A Hip-Hop Crew Rallies Youth with Peaceful Protest in One of Colombia's Most Dangerous Towns
A version of this article originally appeared on VICE Colombia. Leer en Español.
Two years ago, while strolling along a sidewalk with kids from Juan Frío, a town just 15 minutes from Colombia's border with Venezuela, rapper and activist Jorge Botello was almost killed by paramilitaries. It was the first time that Botello, sporting a flat hat and baggy clothes, had walked through the area performing hip-hop songs. According to one of his students, that's why two people on a motorbike were watching him from afar. The student cautioned him to be careful, saying “Watch out, teacher, those guys are dangerous.”
Despite the fact that Botello had been to Juan Frío several times, the criminal gangs had never paid attention to him. “Later, I understood that a lot of contraband passes through there; these are the routes that criminal gangs and paramilitaries use to traffic things to and from Venezuela. There I am, rapping, with a camera—I was suspicious to them.” Even though they never bothered him again, Botello and his crew decided to keep their guard up.
Juan Frío is located in the Colombian department of Norte de Santander, which sits along the Venezuelan border. The small town has a violent, terrifying history: In 1999, the founders of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), the biggest anti-guerrilla, paramilitary and drug-trafficking organization in Colombia—ordered a violent paramilitary advance toward Cúcuta, the capital of Norte de Santander, and the area around it. The goal was to rob the FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN), two of the biggest rebel groups in the country, of their control of commerce and contraband. This created an invisible cartography: Former members of the AUC—who had trickled down into criminal gangs after the paramilitary officially disbanded in 2006—established illegal border economies, exercising control over the lives of the surrounding communities. Juan Frío was the seat of the local paramilitary boss, who was known for excessive punishments he meted out to those who disobeyed him. “There are rumors about people being cut into pieces with a saw or burned alive in ovens,” says Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow and investigator at the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, at the Brookings Institution's foreign policy program in Washington DC.
While Juan Frío's bloodiest years seem behind it, Norte de Santander is still one of the departments with the highest murder rate in Colombia. Trying to promote peace in the region's most vulnerable areas, Botello and a group of his friends launched 5ta con 5ta Crew ("5th by 5th Crew" in English—a nod to the coordinates of the house where they got their start), an initiative geared toward social transformation. Their goal is to foster a countercultural movement through the culture of hip-hop and graffiti, both of which were completely nonexistent in the area beforehand.
“The history [of Juan Frío] has been intense and, in light of that, hip-hop can’t remain quiet,” Botello says. “For that reason, we feel an urgency to intervene and to work there, as we do in other places in Norte de Santander where the violence has been the worst because all of the armed groups in the region. They’ve killed us Santandereans, and we believe that art can address the underlying issues in this long history of pain.”
To date, 5ta con 5ta Crew remains the only hip-hop, breakdance, and graffiti group to fight violence along the border. As Colombia struggles to find strategies that foster regional peace after its treaty with the FARC and its current peace talks with the ELN, 5ta con 5ta Crew's work is enlightening and continues to be relevant. With the current Venezuelan migration crisis, the Colombian government has started looking at the initiative as a means of promoting social inclusion and easing regional tensions.
But even in 2018, as the group extends their work to smaller areas within Norte de Santander and plans to create murals to honor victims of the violence that still plagues the neighborhoods in which they work, the story of 5ta con 5ta Crew has largely gone unsung. VICE Colombia met up with them to talk about their start and learn how—in a world that seems intent on building borders rather than tearing them down—they transformed a local hip-hop scene into a vehicle for social transformation and youth empowerment.
"Ahiman" and the origin of hip-hop in Norte de Santander
Before hip-hop activism made its way to Juan Frío, it found a home in Cúcuta. Through some CDs that were passed from person to person and some Internet searching, Botello timidly discovered hip-hop for the first time. He became enamored with the power of rhyme. Since nobody in Cúcuta rapped, he had to start alone. Bit by bit, he pulled together a clandestine crew of local enthusiasts who met in a small house in the Motilones de Cúcuta neighborhood. That house became the birthplace of hip-hop culture in Norte de Santander. The group shared CDs, held listening parties, and composed verses that were inspired by what was being called the Nueva Canción or "new song," an anti-dictatorship genre in Latin America. “We didn’t have rappers here, but [we had] poets," Botello, who worked at a hat-making factory at the time, recalls. "They showed us [artists] like Pablo Milanés or Silvio Rodríguez.”
Since there was no preexisting scene in the city, rap grew alongside metal, punk, and hardcore, all of which were cultural movements that strengthened and established themselves firmly in the Cúcutan underground much earlier. “The closest thing we heard to rap was Rage Against the Machine. There were no rappers here; ‘alternative’ described someone who listened to heavy music, which was almost never hip-hop, but heavy metal, death metal, or punk. For several years, I was a rapper who sang for metalheads,” Botello says.
