How to see the Medellín beyond “Narcos”

How to see the Medellín beyond “Narcos”
Fredy Asprilla, left, was born and raised in the Comuna 13 neighborhood, which was once one of Medellín’s most dangerous but has since become a symbol of the city’s resilience and revival. Courtesy of Impulse Travel

Fredy Asprilla stands on a concrete platform, the corrugated rooftops of Medellín’s Comuna 13 neighborhood behind him, as he describes the hip-hop cassette tape that changed his life.

The songs were in English, he explains in Spanish. “We didn’t know what they were saying at first, but eventually we learned about the words and the rhythms and the history of the music behind Run-DMC and Wu-Tang Clan. They were singing about similar problems like racism that young Black men like me were facing in our own community.”

Asprilla is one of the countless men from the marginalized communities of Medellín, Colombia, that were decades-long strongholds for drug cartels and guerrilla groups during the most violent chapters of the city’s past. Comuna 13, which sits on the hilly outskirts of the city, was in the 1980s and ’90s considered one of the world’s most dangerous neighborhoods. The poor and underprivileged youths who lived there were recruited by traffickers and rebel groups to carry out illegal and violent activities that cost many their lives.

In the wake of a historic 2016 peace deal between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC—a rebel group notorious for its high-profile terrorist acts and involvement in the country’s illegal drug trade—Comuna 13 has become a symbol of resilience. It’s now frequented by tourists who come to see its multihued graffiti murals, ride its outdoor escalators, walk its music-filled streets, and dine at its bustling restaurants. As we spend the afternoon joining Asprilla in an energetic drum circle and dining on cazuela de frijoles, a dish of beans, pork belly, plantains, and rice, at the women-owned Berracas de la 13 restaurant, it’s hard for me to imagine that not too long ago, Asprilla and other kids feared for their safety on a daily basis.

This is an excerpt from an article by Jennifer Flowers, originally published by AFAR.

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