Medellin, Colombia — Dignified Neighborhoods, Paisa Pride and Pablo Escobar

March, 2015 — Pride and dignity are rarely considered the driving forces behind successful cities, but in Medellin´s case, pride and dignity propelled a sprawling South American metropolis from a dark and dangerous past to a bright and secure future.

Just over two decades ago, Medellin was considered the most dangerous city in the world­; yet in 2013, Medellin earned the right to call itself the world’s Most Innovative City. To make the case that pride and dignity are the key factors at the heart of Medellin´s astounding transformation, I will recall the history of political violence in Colombia, discuss its social consequences and analyze the steps Medellin has taken to rebuild and reinvent its identity.

Post-colonial politics in Colombia continued the traditions of the Spanish Empire – governance should be organized and administered by a small group of wealthy elites1. Following national independence in 1810, two basic ideologies about how to govern a liberated Colombia emerged in the form of two major political parties. The Conservative Party called for a strong centralized government and loyalty to the Catholic Church while the Liberal Party supported a secular federalist system, protected from the abuse of dictatorship and open to free markets1. With the power of governance, wealth and social influence all at stake, political tensions often boiled over into periods of intense violence1.

The assassination of a populist political leader in 1948 sparked an outburst of violence called La Violencia where the race for political power led both parties to sponsor radicalized guerillas groups that ultimately became uncontrollable killing machines1.

To end the ongoing violence and restore peace, the two major political parties compromised their individual goals of political hegemony and united, in 1957, under a single political party called the National Front1. The agreement divided political power equally by mandating that the two parties alternate control of the presidency regardless of the outcome in elections1. Although the terms set under the National Front ushered in a period of stability, it also consolidated political and economic power among the nation’s elite while alienating all other political and social voices in Colombia1. This would have devastating ramifications.

Grassroots communist and socialist parties emerged from within the disenfranchised rural populations to counter the rise of uncontested wealth and power attained by the political and land owning elite within the National Front1. Encouraged by the success of revolutionary communist movements in Cuba, these politically voiceless groups began to unite under various forms of leadership including the infamous FARC – Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia1.

The FARC and other guerilla groups emerged as both a direct result of political alienation from the National Front and as an indirect consequence of Colombia’s long history of resolving social and political issues with violence1. Former guerilla fighters from La Violencia directly supplied the FARC with existing populations of experienced fighters and eager supporters1. The FARC indirectly benefited from the pre-existing social construct of guerilla violence as a way of solving political problems that dates back to the revolution against the Spanish Empire1.

The FARC used these fertile conditions to successfully hold on to a small number of territories despite repeated strong-armed military attacks carried out by the Colombian and U.S. governments1. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the FARC was finally able to capitalize on its surprisingly well organized leadership by successfully expanding into more lucrative trades1. The FARC began demanding taxes on oil and mineral extraction from its controlled territories and later entered the booming coffee and narco-trafficing markets1. By the 1990s, the FARC had active support in over half of Colombia’s local municipalities with well over 10,000 members and a heavy presence in the nation’s largest cities, including Medellin1.

The Colombian government had no choice but to yield several political concessions to the increasingly more powerful FARC in order to maintain manageable levels of national order1. One of these concessions included a FARC safe-haven zone the size of Switzerland1. To counter, wealthy owners of land and natural resources, including leaders of illegal drug cartels, began funding private paramilitary groups to curb the power and influence of the FARC1. Eager to protect their influence, these wealthy landowners and business people – even if the business was narcotics – shared a common belief that the Colombian government´s approach was not effective for reining in the guerilla groups that were straining the sanity of Colombian society, and more importantly, cutting into their markets and profits1. These paramilitary groups soon became uncontrollable, subject to their own suspect management, which ultimately led to more unnecessary violence and killing1.

