Medellin In The 80s: Cartels, Car Bombs And... Punk Rock?

At a time when crime and violence peaked in Colombia's second city, some young people sought refuge in the rough, head-banging vibe of punk music.

A more recent punk pit in Medellin, Colombia
Leonardo Botero Fernández

MEDELLIN — Things were different then. It was the 1980s. The war was in full swing, the violence more obvious. And in Medellin, there were also the cartels and paramilitaries, fighting for control of the streets. People displaced by the violence moved to the city's outlying neighborhoods, seeking stability but only finding more hostility. It was the Medellin of bullets, murders, bombs, abductions, drugs, joblessness — and Pablo Escobar.

But it was also the scene of a small, home-grown punk scene. Because while many young people saw no other option but to join the frenzy of crime and violence, others — influenced by musical sounds from Britain and the United States — sought refuge from the social desolation around them in the vibrant, angry sounds of punk rock.

The plucky punk scene was all the more surprising given that Medellin, as chaotic as things had become, was also a notoriously conservative, old-fashioned town. Diego Londoño, author of the book Medellín en Canciones (Medellín in Songs), says that until the early 1980s, the dominant music here was salsa and tango, with a bit of rock. And yet, some young people began emulating U.S. or British punk music, forming bands without any musical training, and dressing in ways never seen before in Medellin.

The first groups revealed a little about the state of mind of their founders. There was IRA, for example, a Spanish acronym for "acute respiratory infection" or possibly "adolescent revolutionary ideas." Other groups included P-Ne — pronounced the same as "penis' in Spanish, but also short for "paranoiacs, neurotics and schizophrenics' — Pestes (pests), Desadaptadoz (maladjusted) and Fértil Miseria (fertile misery).

The chief concern was not to become famous, but resist, says Londoño. In this way, punk music became an escape valve from violence. "It meant the start of a movement toward radical changes in a traditionalist and very conservative city," he explains. "Punk erupted to show Medellin and its residents there were other ways of thinking."

Choosing a different path

Punk music didn't come to Medellin via television or music festivals. And it was always underground. People traveling to New York or London would bring back LPs that were then recorded onto cassettes and distributed. These inspired small groups — usually just two or three people, all amateurs — to form their own bands. There were no musical instrument shops, so people began making their own. In the absence of microphones, they would use public phone handles, or cement mixers instead of drums.

IRA was one of these groups, formed in 1984 and still performing. "We were much more united because there were so few of us punks," David Viola, the group's lead singer and guitarist, recalls. "The whole scene developed with a couple of guitars, a couple of drums and a couple of basses."

Like so many other Colombians at the time, punk musicians could also fall victim to violence perpetrated by big criminal gangs like the Medellin cartel. The aggravating factor was that their way of seeing and understanding the world attracted unwanted attention.

"Punk music had to flee drug trafficking, violence, easy money, Pablo Escobar," Londoño explains. "And not because they informed the police. I don't think Escobar sat and listened to punk rock. But when something's different, an intolerant person rejects and destroys it."

Telling stories

Nevertheless, punk musicians became narrators of their city. Youngsters from poor districts faced "very strong stigmatization," says Carlos Alberto David Bravo, a member of Desadaptadoz. "The guns, motorbikes, pretty women and money were accessible, but music saved us. It created a political mentality that distanced us from the most provocative stuff. Music," he adds, offered them a chance to "move forward."

Bravo says being a punk rocker was "risky and dangerous," and recalls how young people, in general, were easy targets for policemen and gangsters. He says that as paramilitaries and gangs were fueling spiraling violence nationwide, young people asked themselves: "How can I live today if might die tomorrow?"

But the hostile city also became a source of inspiration. "There wasn't a better city to make punk music in than Medellin in the 1980s, the 1990s and even now," says Londoño. "Punk rockers need real stories. Punk is the street. And Medellin's asphalt has all the stories."

IRA's Atentado terrorista (terrorist attack) is a prime example. Viola wrote the song after a car bomb destroyed his house. "Someone activated a very strong explosive device in front of my house," he says. Punk rockers may have turned their backs to the violence, but they couldn't always escape it.

The film Rodrigo D: No Futuro (1990), by Victor Gaviria, turned popular attention to Medellin's punk scene, and allowed some of the songs from that era to be recorded for the first time. But the film has also been criticized for associating punk rockers with violence. Londoño is among those who say the depiction was unfair and inaccurate, but says the movie was important, nevertheless, for giving Colombian punk rock a place in the collective imagination. "It is the only visual reference we have of that historical moment as it really was," the author notes.

Decades later, the genre still has a place in Medellin. And it's still about resistance. "It's a way of opposing this exclusive system," Bravo explains. "Until the country is transformed socially, punk will have things to say, show and propose."

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Thousands of Tunisians gathered in the capital of Tunis

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Bertrand Hauger and Anne-Sophie Goninet

👋 Laphi!*

Welcome to Monday, where post-Merkel Germany looks set shift to a center-left coalition, San Marino and Switzerland catch up with the rest of Europe on two key social issues, and a turtle slows things down at a Japan airport. Meanwhile, we take an international look at different ways to handle beloved, yet controversial, comic books and graphic novels characters.

[*Aymara, Bolivia]


Social Democrats narrowly win German elections: Germany's center-left party claimed a narrow victory in the federal election, beating the CDU party of outgoing chancellor Angela Merkel by just over 1.5%, according to preliminary results. SPD leader Olaf Scholz has claimed a mandate to form a government with the Greens and Liberals, in what would be Germany's first three-way ruling coalition. Germany's capital city Berlin will also get its first female mayor.

Switzerland says yes to same-sex marriage: Nearly two-thirds of Swiss voters approved the proposal to legalize same-sex marriage in a referendum, making it one of the last countries in Western Europe to do so.

San Marino voters back legal abortion: More than 77% voted in support of legalizing abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy in San Marino in a historic referendum for the predominantly Catholic tiny city-state, which was one of the last places in Europe that still criminalized abortion.

COVID update: Australian authorities announced they will gradually reopen lockdowned Sydney, with a system that will give vaccinated citizens more freedom than the unvaccinated. Meanwhile, Thailand will waive its mandatory quarantine requirement in Bangkok and several other regions for vaccinated travellers in November. In Brazil, a fourth member of President Jair Bolsonaro's delegation to the United Nations has tested positive to COVID-19.

Power shortages in China spread: Tight coal supplies and toughening emissions standards have led to power shortages in northeastern China, forcing numerous factories including many supplying Apple and Tesla to halt production.

Strong earthquake hits Crete, at least one killed: An earthquake of magnitude 6 struck the Greek island of Crete, with reports that at least one person was killed and several injured after buildings collapsed.

Turtle causes delays at Tokyo airport: A wandering turtle forced the Tokyo Narita airport to close its runway for twelve minutes, delaying five planes, including an All Nippon Airways plane featuring ... a sea turtle-themed fuselage.


"Neck and neck," titles German daily Augsburger Allgemeine about the tight results of the federal election, which according to preliminary results, is set to be won by the center-left party SPD led by Olaf Sholz by just over 1.5%. It was the country's tightest race in years, and will likely lead to long, complicated negotiations to form a coalition government.



On Sunday, hundreds of thousands of Muslim pilgrims from Senegal, but also from elsewhere in Africa, Europe, and the United States, converged to the great Mosque of Touba, as part of the Grand Magal. The annual pilgrimage, a Wolof word meaning celebration, marks the date French colonial authorities exiled spiritual leader and founder of the Senegalese Mouride Brotherhood Sheikh Amadou Bamba.


Cancel Tintin? Spotting racist imagery in comics around the world

From the anti-Semitic children's books of Nazi Germany to the many racist caricatures of Asian, African or Indigenous people in the 20th century, comics have long contained prejudiced, sexist and xenophobic stereotypes. These publications have been rightfully criticized but some are pushing back, saying that this kind of unwarranted "canceling" threatens freedom of expression. Here are examples from three countries around the world about how people are handling the debate and sketching the future of comics.

🔥📚 The Adventures of Tintin and The Adventures of Asterix both emerged in French-speaking Europe during the 20th century and quickly developed global audiences. But the comic books have also been called out for controversial depictions of certain groups, including North American Indigenous peoples. And as Radio-Canada recently reported, one group of French-speaking schools in Ontario found the texts so offensive that they decided to go ahead and burn the books. The report, not surprisingly, stirred up a pretty fiery debate on the issues of free speech and what some refer to as "cancel culture."

🤠 In a more progressive model for rethinking cartoons with long — and complicated — legacies, Lucky Luke in France is taking a different direction. Telling the story of a cowboy in the Wild West, the series is notably lacking in terms of diversity. But in 2020, well-known French cartoonists Julien Berjeaut (known as Jul) and Hervé Darmenton (known as Achdé) took on the challenge of a more inclusive Lucky Luke. With its 81st album, Un Cow-Boy Dans Le Coton (A Cowboy in High Cotton), they changed the perspective to focus on recently freed Black slaves.

🇯🇵 Outside of France and Belgium, Japan arguably has the largest market for graphic novels, or manga, which first developed in the late 19th century. And like their European counterparts, certain manga titles have been accused of using racist tropes. One example is the character Mr. Popo, a genie from the popular Dragon Ball series who has been cited for having offensive features. In the meantime, more and more mangaka (creators of manga) are expanding beyond these traditional representations, including in their depictions of women, who are over-sexualized in many mangas.

➡️


"Still now, I am terrified."

— In mid-August, Afghan news anchor Beheshta Arghand interviewed Mawlawi Abdulhaq Hemad, a high-ranking Taliban representative, for TOLOnews. A historic moment for the female presenter, just days after the Islamic fundamentalist group took over Afghanistan. Now exiled in Albania, Arghand tells the BBC in a moving testimony why she had to flee to Albania and how she, like many in her country, has lost everything.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin, Clémence Guimier & Bertrand Hauger

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