Medellín: Who's Afraid of Hip-Hop?

by Teo Ballvé

openDemocracy.net, Feature, Mar 04, 2013

Héctor Pacheco walked down the steep hillsides of his barrio in Medellín, Colombia to wish his aunt a happy birthday. Pacheco—a local rapper nicknamed “Kolacho”—had spoken at a public event the week before, calling on neighborhood youth to use hip-hop as an instrument for non-violence. As Kolacho began the slow climb back home, gunmen from a motorcycle riddled his body with bullets. He was 20 years old.

“That was one of the hardest blows I’ve ever had to deal with,” says Jeison Castaño, or “Jeihhco,” a fellow rapper and band mate of Kolacho. Since Kolacho’s death in August 2009, nine more young hip-hop activists have been murdered in Medellín. “Being young in this city is a risk in itself,” says Jeihhco. “And being a rapper—out in the streets all the time like we are—is even riskier.”


The Comuna 13 district on the west side of Medellín. Credit: Ricardo Mejía.

The violence against hip-hoppers demonstrates the lingering contradictions in a city that has gained global notoriety for its urban security makeover. In the 1990s, international press coverage labelled Medellín the “murder capital of the world,” but with a dramatic drop in violence over the years, headlines began touting the “Medellín Miracle.” Today, the city is nowhere near the violent depths of its past, but things have once again started to unravel and the miracle has lost some of its shine.

“Medellín is a city that lifted itself out of the abyss and it has huge opportunities and possibilities. But we still have a battle to fight against illegality,” notes Federico Gutierrez, a former city councillor and candidate for Mayor. Indeed, illegal armed groups still control entire swaths of the city, fighting pitched battles for control over the city’s poor barrios. The collateral damage includes the 10 hip-hop activists killed in the last three years; their only transgression was trying to turn young people away from a life of crime and violence on the streets.

“Through hip-hop, graffiti, and the arts these young hip-hoppers are sending out not just a message of peace, but of non-violent cultural resistance,” says Gutiérrez. Besieged by gang violence, the hip-hop movement’s political vision of peace and cultural resistance faces tremendous odds—a testament to how Medellín’s poor barrios are places where life and death, hope and despair, exist side by side in staggering proportion.

Urban drug wars

“Medellín is a city of extremes and of contrasts,” observes Gutiérrez. One of those extremes was in 1991 when the homicide rate hit 381 per 100,000 inhabitants. In New York City, that would mean 32,000 murders a year—it had about 400 in 2012. “No city has hit bottom like Medellín hit bottom,” claims Gutiérrez.

Those were the days of Pablo Escobar and the Medellín Cartel. Escobar turned the city into a war zone. Car bombs levelled entire city blocks, kidnappings soared, and his assassins took out judges, cabinet members, and presidential candidates. His war machine also centralized control over the scattered criminal gangs active in Medellín’s municipal districts called comunas. Under his sway, the gangs became hit-squad franchises that terrorized the city and killed some 1,000 members of the police.

When Colombian authorities finally killed Escobar in 1993, Diego Murillo, a cartel member nicknamed “Don Berna,” seized his former boss’s criminal empire with the help of right-wing paramilitary groups. These counterinsurgent militias collaborated so closely with Colombian security forces that a 2001 report by Human Rights Watch described the paramilitaries as the army’s “sixth division.”

Comuna 13

Don Berna’s paramilitary alliance gave him the firepower and street muscle to set his sights on his next military objective: the city’s poor comunas. These mountainside barrios had become strongholds of Colombia’s left-wing guerrilla groups—sworn enemies of the paramilitaries. Don Berna got his chance in 2002 when a series of military operations by the state security forces sought to dislodge the guerrillas.

The most violent operations took place in the Comuna 13, a poor district of 140,000 inhabitants situated on the city’s westernmost edge. If Medellín had become the murder capital of the world, then the Comuna 13 was its nerve center. But La 13, as most residents affectionately call it, also had a deep tradition of community organizing and a strong spirit of popular resistance.

The first major military assault on La 13 came in May 2002, leaving at least nine civilians dead, including three children. The siege prevented locals from taking the dying and wounded to receive medical attention. Suddenly, residents spontaneously flooded into the streets waving white rags. The fighting stopped.