By 2002, the Colombian population decided it couldn’t tolerate anymore chaos and elected President Alvaro Uribe, who promised a hardline stance towards the FARC and all narco-guerilla groups1. With the financial and military support of a post-9/11 U.S. government eager to eradicate terrorism at any cost, President Uribe was able to launch several successful military campaigns against the FARC, which had grown to nearly 20,000 members1. Today’s FARC population is scattered throughout hidden pockets of the Colombian countryside and isn’t anywhere near a powerful as it was in 2001 when many in the international community legitimately wondered if the FARC had the capacity to eventually overrun the Colombian government and implement a violence-based communist regime.1

Venezuela´s colorful and outspoken former socialist leader Hugo Chávez, who died in 2013, was known for sympathizing with the FARC . Perhaps his sympathies stemmed from, but did not evolve beyond, the early stages of the FARC´s development, when the FARC seemed to reflect the Latin American culture of valuing community over the individual, collective benefit rather than personal gain and the power of populism versus the forces of imperialism. In those early stages, before the widespread violence and brutality, it might have been tempting to romanticize about a group that could give a voice to those without one and stand up to Colombia’s political and business elite. And no wonder. The Colombian government is infamous among the Colombian public and international watchdog agencies for high levels of bureaucratic and political corruption2, opaque operations for extractive industries that fuel the nation’s economy2 and multiple human rights violations including the execution of thousands of innocent civilians3.

Although the Spanish Empire has long been evicted from the Americas and the National Front no longer exist, it is clear that Colombia’s political and business elites have always maintained a high level of control in Colombia. The nation´s long history of aristocratic governance has cultivated a deep seated sense of distrust between the Colombian population and the politically powerful.

This national wariness of established order, coupled with the Latin American sense of populism, were elements of the Colombian psyche that the FARC recognized and exploited in Colombia’s rural population. Pablo Escobar, the infamous Medellin drug lord, had a similar understanding about how this combined sense of wariness and populism applied to Medellin´s urban population. No story about Medellin´s troubled past, and more hopeful future, would be complete without a close examination of Escobar´s legacy, which continues to influence the city today.

Pablo Escobar rose through the narco-economy in Medellin to eventually become one of the wealthiest and most infamous criminals in history4. At the height of his success, Escobar is said to have accumulated a fortune of over 27 billion dollars including more than 500 real estate properties and control of nearly 80% of the global cocaine market4.

Escobar was a man of the people. He built soccer fields, established health care clinics, created educational facilities and even rebuilt entire neighborhoods within the city’s most deprived regions4. He earned such high levels of popularity that he was able to win himself a seat in parliament in order to avoid extradition from the U.S government4. He understood that the support of the people would be his best ally – that, and his money.

Escobar is famous for using his drug money to purchase the influence of bankers, business owners and politicians – a tradition that still exists in Colombian politics today. Politicians who couldn’t be bought or ones that took a hardline stance toward Escobar’s enterprise would be killed, resulting in the assassination of three presidential candidates within one election4. Escobar was a terrorist, an enemy of the state and the source behind thousands of civilian deaths, yet he remained worshipped by a large portion of the populace.

Even after his assassination in 1994, Pablo Escobar’s legacy in Medellin continues to be controversial because of his complicated relationship with the city and its people. Escobar is directly responsible for over 4,000 homicides and an unforgiveable amount of violence and turmoil4. At the same, he invested a lot of money into the development of Medellin, particularly in the most impoverished neighborhoods which were all but forgotten by the government4.

Amid Escobar’s complicated legacy, one thing remains clear – Colombia had become the murder capital of the world with over 27,000 homicides in 1992 alone4. Colombia’s violence was widespread and complex with various guerilla organizations and drug cartels vying for power and territory. This horrendous era in Colombian history has left a scar in the national consciousness that is still painful to this day.

Only war-torn Syria has more internally displaced people than Colombia5. There are a staggering 5.7 million total registered internally displaced persons within a country of just 48 million people5. An additional 67,000 people are missing and the numbers continue to climb as 7,500 missing persons were added in 2013 alone6. Each passing year yields another set of horrifying statistics and tragic personal narratives that reveal just how profound the trauma of violence has been in Colombian society.

Displacement and violence are bonded concepts in Colombia7. The majority of displaced people come from rural areas because guerilla organizations want to expand their territory for the cultivation of illicit crops, to extort money from a greater number of legal enterprises and to control trade routes necessary for the movement of illegal products7. The aggressive invasion of guerilla organizations into rural regions results in sudden eruptions of violence that plunge rural populations into immediate states of despair and distress 7. Even after initial attacks, coping with violence becomes a daily reality for those living in communities uprooted by terror. Increasing economic stress compounds with persistent fear and relentless anguish for those who have fled or have been killed, further driving people away from rural areas and into cities7.

