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Published On: Thu, Dec 5th, 2013

The stateless Colombia

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Anna Tyor recently spent time in Regalo del Dios, Antioquia. Ana`s portrait of this Forgotten Colombia is published on Colombia Politics over four articles exploring education, the displaced, conflict and the lack of state presence in this “Paisa” community.

His steady voice comes from the corner of the community center and the dusty room gradually grew silent as everyone strained their ears to listen to Jeison, 22 year-old local rapper, whose lyrics are fueled by the struggles of poverty-stricken Colombians. The wind beats on the tin roofs and whips through the cracks of the buildings, carrying the sand from the road outside into the houses of Regalo del Dios.

“I like my neighbors, seizing their destinies, surrounded by blessings. And the owners of the future, they’ll give us land, land for the children. They won’t strike us down, dominating us, like they do now. Dominating us, like they do now” rapped Jeison, as the other kids in the room drummed the beat on the plastic tables.

Although Regalo del Dios has a breathtaking view of Medellin, Colombia’s second largest city, the community shares precious little with the sky-scrapers and high-rises and racing metro in the valley below. Ancient buses bounce up the few dirt roads in the area while open trash dumps overflow and wooden shacks cling precariously to the steep-sides of the hill, threatening to fall at the next down-pour.  Medellin is booming, but none of the money has made it this far up the hill.

“Yes there are some businesses up here in Regalo del Dios, but they employ less than 1% of the community,” said Mark Kaseman, director of local foundation Angeles de Medellin. The community is mostly made up of displaced persons, meaning that many of the residents arrived in Regalo del Dios with only the clothes on their backs and no job prospects. If they are lucky, some will find temporary construction jobs, but many are forced to walk all the way down the mountainside to wash car windows or sell chicle (gum) on the street.

“If I said today that I needed 5 or 10 people to work I would have 100 people. If they knew I would pay them, they’d do it in a heart beat,” said Mark.

In 2012, Medellin won Wall Street Journal’s ‘Most Innovative City of the Year’ award for their impressive public sector improvements, which include a clean, fast metro that connects to gondolas that float up and over the city’s comunas – the shanty towns – and the imposing architecture of the Spanish Library, overlooking the valley from the heart of Comuna 2.

But most residents in Regalo del Dios cannot even afford the bus to the gondola station, let alone the $0.77 needed to take the gondola down into the valley to connect to the metro. “I’ve lived here almost my whole life and I’ve never taken the metro,” said Luis, a local resident.

Community members cannot work in the town because businesses are unwilling to invest in the hills due to the growing danger from the local combos, street gangs.

On the dirt road that winds up to Regalo del Dios, the bus leaves the municipality of Medellin and enters Bello. Some days of the week, local gang members extort money from the passing public buses through a toll known as a vacuna. Depending on the neighborhood, a combo could charge up to 50,000 pesos per day ($25) which adds up to up to 1.5 million pesos per month ($800) for just one bus route, making the vacuna extortion a highly profitable business. Many bus drivers complain that the government only takes notice when one of them is murdered for refusing to pay the vacuna, and bus routes are suspended for a few days.

Apart from the lack of job opportunities and the danger of gang-related violence, Regalo del Dios also suffers by virtue of being zoned as part of the municipality of Bello, as opposed to its rich neighbor Medellin. The Bello government does not provide vital resources for the community.

“There are not really any government services here, not even drinkable water,” Luis said. Residents are forced to boil their water before drinking and suffer sporadic power blackouts, a side-effect of the woeful electrical infrastructure in the area.

Poor construction leaves many houses susceptible to collapse during the rainy season. Two years ago, 74 residents were killed when 35 houses were swept away during a mudslide in Bello. Despite the scale of the tragedy, the local government did not ask for any changes to be made to construction standards.

One of the main problems that prevents funds and services reaching Regalo del Dios is government corruption. Colombia has long been plagued by corruption, to the extent that the population believes that there are few clean hands left. A recent survey by the anti-corruption NGO Transparency International showed that 80% of Colombians believe that government officials use taxpayer money for their personal affairs. Two of the last four Presidents and 25% of Congress have been recently investigated for political misconduct and abuse of power.

Even the heroes of recent Colombian history, like former Medellin Mayor Sergio Farjado, widely held responsible for the city’s transformation from hotbed of violence to innovative center, is under investigation for corruption. He is accused of enriching himself through big government deals.

Government corruption and the misuse of public funds deeply affects poverty-stricken areas like Regalo del Dios, whose residents depend on government resources.

It was a week before Halloween and three girls in their late teens sat around the table casually chatting about their plans. They wanted to go to one of Medellin’s ritzy areas to celebrate the holiday. “But how would we get back?” one girl asked the group.

“Well, we can’t walk, there are no lights on the roads,” said one of the girls. They nonchalantly mentioned a rumor about a girl being raped just last week while walking home on the same road.

“What about a bus, or even a cheaper taxi,” suggested the youngest of the three.

“If the buses are even running they only go until 10 and taxi drivers won’t take customers up here, silly.” They talked about these issues – rape, violence – as if they were talking about the weather or what to wear to school. They ended up deciding that going to the city for Halloween was impossible – it was just too dangerous.

Due to Colombia’s laws on prostitution – it is legal if the woman is 18 or over and no intermediaries are involved – and Bello’s lack of safe forms of transportation, rape and underage sex are becoming more frequent in the hills of Medellin. It is a common practice for combos to recruit the prettiest girls, aged 10-15, into the gang by seducing them with perks like a new cell phone or nail manicures. Soon after, the girl’s virginity is auctioned off to the highest bidder, who might have to pay as much as $2600, according to NGO Corporacion Consultoria de Conflicto Urbano. It’s a profitable enterprise for the combos.

Regalo del Dios is a forgotten community: forgotten by the local government, and forgotten by those who are seduced by the Medellin success story – by its fancy metro and its booming economy. But the residents here know the score. They sit around Jeison, drumming the tables, hypnotized by his words, forgetting the violence and hardship of life outside the community center’s walls. “My path is next to the creator, calm and away from all of this.”

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