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The violence epidemic that never happened in the Medellín of 1910-1930

During the first years of the 20th Century, the increased blood crimes were attributed to the increase of recently arrived migrants, alcohol consumption, and the freedom of carrying knives and firearms. But the judicial records and science revealed the real reason, intolerance.

Newspapers and publications of the time spoke about a “violence epidemic” which was never true and that was the main discovery of the research project entitled, “Barrios, calles y cantinas: Delitos de sangre y procesos judiciales por homicidio en Medellín, 1910-1930” (Neighborhoods, Streets and Bars: Crimes of blood and judicial proceedings for homicides in Medellin, 1910-1930) Universidad Nacional de Colombia (UNal)-Medellín History Masters student Juan David Alzate.

“Medellín was hit hard by homicide in its recent history. The last mayors boast of reducing the homicide rate to 20-25 for every 100,000 inhabitants, because in 1990-1991 when it was considered the most violent city in the world, the rate hit a record high of 350, a record still not broken today by the most violent city, which has 120-130,” said Alzate.

The thesis project came from the desire to read this reality presently, recurring to the past, “It was not only Pablo Escobar and his death trail that was at fault, but also social decomposition and intolerance. Seemingly in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Medellín began having the rates of 50-70 homicides for every 100.000 inhabitants,” he added.

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For this, the researcher, went back to the beginning of the 20th Century when Medellín was beginning to industrialize: “I wanted to search for turning points and discovered that the same as in past times, they alerted: ‘We are killing ourselves in Medellín’ although they were always isolated cases”.

To find the concepts on homicides and the Medellín society, Alzate drew upon the Judicial Files to help him understand the social fabric.

“Homicide, killing another person, is a crime that most impacts society, to the point that a decrease in homicides in a jurisdiction is an indicator of the administration of Mayors and Governors,” added Alzate.

Medellín passed from 37,237 inhabitants in 1883 to 120,044 in 1928, a 256% increase, and this increased the distrust towards the newly arrived.

Social control with media-backed swollen fears

For thesis director and Historian Óscar Calvo, “this research project has the merit of verifying that beyond what the media reports of the beginning of the Century say on criminality; he also checked with the sources to review if it was true and if the people lived like that and discovered that there was not a violence epidemic.”

Additionally, he highlights important data verified by the researcher in his thesis project: between 1918 and 1919, the media sources showed Medellín as a “battlefield”, but the statistics deny and evidence that in reality, this was untrue. Specifically, annual statistics showed that there were years in which the homicide rate decreased, see Table 1).

The Historian says that this was not an exclusive report of Medellín: “In his book,  A History of Violence: From the End of the Middle Ages to the Present, Robert Muchembled says that in 1939, the newspapers showed a ‘Paris where we were all killing ourselves, a rats nest’, while the street violence indicator showed the contrary.”

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In this scenario, the researcher concludes that this is the profile of many cities; an international phenomenon used as an emerging group control strategy, “as if it were a wider elite project for controlling social sectors perceived as ‘dangerous’. Here is where the tabloids come in and crime novels are strengthened. Muchembled made me think that something similar happened in Medellín and continues to happen today.”

Repeated histories

The days after Espinosa’s crime they captured Atehortúa at Porcesito, who denied the killing, but later confessed and was incarcerated. Days later, during the interrogation, he stated he had a fight with Luis, the little brother of José Abel, who injured me with a machete.”

As a consequence of the fact, Gerardo and José Abel were ordered to “keep the peace,” a legal proceeding where there was enmity to avoid future conflicts, a fine, or incarceration.

Antonio Montoya saw me when I was saying “Don’t throw me to the ground Gerardo, because you see me drunk”, and that he replied: “With this order, I promised to kill you.”

On October 8 of 1926, the Superior Court No. 1 of Medellín stated the crime as revenge for an old fact and for presumed premeditation–the condition of the defenselessness the offended was in and the wounds on his back indicated the treachery of the aggressor–ruled to, “submit the Jury the question of murder.”

The witnesses of the lawyer of Gerardo said that I attacked and provoked him days before he killed him. Juan Sánchez says that when workers were fired, including Gerardo, I said: “I’m glad they fired that black SOB Gerardo Atehortúa, so I wouldn’t have to kill him here”.

On June 4 of 1928, in front of the Jury, witnesses of Gerardo’s lawyer said he was attacked first and had to defend himself. The defender requested the Jury to take into consideration that his defendant acted in a “legitimate defense of his life”.

The Jury denied the responsibility of Gerardo in the crime, a curious decision taking into account that the wounds received and that only witnesses summoned by the defender were heard. The Court decides the release of Atehortúa. On July 13 of 1928, Gerardo died of a brain incident and due to the death of the prosecuted, the case was closed.



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