Medellín, Colombia is a city of paradoxes. Its multifacted nature is showcased in a powerful new exhibition that tells a story of local resistance to decades of extreme violence.

“The city of refuge. The city of hard work. The border city. The prison city.”

A screen flickers between images of a vibrant metropolis climbing the slopes of a lush green valley, the steady opening and closing of a sturdy prison door, and the wringing hands of a man who spent many years behind it.

The hands belong to Diego, one of the Medellín citizens whose story is told in a new exhibition on the city’s lingering history at the Museum of Memory.

The halls of “MEDELLÍN/ES 70, 80 Y 90” lead visitors on a journey through Medellín from the 1970s to the 1990s, a time defined not only by sky-high murder rates, gang wars and attacks on civilians, but by the defiant resistance of the city’s dwellers, who were determined not to succumb to that violence.

A mix of curious tourists and Colombians of all generations look at the walls covered in newspaper clippings, collaged images and homicide statistics. An old man cries out excitedly when he recognizes the image of a building nestled in the 1970s collage, narrating its story to his younger companion.

Medellín is notorious for its history as the one-time murder capital of the world, and for its longtime status as one of the organized crime capitals of the Americas. But even in the days before the powerful Medellín Cartel came into existence, violence in the city manifested itself in different forms.

18-02-11 Colombia Medellin exhibition convites

(Beneath photographs of the city’s old “barrios,” speakers play audio recordings of migrants who arrived in Medellín decades ago.)

In the mid-20th century, Medellín was seen as the “city of refuge” by vast numbers of rural inhabitants who swarmed there seeking shelter from political violence that was ravaging the countryside.

Yet the migrants’ hopes of a better life were slowly crushed as youths were recruited into gangs, locals continued to be victimized by the same groups they had run from, and new groups formed.

“We had no idea that a shadow was creeping over us,” reads the first wall.

The images — black and white, with splashes of blood red — tell the story of how violence eventually became an everyday occurrence, and life became meaningless: the fodder of an indiscriminate war.

“We suffer death as a tool of war … at the hands of drug traffickers, assassins, militias, police, gangs and self-defense forces,” reads the 1980s spread.

18-02-11 Colombia Medellin exhibition 1980s(Photos and headlines of Pablo Escobar’s home, armed attacks and assassinations cover the 1980s wall.)

As the years progressed and the Medellín Cartel’s drug empire grew, ravaging the city with dramatic attacks and strengthening local gangs, the news headlines got bigger and bolder.

“Sacrifice.” “Narco-Bomb.” “Terrifying Massacre.”

But just as loud as the news bulletins were the locals who struggled to build a life amid the chaos.

To one side, speakers play audio clips of people who migrated to Medellín decades ago. They describe the days when the state had no presence in the “barrios,” the term used to refer to poorer neighborhoods, carved out by footprints and communal toil.

“There were no electricity poles, just sticks,” says a woman who worked in one of the “convites,” or community collectives, which built early rudimentary infrastructure in the neighborhoods. “Often they’d explode … we’d be left without electricity for up to eight days because the companies were scared of coming up here.”

Government abandonment allowed armed groups to gain power. Figures like Pablo Escobar became Robin Hoods. Those with guns became authorities in their barrios, making their own rules and executing their own form of justice.

18-02-11 Colombia Medellin exhibition Soraya

(The exhibition screens archival footage of positive initiatives in Medellín.)

Just as the convites had rallied together to build communities, youths continued to come together to protect what they had built.

Art collectives stood up against the physical dangers of the barrios: “We break invisible borders [unmarked limits between gang turf, which you can get killed for crossing] with performance troupes, dances, and denunciations,” reads the 1990s wall.

Troupes set up traveling shows, dancing freely along troubled streets. (A documentary on these troupes, parts of which are screened in the exhibition, is available here). Others used poetry and hip hop as an escape. Over the years, collectives such as those in the Comuna 13 — historically one of Medellín’s most violent zones — have adopted hip hop as a defense against the recruitment of youths into violence.

Yet in the halls of the exhibition, hopefulness and defiance are tinged with the stubborn cynicism of people for whom resilience was not enough. These are not just victims but also perpetrators, although the line between the two is blurred.

Diego, the man in the short movie, was displaced to Medellín, where he and his family worked to build a life for themselves. But after being further displaced by state forces to a less secure barrio, his father was shot dead for failing to pay multiple extortioners. Diego lost control and killed the perpetrator. He was in jail for 16 years.

His story seems to ask the question: Is freedom possible in a city of violence, where the state is not always the law, and where violence sucks people indiscriminately into its orbit?

18-02-11 Colombia Medellin exhibition 1990s (Colorful, playful images cover the last wall of the exhibition.)

When Diego finally steps out of jail, the Medellín he sees is no different from the one he left behind in the 1990s. Gangs still rule the streets, their names are just different. In more ways than one, it is the “prison city.”

Local residents have shared similar thoughts about Medellín. Even though homicide rates have fallen drastically, many are under the impression that something about the city has not changed over the years.

The explanation for this may lie in enduring dynamics of criminal power, like when residents pass the gang lookout on their walk home, or when a neighbor calls the local “duro,” or gang boss, to solve a dispute, rather than the police. Because the police never pass through the neighborhood anyway. Because if the guys with guns wanted to, they could turn the heat up again. In these areas, they still have control.

The word “sobrevivimos,” meaning “we survived,” greets visitors at the last hall, no longer monochrome. The exhibition serves as a reminder that the story being told is about resilience and strength in the face of the city’s troubles, as cyclical as they may appear.

But the story is not yet over, and Medellín will not stop fighting to break that reality.

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