Like thousands of other Colombians, María lost family to the era of kidnappings in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Two of her uncles and her grandfather were taken, but only one uncle came back. And despite paying, her family never got their family members’ bodies back.
“You live with that,” she said. “You don’t have a clue where they are.”
I sat quietly for a minute, absorbing her words.
“I’ll tell you something funny,” she brightened. I had these rabbits that lived in the yard when I was young, she said, and even they were kidnapped. The kidnapper demanded a ransom but my mother refused after already paying so much.
Medellín is a city of contradictions, a paragon of transformation that shed its past as the world’s murder capital. But I couldn’t quite reconcile the Medellin I saw before me with its history.
I couldn’t imagine the violence and fear that pervaded the city for so long, and my Spanish-language skills made the process more difficult. Though I speak some Spanish, my proficiency wasn’t at the level where I couldn’t fully understand interviewees as I tried to learn how the layers of violence are embedded throughout the city.
This meant I had to rely on a translator – María. Working with a translator brought its own challenges, but it also gave me the chance to spend 10 days with someone who grew up in Medellín. Now 27 years old, she grew up as the city began to emerge out of the shadow of international drug lord and head of the Medellín Cartel, Pablo Escobar.
“Everything is built from narcotrafficking,” Maria told me over lunch on our second day together. “When I tell you it’s everything, it’s everything.”
Escobar may have died 26 years ago, but much of the narco-economy he facilitated remains in place, and plenty of other cartel characters are still around. Many narco families still reside in the upscale neighborhood of Poblado, where María grew up. This included the family of drug dealer Santiago Gallón, whose daughter is a friend of María’s. Gallón was implicated in the murder of Andres Escobar, the Colombian footballer and team captain who accidentally scored a goal for the opposing U.S. team during the 1994 World Cup. Escobar was murdered two weeks later in Medellín, shot in nightclub parking lot. The man who confessed to the murder worked for the cartel, in part as Gallón’s driver.
María told me how strange she felt going over to Gallón’s house for parties as a teenager and seeing him, a free but suspected murderer, mixing among them. But kids of narcos had the best things – cars, homes, clothes – and that ostentatious swagger continues to draw in kids and teenagers across all neighborhoods in Medellín.
These are the kinds of stories you learn when you comment, I can’t imagine what it was like to grow up here in Medellín. I heard many more while working with María, revealing not just histories of violence but histories of resistance as well. Thanks to her, I hope to stitch these stories together to reflect how people grapple with the history that’s made Medellín what it is today.