Hector Aristizabal left Medellin in 1989 to save his life. After starting over in the U.S., he made a few visits back to see family, keeping a low profile and avoiding any political activity. This July, however, Aristizabal returned to work with peace and justice groups; to participate in the International Festival of Art in Resistance by performing his play, Nightwind, about his arrest and torture by the Colombian military and his brother’s murder at the hands of a paramilitary death squad; and to see for himself how his city had changed.
Now back in the United States where he is celebrating the publication of his memoir, “The Blessing Next to the Wound: A Story of Art, Activism, and Transformation,” Aristizabal sat down to share his observations on what has happened in Medellin since he finished writing the book.
In barrio Francisco Antonio Zea, where he grew up, there was very little difference to the naked eye. “Someone had added another story to the house. Someone had put up another wrought-iron gate. But what was so amazing to me,” he says, “was to see the work of Red Juvenil” – a youth organization dedicated to non-violence, which has centers throughout the city offering music and arts programs, sponsoring human rights forums and events including the Art in Resistance Festival, and advocating conscientious objector status in a society long marked by armed conflict.
This is a profound change from the choices offered to youth in the 1970s and ’80s when, as Aristizabal recalls, “the kids I played soccer with in the street all joined one of what I call the four armies – the Colombian military, the guerrillas, the paramilitary death squads, or the cocaine mafia. Most of them died violent deaths and I assumed I would, too.”
His escape from the streets and into the university did not mean he was safe. In 1982, Aristizabal, falsely accused of being an urban guerrilla, was detained and tortured by the U.S.-trained military. He was waterboarded, subjected to electric shock, and driven around with a gun shoved into his mouth. “Very few people in my situation live to tell about it,” he says. “But a human rights organization came looking for me. I think that’s why the army had to produce me. I was brought in front of a military judge who ordered my release. I went into hiding after that because though I’d been cleared, one of the army officers said when he saw me again he would kill me.”
When he emerged from hiding, Aristizabal returned to the university to earn a masters in psychology and to work as a therapist and in social justice initiatives – this just as Pablo Escobar was unleashing his reign of terror. “Friends of mine were assassinated. I remember being at a murdered friend’s funeral when gunfire broke out and the man standing to my right and the man standing to my left fell dead. Somehow the bullets never hit me.”
In today’s Medellin, instead of a culture of fear and terror, he found “the Metro culture. Having the first urban train system in Colombia and the best in South America changed us in some way. There’s a new sense of civic pride and cooperation.” He believes much credit goes to two successive mayors with progressive agendas, Sergio Fajardo and Alonso Salazar, who made the commitment to bring services to all the people of Medellin, and above all to the most marginalized. “They put beautiful new libraries in the poorest barrios. It’s amazing to go into one of these buildings and see they are always full of kids using computers and reading books.”
Progress on the local level is threatened, however, by forces from outside of the city. Violence has driven millions of rural Colombians from their home and lands. Paramilitary groups with the complicity of the army, politicians, multinational corporations, and members of the drug cartels kill union leaders and seize millions of hectares of property for the extraction of coal and oil and to establish plantations for the production of biofuels.
He points out that in spite of changes in the city’s infrastructure and the civility of most of the population, the structural problems of violence, poverty, and dependence on foreign investment continue to erode local efforts. “Displaced people arrive in the city desperate, penniless, often illiterate, and without any urban job skills. Medellin works hard to integrate them, but with the violence continuing – especially towards indigenous people and Afro-Colombians, more people arrive every day and it’s impossible to keep up with the need.”
The most disturbing trend he found is the resurgence of paramilitary terror. “The AUC” – which the US listed as a foreign terrorist organization, “was officially demobilized several years ago. Fighters turned in their weapons and in return they were supposed to be reintegrated into society. But you’re talking about killers with close ties to at least 70 members of the Colombian Congress and the Uribe administration,” he said, referring to the president whose term has just ended. “Most of them joined up as kids. They have no education, no job skills, and many are entirely illiterate.” For a while, demobilized paramilitaries – or, in the vernacular, “paracos,” received a small living stipend. “But now,” says Aristizabal, “they’ve returned to the only income-producing work they know: extortion and killing.”
During his stay in Medellín, public transport workers staged a “paro” – a job action, during which they refused to drive into the low-income comunas where paracos don’t let them pass without paying a “vacuna” – vaccination against bullets. “They’ve killed several kids with Red Medellin. Punk rockers. They consider the music anti-social. And they’ve taken over many of the public spaces of the city. Some of the wonderful new community centers are almost empty of people because the paracos threaten kids who try to go there. The singer Juanes paid for the creation of a new park where there used to be a vacant lot. It was one of the most dangerous places. Women had to walk through the high grasses and bushes to get to the bus stop and there were constant assaults and rapes there. So now there’s this park with sports facilities and all and I spoke with a woman who tried to offer free writing workshops there. The paracos threatened her with death. She gave up because it wasn’t just her life in danger. They might have killed the kids who were coming to the workshops, too.”
He also found some mothers who are grateful to the paracos for enforcing a curfew. “They are happy to know their sons are home by 9 in the evening. I understand the desire for security, but at what price?”
He noted one other disturbing trend: the high demand for plastic surgery. “You see it in all socio-economic groups, but it upset me most among the poor. Girls are asking for breast implants instead of quinceañeras and some of them see their enlarged tetas as an investment – to catch the eye of a rich drug dealer.”
During the years when Hector Aristizabal was coming of age, Medellin was known as the most dangerous city in the world. Today he can say, “I am inspired by the transformation. It shows what the right kind of leadership can do, both in a local government and coming from the grassroots of a community.” But after being witness to the return of senseless killing and widespread fear among the population, Aristizabal concludes, “the transformation cannot be complete as long as the cloud of impunity for crimes against humanity continues to hover over Colombia.”
Author Diane Lefer has collaborated with Hector Aristizabal for several years on writing, theatre, and social justice projects. She serves on the core council of the Colombia Peace Project-Los Angeles.