For the past three years I have documented life in Medellín, the second largest city in Colombia, where I grew up. I wanted to understand how the town has been transformed from the world’s most dangerous city into one that is now praised as one of Latin America’s safest and fastest growing. However, what I have found is that parts of the city are regressing to the violent past.
At the center of of Medellin lies one of its most dangerous neighborhoods, known to locals as Barrio Triste (Sad Neighborhood). I started on this project having met Fatima Mazo, a displaced mother with four children. Her husband had been slain by paramilitaries for refusing to enlist with them. Faced with the same demand she was forced to leave her farm in the rural area of Concordia and sought refuge in this small community at the center of Medellín. My photographs are an effort to document the hope, the despair and the struggles of residents like Fatima in Barrio Trieste as well as documenting the current reshaping of the city at large, the place I once called home.
Over the last decade efforts by the local government to change the image of the city of Medellín have invigorated a wave of urban revitalization and attracted foreign investment. Yet against this backdrop increasing violence from the continuing drug trade has been spreading to marginalize neighborhoods. Neighborhoods such as Barrio Triste are battlegrounds for drug distribution. The drug trade has been bolstered by new, emerging criminal groups newly-formed by the recently demobilized paramilitary groups and urban guerrillas. On top of this corruption among officials and police officers, as well as the constant high unemployment and migration of displaced civilians to the city have and continue to exacerbate the challenges for Barrio Trieste and the city as a whole.
Barrio Triste was once a residential neighborhood, but over the past few decades has been overrun by car repair shops, warehouses and bars. Grease-stained streets and dilapidated buildings come alive to the commotion of mechanics and street vendors during the day. Displaced families, the homeless, sex-workers and drug addicts find refuge on the empty sidewalks at night. A symbiosis exists between the night dwellers and day workers sustaining, in its own dysfunctional way, the survival of the neighborhood. Amidst the chaos of everyday life, law and order is strictly, and silently, enforced by ‘Los Convivir’ a paramilitary group that controls the sale drugs and runs a protection racket for the local repair shop owners.
There are two versions as of how this small neighborhood came to be known as Barrio Triste. In the 1920’s a French man with the name of Tristan owned most of the houses and shops in the area. Locals found it difficult to pronounced the name Tristan and reverted to the similar sounding Triste, Spanish for sad. Another version of the story tells of wealthy landowners who would gaze from their rooftop balconies at the shacks along the river and would lament: “Look at those poor people, they must be so sad to live like that there”. Over time both stories have become part of local folklore but Barrio Triste, who’s official name is The Sacred Heart of Jesus, is best known as the city’s drug distribution and selling center.
I remain optimistic that things are slowly changing for the better and that Barrio Triste will more and more serve as a window on the violent past that once plagued Medellín. It reminds me too of a past I left behind and the continuing hardship that the citizens of the city and Colombia have endured for many years.