A symbol of anguish in the heart of Medellin
Photo painted on The Monaco, east face
Tomorrow, February 22nd 2019, marks a major milestone in this city. At 11 AM a symbol of violence, division, evil, greed, avarice, & overarching ambition will be blown up. A building that once housed one of the world's most powerful & dangerous drug lords, 'The Monaco' will collapse in a pile of well deserved rubble, and the city of Medellin, a city whose citizens were terrorized by its chief inhabitant, will take a major step toward a brighter, gentler, more hope filled future. Calendars will be inscribed: 22 de Febrero 2019. At eleven AM a dynamite charge will erupt, destroying this old, dingy, grey & white building, and it will be gone forever.
Like prayer flags, these banners represent hopes & dreams
Emotions run high here
But this post is not about a building. It's about the people of Medellin, especially those who were victimized by the violence that occurred in this city in the recent past. Indeed, every citizen of Medellin was terrorized by the twin evils of the FARC, and the drug wars that raged here 30 years ago. The numbers are staggering: Between 1983 & 1994 46,300 citizens died here. More than 4,200 people killed every year, an average of 11 each day.
Respect our pain, honor our victims
So what have the people of Medellin done? In an astonishing way of addressing their pain and loss, they've embraced their history, demanding that victims, not victimizers are remembered. At the Monaco site, a remembrance park will be built containing memorials to the victims of those terrible years. The city government listened to the victims. Instead of using the building for official functions, they decided to implode it, and to establish the memorial park. In another remarkably progressive act, the city worked with tour companies that once capitalized on the various narco sites. Those companies have agreed to help change the narrative around their businesses, orienting them toward hope, and away from the highly marketable violence and disruption that seemed to commodify past pain and fear. (At the end of this post I'll share a remarkable story of one young man's regressive wish, and his subsequent visit with the mayor of Medellin)
Museo Casa de Memoria
Located near downtown Medellin, Museo Casa de Memoria, The Memory House Museum was built in 2006 as a memorial, library, classroom, and solid symbol of the violent past Colombianos are determined not to repeat. Aimed not just at the narco violence that rocked the city of Medellin, the museum features displays about the fifty year struggle against The Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, Las FARC, as well. The longest civil rebellion in history began in 1964, and ended in 2017 when members of The FARC were assimilated into the Colombian government.
Museo Casa de Memoria is well worth a long visit
Though the violence hasn't disappeared altogether in the countryside, the city of Medellin, once the most dangerous city on earth, is now safer than many cities, and is not even listed on the world's top 50 perilous places to visit. Medellin today is safer than St. Louis, Baltimore, or Detroit.
Museo de Casa Memoria offers displays on Colombia's victims of violence
As we wandered around the various displays, it was obvious that much thought and much sensitivity has gone into this memorial museum. All Colombianos were touched by the violent past, thus all voices are heard here.
The family in color: Then only the victim in color
In several heartbreaking displays like the one above, people are shown in color with families, friends, in public places, in other words, in everyday life. Then the photo changes, only the victim is still colorized, and families and friends are depicted in black & white. It's a sort of mourning scene that again calls attention to victims. There are hundreds of such photos here.
Notice the sign in English. And a library of books that preserve the story
For whatever reason, one sign on the Monaco is in English. Perhaps a plea to tourists contributing money to narco tours? Perhaps an acknowledgement that much of the drug violence resulted from the insatiable market for drugs in the U.S? Perhaps an attempt to show the violence as a universal stain? The library is in Museo Casa de Memoria. Every shelf has books about the terrible years, stories from individuals, journalists, government officials, soldiers, mothers & fathers, grandparents, relatives of victims. Everyone was touched by those awful years. Colombia is embracing its violent history, and is moving beyond it.
With Alcalde Federico Andrés Guttiérez Zuluaga
Now for the remarkable story. The fellow above greeting two of the newer expats to his fair city is the mayor of Medellin. We just happened to run into Mayor Federico as we visited the Museo Casa de Memoria. He was there, it turns out, not to meet us, but because as mayor of a city with a remarkable story of rebirth, he understands the power of narrative, and how it changes hearts and minds.
The director of the museum told us this tale. A youngster of 11 or 12 was standing outside the Monaco, the building that figured so heavily in Medellin's drug trade. The boy was overheard by a journalist to say that he "wanted to be the next P....Escobar." The newsman apparently got the boy's name, and he contacted the mayor's office. Mayor Federico arranged to meet the boy at the museum, which is where we saw the two of them. Federico huddled with the boy for nearly half an hour, just the two of them, in a conference room. (I asked to take a picture, and was not allowed to). The mayor explained to the boy what his choices would mean. He explained the truth of life in a drug gang, the violence, the depredation, the constant fear, the disruption to families and society, and his likely early death. He acknowledged the boy's fantasy of wealth, and power, and identity, but he wanted the boy to know that following such a path would lead only to his destruction. Seeing this episode, knowing the mayor of the second largest city in Colombia took time from his busy schedule to speak to an 11 year old constituent, told us much about how and why Medellin has made a remarkable turnaround.
To never forget, to reflect, to renew
Instead of glorifying criminals, Medellin's people insist on remembering their victims. This is the message Mayor Federico conveyed to the young man, with hopes, I'm sure, that he'd take it to heart, and tell his amigos.
22.2.2018: The Monaco will be no more
To all those who were victimized by violence here in Medellin, at 11 AM tomorrow we will cheer with you as a chief symbol of that terrible past turns to ash and dust.