Letter From Colombia: In Plastic Surgery Capital, How Real is the New Face?

Kari Lydersen

Children sell balloons and trinkets in the Santo Domingo neighborhood of Medellin, once a hotbed of paramilitary violence.

MEDELLIN, COLOMBIA — The Santo Domingo neighborhood perched on a steep hillside in Medellin pulsed with color, commerce, music and motion on a recent afternoon. It was the last week of the Christmas holiday season, so many workers were still on vacation. That means more business for the army of people employed in the informal economy, eking out a living selling fried corn treats, coffee from backpack thermoses, calls from cell phones tethered to the seller’s belt like a spider web, packaged ice cream bars in beat-up coolers, and a myriad other goods and services.

This is known as one of Medellin’s slum” neighborhoods, far removed experientially if not geographically from the tony areas where the well-heeled from around the region come for plastic surgery (especially breast implants) and fine dining. In recent years Santo Domingo was a hotbed of violence by right-wing paramilitary groups along with other urban gangs and drug traffickers. One of the boxy brick homes beside a steep concrete staircase still bears the AUC” moniker — United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, the country’s feared paramilitary umbrella group. Newer peace murals in the park at the terminus of the city’s elevated cable car line reference the horror of systematic torture, murder and violence, allegedly tacitly or directly endorsed by the government in the course of the country’s decades-long civil war.

Now everyone from government officials, civic boosters and airline companies to regular people — including a cherubic young boy offering a guided tour of Santo Domingo — are touting Medellin’s transformation from a virtual war zone to a vibrant cultural capital. At the airport, an advertisement promises that the only risk is that you’ll want to stay.” 

But behind the slogans of the city boosters — and news this month that Medellin officially dropped from the 4th-most violent city in the world to the 14th — is life here actually better for most people?

In the past there was a lot of violence from paramilitaries, but now it’s different…the peace murals by the library stopped the violence,” said the boy in a lilting memorized monologue, while cradling a scruffy black puppy named Muneca (Doll).

On the surface, it does appear that daily life and work must be better for the residents of Santo Domingo and similar neighborhoods today than in years past. In the park it is almost hard to tell who is working and who is out enjoying the day, as everyone blends together in a cheery tumult of laughing kids jumping on trampolines, riding tiny bikes and eating cotton candy while adults cook on impromptu grills and buy and sell various goods, food and beverages.

In the city’s center — in the valley bottom alongside the dirty, concrete-lined Medellin River — bustling commerce of all types is also ever-present. The streets are jammed with small stores and stalls; packed sidewalk cafes and bars; vendors of every sort; honking taxi cabs and colorful mini-buses. The oily, sharp innards of motorcycle and car parts spill out onto sidewalks from cavernous machine shops…women in indigenous dress whip up empanadas in steaming pots of oil while Afro-Colombian vendors use presses to squeeze out a sweet sugarcane lemonade…and young women with fashionable makeup in jumpsuits bearing the names of factories like Unilever and Oral B stride briskly to work.

In Parque Bolivar, named for the famous South American liberator Simon Bolivar, people criss-cross the stately square from dawn to dusk and beyond drumming up a living in various ways. Boys pedal bicycles loaded with blocks of ice, bags of rice or tropical fruits. An elderly man pushes a wheelbarrow piled high with bananas. Competing coffee vendors with their metal backpacks or shopping carts full of thermoses greet each other amicably as they traverse the grounds. A transgender prostitute, voluptuous in a flouncy denim dress, pouts theatrically as she seals a deal with a spiky-haired teenage boy.

Uniformed city employees are ubiquitous throughout the city, sweeping streets, tending the famous Christmas light displays, or simply keeping an eye out for public order. And the city has launched a public pride and public works campaign, including anti-discrimination messages plastered on the Metro train and logos on kiosks, pay phones and benches saying Medellin: Obra Con Amor” (loosely, Medellin: A Work of Love).

But the strident declarations of a new Medellin can’t hide the fact that all is still far from ideal in Colombia’s second-largest city in terms of workers rights and well-being, public safety and equality. It appears that making ends meet is a constant hustle for most of the people described above, working jobs in the informal economy or paid only by the sales they make. The official unemployment rate is 23 percent, 29 percent for women. Off-shoring and automation has cost many jobs in Medellin’s textile, bottling and other major industries.

And attacks on and murders of trade unionists continue. In 2010, according to the group Education International, 46 unionists were murdered, 27 of them teachers. Antioquia, the department that includes Medellin, was in the top three for killings of teachers. This week local TV news reported that 70,000 students stayed home from school as teachers were on strike, but media gave few details of the teachers’ demands or situations.

Colombia has a public health system, but it is reportedly a slow, intimidating and arbitrary bureaucracy to negotiate, and many residents lack the official documentation needed to enter the system. While much has reportedly been done to serve the country’s notorious street kids – in the past massacred with impunity by paramilitaries engaging in social cleansing” – many homeless youth and adults, often with severe disabilities, still beg and languish on downtown streets.

Graffiti throughout the city decries ley 30,” a proposed reform of the country’s education system which would have entailed privatization, higher costs for many students, and a loss of autonomy for universities, according to students and labor unions who ultimately forced the government to back off on the bill after fall protests. But as in much of Latin America, privatization of various public services is seen as an ongoing threat to public welfare and affordability.

Prices for food, housing, gas, public transportation and clothing in Medellin appear equivalent to or just slightly lower than those in the United States, yet wages for working-class people are reportedly significantly lower. And that’s in a major city — in rural outlying areas, especially the neighboring, primarily Afro-Colombian state of Choco, it is a completely different story. Government services, jobs and other necessities are virtually nonexistent or much harder to come by and political violence and repression are still a prominent reality.

In early January the organized crime group the Urbaneros distributed leaflets declaring a 24-hour paro armado” or armed strike” across a wide swath of Antioquia, Choco and other provinces, including medium-sized cities like Apartado. Work and transit virtually ceased in these areas, as people were terrified of being killed or attacked by the group, which called the strike in retribution for the recent police killing of one of its leaders. News of the situation spread on Twitter, and the media outlet Sem​ana​.com reported a resident in Apartado saying everything is shut down, from the people selling cell phone minutes to the empanada vendors to the cooperatives, it’s all closed.”

Back in Medellin, the prominent city investment in public transit (including a brand new 1,260-foot outdoor escalator” and two gondola systems serving impoverished hillside neighborhoods); verdant parks; and free public entertainment including the extravagant Christmas lights display seem, at least to an outside observer, to be a genuinely beneficial yet highly strategic effort to change the city’s public image and invite more tourism and foreign investment. If successful, this mission would logically create jobs and improve the economy for many of Medellin’s residents.

But the trickle-down effect has proved far from significant in countless other situations. It remains to be seen how local and national government agencies treat their neediest citizens as the public image of drug lord Pablo Escobar and his ilk fades further into the background, and the hard realities of life in a highly stratified, profit-driven, striving metropolis persist.

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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.

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