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Medellín's Mean Streets
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Medellín's Mean Streets @ National Geographic Magazine
   
By Eliza GriswoldPhotographs by Meredith Davenport



Violence, drugs, and poverty made for a deadly mix in Colombia's notorious murder capital. Is there hope for a lasting turnaround?



Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

THE COP
 
About a year ago, one of the gang kingpins María sent to prison told her she was a dead woman. This was nothing new. In the past 25 years more than 120 judges and fiscales (a combination cop, investigator, and prosecutor) have been assassinated in Medellín, and drug lords often order hits from jail. Once during a raid, María had found her name on a hit list hidden under a computer. But this time was different. Through an underworld informant, she learned that a contract had been taken out on her life—and paid—which means the killers will be very difficult to deter. Two months before I met her, she learned that sicarios (assassins) had arrived from the capital city of Bogotá to kill a "tough little lady cop."
 
That's why I'm surprised when after several interviews under high security, María suggests that we go to a local mall with her daughters and leave the bodyguards outside. She's tired of prison-like vigilance, she says, and besides, I've asked to meet her daughters. After a series of phone calls, we rendezvous at a table in the food court.
 
Without bodyguards to keep watch, María's eyes dart back and forth over my shoulder as if she's watching a tennis match. I think of something I've learned but rarely remember: Never sit with your back to a door when speaking to someone who might get shot. María leaves us for a few minutes so that her daughters can speak with me privately, but they're shy, and pressing them on the danger of their lives, or their mother's, feels wrong. "We can't ride our bicycles outside anymore," the older one ventures. Her sister adds, "I'm proud that my mom catches bad guys and makes the city safe."
 
María returns to the table. "When my oldest was really little, she said, 'I want to be a fiscal like my mom,' " María says with a sad smile, "but now she wants to be a doctor like my sister." I ask María what makes her job worth the ultimate risk. "I believe that if Colombia's ever going to change, people have to be involved," she says. Like many of Medellín's heroes, María doesn't look like anyone special. You might even say she's hiding in plain sight.
 
THE KILLER
 
The man I'll call Carlos R., 20, is exactly the kind of guy who'd be sent to kill María. Born in Medellín—and raised, like lots of kids here, without a father—Carlos left school in third grade after he split a kid's head open with the model of a church he'd built. (The boy had stolen Carlos's pencil sharpener.) After that Carlos collected scrap metal on the streets and later graduated to committing crimes. He saw his father several years ago; the man offered him an apple on the street, but Carlos refused it. "It would be better to kill this guy," Carlos tells me as we walk the streets of Barrio Triste, past an array of mechanic shops and cocaine addicts.
 
Carlos works part-time as a mechanic in his brother's shop and part-time for the right-wing paramilitaries who control the barrio. "They call me and tell me to steal a Honda Civic or a motorbike," he says. Or they might call him up and order a murder, just like the old-time sicarios who served as Escobar's private army. I point out that he doesn't seem overly concerned about getting arrested. "The police have caught me with guns before," he says, but it turns out that his paramilitary boss is an ex-police officer who can clear things up with one phone call.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.


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Video
Photographer Meredith Davenport takes you inside the decaying fantasy world of the late drug lord Pablo Escobar—including a bullring, vintage cars, and live hippos—and acquaints you with life in Medellín.

Forum
With a contract on her life, a Medellín cop risks her family's safety to fight the city's drugs and terrorism. Would you be willing to risk everything to do a dangerous job?

Final Edit
Rescued from the cutting-room floor is this month's Final Edit, an image of children splashing away the heat in a Medellín fountain.
Poll
Cast your vote on whether illegal drugs should be legalized.

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More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
City of Eternal Violence or City of Eternal Spring? Oddly enough, Medellín, Colombia, has been known by both names. Once home to the world's most famous drug dealer—Pablo Escobar—the city was known during his reign as the "City of Eternal Violence." Escobar, a figure unquestionably ruthless and cruel, used drug money to build hospitals, schools, and soccer fields in and around Medellín, even offering to pay off Colombia's national debt (in exchange for amnesty). He was finally tracked down and killed in 1993.
 
Before it was made famous by cocaine trafficking, Medellín was long a center of industry in Colombia. Founded in the 17th century, Medellín grew as a center for the trade of a different type of drug—coffee. It was a hard-working city, known then as the "City of Eternal Spring."
 
Now Medellín is shrugging off its Escobarian past. The murder rate has dropped and no longer tops the list even of cities in Colombia. Medellín recently built the country's first and only metro system and pedestrianized its downtown. Today the city attracts investments at a rate 300 percent higher than a decade ago and is fostering a development boom. Furthermore, there are other foundations for the continued expansion of Medellín, such as numerous highly regarded universities located within the city's limits.
 
As another testament to Medellín's turnaround, plans are afoot to develop a cable car system that will connect the metro to the city's poor hillside barrios (neighborhoods that once fostered Escobar and his nefarious activities).
 
Though it has a long way still to go, Medellín may be on its way to reclaiming the title of "City of Eternal Spring."
 
—David O'Connor
Did You Know?

Related Links
Medellín
news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/1178453.stm
An overview and brief introduction to Medellín by Jeremy McDermott of the BBC.
 
The Rose Seller
observer.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,6903,1106475,00.html
Read an interview with the star of the Colombian movie The Rose Seller, which is featured in our article.
 
2004 World Drug Report
www.unodc.org/unodc/en/world_drug_report.htmlThis United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report is full of statistics and information on the current state of the international drug trade.
 
The Drug Trade in Colombia: A Threat Assessment
www.usdoj.gov:80/dea/pubs/intel/02006/index.html
A website from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, featuring numerous articles and information about the Colombian drug trade.
 
2003 Coca Cultivation Estimates for Colombia
www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov/news/press04/032204.html

An estimate of Colombia's coca plant production from the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy.

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Bibliography
Beith, Malcolm. "Good Times in Medellín." Newsweek (July 1, 2004).
 
Canby, Peter. "Latin America's Longest War." The Nation (August 16, 2004), 31.
 
Dudley, Steven. Walking Ghosts: Murder and Guerilla Politics in Colombia. Routledge, 2004. 

Dydynski, Krzysztof. Colombia, 3rd ed. Lonely Planet Publications, 2003.
 
Griswold, Eliza. "The 14-year-old Hit Man." The New York Times, April 28, 2002.
 
Lennard, Jeremy. "Colombia: Splendid Isolation." Guardian Newspaper, December 12, 1998.
 
Otis, John. "Colombian Cities Now Targets of War; Medellin Is Top Priority of Guerrillas." Houston Chronicle, July 11, 2002.
 
Pollard, Peter. Footprint Colombia Handbook, 2nd ed. Footprint Handbooks, 2000.
 
Ruiz, Bert. The Colombian Civil War. McFarland and Company, Inc., 2001.
 
Simons, Geoff. Colombia: A Brutal History. Saqi, 2004.

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NGS Resources
Villalón, Carlos. "Cocaine Country." National Geographic (July 2004), 34-55.
 
McLane, Diasann. "Weighing Risks, Taking Chances." National Geographic Traveler (November/December 2003), 83-4.
 
Corral Vega, Pablo. "
In the Shadow of the Andes: A Personal Journey." National Geographic (February 2001), 2-29.
 
Yogerst, Joseph. Long Road South: The Pan American Highway. National Geographic Books, 1999.
 
Hodgson, Bryan. "Simón Bolívar: El Libertador." National Geographic (March 1994), 36-65.
 
Burg, Amos. "Cruising Colombia's 'Ol' Man River.' " National Geographic (May 1947), 615-60.

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