Colombian Hip-Hop Artists, Victims of Medellín's Wave of Violence

Two hip-hop artists have been killed in the last two weeks in Medellín‘s Comuna 13, a neighborhood infamous for its high levels of insecurity. The killing of Elíder Varela, “El Duke,” on October 30 2012, and of Roberth Steven Barra, “Garra,” on November 9, have set off alarms among residents and organizations from Medellín and Comuna 13.

Adriaan Alsema from Colombia Reports translated a letter given to him by residents and organizations from Comuna 13 after the killing of “El Duke”. He writes:

While the local police extort and intimidate the inhabitants of the western Comuna 13 and actively worsen the citizens’ sense of security.

And while local media are too in bed with local politicians to show the inconvenient side of the story, I beg you to pay attention to what the community has to say.

The letter describes the current state of Comuna 13:

The Comuna 13 undergoes a really serious situation; the presence of armed groups, the practices of territorial control, forced recruitment, and the assassinations and forced displacement are situations that day after day become more visible in the majority of the neighborhoods in the Comuna and show the serious situation of violence the Comuna 13 has sunk into, contrary to what the municipal and national authorities want to show on different international stages. It shows that the Comuna 13 in Medellin, being the most militarized urban territory in the country, still has not been able to live one day in peace.

Comuna 13

Comuna 13, Medellín. Photo by Flickr user MattyRawrs (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Furthermore, on November 7, Colombia Reports published a translation of a “statement on the security of youth and cultural organizations in Medellin's Comuna 13″. The authors of the statement -a group of 60 members of cultural organizations from Comuna 13- highlight that they left the area “temporarily and voluntarily” after receiving a threat from an illegal armed group following the killing of “El Duke.” The statement also reads:

[…] despite the fact that the Comuna 13 is the most militarized urban district in the country, several battles, assassinations, threats and arbitrary detentions have taken place in several neighborhoods and sectors of the comuna, which demonstrates the lack of capacity of the security forces to guarantee security conditions for the citizens and the lack of conditions that allow for the return of young leaders who have been victim of the threat.

Hip-hop artists like “El Duke” frequently denounce violence and militarization in their songs.

“El Duke” was also an active member of his community, working with children and youth from Comuna 13, as Otramérica [es] points out:

El conocido hi hopper de la Comuna 13, gestor del Festival Revolución Sin Muertos, es el séptimo cantante de este género asesinado en Medellín desde 2010. El músico era hijo de un conductor de autobús de la Comuna 13, donde creció y donde se destacó como un reconocido gestor de la paz y creador de la escuela de hip hop La Kamada, donde a través de la música alejaban a niños y jóvenes del entorno violento.

The well-known hip-hop artists from Comuna 13, responsible for the Revolution Without Deaths Festival, is the seventh singer of this genre killed in Medellín since 2010. The musician was the son of a bus driver from Comuna 13, where he grew up and where he stood out as a recognized promoter of peace and creator of the hip hop school La Kamada, where, through music, he kept children and youth away from the violent environment.

Children from an outreach project by Élite Hip-Hop, a group of rappers from Comuna 13 which El Duke belonged to. Photo by Agencia de Prensa IPC on Flickr  (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Children from an outreach project by Élite Hip-Hop, a group of rappers from Comuna 13 which El Duke belonged to. Photo by Agencia de Prensa IPC on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Considering the outreach work carried out by these hip-hop artists, Helen Berents from the blog Cuentos de Colombia (Tales from Colombia) argues that these killings “should be seen as a campaign against artists who promote peace.”

The fact that this is not commented on, but the danger and violence of the Comuna 13 is mentioned in every news report, examplifies the re-inscription of violence.

These areas are discussed as if the problem originates there with no other context. These young people are written off as if they are somehow innately violent or delinquent. So often these conversations rest on these deliberate acts of ‘unknowing’ which actively ignore the systems of exclusion and the realities and struggles of those who live each day amidst violence and stigma, and live with dignity.

Cuenta La 13 [es] (@CuentaLa13) [es], a local radio website and blog from Comuna 13, tweeted on October 31:

@CuentaLa13: Ya dejamos los restos del Duke. Lo enterramos, pero no enterramos nuestras ganas de vivir y de gritar que queremos paz.#La13CantayResiste.

@CuentaLa13: We've left Duke's remains. We buried him, but we have not buried our will to live and to shout that we want peace. #La13CantayResiste (Comuna 13 sings and resists).

On that same day, and using the same hashtag, fellow hip-hop artist Jeison Alexander Castaño (@Jeihhco) [es] shared a video by “El Duke's” group Comando Élite de Ataque (CEA). The song is called “Maquinas de guerra” (war machines):

[Note: You can watch more videos by hip-hop artists from Comuna 13 here and here]

Jeihhco [es] has been actively tweeting on this growing insecurity affecting artists in Medellín; he also reported [es] the killing of Roberth Steven Barrera (“Garra”) on November 9. Other Twitter users have reacted to the news, like Luisa Fernanda (@luisiferp) [es]:

@luisiferp: Paz para el alma de #Garra de #AltoRango y para todos los jóvenes que han muerto en #Medellin tratando de generar un cambio cultural

@luisiferp: Peace for the soul of #Garra from [group] #AltoRango and for all the youth who have died in #Medellin trying to generate a cultural change

And Alex Macias (@alextinta) [es] writes:

@alextinta: Pese al conflicto armado en la comuna 13, muchos de sus jóvenes le apuestan a la vida, la paz, el amor y la cultura @elcolombiano

@alextinta: Despite the armed conflict at Comuna 13, many of its youth are betting on life, peace, love, and culture @elcolombiano

Paulo Cepeda (@pacepe) [es] says that the situation in Comuna 13 and other neighborhoods is just the tip of the iceberg of Medellín's “urban war.”

Anthropologist and conflict resolution expert Aldo Civico (@acivico) linked to one of his columns in newspaper El Espectador, where he writes about the issue of violence and militarization in Comuna 13:

@acivico: Comuna 13 in Medellin. The state needs to change. Militarizing has clearly not worked. We need a new approach. [es]

However, as Adriaan Alsema recently pointed out, Colombia's Minister of Defense Juan Carlos Pinzón announced [es] that he would send 1000 police officers to improve security in the city. Meanwhile, netizens [es] are asking for action, not just words, from the mayor of Medellín, Aníbal Gaviria:

Gaviria is facing increasing criticism over his response to a rapidly deteriorating security situation in the city that has led to the killing of five policemen over the past month, the detention by a gang of a government official in the Comuna 13 on Friday and reports of combat between gangs in four of the city's 16 districts.

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