Drugs, Death and Bum Implants in Medellín

Strolling down a wide avenue in the centre of town in the sunlight, heading towards the 'Barefoot Park', and surrounded by modern public buildings, it was hard to believe what Diana was saying.
"Years ago, Pablo Escobar's asesinos would ride along here in pairs and shoot people walking along the street. The guy on the front of the moto would point at someone, and if the other guy hit them, bien, and if not..." Diana dusted her hands fiercely, indicating that that would be the end of the gunman instead.

Imagine hearing this walking down the Southbank in London. Where we were in Medellín, with the National Theatre on one side, urban landscaping all around, and the HQ of an important company straight ahead, it didn't feel or look all that different.

"Escobar would find asesinos up there" - she pointed at the nearby mountainsides, covered in sprawling neighbourhoods. "Poor kids with nothing to lose."

Nowadays, Medellín is famous not only for 'la violencia', as the bad days are referred to, but also for its Metrocable. Ascending the mountains to the east and west of the city, the Metrocable cuts the length of the commute from the highest 'barrios' (neighbourhoods) by about an hour, and integrates its poorest areas into the main transport system. Gliding by on the 'Oriente' (Eastern) line, watching kids below splashing around in public swimming pools, and women hanging out their washing on the roof, the neighbourhood seemed happy place. "The Metrocable really has made a difference. It's not government propaganda," Diana assured me. "Lo más chistoso - the funniest thing - is that there's an outdoors escalator in one of the neighbourhoods, to help the old people up the hill." Nevertheless, the 'Occidente' (Western) line, is still pretty dodgy, she warned.

"The narcotraficantes start in the schools", Mike explained. "They find kids to be 'carritos', who cycle around the neighbourhood and warn the drug dealers when the police are coming." I immediately thought of episodes of The Wire. "Then the kids become part of the ´banda' (gang)."

"Before, 30 people would die everyday in the barrios", added Diana. "Now maybe one." I asked what the government was doing about the situation. "They're trying to get the gangs to talk. Because they have 'fronteras invisibles' (invisible borders), and if someone from one gang crosses the border, 'le matan': they kill him."

A few years ago, the government got a scare. The days of big drug cartels in Medellín are over, however when the police found out that the weapons the gangs are using were from Mexico, they realised that the 'microtraficantes' were part of a bigger kettle of fish. "Drugs come out of Colombia, weapons come in."

As for how the drugs get out, the gangs in Cali and Cartagena benefit from having nearby ports. In Medellín, the gangs find people in a bad way to use as mules. They often work in groups, and one - usually "una mujer embarazada, una mujer con SIDA, con una enfermedad terminal" - "a pregnant woman, a woman with AIDs, someone with a terminal illness" - is chosen to take the hit and get picked up by the police. Giving the others a chance to make it through customs undetected. Four years in an overcrowded prison where there aren't enough lawyers to process all the prisoners apparently doesn't seem like such a bad deal when the gangs promise to help their families in return.

Women have been affected by the narco culture in less serious ways too. In the 70s, the drug dealers wanted their girlfriends to look like the US porn stars they so very much admired, and paid for them to have plastic surgery in the States. "So women started having surgery in the hopes that this would make them more attractive to the drug dealers, who had loads of money."

These days, many women go to surgeons 'clandestinos', 'de la calle'; unofficial back street surgeries which are all that they can afford. "Their hip implants fall down to their knees, they have one boob here and one here", Diana gestured to her chest and her belly, "and the worst is when they have an operation to make their stomach look muscular, but then they get fatter, so have abs surrounded by flab!" "I have a friend", she continued, "who had breast surgery after having her daughter, and is now in lots of debt. I said to her, 'Why didn't you save that money to pay for college for your daughter?' and was so angry that I didn't speak to her for a year."

Shop models reflect the absurd Colombian body shape, with enormous bums and boobs. Equally amusing are the posters advertising padded underwear; taking Bridget Jones' tummy tucking pants to a whole new level.


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