Postcards from Medellín (Not for Tourists)

In the 1990s, Geovany put his body on the line—and his bullets too—in the bloodiest of wars in Medellín. In photos taken nine years ago, he’s the boss of a gang whose members are almost all dead today. Now at home, he survives under the dictates of a new era. War isn’t always a volley of bullets; it’s also about keeping your head down.

Geovany and his "abuela"
Alfredo Srur, Geovany no quiere ser Rambo

The law still doesn’t pay in Medellín. Geovany appeared at the Metrocable station just as we arrived. We had set up a meeting several days ago, and he was so anxious that he’d waited for us in vain the morning before. He hadn’t slept thinking about the moment he would receive the book of photographs of which he was the protagonist that we were bringing for him, years later, from Buenos Aires. The girls, the identical twins I met when they were toddlers in a daycare center, stayed home from school: now they are nine years old, in third grade, and wear those highly decorated, frayed jeans that are in fashion in Medellín. They wear them with coquettish high-heeled sandals, just like their mother’s, with a white flower on the instep. We left the station and walked on a street that today seems more prosperous, with more small stores and kiosks, more sidewalk vendors and noise, more neighbors going to and fro with their shopping bags, more kids playing soccer. But we didn’t go to the house we had visited that other time, up in the highest part of Andalucía, where Geovany held out during the worst of the wars of the 1990s, and when the paramilitaries arrived in the early 2000s.

“The cucha sold the house, my friend,” he told me when we turned toward a narrow passageway, an alley that led to his new house.

In the neighborhood slang, cucha means “older woman.” You can say, “Hey, that cucha looks fine.” Or check out that “cuchi Barbie,” for well-maintained women in their fifties. Or “my cucha left me,” for my mother died. The term can be applied to the oldest woman in the house, a sister, the grandmother, or your own wife. However the family matriarchy was defined, Geovany lost the house they had dreamed of fixing up, painting and enlarging. His mother abandoned them when he was twelve, and they were raised by “la abuelita” (the grandmother), as they called the lady with the straight, grey-flecked hair who loved them just as they were.

The New House

The new house is the last brick house on this mountain in northeast Medellín, the last one glued there with gravity-defying cement that allows it to jut out above the ground. The little support it has is slowly crumbling away, running off daily with the rains that descend down the ravine. Geovany and Norma, his wife, see that the end is coming soon. They are thinking about how to escape if it gives way; they wonder how to stop time and the erosion. They still haven’t come up with a solution. At times they forget about it, and let themselves be lulled by their routines, which are good for that, for one’s survival, as long as certain rituals are maintained. The twins go off to school, the youngest to the early childhood center, and he’s off to wash cars, a job he is sick of. It’s eleven thirty, the sun hardly scorching in a city whose average temperature is sixty-eight degrees, and Geovany, the leader of a gang who managed to outlive all its members, has four thousand pesos in his pocket. Something like $2.50. The law doesn’t pay in Medellín. For as long as I’ve known Geovany, he’s been saying that he wants to reintegrate into society, leaving his gang days behind and renouncing power, and embrace his trade as a shoemaker. That has not yet happened, so he’s found a job washing cars in the street, on a corner that Los Triana have let him use.

The fights with Los Triana were a big deal. Los Rambos, the gang Geovany belonged to, held on to the plaza as long as it could, until its members were corralled into a single block of their turf, but it was up the hillside in Andalucía, and they had a commanding, panoramic view of the enemy. When the Argentine photographer Alfredo Srur traveled to Medellín nine years ago, Geovany was a Rambo, and a short time later he was named the gang’s leader by someone calling the shots from Bellavista Prison. When I first met him in 2006, he was still somewhat under the gang’s sway, but now, when we sit down in his impeccably clean house, he tells me how things turned sour and he became a displaced person within the city itself. This week a Human Rights report on Medellín was released in which you can read that “intra-city displacement has increased 81%” in the past year, and that in 2011 there have been forty disappearances so far: some of the 250 gangs in the city prefer to get rid of bodies in order to avoid prison sentences. At the same time, five public prosecutors are searching for those who disappeared in the last decade, almost always buried in common graves.