The first live hip-hop performances in Norte de Santander were the opening acts for heavy metal bands in Cúcuta. The opening group generally had a 20-minute set during which local MCs could play live. For years, the Cúcutan counterculture was built on a short interlude of rap, then mosh pits, distorted guitars, and head-banging. Overall, it meant that the initial style of rap in Norte de Santander was almost a hybrid of heavy metal, which is how it slowly caught on and garnered its local following.
Botello got his stage name, "Ahiman," from metal music. A friend told him to look up potential state names in the Bible. "Heavy metal has been nurtured by subverting biblical traditions. [A lot of bands] used it to find their names, so [my friend] convinced me to look there," Botello recalls. "That's where I found 'Ahiman,' which comes from the Hebrew word for 'brother of a gift.' For me, that gift is music." Using this pseudonym, he was able to make connections in the Cúcutan underground and became an indispensable reference point for the birth of a rap culture. He planted the flag in a region where prejudices toward rebellious youth were exacerbated by the presence of criminal gangs and the conservative culture established by the paramilitary.
"5ta con 5ta Crew" and the arrival of graffiti in Cúcuta
Over the course of months, the crew began to grow. Ahiman's house was the place to meet, and they named it after the coordinates of their address: 5ta con 5ta Crew. In 2008, it wasn’t just a group of Cúcutans exploring rap, but also breakdance and graffiti. They teamed up with Jeider Sánchez, AKA Showy, the first leader of the city's graffiti scene. He and his crew had begun using street art as a medium to denounce violence in Norte de Santander.
Showy was born in the La Playa municipality in Colombia's Catatumbo region, another border territory stained by war and the forced disappearances administered by paramilitary organizations. If it had been difficult for those in Cúcuta to forge a solid hip-hop group, in Catatumbo it was impossible. “There are some times of tense calm and then everything blows up. That’s why to be a hopper is to go against the establishment, which is full of violence,” he says.
The only marks on the walls in Norte de Santander had been made by the AUC, and they were red, spray-painted death threats. In 2009, inspired by cities like Medellín or San Cristóbal, Venezuela, 5ta con 5ta Crew organized a mural, hip-hop, and graffiti get-together, which they called Atacarte. The name is a combination of the Spanish words for "art" (arte) and "attack" (atacar) that creates a sort of play on words for "art attack," which describes how the group is pushing back against violence in the region.
“We wanted the youth of Norte de Santander to take back their territory, their neighborhoods. [We wanted them to] grab the microphone or cans of paint and show that we’re fed up with a conflict that doesn’t belong to us,” says Showy vehemently. The get-together’s aim was to combat violence and raise voices through immense murals. Since the Mayor’s Office in Cúcuta didn’t give them a space, their first graffiti pieces were designed clandestinely on the rear walls of their neighbors homes.
Given the complex economic situation in the region—be it the lack of industrial investment from businesses too afraid of rampant violence to set up shop; the monetary fallout from Maduro's border closure in 2014; or the sheer volume of homeless Venezuelans fleeing the country through Norte de Santander, resulting in scarce job opportunities—it was difficult to become a graffiti artist. “People barely have enough to eat, so they’re not going to invest in a can of paint,” Showy explains. In addition, the crew base has also been unstable because of the effects of Venezuelan migration. Many of the graffiti artists, rappers, and b-boys were from Venezuela. To flee the country, they had to migrate to Bogotá or to countries like Ecuador and Peru.
In spite of everything, the guys from 5ta con 5ta haven’t slowed their efforts to involve young people in urban art. “Graffiti and hip-hop are tremendous mediums for communicating many of the most urgent needs of the communities in which we work: Sexual and reproductive rights, human rights, education,” Showy says. “Kids don’t learn through slides; they understand by doing things, talking, rapping, tagging.” So 5ta con 5ta began to run workshops to train b-boys, and to teach kids from vulnerable neighborhoods how to sing and paint.
By 2012, the group had grown substantially and they started offering workshops in neighboring towns. With the synergy among the graffiti artists, MCs, and b-boy dancers, the crew took on their most ambitious project yet, the Festival Del Norte Bravos Hijos ("Brave Boys of the North Festival"). The festival is a statement of anti-violence. It includes music and graffiti workshops for kids, a concert in Cúcuta, a mural and graffiti tour, and a breakdance show. To participate, they charge a “cover”—a certain amount of food or notebooks—to see the concert. They distribute these supplies to kids who live in the region's most violent areas. “Art is like an armor," Showy says. "Hip-hop has given life to a territory that had its life taken from it.”
You can see more photos of 5ta con 5ta Crew's work below: