Spread along the plain of an Andean valley at an elevation that
perfectly counters its tropical latitude, Medellín lives an
eternal spring. The air smells fresh there, the grasses shine as green
as in England, bougainvillea, mimosa, lemon jacaranda, and pink
cyclamen grow alongside climbing roses and honeysuckle. In the markets,
plums sit beside bananas, apples jostle for space with
mangoes, papaya, and green coffee beans - all grown locally
- small variations of height and location providing an abundance and
variety that a believer might credibly attribute to divine
providence. Perhaps that is why Medellín became at some
uncertain moment in 20th century history, the home of the Colombian
drugs cartel - the handful of powerful men who controlled the
manufacture of the country’s largest and most stable export -
cocaine. When you have enough power, you don’t wait for
God’s providence, you just take it.
Despite its eden-like qualities, Medellin had a reputation as a
dangerous place. All the guide-books contained warnings about not
walking the streets at night and giving a wide berth to the dark
purlieus of the city centre.
I had arranged an early-morning meeting in one of the suburbs. My
destination turned out to be more distant than I thought, some twenty
kilometres out, in a dormitory town of textile factories and car lots.
Before we set off, the taxi driver took pains to explain where we
going. He produced a local area map and traced the route for me.
“Just so you won’t get nervous,” he said.
“Most strangers get nervous when they come to
I let this ride while my driver negotiated the downtown
rush-hour. He looked to be in his early fifties,
salt-and-pepper hair, balding at the temples. On the dashboard he had
taped a photograph of his wife and two small children. Below the
photograph, a message in bold letters read: “No corras
papá” - don’t speed daddy. Dangling,
from the rearview mirror, an effigy of St Francis on a chain swung from
side to side.
Emerging from the traffic, we entered a four-lane
highway. I thought it safe to pursue the conversation.
“Is Medellín so dangerous?”
“You can’t trust anyone.”
The ambiguity of last comment - it might have been directed at me -
could have returned us to silence, but instead he asked me where I was
from; and when I told him the knowledge seemed to loosen his tongue.
“In organized countries like yours, you have a fair
distribution of income, proper laws, decent police.”
“We’re not so perfect,” I objected.
“Really? Do you trust your police?”
I told him I trusted most of them, but that we had our fair share of
“You mean they rob you in broad daylight.”
“Well no. Not exactly.”
“In Medellín they do. Just last week, I picked up
a policeman. Told me he wanted to go to the airport to
collect his mother. That’s a good fare. So what
happens? He gets in the front beside me, and off we go. On the way, he
suddenly tells me to draw into a side road. I figure he needs a leak.
But as soon as we leave the main highway, he pulls his gun and takes
all my money. Then he makes me drive him back to town.”
“Did you lose much?”
“He took you for twenty bucks?”
“That’s a week’s rent.”
“Did you report him?”
“Cab drivers don’t complain about the police. Not
if they value their lives. And besides, who in this goddam place can
you complain to?”
He paused for a moment and then added, “He knows I
won’t do anything. Matter of fact I saw him in the street a
couple of days ago.”
“The son of a bitch waved at me.”