The first time I stepped off the plane at Medellin’s International Airport, the sensation was something like what Dorothy must have felt when she stepped off the porch of her plain Kansas farmhouse into the Land of Oz. The place was literally magical, with greener grass, sweeter air and mountains more majestic than any I had ever seen.
The airport sits on a plateau two thousand feet above Medellin and the road winds down steep mountainsides to the city center at the bottom of the Aburrá Valley. I sat silent in the back seat of the taxi for three quarters of an hour, awed by the stunning scenery.
Just as we were entering the city limits, I noticed a large patch of scorched earth on the side of the road. The cab driver must have read my thoughts because he remarked, “Oh yeah, the FARC burned a bus there this morning.”
I immediately pictured what must have happened. This was the early 1990s, when the war dragged on between Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the FARC. To bankroll their rebellion, urban terrorists set up roadblocks to hijack city busses. They then forced passengers off the bus at gunpoint and relieved them of all their money and valuables.
The FARC checked ID’s and, if they discovered policemen or soldiers among the passengers, they shot them dead in full view of fellow commuters. If they discovered foreigners or journalists, they abducted them to be held for ransom.
Then before fleeing, the guerrillas set fire to the bus.
My mood suddenly changed from idyllic reverie to fear and trembling. You see, I was both a foreigner and a journalist. I had come to Medellin on my U.S. passport in order to interview Dr. Jaime Ortiz, the president of the Biblical Seminary of Colombia.
An attorney by training and influential delegate to Colombia’s 1991 constitutional assembly, Ortiz had helped reshape the religious rights landscape in the country. I had an appointment to talk to him about it and write a story for a California-based new agency. Getting kidnapped had not entered into my calculations.
“How often do these bus burnings happen?” I asked the driver uneasily.
“Every couple of weeks or so,” he said.
He looked in the rearview mirror and noticed my pale expression.
“You should be okay,” he offered. “Just take taxis wherever you go.”
I took his advice and survived to catch my flight out that afternoon, after a most interesting and productive interview with Dr. Ortiz.
Years later on the Epic journey, Barbara, Ben, Molly and I arrived in Medellin early one morning on an overnight bus. A hijacking or kidnapping had not once entered my mind when I purchased the tickets. Looking back, I realize this simple act was a sort of testament to the profound change Colombia had undergone since that first visit.
It was a gray, rainy morning and clouds obscured the majestic mountainsides as we made the steep descent into the city. Despite the disappointing weather, it was good to be back in Medellin.
I had made a half dozen trips to Medellin in the intervening years, yet the place never fails to fascinate. During our three days in town, Molly took her first hang gliding flight to celebrate her 23rd birthday. The pilot made a crash landing on a steep mountainside when wind currents abruptly shifted, but she survived to tell the tale.
Barbara and I saw the same aerial view of the Aburrá Valley from a gondola that is part of the city’s public transportation system. Medellin was the first metropolitan center in the world to integrate cable lifts into its mass transit service. Six gondola lines carry commuters from train stations on the valley floor to lofty neighborhoods perched on the mountainsides above, and one ticket pays for the whole trip. The novel arrangement has earned Medellin a rank among the world’s most innovative cities.
Innovation carries over into the art scene. Medellin has dedicated an entire plaza to display the sculpture of a famous son of the city, Fernando Botero. It requires an entire city plaza to accommodate Botero’s oversized/overweight statues. His work is unforgettable, even for a lukewarm art lover like me.
At Ben’s urging, we visited what is undoubtedly the most unforgettable of Botero’s artwork. Our son later wrote this account in his journal.
“In a central plaza in the heart of Medellin stand a pair of monuments that reflect the Colombian paradox: two large bird sculptures that their creator named Pajaros de la Paz (Birds of Peace). They illustrate a nation at war with itself and yet bursting with energy and opportunity.
“Originally only a single bird, the first sculpture sustained massive damage when a bomb went off at its base and sent fatal shrapnel everywhere. Below the remains of the flightless fowl is a sobering list of bystanders who became another statistic that terrible day in a complicated web of violence.”
The bombing happened in 1995, when Medellin was ranked as the most dangerous city in the world. The death toll was staggering, an average of 20 murders per day. Medellin’s homicide rate in the 1990s was five to six times greater than the most violent cities in the U.S. today.
Much of the violence was perpetrated by drug cartels or urban guerrilla cells, but not all. Military intelligence identified 120 criminal gangs operating there. Specializing in homicide, kidnap and extortion, the gangs employed 3,000 sicarios (professional killers). That was one hitman for every 1,000 residents.
Politicians would sometimes hire sicarios to kill opponents. Businessmen hired them to settle scores when a deal went sour. Husbands hired them to eliminate unwanted wives.
The average Medellin sicario was 16 years of age, came from a dysfunctional family and saw little chance of finishing an education or landing a decent job. He, or she, saw murder-for-money as a way to escape the slum.
But few ever did. Low wages and fierce competition drove down the price for contracts. Sicarios would accept as little as $30 dollars to take a life.
