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Medellin: Model City for IDB; Paramilitary Repression for the Poor


I arrived in Medellin to participate in a series of events called "IDB: 50 years of Financing Inequality" held parallel to the annual meeting of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). It was late and the airport was filled with escorts who shepherded the suit-and-tied official delegates to waiting cabs. The usual response at these meetings when you say you’re with the alternative civil society groups is a shrug that means "you’re on your own," so I was surprised when the IDB guys insisted I go in one of their free cabs.

I later realized the insistence was part of the campaign to make sure that Bank visitors experienced only the official version of Medellin. The city has been billed as the hemisphere’s success story in the drug war. In October of 2002 the government came in with Black Hawks and troops, rooting out leftist guerrillas and drug cartels and killing scores of residents. The second phase was demobilizing paramilitaries. Homicides dropped from a world record rate in the mid-nineties and a series of heavily financed infrastructure projects helped polish the city’s new image.

But I couldn’t help noticing the way camouflage-garbed soldiers with machine guns that suddenly appeared along the side of the road like a shoot-’em-up video game. Or how when the hotel’s street was barricaded by armed police and shields, the cab driver wouldn’t let me walk the half block by myself.

The stories and rumors of a very different reality in Medellin began surfacing immediately. One friend was assigned a security escort to accompany him to the university, with the instructions, "If there’s a bomb or shooting, just do what he does." Another was full body-searched as he stood talking to a group of young men. Bogota papers reported that an anonymous note was sent out throughout the city warning mothers that if they wanted to keep their sons alive they should keep them in the house after 10 o’clock at night. Four thousand police were sent into the slums to make sure the poor behaved for the bankers’ reunion. Gay men, prostitutes and bums had been rounded up and removed from public view.

What I was seeing and hearing contradicted the official propaganda so I set out to make sure I wasn’t exaggerating and confirm the rumors. But things just got worse. A local organizer explained that the 10 p.m. curfew had been announced not only in Medellin but throughout the department of Antioquia. Nobody knew for sure who made the threat-the paramilitaries or the army itself. Newspapers and residents confirmed the other rumors.

As we set out to visit a poor comuna-slum area-the driver described the "vacunas" or vaccinations, a form of extortion where the paramilitaries charge small businesses for protection. Payments are in cash or a promise to buy from paramilitary-run businesses. The paramilitary forces are far from demobilized here. They are armed and active.

In fact, the homicide rate has been rising sharply in Medellin. In some areas, inter-mafia turf wars have erupted again. Violence touches so many lives here. In some neighborhoods in the Santo Domingo comuna where we met with a resident organization, 70% of residents are "desplazados" who moved there after being uprooted from their homes and losing loved ones. The residents explain that government repression against citizen movements is so heavy that major public protests are out of the question. When the neighborhood forum broke up and the participants marched a few blocks together, nearly fifty police emerged from where they had been monitoring the event and moved on to another area.

I know the differences between Mexico and Colombia. But I can’t help thinking we could end up like this if Mexico continues with present policies. The militarization of society is already a reality and in some places citizens have lost freedom of movement. A corrupt government emboldened by the war on drugs extends its own power while criminalizing dissidence and youth.

Let’s hope Medellin is not a mirror of Mexico’s future.

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