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Colombia’s Ugly Architecture of Inequality

Cali, Colombia, is among the most unequal cities in the world. The story of its inequality is written in its architecture, replete with sprawling favelas, fortified luxury homes, and intimidating bunkers that belong to cartel bosses and police alike.

Favelas and condos decimate nature as they creep ever higher up the foothills of the Andes Mountains. (Courtesy of the author)

When a national strike broke out in Colombia earlier this year, bringing thousands into the streets to protest the country’s social and economic model, images and videos were broadcast around the world. The root causes of the protests were less discussed in the international media, however. The demands of the protesters to halt government reforms that would gut pensions and the public health system and raise taxes for the working class were actually quite modest, given that Colombia has some of the highest economic and social inequalities in all of the Americas, and also some of the highest levels of violence (including state-sponsored violence).

Colombia has been at war with itself for over fifty years. The government has been fighting guerrillas while mostly ignoring (or even aiding) heavily armed criminal organizations that produce and distribute cocaine and also terrorize marginal communities in a bid to appropriate their land. The violence of these armed groups has produced some of the largest numbers of internal refugees in the world. Over the past several decades, Cali, the third largest city in the country and the center of cocaine production, has absorbed a huge number of these displaced people, mostly of Afro-Colombian or Indigenous descent, exacerbating the already extreme levels of poverty, inequality, and crime that exist in the city.

Architecture of Inequality

The architecture of Cali is rooted in the city’s deep inequality. In Cali, a family’s social status is often measured by the height of its home. People in Cali thus tend to pile brick and cement cubes one on top of the other, regardless of the risks from earthquakes or from faulty design. Each floor added is a step up the social ladder, worth any possible safety risk.

Extra brick-and-concrete floors are haphazardly stacked on top of existing structures despite earthquake and structural risks. (Courtesy of the author)

Following their US counterparts, high-rise condos remain a dream of the Colombian middle classes and are proliferating throughout Cali. Their construction entails the leveling of nature, especially in the foothills of the Andes Mountains running along the western part of the city. Though these lush green hills which give the city their beauty are usually protected, unscrupulous real estate developers cut through bureaucratic restrictions to build gated high-rise condos there anyway, desecrating the landscape.

At the same time, favelas have also spread out vertically on many hills surrounding the city, creating architectural eyesores as well as unsanitary, precarious, and violent social conditions.

Club Colombia

In the 1970s, the southern part of Cali, especially neighborhoods such as Ciudad Jardín, blessed with wide avenues, large parks, and big houses modeled on American suburbia, became the most sought-after residential areas, far from the urban blight of the overpopulated, congested, crime-ridden neighborhoods in the low-rent areas of the city. The architecture in these exclusive neighborhoods, however, designed for defense against the lower classes (electric fences, high gates and security outposts), is inevitably ugly.

Ugly architecture in Cali became supercharged from the 1970s, when billions of dollars of cocaine profits from the Cali Cartel fell like snow upon the city. In the ’80s, at the height of the Cali Cartel, the cocaine kings invaded exclusive residential neighborhoods, such as Ciudad Jardin, in the south of the city, buying up luxurious houses or constructing mansions next door. These constructions were most notable for the quantity of classical columns, fabulous indoor and outdoor swimming pools, and imported marble floors, walls, and ceilings, shiny symbols of wealth and success well worth risking imprisonment.

Although the nouveau riche usually dump money into their homes to show off their newly acquired status, in Cali these luxury homes have mostly been hidden behind high, fortified walls. Even the internal walls of the homes themselves were extra thick to allow for hidden passageways and walk-in safes for storing gold, jewels, cash, and cocaine. (As legend has it, many of the workers hired to build these secret spaces were murdered before they could give the information to the authorities.)

Spending immense sums of money in real estate and construction was not only a quick way to climb the social ladder, it was also the best way to launder illegal profits. Much of the money to be laundered was moved around the city by a fleet of armored vehicles registered to a cash transport company legally owned by the Cali Cartel. More than just transporting dirty money, these nearly impenetrable blockhouses on wheels were the perfect way to bring large consignments of cocaine and weapons in and out of the city as well.

Despite being among the wealthiest inhabitants in the city and the owners of soccer teams, a bank, and a chain of drug stores, the capos of the Cali Cartel were nonetheless barred from entering the highest circle of caleño society — in particular, Club Colombia, an elite social club which caters to the city’s crème de la crème. Founded in 1930 and inspired by the Jockey Club of Bogotá, Club Colombia boasts a membership that comes from the original European families of the city, including the owners of the sugar plantations and industry (the cartel of the other white powder) that still control most of Cali’s formal economy and culture.

Stung by the rejection of high society, the Cali Cartel bosses went ahead and built an exact copy of Club Colombia, in record time and with an unlimited budget, which came to be known as the Cali Cartel Bunker. Besides several family homes (where armed members of the Cartel lived), the main building was a fifty-meter-high stone structure with bulletproof windows, a heliport on its roof, and an underground parking lot for twenty cars with secret tunnels (one of which led to a lake in a nearby park). The whole complex was ringed by a six-meter-high outer wall watched over by closed-circuit cameras.

