Everyday Violence


Well, it happened. A foreigner — a British man, to be precise — was killed in a Medellin a few nights ago. 

I’m trying not to identify with him too much. He was in his early to mid-20s. Close enough. Staying in Medellin for a few months. Ditto. Waiting at a set of traffic lights when it happened. I wait at traffic lights all the time.

They wanted his gold chain, he resisted — and the rest is Colombia. The murder took place in the suburb of Belen, which is not far from where I live. I can see it from my balcony, in fact. To be fair, I have a good view. I’m really not that worried. I’m far too cheap to own a gold chain.

I’m truly not bothered by the stories, but being blasé about life and death in Colombia is not just something I project to look cool and worldly. It’s an unintended side-effect. You only need to be here a matter of weeks before you become desensitised to everyday violence.

Quite honestly, how else could one stand to live in Colombia? Two days before my British doppelganger — he looked just like me, I’m sure of it — met his end, four decapitated bodies were found in a car in Villavicencio. It was not big news.

Two days before that, a Spanish tourist was killed during a robbery in Barranquilla. Just 24 hours earlier, the local police had activated a security plan which saw the deployment of 4300 extra officers across the city in readiness for Carnival celebrations. Tough break.

The day before that, a family of four were stabbed to death inside their Cali home, during what police say was also a robbery. The day before that, two teenage girls were found dead in Medellin, having gone to meet a man they had been in contact with through Facebook. And so on, and so on, and so on.

The stories, each in their own way momentously appalling, just pile up. And I’m not even counting the politically motivated murders, of which there are at least several every day. Though perhaps what is most remarkable about these stories is not their frequency, but how astonishingly violent they are.

Crime began to rise in Medellin from 2008. Statistics from the National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Science for 2009 show that there were 2899 murders in Medellin in that year — more than double the figure recorded for 2008. It was the worst year since 2002, which saw around 5000 recorded murders. (The violence was at its peak in 1991 with 6500 murders).

By comparison, 80 murders were recorded (pdf) in the entire state of NSW in 2009.

In the first three months of 2010, there were six murders in my neighbourhood alone, which is considered the wealthiest and safest in Medellin. A local publication claimed this was higher than that the entire cities of Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Chicago.

There are those in the western world, of course, who romanticise this sort of violence. Indeed, Colombia can attract a certain sort of traveller, the kind that sees a visit here as "adventure tourism", almost a ‘wild west’ experience. Those who can’t wait to return to their hostel dorm and tell their friends how many soldiers with machine guns they saw that day, about the dodgy alley they walked down.

In 2009, Australian journalist Matthew Thompson even wrote a book called My Colombian Death, which chronicled his relentless efforts to put himself in harm’s way, hoping the experience would jolt him from his first-world reverie and return his appreciation for predictable domesticity. It took a yage-induced trip to send him back to his wife and newborn.

Of course, I dealt with similar accusations when I announced my plans to pack up my life in Australia and move to Colombia for a few months. Underpinning everyone’s remarks seemed to lurk the belief that I wished myself harm. The responses were almost evenly divided between those who thought I had (or wished to cultivate) some sort of drug addiction, and those who thought I had a death wish. Me, I just wanted to learn Spanish, and this is the cheapest way to do it quickly.

Oddly, there isn’t any tension in the air here. There’s no sinister atmosphere like that in South Africa and Brazil. Johannesburg and Rio de Janeiro are two cities which feel to me like they are at war with themselves, with $10,000 security systems wrapped around $50,000 houses. At night, buses and taxi drivers run the red lights to avoid car-jackings (this is not just legal, it’s expected). In Colombia, unfortunately for my British friend, you wait for the green.

For the most part, Colombia is a well-functioning, dull society with little to set it apart from its cousins further south. Colombia can be dangerous, sure, but so can George St at 3am on a Saturday night — although I fancy you’re more likely to be assaulted by someone already wearing a gold chain there.

These are, of course, the words of someone who hasn’t encountered any serious trouble yet, who wrote them from the eighth floor of an apartment building in the nice part of town, and who should probably wait another few months before he crows about not being stabbed. But most importantly, they are the words of someone who has actually been to Colombia. In short, I’ll be right until I’m dead. How’s that for blasé?

Daniel Fitzgerald will be reporting for New Matilda from South America over the coming months.


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