Friday, December 9, 2011

What Makes Colombian Cycling So Unique? Part V

During my first two weeks here, I rode into the mountains on the other side of Medellin. A few days later, a Colombian friend asked about my route across the city. I didn't realize at the time, but I had chosen a road that borders the neighborhood of San Javier. When you think of Medellin as the murder capital of the world (which it was in the 1980s and 1990s), you shouldn't think of Medellin. You should think of San Javier.

This post is about Medellin's violent past. Its not directly related to cycling, but its important that visting cyclists, or any tourist for that matter, be aware of the neighborhoods they enter. A Garmin device or wrong turn can easily route you through one Medellin's dangerous barrios.

Medellin has long been a violent city. In the 1980s, Pablo Escobar's Medellin drug cartel fought an urban war to control the city. They eliminated competing cartels, bribed government officials, and offered rewards for the killing of police officers. Escobar himself was killed by the Colombian government in 1993 after a year-long manhunt. At its peak in 1991, Medellin's murder rate stood at 381 murders per 100,000 people. And the absolute number for the year: 6,500. (The UN's marker for an 'epidemic' murder rate is 10 per 100,000).  

A power vacuum ensued with Diego Murillo Bejarano, aka Don Berna, taking control of Medellin's largest drug and crime cartel. Crime rates actually dropped for much of the remainder of the 1990s and 2000s as Don Berna and the other cartels declared a ceasefire. Murders dropped even further after FARC, a left-wing guerilla group, was driven out of Medellin in 2002 by the government's Operation Orion.

By 2007, Medellin's murder rate was down to 34 per 100,000. By comparison, the murder rate in New Orleans in 2009 (the highest in the US) was 52 per 100,000. (Washington DC's murder rate peaked in 1991 at 81 per 100,000).

Don Berna was extradited to the US in 2008 to face drug trafficking charges. The murder rate quickly began to climb again. Rival gangs fought for territory and by 2009 the murder rate had reached 95 per 100,000. Hope reverted back to fear. Later in 2009, a group distributed flyers across Medellin's barrios threatening a 'social cleansing' program targeted at criminals, vagrants, prostitutes, people with HIV, and anyone in 'inappropriate places after 10pm.'

The government responded to the increased violence by deploying hundreds of additional police, but with little affect. Gangs bought cooperation from the police and government. Even now, Colombians worry that violent days will return.

This is all a very simple view of Medellin's history. There is far more to it. Left-wing guerilla groups and right-wing paramilitary groups were the primary actors in the 1960s and 1970s. Criminal gangs were always a factor, but cocaine changed everything in the 1980s. The drug cartels were raking in so much money (Pablo Escobar was reportedly making $60m per day) that they were able to purchase weapons and government allies. Soon, the cartels became the kings of Medellin.

So, how safe do I feel in Medellin? Very safe. Actually, I've never felt unsafe. Crime in Medellin is highly concentrated in certain barrios. I live in Poblado where there has not been a murder in years (it almost feels like Newton, Massachusetts or Murrays Bay, Auckland). 

When I do leave Poblado, the Colombians are so friendly and passive that I find the violent crime statistics almost impossible to believe. I spent several hours in Barrio Andalucia watching a downhill bike race. One local from the barrio bought two ice-creams for his children. He then bought another ice-cream and walked across the street to hand it to me. He was intrigued that a non-Colombian would be riding around Medellin watching a local bike race. 

But I am careful of where I go. Trouble would not be far away if I ventured into the wrong barrio and crossed an "Invisible Border." Gangs, often young teenagers, aggressively defend their territory. A friend who works as a civil engineer for the City of Medellin told me that people are killed for a variety of reasons: a rival gang member unknowingly strays across the border; for being the boyfriend of a girl fancied by a gang-member; a person is out on the streets despite a 7pm gang-declared curfew; or, a gang simply mistaking you for being a rival gang-member. Fifteen days ago a truck driver was killed because he refused to pay the 'toll' to enter Barrio Castilla. 

I didn't have much interest in learning more about Pablo Escobar once I arrived in Medellin. I had watched a documentary once on the History Channel a few years ago. As far as I was concerned, he was a drug trafficker who died 18 years ago. But his legacy is still felt today. Within my first week in Medellin, people mentioned Pablo Escobar to me several times. They would say things such as "I live next to a Pablo Escobar building" or "My office is just around the corner from a Pablo Escobar building." And it wasn't something they were necessarily proud of. It just seemed convenient to describe a location relative to a landmark; the landmark being a Pablo Escobar building. (Escobar owned apartment buildings all over Medellin. One stands on the block next to mine. The building has been vacant since his death in 1993 and is currently very run down. I am told that his estate is still tied up in the Colombian court system).

Colombians are very self-conscious of their reputation. During my visit to Cartagena in 2009, many of the Colombians I met would ask me if I felt safe visiting their country. They were eager to discuss Colombia's image in the foreign media and explain that what we see on CNN or BBC is not the whole story and not all 45 million Colombians are drug dealers or murderers.

The improved security situation is one of the drivers behind the recent boom in cycling. Crime is up, but Medellin is much safer now than in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. Very few Colombians ventured into the rural areas to train until five years ago. And I, a gringo with limited Spanglish, certainly could not be roaming the country roads today if things hadn't changed.

Click on the following links to read more about cycling in Colombia: Colombians and Road Surfaces, Food and Diet, Support Vehicles, and Weather.

The vacant, derelict Escobar building one block from my apartment. 



  1. Can I add as someone familiar with where you are staying, an owner of one of the apartments in the building was telling a story of an explosion on Carrera 46 that blew up her wall and she had to replace it. Apparently it was a bomb that was being used trying to kill Pablo Escobar as this was in Poblado.
    Also, most assassinations in the past were done with people on motorcycles. In 2006, they had recently allowed two male passengers to be on a motorcycle (moto) together. And they are typically small bikes as the policia would not allow a bike with more than 400cc's on the road. So that is why there are so many small bikes and very few large ones even today. Also, a saying in Colombia when a paisa is mad is 'voy a mandarte una moto' or literally, I am gonna send a motorcycle/kill you. It is interesting as this is a saying clearly derived from the ugly past.
    So if you hear this, do your best to make peace, and exit quickly. :)

    No dar papaya - don't put yourself in harms way!

  2. Good info Karl. Thanks. I read about the style of drive-by assassinations a while ago. As a result, the Policia banned BMW motorbikes with two people aboard (one forward-facing driver, and the gunman facing backwards).

  3. Wow, fascinating insight into the history and present of Medellin. Thanks dude.

  4. Wow, fascinating insight into the history and present of Medellin. Thanks dude.