Because of fierce competition, sicarios mostly took each other’s lives, which accounted for the vast majority of homicides in Medellin. The average life expectancy of a teenager who became a sicario was six months.
That was Medelllin then. It is not Medellin today. The most dangerous city in the world reduced its homicide rate by 95% in the span of a dozen years. Murder and mayhem have disappeared from all but the city’s toughest neighborhoods. Today you are as safe in Medellin as you would be in Columbus, OH, or Minneapolis.
What brought about the change?
Some say pacification started with the death in 1993 of the ruthless Medellin Cartel boss, Pablo Escobar, and the ensuing collapse of the drug trade. Others credit former President Álvaro Uribe and his 2002 "Operation Orion" that disarmed urban guerrilla groups and right-wing militias. Locals believe a string of innovative mayors who worked to integrate poor hillside neighborhoods with the more affluent city center, a process that reduced extreme poverty by 66 percent, did the most to transform the city.
No doubt these developments have had a major impact. But personally I believe the transformation of Medellin began before these events, and in the most unlikely of places.
Bellavista National Jail, a prison on the outskirts of the city, used to be a much more dangerous place than Medellin itself. Built to house 1,500 inmates, by 1990 Bellavista teemed with nearly 5,000 drug dealers, sicarios and terrorists. It had become a microcosm of Medellin's death culture, concentrated and intensified.
Inside its walls, practiced killers murdered one another with terrifying regularity for money, revenge or simple amusement. On average, 20 inmates and corrections officers died each month inside Bellavista. A visiting criminologist pronounced it the deadliest prison in the Western world.
The death toll skyrocketed when prison guards went on strike and riots broke out. Unsupervised inmates attacked each other in bloody hand to hand combat. Corpses littered the corridors of Bellavista. Killers cut off arms and legs, gouged out eyes and used their victims’ blood to write obscene graffiti on the walls.
Medellin's press corps gathered every day at the gates of Bellavista to report the latest body count. One day it was 8, the next 13, then 22 and so on. Prison staff urged the warden to call up the army to quell the rioting.
Instead, the warden accepted the prison chaplain’s suggestion to organize an evangelistic campaign. Christian inmates and civilian volunteers formed prayer bands to intercede for the prison. They marched through the corridors singing hymns and praying for the inmates. At one point, they gave each one a tiny white flag and told them, “When you hear the national anthem playing on the loudspeakers, raise your flag, bow your head and pray with us.”
It was undoubtedly the most unorthodox tactic to quell a prison riot ever devised, but it worked. When the anthem played, the prayers went up and the killing stopped. An eyewitness described the scene.
“Many were converted in the campaign. The deaths started dwindling until there was not one single casualty. Many surrendered their blades and pistols. One day, a whole group of prisoners handed over their weapons to [the chaplain] himself.
“People were saying, 'Something strange has happened here. We feel something like peace and joy. Even though I don't believe in God, what He does is real.'”
Medellin's press corps grew skeptical when, for several consecutive days, the guards reported zero body counts. The reporters suspected the army of staging a night-time strike that had ended in a massacre. They insisted that the warden allow them entry to the prison, where they expected to find mass graves and the stench of death.
Instead, they saw crowds of prisoners in their cell blocks singing hymns, praying fervently and listening to preachers expound the Bible. When they asked the inmates what had happened, one replied, “Bellavista has a new boss, the Lord Jesus Christ. He has taken over this jail.”
If they did not accept this explanation, the press corps had to accept the facts. Bellavista had been suddenly, completely transformed. The zero body count continued. In fact, six years would pass without a single inmate dying from violence inside the prison walls.
Authorities of Colombia’s penal system took note of what was going on in Bellavista and wondered if it might be replicated in other jails. When they learned that professors and students from the Biblical Seminary of Colombia were operating a training institute for inmates, they approached them with a proposal. If Bible professors would recommend graduates who showed promise, the authorities would transfer them in teams of two to other prisons to do missionary work.
Bellavista inmates volunteered for the program and within a few years, prison missionaries were at work in Ibague, Cali, Palmira, Calarcá, Tolima and Barranquilla. Transformations similar to Bellavista’s began happening in those jails.
Transformations began happening on streets of Medellin, as well. During a 2004 visit to Medellin, a professor at the Biblical Seminary of Colombia introduced me to members of a gang who had elected to renounce violence. When attacked by a rival gang, they refused to retaliate, even when one of their own was killed.
The gang disposed of its weapons, installed computers at their headquarters and began teaching neighborhood kids useful skills to help them finish their education. Their stand for non-violence eventually convinced other gangs to follow suit and stop killing each other.
Medellin today is not quite the Land of Oz, but its transformation from the world’s most dangerous city to one that ranks high on the quality of life index is truly miraculous.
And for that, I think, we have to give at least some credit to the Prince of Peace.
Next time: Bolivarianos
For more on Medellin’s prison revival, see my book The Lord of Bellvista, The dramatic story of a prison transformed. Available in print and digital versions at Amazon.com.