“That was a really important day in the history of our community,” remembers Jeihhco, “because unarmed civil resistance put a stop to the war that day.” Jeihhco and other hip-hoppers from La 13 decided to hold a peace concert. The show was held under the motto: “Violence Won’t Defeat Us.”


Graffiti artists El Perro and Rek’s rendition of Operation Orion. Credit: Parcharte.info

Just weeks later came “Operation Orion.” For three days, the military teamed up with its “sixth division”—led by Don Berna—and pounded the Comuna 13 with helicopter gunships, armored vehicles, snipers, and 1,000 well-armed soldiers, leaving 11 dead and more than 200 wounded. Jeihhco was hunkered down at his house on the upper edge of the comuna; it was a final guerrilla holdout.

He remembers the bright muzzle flash coming out of the red-hot barrel of a .50-caliber machine gun mounted on an armored vehicle. The sound of the shots echoed with the sobbing screams of his four-year-old sister hiding beneath the bed. But what shocked him the most was watching the guerrillas—the tough guys who had called the shots in the barrio all his life—scamper off into the nearby forests.

“I understood a lot of things that day,” says Jeihhco. “Most important, I think, is that I learned that power doesn’t last forever.” After Orion, the military tacitly ceded control over the comuna to Don Berna, but even his power didn’t last forever.

Medellín’s makeover

Things had already started to change in Medellín. Government social investments—particularly in youth programs—spurred by the human carnage of the 1990s were beginning to pay off. With help from organizations like the local YMCA, the comunas had become vibrant spaces of youth-led cultural initiatives.

“These young people started making themselves visible with their own voice and their own forms of expression,” says Lucía González, a long time social worker in the city. “They have not only built their own narrative, they made a place for themselves in the city.”

Medellín had other major changes afoot. The city began experimenting with participatory budgeting in the late 1990s. By law, local neighborhood assemblies are now entitled to five percent of the city budget and democratically set their own spending priorities. The government inaugurated a metro system in 1996 that later integrated the steep comunas—some rising vertically for more than 600 meters—through an innovative network of cable cars and outdoor escalators.


Comuna 13’s Metrocable and the España Library Park (upper-left). Credit: Ben Bowes

The administration of Mayor Sergio Fajardo (2004-2007) gave greater impetus to Medellín’s newfound brand of “social urbanism.” New schools were built and old ones upgraded, while green spaces began interrupting the city’s orange-brick landscape. Fajardo also commissioned five architecturally imposing “library parks” in the comunas. By the end of his administration, Medellín’s murder rate was less than Washington D.C.’s.

Federico Gutiérrez, who plans to run again for Mayor in the next election cycle, claims, “This is a city that is increasingly concerned with social issues and has become a global role model in urban innovation and in the recovery of public spaces.” Medellín’s makeover was indeed more than skin-deep, but there were also darker forces at work beneath the gloss of social urbanism.

Don Berna’s rule over the city’s normally fractious underworld was unrivalled. No one dared to move in on his territories. The lack of territorial contenders ushered in a mafia-style Pax Romana that helped guarantee the city’s gobernabilidad (governability)—or as some critics called it, “donbernabilidad.” When authorities extradited Don Berna to the United States in 2008, the city’s turf wars began anew and murder rates spiked.

Although homicides have fallen in the last couple years, violence in Medellín is unevenly distributed: It has decreased overall, but it has also become more concentrated in places such as La 13, where more than 100 young men were killed last year alone. Three of them were hip-hop activists, including “El Duque” (Duke), one of Jeihhco’s closest friends.


Jeison Castaño, “Jeihhco,” of the group C-15. Credit: Sergio González/El Cassette

Public enemies?

Jeihhco was a sixth-grader the first time he heard hip-hop. His friend played him an album by Public Enemy. “I obviously didn’t understand shit about what they were saying, but my head started bobbing and I just entered a zone.” Jeihhco’s life became all about rap. He even built a makeshift home studio where he recorded his friends and eventually joined C-15, a band founded by Kolacho, his slain friend.

In the months before Operation Orion in 2002, he began seeing fliers posted by the local YMCA, inviting all the comuna’s hip-hop groups to a meeting. He remembers laughing with his friends: “What kind of a rapper goes to ‘meetings’!” They went anyway and more than 60 people showed up. Together they formed a collective of rap groups from the Comuna 13 called “La Elite” (it was La Elite that put on the peace concert before Orion).