Those who resettle in urban areas don’t often find their lives improving much. It’s difficult for cities, such a Medellin, to absorb large surges of disenfranchised populations who rarely have the cultural know-how or practical skills to thrive in urban life. The urban fringes of Colombian city centers are populated with those who are forced to surrender the traditions they have known for generations and accept new ways of life. Grief, discrimination, competition in a job market without proper training, and the fragility of continuous intra-urban displacement doesn’t give those who have resettled in cities much hope6.

Land reclamation and resettlement is not an easy process for displaced people who hope to return to territories wrestled free from guerilla groups8. Legal disputes, unjust economics that favor those with money and the continuous threat of violence keep many displaced people in uneasy positions of limbo8. The instability of the present and uncertainty of the future manifests themselves in urban violence in the form of high homicide rates7.

Cities that receive high numbers of displaced people are, in effect, receiving high levels of violence. Medellin is a major destination for displaced populations in the region, adding 100,887 internally displaced persons in 2011 and 100,000 more in 20129. The city had a population of roughly 500,000 in 1955 and nearly 3 million in 20129. Medellin has exploded in size but not without consequences. Between 1993 and 2003, 46,418 people were killed in Medellin, essentially justifying the city´s place as murder capital of the world10.

The constant influx of disadvantaged populations combined with the rapid growth of large scale drug cartels created a volatile situation in Medellin. Those struggling to cope with urban life were drawn to the lucrative narco-trafficking employment sector which offered quick cash in exchange for constant exposure to violence. Medellin became a city under siege from within. Drug cartels controlled whole regions of the city, completely eliminating all legitimacy of the state in those areas10. Medellin was in its darkest hour and the people decided it was time for change.

Medellin’s transition from the world’s most dangerous metropolis to one of Latin America’s most cosmopolitan cities is a compelling success story.  We like to think of rehabilitation narratives as a story with a beginning, middle and end – the violence, the rebuilding process and the successful transformation. We have been properly trained to believe in happily-ever-after, but how does a city actually preserve its transformation when the film ends and the credits roll?

The forces of preservation in Medellin are pride and dignity. The people of Medellin are proud of their city and actively work towards preserving its success. They know where they were, they know where they are now and they are adamant about continuing on this hopeful path forward.

The success of Medellin’s Metro system provides us with a concrete example of how pride can become an influential urban planning force. Medellin sprawls north to south between two mountain ridges, essentially bottlenecking movement within the city and isolating neighborhoods high above the downtown. The first section of the Metro opened its doors in 1995, providing immediate relief for north-south transport in the most densely populated regions of the city11. Three cable car lines were added in 2004, 2008 and 2009 to serve poor neighborhoods that were nearly stranded within the red brick ramble of homes perched on the elevated fringes of the city11.

People in Medellin are proud of their metro and appreciate the value that it has brought to their lives. Images of the Metro and Metrocable can be found on any tourist website and nobody dares disrespect the city’s cherished Metro with graffiti.

For those of us from cities that constructed transportation systems well before our lifetime, it’s easy to lose sight of the daily miracle of movement that occurs in our cities each day. We grumble about deteriorating infrastructure and rising fares while ignoring the beauty of riding on a system that has provided urban mobility for generations before us. Individual cars and their burdening system of expressways divide our cities and fracture our sense of civil cohesion. We have forgotten to appreciate the collective dignity cultivated by the public transit experience.

Medellin hasn’t forgotten. The Metro is successful in Medellin because the people feel dignified riding it. They appreciate the urban mobility it brings to their lives. Medellin´s Metro is an example of successful planning policy preserved by pride.

Medellin is organized into separate regions called comunes and then further divided into estratos which categorizes neighborhoods by levels of wealth. Colombia has six estrato categories, one as the poorest and six as the wealthiest. Those living in low estrato neighborhoods pay less for public services such as electricity, water and gas which encourages businesses to open in poor neighborhoods and employ the poor12.

