In 1989 I went to Medellín, Colombia in South America purely in a self-serving way. I just wanted to improve my Spanish by living in a Spanish-speaking country. To semi-support myself, I was willing to teach English, thereby putting to good use my recent M.A. in Foreign Language Education.
I was incredibly naïve and didn’t research the situation in Colombia before accepting an English teaching job at the Centro Colombo Americano, a cultural center and school. I should have known something was wrong when Andy, the school director, told me (before my acceptance) that the school had just been blown up, possibly by the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC). However, it could have been the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) or even Pablo Escobar, the famous narco-terrorist.
Since the early 60’s, Colombia had been embroiled in a civil war, complicated in the 70’s by Escobar’s success as a smuggler of cocaine to the United States. When I arrived, I found that the school was “up and running,” although lessons had to be taught amid the noise of jack hammers and drills as the school was re-built and renovated.
Colombia itself was, however, in serious trouble as Escobar waged war against the Colombian state, trying to get it to rescind a policy of extraditing drug traffickers to the United States. In Colombia the narcos could bribe or intimidate judges—a tactic not possible in the U.S.
In 1989, whether planted by drug smugglers or revolutionaries, bombs would go off in Medellín at frequent intervals. Also, disconcerting was the number of political assassinations—radical students being pushed out of military helicopters or the simpler drive-by shootings via assassins riding a motorcycle. Civil order in Medellín had broken down. The city was the murder capital of the world.
Moreover, petty crime was rampant. During my year in Medellín, owing largely to my own carelessness, my pocket was picked 10 or 12 times. I still recall walking toward a young man who reached into my front pocket, thinking that a comb was a wallet. We circled around each other cautiously until he went on his way. Then there was the time I raised my watch hand above the press of a crowd. Someone snatched it off my wrist. No one (except me) went anywhere in the city after 9:00 pm.
I did enjoy afternoons of peace in the Jardín Botánico among the trees and birds. I would then go to the local planetarium, which—curiously—had higher quality shows than any of the planetariums I’d gone to in the U.S. And the Colombian people—despite the violence—found considerable happiness in their friendships and families, the latter being far closer, warmer, and larger than our rough American equivalents. I enjoyed the company of a couple of families who welcomed me into their homes, and I even became the godfather of one young man.
In the almost thirty years since Pablo Escobar’s death in 1993, Medellín has undergone a startling transformation. I remember walking through the city and seeing the numerous T-shaped concrete supports, the abandoned beginnings of a proposed light rail metropolitan transport system. That system has now been completed, and what a triumph it is! There are three light-rail lines, and three cable gondola lifts carry people up the steep hillsides of the Aburrá Valley in which Medellín is situated. The poorest barrios of Medellín line the hillsides, and now at last people no longer must climb on foot the equivalent of a 28-story building to reach their homes. There is also a rubber-tired tramway that can negotiate slopes with a 12% gradient. One barrio even has a giant escalator to make the homeward trek easier.
And the murder rate has plunged so that now Medellín is one of the safest cities in Latin America. Of course, partly this decline in violence is due to the end (more or less) of the civil war that so long convulsed Colombian society; but much of the improvement in the murder rate has to do with the transport system. The poorest citizens of Medellín can now travel to all parts of the city for work. Rich and poor mix more than they used to, and the result seems to be less friction between the classes of society. Moreover, the metro cable stations have annexed to them libraries as well as sports and educational facilities. The poor now have at their disposal more public resources than in the past.
And my beloved planetarium has been renovated and expanded so that it is part of a large scientific-technological area in the northern (admittedly well-to-do) part of the city. There is also an eco-arbol, a large tree-like structure that removes carbon dioxide and toxins from the local atmosphere, not to mention Parque de los Pies Descalzos (“Barefoot Park), where people can let their feet luxuriate in mud, grass, and pools of water. In 2013 the Urban Land Institute proclaimed that Medellín was the “most innovative city in the world.” Or you could say that Medellín has made notable progress toward becoming a “Beloved Community,” Martin Luther King’s concept of the idea toward which society ought to be moving.
Of course, robbery and petty crime is still rife in the city. I’m sure that—if I were to go back for a visit—I’d find abject poverty and many beggars in the streets. Still, Medellín has made so much progress toward being a “Beloved Community” as to give us hope for similar progress in other cities and countries. Perhaps there is hope for the United States despite our mass shootings and polarized politics. Perhaps early Quakers who envisioned the Kingdom of God on Earth would not be discouraged about these United States of America. Perhaps we can follow the path Colombia has blazed for us in this old, new metropolis called Medellín.
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