In the heyday of Medellín's notorious cocaine cartel, 4000 people were assassinated a year, including on average one policeman per day. This was the 1980s when local boy-gone-bad Pablo Escobar headed the organisation that put Medellín on par with Mogadishu as a dangerous destination. In response, the police switched to plainclothes and preemptively sniped potential mafia assassins (sicarios), often targeting innocents and inflicting collateral damage. 'Mules' would swallow plastic-wrapped cocaine pellets and smuggle them into the States for coin, to escape the urban hell. Bombs obliterated cafes and Corollas with regularity, politicians were bought, sold and exterminated in a town of lawlessness and desperation.
But the Medellín of now is not the Medellin of old. A elite recon force took out Escobar in 1993, and the cocaine capos have bickered and faded, thanks partially to the militancy of President Uribe, giving way to something of a cultural rebirth in the city.
Parque Botero downtown showcases the voluptuous curves of Colombia’s most famous artist, Fernando Botero, and teems with Colombians exercising the freedom to travel their country for the first time in years. Hillside barrios like Santo Domingo and Manrique, once full of disaffected youths who would have jumped at the chance to kill a cop for $5000, now sport cable cars and castle-keep libraries, as investment from the government and foreign entities helps improve infrastructure and education.
Grassroots co-ops are organizing renegade street murals and free hip-hop concerts in the barrios, channeling young urban energy away from violence and delinquency and into music and art. This is healing and beautifying communities, plus providing a sense of entitlement.
Rumbas, discos, jewelry artists and street performers abound in Parques Poblado and Lleras and bohemians congregate at Parque de los Periodistas to smoke and philosophize. Local artists who previously sold drugs now record renegade CDs and shoot music videos and short films in the streets as a form of therapy and self-expression.
The most sublime art scene in Latin America it is not, but a rebirth it assuredly is. A palpable sense of joy now underlies the noise of Medellín, an appreciation for life’s normal rhythms: the metros are pristine, the parks bustling, the people inviting and alive. It’s not the safest city in the world, and chaos still abounds, but a chaos of color, energy, movement, and life. Travel should be a self-awakening, and getting a chance to experience a resurgent Medellín should at the very least, quicken your own pulse.
Dominic Bonuccelli travelled to Colombia on assignment for Lonely Planet. You can follow his adventures on Lonely Planet: Roads Less Travelled, screening internationally on National Geographic.