International Smear Campaign on Medellin?

In March 2013 the Colombian second city of Medellin was being lauded and garlanded due to her recent accolade as “the world’s most innovative city”. Eight months later and it is as if the city of eternal springtime is suffering at the hands of an international smear campaign led by the world’s media. What has caused this backlash? And why now?

Botero's Bird of Peace

Botero’s Bird of Peace

I first arrived in Medellin in 2005 enticed by rumors of a turnaround in the city’s fortunes and armed with a couple of commissions from the international media. I was based mainly in Lima at the time and upon reaching Medellin, I felt as if I had cast aside the shroud of the low hanging winter neblina of the pacific coast and replaced it with Antioquian sunshine and verdant Aburra valley walls. I recall it being August, Colombia Moda was in full swing and beautiful women were everywhere I looked. The stylishly built brick apartment blocks in El Poblado seemed so much more sophisticated and well-planned in comparison to the mega-constructions taking place along the sandstone cliffs of Miraflores. Above all, the city offered something of a refreshing feeling as a counterbalance to the chaos and choked streets of Bogota.

Fast forward the image a decade more or less and I’m living in Bogota – a city not without her problems – but I wouldn’t change my living situation at all. I am the first to criticize the corruption and mismanagement in the capital and as an adopted “capitalino” it began to irk me when so much positive press continued to seep out into the international media about the Antioquian success story. But then, I would check my jealousy and prejudice towards Medellin, this is Colombia and we should be working together towards progress and a brighter future. If Medellin wins an award it is a decoration worthy of all Colombia and we should embrace it.

So what is happening?

Well, it’s inevitable really. The façade of the “world’s most innovative city” and the construction of an escalator to link the more humble “communas” to the city do not a success story make. And now the dust has settled on the positivity coming out of Antioquia, the silly season in the press is over as we move into the final trimester of 2013 and meatier more substantial stories are being sought out by editors.

The Independent ran with a heinous story on the “auctioning” of young girls to Medellin’s cartels and this piece has been picked up by the Daily Mail and translated by Semana magazine. There was also another photo reportage run this month on the slums of Medellin. And now, after the events of the weekend, Medellin is once again in the headlines.

Courtesy of RCNradio, the Space Building in Medelling, showing the collapsed Tower 6

Courtesy of RCNradio, the Space Building in Medellin showing the collapsed Tower 6

On Saturday night a most horrendous and unpleasant news story began to hit the twittersphere. A “luxury” apartment block had collapsed in El Poblado. At first there was nothing on the principal news outlets of RCN and Caracol and outraged paisas voiced their indignation on the lack of national coverage of the event as it was unfolding. Over the puente long weekend, there was talk of almost nothing else. Even Colombia’s unlikely comeback in Barranquilla against Chile to draw 3-3 and qualify for the World Cup Finals for the first time in 16 years was overshadowed. As I write, rescue workers continue to sieve through a substantial mountain of rubble from Tower 6 of the Space development to search for 10 missing persons (mainly construction workers ordered to continue to work on site to presumably place futile band aids on major foundational flaws) and reports are coming out that Tower 5’s collapse is imminent.

hiking in bogota, forest in bogota, bogota

pine forest in Bogota

The news is on, I’m in my sitting room in Bogota along the Carrera 7 and from here my windows overlook the cerros orientales, the defining topographical feature of the capital. Supposedly the same construction firm responsible for the Space complex in Medellin has countless projects here in Bogota. My eyes run along the pine covered mountains and then the scars where sections have been cut away for luxury apartments built on precariously unstable terrain. What is going on? I’m sure I’ve read that the cerros orientales are protected and no further construction is permitted here. And it is the same in Medellin’s El Poblado district. You don’t need to be an architect or an engineer to know that the terrain is unsuitable for such towering monoliths on valley walls and atop earthquake zones.

Sierras del Este development in Bogota

Sierras del Este development in Bogota

The first buildings which spring to mind for criticism here in Bogota must be the Sierras del Este located in Chapinero smack bang in front of the Universidad Manuel Beltran. Supposedly, and I cannot confirm this, the firm involved was granted permission to build one tower. As you drive past on the Avenida Circunvalar, you’ll see three towers. How did the company in question skirt this building “technicality”? Well, by constructing an elevated walkway between the towers whereby they could legally challenge any claim that they had built three towers and prove the edifice to be just one.

This is not a smear campaign on Medellin. This is the result of too much positive press on a city. This is what happens once you are in the headlines; people start to question the truth behind the stories. Medellin is worthy of praise, but now, the backlash is offering a possibility to set some serious errors straight.

The Space Building before the collapse, taken from AirBnB.com

The Space Building before the collapse, taken from AirBnB.com

What has been the fallout of this terrible and unraveling situation in Medellin? Only this morning watching RCN news, there are not only reports from the Space complex, but also stories of people being evacuated hurriedly from a building block in Barranquilla and images of houses with structural flaws in Risaralda.

The problem is being broadcast and discussed and this is necessary, but it is also being diluted. We are well aware of the geological problems which strangle infrastructure in Colombia. The Ministerio de Vivienda is said to be launching an investigation into the tragedy of the Space building, but, it must go further than this. I for one fear that we’ll end up seeing the conviction and resulting imprisonment of a mid-level engineer as a guilty party for cutting corners in the construction of the apartments in question. There must be a top level criminal inquiry and heads must roll. Not only should the housing ministry be involved but also the planning office and all of the officials who supported and approved this construction. Apparently, structural flaws were reported some three years ago and yet the building continued. I just want to yell: “follow the money trail!”

This is white collar crime and there is a phenomenal opportunity here to trace corruption right to the very top. Lives have been lost, families and homes destroyed, one hopes that the visibility of this tragedy will maintain alive both the inquiry and scandal and it won’t become another benchmark of the failures of the Colombian justice system where the common man receives nothing and the ruling classes get away unblemished.

Naively perhaps I strongly believe that all building work under construction by the firm responsible for Space should be halted and inspected. But then, that’s just me.

On a personal note, I take this issue of planning permission very seriously since owning and restoring colonial buildings in Mompós, we are very careful to follow the laws to infinitesimal details to ensure the architectural integrity of the national heritage and the town. There are others who have failed to do so and we are now witness to inquiries by the Ministry of Culture into said restorations. Again, the money trail is being pursued; so watch this blog for further information for news if and when the truth outs.

2 thoughts on “International Smear Campaign on Medellin?

  • You're completely right! The shameful collapse of the Space building is definitely white-collar crime. Both the local government and the construction companies are to blame. It seems curadurías are just being paid under the table to give construction permits without any questions asked. Construction companies have grown too greedy because they've come to realize people in Medellín will pay almost anything to live in El Poblado. I share the author's fear when he says the seriousness of this problem will be diluted in time and a mid-level scapegoat will be finger-picked while the real culprits will come out of this mess unscathed. Many of us expected the mayor to look tougher after the construction company's criminal-like behavior. Instead, he basically said they were bonafide fellas and we should think nothing evil of the poor little lambs. I think Mr. Villegas Moreno (the company's founder) and his offpsring have already started to work their twisted magic at the top levels of government to leave the scene of the crime with just a slap on the wrist, and then it's business as usual.

    • Thank you for your comment, as you say, I already think the argument is being diluted right now and that the company involved will receive nothing more than a slap on the wrist. It is a sickening turn of events when people cannot even be safe in their homes in a place like El Poblado. For how long has this been in practice and for how long will it continue? I mentioned in the blog, were we in a country where the rule of law prevailed, every single one of the construction company's projects all through the country would be suspended pending a thorough investigation. But, we're not seeing that here.

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