Why you should care

Luis “AKA” Ramírez brings young and old together to heal a traumatized slice of Medellín.

By the time Luis Ramírez was 16 years old, he was well acquainted with death. Of his 25 childhood friends, 23 had been killed, and the other two were in jail. Now a hip-hop artist called AKA, hailing from one of the most violent neighborhoods in Colombia, he draws on that gritty background — but he’s not a gangster. No, Ramírez’s idea of radical resistance involves getting up before dawn to garden.

Donning a floppy camo hat and baggy shorts, Ramírez, 32, sets out to tend individually to each of hundreds of plants in a vertical garden, all dedicated to victims of the violence in Medellín’s infamous Comuna 13.

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For AKA, agriculture works in unison with his politically charged hip-hop — taking on the forced disappearances and violence that have plagued his community — as part of the group Hip-Hop Agrario. Starting in Comuna 13, his collective, Agro Arte, takes control of sites of tragedy and turns them into green spaces that memorialize the victims. Agro Arte plants a combination of ornamental, edible and medicinal plants. They have mounted group agriculture projects called “Cuerpos Gramaticales” across Colombia and as far abroad as Barcelona. They talk about history and planting with local schoolkids.

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Rosa Tejada

There is a growing body of research demonstrating a link between urban green spaces and lower crime rates, but it is difficult to draw sound causal conclusions due to limitations in methodology. Ramírez is more interested in catharsis and guarding memory. His hip-hop attracts the youth; the agriculture brings the adults. Planting as one group, they can meet and share stories that may otherwise have gone forgotten, while participating in an activity that benefits the whole.

We are not an alternative to war, and we do not want to be.

Luis “AKA” Ramírez

In 2017, Weimar Tejada, 21, was warned he was going to be murdered, but he didn’t hide. He didn’t go to the police. He didn’t leave Comuna 13. He told his mother, Rosa Tejada: “If they are going to kill me, fine. I haven’t done anything.” She understood. Her family had been displaced by violence so many times that they felt they had no viable alternatives. Weimar was murdered eight days later by a distant relative because, during a rainstorm, he had taken a shortcut that crossed an invisible boundary between rival armed groups. He was the second son Tejada lost to the violence.

The downfall began in 1996, Tejada recalls, when three dismembered bodies appeared in the streets of the previously tranquil community of La Loma, on the edge of Comuna 13. Between 1997 and 2002 — as government forces, guerrillas, narcos and paramilitary groups fought — the homicide rate tripled in Comuna 13, peaking at 357 per 100,000 people. (By comparison, Caracas, Venezuela, had 130 homicides per 100,000 residents in 2017, the world’s highest rate for a city.)

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Mural depicting planting in memorial to the dead. Artist: Warze.

The peak in violence was due to the controversial Operation Orion, in which the government took control of the area from communist guerrillas and turned it over to the paramilitary group AUC. Residents still do not fully understand what happened. Tejada recalls eating breakfast, lunch and dinner to the sound of gunfire — with bullets occasionally ricocheting off her walls and ceiling — making a terrifying zinging sound, the thought of which makes her cringe to this day.

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A mural in a cemetery in San Javier depicting La Escombrera, where the bodies of hundreds of people who were “disappeared” are believed to be buried. Artist: Warze.

Ramírez grew up in the middle of it all, near La Escombrera, a massive garbage dump thought to be one of the world’s largest mass graves. “In our childhood and adolescence, we saw how legal and illegal armed groups arrived to dump the bodies there,” Ramírez says.

Agro Arte began when a group of mothers began to speak out against the violence. While paramilitary groups would kill any young man who stood up against them, they were hesitant to murder older women.

When asked about his own involvement in the violence, Ramírez says he was never disposed to kill others in the name of war, but at the age of 13, he was all too familiar with the feeling of having a pistol put to his head. When one is surrounded by so much violence, he says, “it is up to you to protect yourself.” He worked on a ranch near the Escombrera run by the women who were active in denouncing the atrocities around it. “Those women taught me to see the world in a different way through agriculture. … It became a community, a green resistance.”

That’s not to say a garden can end the violence. “We have internal conflict more than 200 years old, and each person makes their own decision,” Ramírez says. “We are not an alternative to war, and we do not want to be. … In a country with so much inequality, we cannot pretend to take the youth out of war. What we can do is diminish cycles of violence with artistic and psychosocial work so that people do not repeat the cycle of violence and revenge.”

When Tejada’s son was murdered, Ramírez offered to accompany her in the cathartic rituals and memorials developed by Agro Arte. At first, she was skeptical of the hip-hop kid. Now there is a mural and a plant in memory of her two slain sons. “Planting alleviates,” she says. “We grow a plant for a life. In that plant, you can leave the feelings you had for that person. From AKA, I learned how to mourn.”

One New Year’s Eve, after she had completed her tradition of putting out a cup for loved ones who had died, Tejada received the news that one of her older son Andrés’ murderers had been killed. The other people in the house celebrated the death, but she told them to stop. “His mother is a human being. Right now she is feeling what I felt.”

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A memorial to Weimar and Andres, Tejada’s children who were killed by gangs and paramilitaries in Comuna 13. Artist: Blaki.

While there is less violence today, it is still a significant problem, as battles rage among neighborhood gangs called combos. The Comuna 13 homicide rate jumped from 34 per 100,000 in 2017 to 65 in 2018, as homicides increased 7.6 percent in Medellín overall. “What was once visible is now hidden,” says Ghido, another rapper in Hip-Hop Agrario, referring to how the violence is less discussed today.

Ramírez has collaborated on academic papers about his community, but he says his work is more grounded than something like a formal truth commission.

“I can have books. I can have songs,” he says. “But it doesn’t touch the people. As Agro Arte, we have street action, circuits of micro-spaces that transform the surroundings. I plant when there is death to remember life.”

Read more: Meet the Colombian El Chapo — ‘Otoniel.’

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