Alexandra Castrillón, director of the local YMCA branch, remembers the hip-hop groups grew much more politicized after the meeting. They started working together and built links with hip-hoppers from other comunas. Some even became involved in the participatory budgeting system and other forms of direct political participation. “Above all, they started working hard for peace,” notes Castrillón. “And young people began having role models that didn’t wield power through guns and force.”

The “Hip-Hop School Kolacho” was one of La Elite’s many outgrowths. Hundreds of young boys and girls have passed through its ranks, learning about nonviolence and community activism through hip-hop. “Arts and culture has provided these young people with what the political system and the economy has been unable to provide: a place in society,” says Lucía González, the social worker.


Participants of the Hip-Hop School Kolacho. Credit: Jenny Giraldo

Jeihhco and his friends now have a new project called “Voices on the Line” in which they invite young gang members to record rap songs for an album. The project is aimed at gang youth who are still on the fence—those who are in the gangs but not consumed by them. “We just want them to feel something new, something different, even if it’s just for one day or a few hours,” explains Jeihhco. For reasons unrelated to the project, one of those kids was killed before hearing his voice on the album.

Despite the wave of violence against hip-hop activists, Jeihhco and other close observers of life in the comunas state that rappers are not being specifically targeted by the gangs, called “combos.” González explains, “Thousands of people are killed, but the city only finds out about the murder of hip-hoppers because they have made a name for themselves.” Jeihhco describes it as a cruel “hierarchy of death” in which some murders are more visible than others.

“The hip-hop movement has no interest in being martyrs of this war,” says González, “because they’re not in the war, they’re trying to take people out of the war.” Castrillón from the YMCA also denies that a concerted military campaign exists against hip-hoppers, but she also recognizes that their insistent calls for peace and community activism can sometimes turn them into a thorn in the side of the combos. Besides trying turn young people away from the combos, Castrillón says they also bring attention to the problems facing the comunas—and as a consequence, a greater institutional presence from the government.


Trailer for documentary on role of youth-based culture and arts in Comuna 13.

Territories and fronteras invisibles

When a young combo member who felt disrespected over a mundane disagreement on a street corner killed Duke last year, events took a turn for the worse. The gunman—a child, actually—was later shot by his own combo for slaying such a visible figure in the community. Duke’s fellow hip-hoppers organized a memorial and demonstration calling for an end to the violence.

After the demonstration, a leader of one of the combos issued a blanket threat to the hip-hop movement. Almost 70 hip-hop activists fled the comuna, fearing for their lives and some remain in hiding. The demonstration did not take any confrontational positions against the combos, but nonetheless, says Castrillón, “they felt invaded.” Such are the subtle spatial sensibilities in an arena marked by permanent warfare.

Since Don Berna’s demise, the combos have fought vicious battles over territory in the comunas. Controlling territory is a lucrative business for the combos, giving them access to a diversified economy of violence: extortion, kidnapping, gambling, and, of course, drug trafficking. The territories are as much concrete, tangible spaces as they are mental constructs, and the fluidity of the turf wars means they erratically expand, overlap, and contract. The territorial lines of demarcation become blurry—and fatally dangerous. Residents call them fronteras invisibles (invisible borders).

If a passerby is unrecognizable to the lookout of a combo guarding one of these territories, they will often shoot first and ask questions later. Indeed, some rappers, along with countless comuna residents, have been killed in cases of mistaken identity or for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Violence in the comunas is both indiscriminate and ever-present. But there’s much more to the comunas than guns and drugs. As Jeihhco says, “Every comuna has an entire world inside.”

The cultural groups of the Comuna 13—music bands, dance troupes, and arts collectives of all kinds—recently banded together for a new project: “Comuna 13: Territory of Artists.” With funding from the city government and private foundations, the project is a ten-year plan that promotes a spectrum of cultural and artistic initiatives. The project’s website describes it as “an everyday process of making our barrios, our comunas, and our city into spaces of creativity, of mutual encounter, and of a dignified life.” Jeihhco describes it as a “development plan.”

The site says they are confident they can “configure spaces” through their “everyday experiences and forms of expression.” In other words, unlike the territories of the combos, which are imposed through force, producing the “Territory of Artists” is something done peacefully and collectively from below. Jeihhco admits the idea sounds ambitious. “It’s not that we think we’re going to solve all our problems, but we have to dream. Because if we don’t, who will?”


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