“I was trying to fix a problem I had with them, but some son of a bitch up the hill, a man who betrayed them, stole a machine gun and a pistol and took the money they extorted from the street buses, and then set himself up in my house with one of my cousins. Things got really hot, because he was already their enemy, and so we were enemies, too. “Ah, this guy is taking care of that motherfucker. We have to kill him.” So we took off and left everything behind.”

“Where did you go?”

“We walked around downtown, we practically lived in the streets. We turned into beggars,” he says.

The Most Remote Library in the World

Geovany speaks quickly and with a sibilant “s,” like every local, but it’s slightly muted, and at first it’s difficult to follow him. I only understand that when he returned to the neighborhood, after agreeing to reinsert himself into society as a car washer, he lost the house, and he doesn’t tell me how he obtained this one. He wants to apply for a housing subsidy, he tells me. In other neighborhoods, right below his house as a matter of fact, the local government is building public housing. They heard about it because some of the parents in their youngest child’s school have signed up. They dream of a house and of leaving this neighborhood. He lives here, but in fear, and doesn’t go beyond his corner, the one where he washes cars, and this alleyway. He might go to the Metrocable station, but hardly ever goes downtown. When I tell them I’d like to visit the library, an enormous ultramodern mass that was built five years ago on the top of the Northeast comuna, only one Metrocable stop away, I realize they’ve never heard of it. Neither the girls, nor Geovany, nor Norma have ever been there. He’s always had problems with another gang up there, he says. Now things are calmer in that area. In ten minutes the whole family has been enlisted, and we depart on an extraordinary outing. For the two hours the trip lasts, we become tourists.

On the short street leading to the library, street vendors sell green mangoes sprinkled with salt and lemon and tropical fruit cut into slices. We savor their acidic sweetness. They’re incredibly cheap. Satisfied, we enter the library. We walk through it floor by floor. We visit the children’s room and stay there a while. It’s the first time Geovany has gone inside a library. He walks between the bookshelves as if he’s walking in a church. The girls settle into small chairs, each of them holding a hardcover book, and read with delight. Geovany could only go to school until third grade. The letters he wrote to Alfredo Srur during those ten years were dictated to Norma, who transcribed them with impeccable handwriting. They are at the end of the book Srur published in Buenos Aires: Geovany no quiere ser Rambo (Geovany Doesn’t Want to be Rambo). Norma finished three years of high school. Before long the whole family has sat down to read. The girls read fairy tales and an illustrated biography of Celia Cruz. Their mom has picked up a newspaper. Their father, Geovany, studies the images that show him as a youth, his daughters as infants.

In these pictures from his past, their father—the ex-gang member, the car washer, the displaced person—can read what’s happening to him now, and views himself, before and after, amazed. He gazes intently at some photos. When he sees his brother Sandro, who was killed not long ago three blocks away from here, his gaze drifts away. He remembers seeing his brother and saying: “Man, get out of here, those guys are looking for you, run for it.” And then Sandro, the comedian, who on Halloween always dressed up as a clown for the children, told him he would, that he’d go, but he didn’t. Shortly afterward, Geovany heard shots, and then someone ran by and said: “Watch out, they just killed your brother.” And there he was, sitting with a bucket in one hand and a rag in the other, completely still. Until his mother ran by, letting out a single scream. Geovany, the father of twin girls, looks at his book and his eyes fall on another picture, in which “Grandma” sleeps impeccably on a made bed, taking a nap. He has no other photo of her. The image of the woman who raised him, in that bed, disarms him.

Those photographs, even the ones whose subjects are dead, still keep talking. They give words and meaning to the war. They keep us from thinking that living with anxiety is the same as living hit or miss. Urban warfare isn’t a trench under bombardment. It’s more complicated than that. Those who experience it are survivors. And they can lie down in each other’s arms—as Geovany does in the arms of his wife, Norma—and rest, as they do, on three chairs that when pushed together make a cozy couch. As if the light falling on them, a blessed light, could transport them and carry them through the mountains to paradise.


Translated by Margaret B. Carson