Map of estratos of Medellin

Map of communas en Medellin

Map of colmunas en Medellin

The estratos system is controversial because it reinforces a sense of classism within Colombian society and essentially codifies the rigid class system first imposed by the Spanish Empire nearly 500 years ago. The Spanish established a pyramid class system in their colonies with Spanish natives, or penisulares, at the top, colonial-born Spanish criollos ranking second, African slaves at the bottom and separate rankings for each possible skin tone that could result from the mixing of Europeans, Africans and Native Americans.

The economic and social effects of centuries under the Spanish colonial class system have profoundly shaped contemporary Colombian society. The most tragic consequence of this class system can be witnessed in the disenfranchisement and stagnation of the lower class. Those living in poor neighborhoods or those working low wage jobs are perpetually made to feel as if the bottom is their rightful place in society. When class defines identity, personal aspirations and collective dignity become difficult to build for those on the bottom of the pyramid.

Urban planners in Medellin understood that people in low estrato neighborhoods needed something to break the relentless cycle of negative reinforcement, while also offering a chance for people to feel proud of their neighborhood, and most importantly, themselves.

Understanding the important interplay of pride and dignity, Medellin began a project of building architecturally impressive and socially constructive libraries in poor neighborhoods. The basis of the project is similar to Daniel Burnham’s City Beautiful Movement, which proposed the idea that our environment has a way of influencing how we feel about ourselves and our society. If our city is beautiful and dignified then we feel beautiful and dignified. A poor neighborhood with decrepit buildings and unsanitary conditions doesn’t exactly inspire a sense of dignity in everyday life.

Medellin’s library program is based on the idea of Architectural Intervention, which aims to cultivate social change through meaningful architecture. Clara Patricia Restrepo, the executive director of the EPM Foundation, the organization behind the library project, says that “libraries have become spaces to not only access knowledge and learning, but also areas of community action and pride.13” Libraries in the 21st century must adapt to today’s world by becoming centers of technology and information while providing a physical space for community engagement and entrepreneurship. Medellin’s library program offers those isolated in poor neighborhoods high above the city center a chance to connect with the outside world and the opportunity to build a sense of self-worth. A resource worthy of a neighborhood´s pride.

Escaping the blight of unkempt neighborhoods and fleeing to newly constructed shopping centers is a common practice in many developing nations with rising middle classes. Shopping centers are ideal social places because they provide cover from tropical rain and sun, are well lit at a night, provide a safe environment and are usually set at comfortable temperatures. More importantly, shopping centers offer people a chance to feel like they are part of the modern world, surrounded by the chic designs and sleek logos of the world’s most famous international brands. Shopping centers provide an opportunity to develop a sense of personal identity that feels modern, clean, global and dignified – attributes unavailable in the disheveled city streets of poor neighborhoods.

However, the quality of civic life becomes profoundly perverted when shopping centers are the preferred social centers of city life. Social values become contorted over time as a sense of identity based on materialism slowly seeps into society. Shopping centers may generate tax revenue for city governments but they also place the richness and authenticity of civic culture at risk. A balance is needed to maintain sanity. Of course, Medellin has its shopping centers, but the city´s urban planners have discovered a way to balance the desires of the shopping-hungry middle class with the community-building development that will last when the shopping centers become tacky with age and overuse.

The non-profit EMP Foundation manages Medellin’s public utilities and the city’s rich endowment of cultural spaces and social programs. That fact is key to understanding Medellin´s transformation. The city´s cultural spaces and social programs are considered a utility, as important to the daily life of its citizens as running water and electricity.

Parque de los Pies Descalzos is an enormous barefoot park that invites visitors to take off their shoes and feel the energy of the earth. EMP city guides offer assisted closed-eyed journeys around the park´s various natural terrains and man-made obstacles.

Parque Arví is a vast ecological park in the mountains just outside of Medellin. A Metro Cable line connected to the Metro takes city dwellers out of the city and into the heart of nature. Parque Arvi and The Botanical Gardens of Medellin are fantastic resources for those who often feel trapped by urban life.

Just outside of the Universidad de Antioquia campus is the architecturally impressive RutaN complex and the spatially interesting Parque de Los Deseos, which form an intentionally designed innovation zone within the city. The idea is to create physical spaces equipped to transform Medellin into one of South America´s central hubs for business, technology and education.

