The night I got back from my two weeks on the coast I heard about six gunshots coming from the Comuna 8, a neighboring “comuna” (group of neighborhoods) which has been going through a huge amount of violence lately, to the point where the mayor decided to militarize the whole area. I was brushing my teeth and heard it through the “window”/opening in my shower. As usual when this happens I got sad, murmured a quick prayer for the youth fighting, passer-bys, and for justice, generally, so that this kind of thing doesn’t keep happening and then, also as usual, I moved on with my evening and didn’t think about it again until I mentioned it to Oscar. He told me that a week ago six people had been killed a couple of blocks from his house.
My “beach reading” during my lovely vacation with Emma and Larisa was a book by Robin Kirk called “More Terrible than Death” which recounts in a reader-friendly way some of the history of Colombia from a human rights perspective. It wasn’t terribly light reading, I must say, but it’s been interesting to try to line up the stories I’ve heard, especially from Oscar, with the time-line she sets up. Oscar considers himself a survivor; he’s told me several times that his generation of men was essentially eliminated. People talk about the late 80’s and 90’s that way. What strikes me, or rather, what has been striking me as I contemplate the comuna 8, or recently hearing from a pastor that paramilitaries threatened him when he went to give drug-prevention classes at a local highschool, is the way in which people don’t talk about the conflict now.
I don’t mean that it’s totally hidden (although if you live in one of Medellin’s affluent neighborhoods you wouldn’t necessarily have to interact with it), after all the morning, afternoon and evening news are constant refrains about FARC violence, delinquency, murder, corruption, etc. What I mean is that there is an intentional attempt on the part of the government to make it look like the armed conflict is basically under control and that whatever violence people experience is just a consequence of bad youth and high levels of common crime. The goal and solution to all national problems proposed is multinational-driven economic development. The problem is that the model of economic development being embraced is the same which is benefiting from and oftentimes even causing or amplifying the armed conflict. But anyone who makes that case, unless they’re Robin Kirk and therefor moderately protected by a US passport and the capacity to leave (although to be fair, she’s had a couple close calls) tends to end up dead. Not always, but often.
Today when I was walking downtown there was a publicity sign that said something about “Medellin looks good”. What perturbs me more and more here is the current focus on “looking” good, rather than actually engaging in the kind of structural change that is what really needs to happen if we’re going to get past just militarizing whole neighborhoods as a solution.
Meanwhile I feel a little nuts– because I’ve normalized it all too. Six people died a couple of blocks from Oscar’s house. A few months ago a kid was shot in my neighborhood. But this month is “Ferria de las Flores”, Medellin’s famous flower festival (I’m deceived to find out they have to import flowers from Bogota for this! And also that the mayor’s office essentially “cleans” the streets of homeless people, literally just sticking them on a bus for another municipality, to not offend tourists) and that’s what we’re all going to see here for a month. It’s hard to know what to do most of the time, but I’m grateful for people like Robin Kirk, like Oscar, like all the vagrant prophets and prophetesses reminding me constantly to open my eyes, to ask one more question, to keep pressing forward.
A few photos from our vacation for your viewing pleasure: