The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences

PBPL 85 Meets with Former Mayor of Medellín and Journeys to Coffee Country

18F PBPL 85 Colombia

PBPL 85 students meet Juan Gómez Martínez, the former mayor of Medellín and former Governor of Antioquia.

18F PBPL 85 Colombia

PBPL 85 students embarking on what became a ten-hour bus ride from Medellín to Salento, Colombia.  

18F PBPL 85 Colombia

Views of the Colombian countryside from the ten-hour bus ride from Medellín to Salento.

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We began our last day in Medellín with a fascinating meeting with Juan Gómez Martínez, the former mayor of Medellín (1988-1990 and 1998-2000) and former Governor of Antioquia (1992-1994).

During Mr. Martínez’ first tenure as mayor, the infamous Medellín cartel leader Pablo Escobar was still at large and directed many murders, kidnappings, and bombings throughout the city. Mr. Martínez shared with the group his account of a kidnapping attempt by Escobar’s men while he was running for election in 1997. Fifteen armed men came to his home one evening, and he and his son had to defend their family in a shootout through their doorway. Mr. Martínez said that had he known at the time that there were so many attackers, he would have surrendered. The kidnappers fled the scene because the job was taking far longer than they had planned. Mr. Martínez and his family went to stay at a hotel because their home had been destroyed.

Ms. Martínez had not wanted her husband to run for mayor prior to the incident because the campaign would make their family a target of Escobar. Mr. Martínez said after the kidnapping attempt, he told his wife he would rescind his candidacy the next day. “Such is the strength of women,” Mr. Martínez told the group. “My wife said to me, ‘You cannot give up now. You cannot let Escobar win.’” "Corruption is the worst of the bad things that can happen to a county," said Mr. Martínez.

During his first term as mayor he struggled against the high levels of corruption within the police force. He learned after leaving office that the national chain of command within the police used to send and officers who made mistakes in their jobs to work in Medellín as a punishment–with the expectation that those officers would be killed by the cartel. As a result, the local officers had very low morale. Escobar's men would kill good officers and others accepted bribes from Escobar in order to save their own lives.

On the current state of Colombia, Mr. Martínez feels optimistic now that the Duque administration has taken over but wishes the administration would take a harder line drugs by reinitiating aerial fumigation of coca plants, which has been a controversial policy. In his opinion, the previous administration damaged the country by conceding too much to guerrillas, who he equates to narco-traffickers, during the peace negotiations. He believes that "people who committed crimes have to pay for them. The lower ranks can reintegrate but the higher commanders must pay. There should not be amnesty for everyone. The government gave them everything and that is not fair."

As we have learned during our trip, the country is very divide between those who favor stricter punishment for guerillas as opposed to those who believe forgiveness is the best way forward. These divisions do not necessarily fall along the lines of age or even political party but a more complex set of factors influence their individual opinions of the peace process.

After the meeting, we embarked on our journey to Salento, an area known for coffee production. Although Google maps estimates that the 250 km drive between Medellín and Salento takes six hours, we clocked in with a ten-hour bus ride due to a series of industrious road improvement projects along our path. Over the course of the ten hours students had an unprecedented opportunity to see firsthand the value of and need for road development in Colombia, a testament to Dartmouth’s dedication to experiential learning.

During the first few hours of the trip, we saw stunning views of the mountainsides and stopped at a welcoming barbeque rest stop for a lunch of arepas, ribs, and grilled fish. Around hour seven of the bus ride, a heated but respectful debate erupted among the students of PBPL 85 as to the quality and flavor of a mystery bread loaf that Michael Everett ’19 had purchased. Everett vehemently defended the bread claiming that it was a cinnamon bun-like culinary experience. While early testers of the bread gave the flavor a four out of ten, Io Jones ’19 was surprisingly content with the baked goods. “I don’t know what it was but I was happy to have some more,” reasoned Jones. Max Kanefield ’19 was a vocal detractor of the bread and described it as similar to strawberry shortcake he had tried when he was five years old, an unpleasant experience that has stuck vividly in his mind for seventeen years. We reached a tentative consensus that the bread included coconut and dulce de leche flavors but the group was divided as to the flavor of the jam in the bread.

As darkness descended, the quaint holiday light displays in rural towns and villages greeted us. In hour nine of the bus ride, we passed through the city of Pereira which arguably has the most Christmas spirit of any town we had seen thus far on during our time in Colombia. The city’s residents have an impressive array of colorful string lights adorning their homes and throughout the city center. Regrettably, such spectacular decorations could not be photographed. In particular, we were impressed by a very large suspension bridge lined with beautiful twinkling white and pale blue lights. The “Christmas Bridge” was undeniably the crown jewel of the many infrastructure developments we saw that day.

A source who requested to remain anonymous among the group described his 10-hour bus experience, as “highly enjoyable,” and in the “top ten” of his bus rides. The '19 repeatedly maintained that this statement was not said sarcastically, but 14 other witnesses on the bus remember this individual as particularly irate during the entirety of the journey. With great relief, we arrived at our lodgings after 11pm thanks to the heroic efforts of our driver and settled quickly into bed.

Written by Erica Ng '19, 18F PBPL 85: Global Policy Leadership course participant

This is part of a series where PBPL 85:Global Policy Leadership students reflect on their experiences during the two-week field research portion of course. While in country, students meet with local policy leaders: politicians, academics, civil society leaders, journalists, business leaders, diplomats, and other in-country experts who help inform their analyses.

The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences