The square in Medellín, home to the world-famous sculptures by Colombian painter Fernando Botero, has become the focus of a heated debate over whether Colombia’s second-largest city privileges tourists while denying space to its residents. After Mayor Daniel Quintero decided to surround the square with police fences and set up 24-hour surveillance, the 90-year-old artist, who donated the works to the city, expressed his opposition.
“I have been following the news about Plaza Botero closely, both those that talk about security problems and the latter about its closure. For this reason, I want to express that it has always been my will that this space be available to all citizens and that the Museum of Antioquia is its main administrator,” said Botero in a letter he sent to the director of the museum and so she asked to transfer him to the town hall. The museum had not previously been informed of the operation.
The most recognized Colombian artist in the world made it clear in his letter: “If the city can move freely, that’s how it should be,” he writes. Mayor Quintero has responded that it was not a “closure” but a “hug”, blaming the media for what he says has “blurred management”. “Plaza Botero has never been closed and will never be closed. We firmly believe in public space,” replies the President.
Currently, however, the square is surrounded by police fences and there are three checks where agents decide who gets through and who doesn’t. Inside are the 23 sculptures by Botero. Civil organizations complain that it is being separated and that tourists are allowed to enter, but not the historic residents of downtown Medellín. “This city is a product for foreigners and not for those who live and survive on and on the streets, who constantly do so amidst social inertia,” said spokesmen for the Everyday Homeless Corporation, which fiercely defends the rights of people living in poverty who usually inhabited the Plaza Botero and its surroundings. “Medellín is a model city,” they say.
Vendors can no longer walk and sell in Plaza Botero.Santiago Mesa
Even before the artist’s donation in 1997, the square was inhabited by sex workers and the homeless. For years they have coexisted with tourists and visitors who came to see the city’s postcard, to touch the tongue of the dog’s sculpture or the gladiator’s member, to take photos with the sculptures that became the image of the city. But after the pandemic, security deteriorated and robberies erupted, immortalized in viral videos.
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That, that of safety, is the mayor’s argument for enclosing the space. Quintero said that in the first week of fencing, “the entrance filters favored the arrest of three people, the seizure of bladed weapons, a traumatic weapon and narcotics.” And that his intervention ended with “zero serious crimes and happy tourists.”
But not only Botero is dissatisfied; This Friday, social organizations demonstrated in the square and made an SOS for the square with photos of street residents while denouncing that it was a matter of privatization of public space. “It seems to me that this is the beginning of another phase of what is called a city project, the question is: city for whom? It is not because of the residents that we feel excluded from public space,” says Carlos, who has been living on the street for 7 years. “The idea of closing this space is sold because of insecurity, consumerism, street vending and prostitution, but one wonders why they don’t rather do a public space program that doesn’t serve to exclude the citizen,” asks the gentleman.
Sex workers and red (coffee) sellers have also organized themselves and, with the advice of lawyers, sent a petition to Mayor Quintero. They demand that he explain the directive that the police must “establish entry criteria for citizens”, that he show the administrative act delineating the zone of tolerance for sex work, that I explain what serious crimes have decreased in the plaza and around below among other things, to uncover the acts of social attention they practice in the area.
Valery Parra Ramírez, a transgender woman who works as a prostitute in central Medellín, told the EFE news agency that this intervention was “not an embrace, but a persecution” for the sex workers, removing them from a place that “the blanket, the food, the upbringing of the children and the daily livelihood”. “Maestro Botero, who made this place possible, celebrated its opening with whores by his side. He said we were welcome too, but now morality has aesthetic criteria,” he told the agency.
No one denies that post-pandemic situations of insecurity have also occurred, also involving women workers in the area and robberies with high levels of violence. However, for the social organizations demonstrating against the closure, Quintero’s decision is only an aesthetic solution. “A city’s problems don’t go away by erecting fences and depriving vulnerable populations of public space,” says El Derecho a No Obedecer, which is affiliated with the Otraparte Corporation, which is owned by philosopher Fernando González, another icon of Antioquian culture .
A man looks at one of the sculptures that Botero donated to the city.Santiago Mesa
After the bloody years of drug violence, the city has made tremendous efforts to show itself transformed. Their internationalization has always been the focus of various municipal administrations. “In this image that wants to present itself as perfect, of a city that has fixed all these problems, the plaza becomes a stark x-ray of the job incomplete,” María del Rosario Escobar, director of the Museum of Antioquia, told Escobar EL PAÍS.
“The center has the problems of the peripheries, with residents living below the poverty line and living in run-down places, migrants, poor souls expelled from the productive system, the unemployed,” adds Escobar, who recalls that Quintero was already once closed Plaza with “terrible results”. For her, it’s not just about working with the hurt people to integrate into the public space and identify the dark forces that have thrown the square into a new dynamic of violence.
As in 2002, when Plaza Botero was inaugurated, the city is discussing a city model. “What the mayor is proposing is a return to that era of denial of public space that was so common in the ’90s. We can’t give up. What’s at stake is the city model and a new civic pact against people who have historically been denied the right to be there,” concludes Escobar, warning that the mayor’s office has plans to close the space permanently.
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