EMP´s famous library project is accompanied by several other educational programs such as Common Point and An Adventure Through my City and Region which aim to build stronger communities through access to technology and awareness of one´s local environment. EMP is an integral part of Medellin´s success because of the comprehensive approach the foundation has taken towards urban vitality. The EMP Foundation is an essential partner for all organizations and entrepreneurs who aim to become involved in Medellin´s daily pulse.

Medellin´s recent fervor for innovative urban programs has captured the attention of the international community. Just twenty years ago the city was in the headlines for its extreme violence but now the city´s urban planning policies are in the spot light. In fact, Medellin´s recent popularity among urban scholars earned the city the right to host the Seventh UN World Urban Forum in 2014.

The people of Medellin take special pride in their new found fame and credit their success to their long standing traditions of hard work and focus on education. People from the Medellin region, also known as Paisas, are known throughout Colombia for their entrepreneurial spirit and dedication to getting things done15. Paisas claim that their tough mountainous geography has helped them cultivate a sense of identity that´s based on discipline and a kindness towards others15.

Colombia is a nation geographically divided by mountains, jungle and desert. This creates regional differences in culture and physical appearance that are as a diverse as the country´s landscapes. Locals in each region are proud of their distinct traditions and are ready to aggressively compare their regional identity to that of other regions at any moment in a conversation. Among all, Paisa culture remains an identity respected by nearly all in Colombia.

Dedication to the Paisa philosophy of hard work and kindness has helped the people of Medellin remain resilient even during the city´s darkest moments. It´s no doubt that Paisa pride remains a driving force behind Medellin´s current success.

Medellin hasn´t been alone in the struggle against violence. The Colombian national consciousness  has been profoundly affected by decades of ongoing turmoil and will require a nation-wide healing process. The creation of 1991 Constitution was the first major step the Colombian government took towards repairing the national spirit.

The 1991 Constitution takes a strong stance toward human rights, particularly with regards to indigenous populations and their land16. Although there are less than a million indigenous people in Colombia, they live in various territories throughout the country that amount to roughly a quarter of the nation´s land16. The constitution acknowledges and empowers the diversity of these populations that form 81 different groups and speak 75 different languages16. This is important because indigenous populations and their land usually face the biggest threats from both internal guerilla violence and external economic exploitation from petroleum and mineral extraction companies16.

The second most important piece of legislation came in 1997 as a response to growing concerns over displacement. Law 387 includes three main pillars of protection for internally displaced personsː clearly defining the rights of displaced people, the creation of a governmental program to protect them, and finally, most importantly, the implementation of policy that offers different types of protection depending on the stage of displacement17. The final pillar is the most complicated because displacement can occur in many different ways and can be the result of many different factors. So the third pillar offers preventative protection for those who are not yet displaced but live in regions at risk, the distribution of emergency aid directly after displacement and access to socio-economic stabilization for those who have resettled in unfamiliar places17.

Although the long term success of these policies cannot yet be determined, present day Colombia offers us a glimpse of a nation in the midst of a spiritual healing and an economic blossoming. Colombia´s economy has replaced Argentina´s as Latin America´s third largest economy and a surging middle class has raised the standards of living across the nation18. Colombia´s economy is primarily based on the extraction and exportation of natural resources including oil, coal and minerals as well as agricultural products such as coffee and bananas19. Emerging industries in electronics, chemicals and services gives Colombia´s economy a touch of modernity that has propelled Colombia into an era of cultural and economic growth.

In light of Colombia´s long history of aristocratic governance and elitist social structures, the distribution of this new wealth has been called into question. A United Nations study has found that Colombia´s cities have the most wealth inequality of all Latin American cities20. In fact, Colombia is the only Latin American nation where inequality is actually growing in nearly all cities, with Medellin at the forefront of inequality20. This UN report and other studies on wealth inequality underscore the profound difficulties in transforming the identities of cities and nations and reveal a potential weak spot in what is still a fragile social construct in Medellin.

Contemporary realities are a lot more attached to our historical pasts than we might imagine. It is difficult for any society to escape old habits that have been slowly cultivated over long periods of time.  As nations and cities across the world scramble to brand themselves as beacons of 21st century modernity, we have to remember that modernity isn´t an empty term that refers to some context-less contemporary situation– modernity is simply a reflection of our current time and place in history. Cities striving to embrace 21st century modernity ought to take a deep look into their past and develop a sense of modernity based on their particular historical identity.