With the fall of the Cali Cartel and the imprisonment of the capos, the government found itself the owner of over one thousand houses, apartments, lots, and giant fincas in and around Cali confiscated from narcos, including the Cali Cartel Bunker. Twenty-five of these properties in Cali are currently up for sale. The confiscated properties, however, are not a very attractive investment. Most of the buildings are by now decrepit thanks to long-term neglect, while others have been invaded and used as homes or businesses. (The Cali Cartel Bunker currently houses an elite police unit.) Even properties that are in good shape don’t attract buyers when put up for auction at bargain-basement prices, as potential buyers fear that the former owners, many of them finishing up long sentences in US or Colombian prisons, will return some day and demand the deeds be signed back over to them.

The National Center for Narcotics (DNE), for decades in charge of administering all properties confiscated from narcos, turned out to itself be a criminal organization. Dozens of public functionaries, including ex-directors of the DNE and congressmen, kept around one hundred properties off the list for their own benefit, charging minimal rents or signing over deeds in exchange for hefty bribes, which they then invested in luxury homes in Miami and Cartagena. The DNE was eventually shut down in 2014, and its ex-directors and several congressmen imprisoned for corruption.

Bunker Culture

There are several other bunkers that define the urban landscape in Cali. Government administration buildings, courthouses, prisons, police stations, and military bases, which is to say, the whole social architecture of detention and incarceration in the city, are all modeled after fortified bunkers. Hidden behind high walls protected by turrets, camouflaged to blend into the city’s sprawl when seen from the air, these cement blockhouses are less Brutalist than brutal.

Indeed, of all architectural structures, these urban bunkers are perhaps the ugliest, designed to strike terror in the hearts of citizens well aware of the many thousands of innocent people who “disappear” into these structures, never to be seen again. These bunkers, however, are perhaps a more honest form of architecture; designing colorful, shiny new government buildings for state torture would be truly hideous.

Within Cali, there are two Palacios de Justicia where the government metes out punishment to the city’s criminals. The oldest and grandest, also known as the National Palace, a five-story construction designed in Louis XVI style in 1928 by Belgian architect Joseph Maertens, with majestic balconies and bronze domes on the roof, is one of Cali’s most emblematic and elegant buildings. The Bunker de Justicia, a thirteen-floor concrete monolith built in the 1980s with tiny windows set into a cement blockhouse, resembles nothing so much as a prison.

A monolithic Bunker de Justicia 2 is slated to be built on the razed ground of what was until recently the working-class barrio of El Calvario, populated by modest Colombian homes with faded pastel colors and art deco details on functional shoebox constructions. Thanks to total government neglect, the last two decades have seen the neighborhood deteriorate into a major center for drug distribution. Dealers of basuco, the cheapest and most addictive form of cocaine, took over several abandoned buildings and fortified them, sealing off the windows and doors.

Before and after: a previously thriving working-class neighborhood left to wallow in crime and poverty, then demolished to make room for a future courthouse, condos, and an upscale mall. (Courtesy of the author)

The long-term neglect and ultimate destruction of this traditional working-class neighborhood is part of an ongoing process of gentrification in Cali. El Calvario ended up being completely demolished in 2019 (a giant basuco bunker was the last building standing) to make room for a future upscale mall and condos. In Colombia, “urban renewal” is the architectural equivalent of social cleansing, whereby whole working-class neighborhoods have been “disappeared.”

Offensive Architecture

Some of Cali’s ugly architecture has met with violent criticism. In 2007, the main police station in the center of the city was blown to bits by a car bomb, attributed to an urban guerilla group. One police officer was killed and forty-two were injured by the blast. Since then, a giant tank parked on the street leading into a police station in the center of the city has become part of the city’s anti-anti-architecture. In 2008, the Bunker de Justicia was rocked by a car bomb attributed to leftist guerillas, leaving four dead and twenty-six wounded. During the national strike protests this year, several government buildings were attacked and many police stations were vandalized and burned to the ground.

A bunker converted into a people’s lending library during the protests. (Courtesy of the author)

During the military dictatorships in Chile and Argentina, companies like Ford allowed domestic police and military to set up clandestine detention centers within their factories, which served as bases to torture and kill union leaders and student activists. Today, police in Cali have created similarly ad hoc spaces in which to illegally corral hundreds of protesters rounded up during peaceful protests. At the upscale mall El Exito (“Success”), the car park — off-limits to all press and human rights observers — was littered with bullet casings and had blood stains on the wall.

Malls in general can be seen as militarized outposts of the United States’ formal economy, fortified blockhouses in which imported products are sold at high prices with the profits expatriated, which is of course part of the reason the Colombian economy is doing so poorly. The fact that many of these exclusive malls selling US imported goods were vandalized during the protests indicates something of the regard in which they are held by locals.

More than mere criticism, the vandalism of government buildings and malls in Cali, especially during the national strike, are protests against the social inequalities, corruption, and state-sponsored violence that takes place within the walls of these buildings. In Cali, the crimes of architecture are those committed not against good taste but rather against nature, marginalized communities, and the working class.