Breakfast at Barrio 13

05 November 2018

The Latin American project is being coordinated by The Europe Office.

The Latin American project is being coordinated by The Europe Office.

Mark Majewsky Anderson, Director of Research and Innovation?, wrote the following article for the National newspaper, discussing a consortium of Latin American and European universities, led by GCU, which has established special units to help transform communities such as Barrio 13.

A group of us are being led up the zigzagging escalators that have transformed the hillside slums of Medellín, Colombia's second largest city. This was once home to Pablo Escobar and paramilitaries of all persuasions, but it is now held up as a supreme example of how imagination and innovation can transform a city.

Today, tourists flock to the neighbourhoods like Barrio 13, with its extraordinary murals and impressive vistas across the valley. You need to get there early to beat the rush – which is why we are here at 8.30 in the morning.

I haven't had breakfast, so I approach an old-timer lent against a mural promising love and peace. He nods casually towards an anonymous doorway muttering something about coffee and arepa. I don't hold much hope, but as it turns out, Casa de Doña Marina is everything I wished for, and more.

It isn't so much a café as Doña Marina's front room. She sits me down at her dining table. There is no menu. No espresso machine. Just coffee poured from a flask and milk heated on the stove. I'd never been so keen on these little corn cakes until now. These are different. Marina cups the dough in the palm of her hand and fills it, with everything - chicken, cheese and scrambled egg - then folds it into a ball and throws it into the deep fat fryer. I have never tasted anything quite like it.

There was a time when Marina would never venture out to another barrio. Each district was controlled by a different paramilitary gang, each with its own increasingly convoluted acronym – the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the People's Armed Commandos, National Liberation Army, the Neighbourhood Armed Commandos, and the Peasants' Self Defence of the Magdalena Medio Region. There were regular shoot-outs, bombings, boobytrapped corpses, kidnappings and forced displacements. Young people, too scared to venture out, stopped going to school or university. In those days, Medellin was the murder capital of the world.

Much of the transformation is thanks to an academic who became mayor between 2004 and 2007. Sergio Fajardo recognised the need for cooperation - between civic society, private enterprise, policymakers and universities – in order to disrupt the cycle of violence. His team formulated a policy of 'urban acupuncture', injecting small-scale high impact projects in collaboration with the neighbourhoods themselves. Transportation was key. The slums which clung precariously to Medellin's escarpments created isolated communities where violence thrived. Instead of tearing them down, the city linked them together through a network of metros, cable cars, and, yes, even these giant escalators. They built libraries around the stations and encouraged art and culture to thrive.

Doña Marina asks me where I am from and why I am here. I talk to her about our project, a consortium of Latin American and European universities, led by Glasgow Caledonian, which has established special units to help transform other communities like Barrio 13. Just like Sergio Fajardo, we have been working with academics, social innovators, businesses, and representatives from the communities, trying to respond to the challenges that still exist throughout the region. Despite the city's amazing achievements, Medellín and Colombia still have challenges, and old demons still lurk in the shadows. Even today, the country enjoys the questionable accolade as the world's leading producer of cocaine.

Read the full article here.