Medellin´s transformation has interesting lessons to teach us about past and personality. When discussing before-and-after stories, there is always plenty of curiosity about how the transformation was made. In the case of Medellin, we cannot understand the how without first understanding the why.

By taking a deep look into Colombia´s past, we can develop an understanding of the particular historical traits that form the personality of cities like Medellin. The current pain and problems experienced by Medellin, and the nation as a whole, can be traced back through a long series of events and cultural phenomena. Even as Medellin became a flash point for Colombia´s most pressing crises, its culture of hard work and stubborn persistence powered the city through the most violent of times. Medellin owes its current successes, and current failures, to an identity forged from its history.

Medellin´s violent past gave rise to its current rebirth, which, indeed, may not have occurred without the anguish of that past. In the end, it took a people´s pride rooted in the strong identity of Paisa culture to restore Medellin´s dignity, a dignity deepened by the painful understanding that there is no dignity in violence.

Citied Sources

  1. An Analysis of the FARC in Colombia: Breaking the Frame of FM 3-24n Analysis. MAJ Jon-Paul M. Maddaloni. School of Advanced Military Studies, United States Army Command and General Staff College, 2009
  2. U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre – Colombia: Overview of Corruption and Anti-Corruption. Hernán Gutiérrez. Transparency International, 1993

  1. Report: The Rise and Fall of ‘False Positive’ Killings in Colombia: The Role of U.S. Military Assistance, 2000-2010. Fellowship of Reconciliation, 2014

  1. Pablo Escobar. Jacob Stringer. Colombia Report, 2013

  1. Global Overview 2014: People Internally Displaced by Violence and Conflict. iDMC: Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, 2014

  1. Colombia: Humanitarian Situation. International Committee of the Red Cross, 2013
  2. Forced Displacement in Colombia: Two Interacting Dynamics. Juan Tomás Sayago. Universidad Central, 2010

  1. Too Scared To Return: Millions of Displaced Colombians Failed by Land Restitution Efforts. Kayleen Devlin. Vice News, 2014

  1. Growth Management in Medellin, Colombia. Columbia University School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, 2013

  1. District Management in Geological and Social ‘High Risk Zones’ in Medellin Colombia. Angela Stlenen. Mountain Research and Development, 2004

  1. History. Metro de Medellin, 2015

  1. Trying to Make Sense of Colombia’s “Strata” Economic System. Christopher Burke, 2014

  1. Library Parks in Medellin. Aaron Schmidt, 2009

  1. EPM Foundation. 2012

  1. Paisa Pride. Anna Reitman. The Report Company, 2011

  1. The Rights of Indigenous People in Colombia. University of Minnesota, Human Rights Library.

  1. The Constitutional Protection of IDPs in Colombia. Manuel Jose Cepeda Espinosa. The Brookings Institution, 2009

  1. Colombia Surpasses Argentina as Latin America´s Third-Largest Economy Due to Inflation, Currency Changes and GDP Growth. Patricia Rey Mallen. International Business Times, 2014

  1. World Fact Book. CIA. 2014

  1. UN-´Colombia´s Urban Rich Poor Gap Worsening.´ Kevin Howlet. Colombia Politics, 2013.

Non-Cited Sources

  1. Colombia the Most Dangerous City. John Borrell. TIME Magazine, 1988,9171,967029,00.html

  1. City of the Year. Wall Street Journal. 2013

  1. The FARC, Narco-terrorism, and Hugo Chávez. Richard Brand and Diego Arria. U.S News, 2008

  1. Report-The Rise and Fall of ´False Positive´ Killings in Colombia-The Role of the U.S Military Assistance, 2000-2010. Fellowship For Reconciliation.

  1. ESPN Films 30 for 30: The Two Escobars. Directed by Jeff Zimbalist and Michael Zimbalist, ESPN. 2010.

  1. Medellin City Tours, 2014

  1. One on One with a Medellin Graffiti King. Jim Glade. Day in the Lyfe, 2014

  1. City Beautiful Movement. Wikipedia.

  1. A City Rises, Along With Its Hopes. Michael Kimmelman. New York Times, 2012

  1. World Urban Forum. UN Habitat

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