joined us after our guide to Medellin, Andres Muera of Land Venture Travel, called the police to let them know we wanted to film the escalator in this dangerous neighborhood. One of our escorts was wearing a kevlar flack jacket and the other one wasn’t. When we asked why only one had a jacket we were told the other man’s jacket was covered in fresh blood from a shooting victim they had just tried to save in the same neighborhood. He didn’t want to scare us or be seen wearing the bloody vest on camera.
When we spoke with a policeman about the violence he told us Medellin is much less violent now than in the past and that the difficulties are mostly confined to the poor hillside areas like Comuna 13 and Santa Domingo which we had visited two days before. (More on Santa Domingo later). It’s common knowledge that the gangs rule these neighborhoods and have free reign to extort money from the bus drivers that pay protection fees to the gangs to pass thru their territory while providing metro transit services to the poor people who live there. We were told that people are afraid to tell the truth about the gangs for fear of retribution.
You’ll probably think I’m crazy when I tell you that my wife and I are seriously considering moving to Medellin in the future but I’m serious. The vast majority of the 3.2 million residents of Medellin are friendly, intelligent, cosmopolitan citizens who are progressive and prosperous in legitimate pursuits. Medellin is a wonderful city with modern buildings, great infrastructure and lots of things to do. Music, the arts and humanitarian pursuits are thriving here. Life is good for most people, the middle class is large and growing and even the poor are happy. To help improve the lives of the disadvantaged citizens of Medellin the city provides free electricity and water taps in the poorer areas of town as well as a moving stairway to a better future for the people of Comuna 13.
So why are there so many gang related deaths in these areas? Our guide, Andres, blames the leftover members of the Pablo Escobar drug cartel and it’s culture of easy money for the gang problems that persist here but he insists that the rest of the city is as safe as any major US city. He compares his city to to New York, LA. or Chicago. According to Andres, the main reason we needed the police escort was to keep the gang members from robbing us of our camera equipment. It did make me a little nervous when a rough looking guy approached me asking about my camera in rapid-fire Spanish just before our armed escort arrived. While we were meeting our police escort he quickly disappeared. Was he going to rob me with a knife or a gun? Luckily I’ll never know.
The people we spoke to were happy and looked healthy. There were smiles on the faces of most of the children with a few exceptions. Being poor doesn’t seem to have made them sad but it has kept many of the kids from going to school because their families can’t afford the mandatory uniforms or bus fare to get them to school.
Those trying to help lift the poor of Medellin say education is key to improving their lot in the long run. In another blog coming up We’ll introduce you to Marcos Kaseman of The Angels of Medellin and the important work he and his volunteers are doing for the poor people of Santa Domingo. They’re currently helping over three thousand people a year with housing, education, and other needs and are expanding their efforts constantlye. We’ll share more about the Angels of Medellin coming up on our blog and on Expat’s Paradise documentary series segment titled, Expat’s Paradise, Columbia Part II to be released in the near future.