Medellín Diary: The Hermeneutics of Tear Gas

Photograph Source: Guía de Viajes Oficial de Medellín – CC BY 2.0

I often tell people that Medellín’s where Blade Runner meets Mad Max, but despite the prevalence of the indigent and destitute, the proximity of war zones, and the chokehold of organized crime, the middle-class bubble in which I live is rarely punctured. Right now, the sinister thwacking of helicopter rotors interrupts my concentration, but for the most part the involution of Medellín’s much-touted urban miracle into a twenty-first century dystopia is something I observe from the distance afforded by professional routine. Although that routine included nine protest marches during the second semester of 2018, I missed the skirmishes between the aptly-named riot police (who cause riots) and the radical rump of masked street fighters. These confrontations were marginal to our movement and came after most of us, students and professors, had already dispersed after massive marches that shut the city center down. And they generally took place across the river from the well-heeled, genteel Universidad Nacional, where I work, at the more radically democratic Universidad de Antioquia, which, for better or worse, has an unmatched tradition of masked street fighting, and set off the nationwide strike in 2018. That was last year, however, before the Venezuelan border crisis became a geopolitical flashpoint, and Colombian and hemispheric politics shifted even more sharply to the right, as witnessed by the General Assembly of the OEA currently being held in Medellín, the focus of which is of course Venezuela.

Perhaps not coincidentally, I’ve been teargassed twice this week: the first time was on June 25, outside my new, bunker-like university gate (cost: US $627,000), when students tried to block Carrera 65, a major artery running north-south near the Medellín River. They had earlier tried to block a key intersection outside the university’s other entrance near the Coca Cola bottling plant, with the result that dozens of riot police corralled students back into the university, and then entered university grounds, which is technically illegal, firing tear gas liberally from the soccer fields into classroom areas. This led students to flee through the entrance on Carrera 65, and to regroup outside of it. Not fifteen minutes had passed when the riot cops’ tank-like vehicle came tilting around the corner of a narrow street that separates the university and the neighboring ghetto, nearly running over a student. Riot police then began firing tear gas into the university at random although there was no opposition from students. Needless to say, plans for a march and vigil for martyred social movement leaders fell apart, and rage, shock, and despair replaced them. Since the Colombian government signed Peace Accords with the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) in Havana in November 2016, more than 130 former FARC combatants and 700 social movement leaders have been murdered, so far with near-total impunity. Yet conditions for holding a vigil do not exist.

On the afternoon of June 27, several blocks away from the university, I noticed a flood of students on Carrera 65, and surmised, correctly, that the university had been evacuated again, but this time appears to be even more egregious than June 25, insofar as it was preventive. The presence of masked protestors on the main north-south highway, which sits just outside the other entrance to the university, led riot police to block off both university entrances and then tear-gas those fleeing. The tear gas was so voluminous that it drifted into the adjacent residential neighborhood, Carlos E Restrepo, burning the eyes and noses of children and elderly people, as well as students seeking shelter from the storm. Despite the absence of any real adversary, riot police blocked both entrances and showered campus with tear gas for several hours after the evacuation. Helicopters presumably aided them.

So far, the Vice-Rector has remained silent about the repression, and as of June 27, negotiations between the Rector of the Universidad Nacional and the unions of professors and university workers have been suspended. The Ministry of Education is still negotiating the implementation of the agreement reached with student movement organizations in December 2018, though forward momentum has been minimal. Another strike might well be in the offing if the government continues to drag its feet and repress student protest.

None of the above adequately captures the menacing, tense climate that prevails in the city and the country more generally in the run-up to legislative elections in the fall. According to the city’s leading daily, there are currently 13 different flashpoints where gangs fight turf wars block-to-block over drug sales and extortion. In December 2017, the capture of Juan Carlos Mesa Vallejo, alias Carlos Chata, upset the precarious balance among the five major organized crime factions in the Oficina de Envigado, the city’s mafia clearing house. Fifteen minutes away from the university, in Comuna 13, the flow of Euros and US dollars has dried up now that firefights have broken out during the day near the escalators to which foreigners flocked in order to witness Medellín’s alleged transformation from gangster’s paradise to tourist haven. A Comuna 13 resident in her sixties, whose sister lives on a block that is disputed by several gangs—some of which have links to Mexican crime networks, with their high-tech weaponry—tells me that it is like Vietnam, except more futuristic thanks to the new lasers, guns, and ammunition, unlike anything seen or heard in Comuna 13’s recent history of hair-raising violence, as the war scales up and spills over into neighboring areas like América, which has seen almost 30 homicides this year. Predictably, murder and mayhem have made a dramatic comeback since the fall of Carlos Chata.

In a context in which gangsterism has become society itself, student demands for implementation of the accords acquire their true significance: along with demands from victims’ rights movements to save the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), student demands stand between the unmitigated barbarism of Uribismo reloaded, and the possibility of a more democratic, peaceful society in Colombia. As usual, the stakes could hardly be higher, and if another war of nerves—also known as a strike—breaks out in public universities, it should come as no surprise.

Forrest Hylton is visiting professor of history at the graduate school at the Universidade Federal da Bahia. He taught for four years at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Medellín as well as three years at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá. He is the author of Evil Hour in Colombia (Verso, 2006), and has written about Colombia for New Left Review, Nueva Sociedad (Buenos Aires), London Review of Books, Historical Materialism, Against the Current, Nacla Report on the Americas – and, last but certainly not least, CounterPunch.