Paper Towers | Translation

Paper Towers | Translation


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Translated by MC Editorial

[Daniel Alarcón]: This episode contains explicit language, discretion is advised.

This is Radio Ambulante from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.

Southeast of Medellín, in Colombia, there is a well-known neighborhood, mainly upper class: El Poblado.


[Jorge Toro]: El Poblado is a community where you are immersed in tall buildings. So you have an advantage. It has a privileged view over Medellín. And, since you’re on the slope, you feel a different coolness. I mean, you feel a relief to be there, in that area.

[Daniel]: This is Jorge Toro. One day in 2010, while he was walking around a corner of El Poblado with his wife, Andrea Echeverri, they came across a fence. At that time they were planning to buy their first home together, and that’s why it caught their attention. It advertised a new real estate project: Continental Towers. This is Andrea:

[Andrea Echeverri]: So Jorge said, “Hey, let’s go in because the sales room is open on Sundays.” When you entered there was a security doorman, a very small green area, a visitors’ parking lot. You went in and there was a beautiful reflecting pool, with a very nice lobby. It looked like a hotel. 

[Daniel]: The project, which was just finishing construction, consisted of 64 apartments, distributed in a couple of 19-story towers. It faced one of the most important avenues in the city: Avenida Las Palmas. Andrea and Jorge were shown apartment 505 in Tower 1. It had views to the east and west and was about 140 square meters, which is large for two people.

[Andrea]: Well, I didn’t like it. Well, because it was very strange. Because it was… it was very strange. It had the kitchen upstairs on the second floor as well as the dining room, and you came in, opened the door, and you saw the bedrooms. And I said to Jorge, “That is so strange.

[Daniel]: But the person who was showing them the apartment told them that since it wasn’t finished, they could remodel.

[Andrea]:And we can do it the way you want.” It had walls already and Jorge said, “No, I don’t want it like that, I want it to be a loft type.” “Oh,no, no problem, we can remove them.” Well then, no problem.

[Daniel]: They showed them the rendering, gave them all the information and handed them a quote. The apartment, with all the renovations, cost 290 million pesos at the time, which was just over 160 thousand dollars. For them, who were a young couple not more than 35 years old, it seemed like a good price, and they liked the option of remodeling it any way they wanted. The drawback was that, although they had half that money saved, it was planned for another project. So they talked about it.

[Jorge]: One of our dreams is to go live on a farm because we have dogs, so, “Let’s go live on a farm.” Curiously, the banks at that time did not lend for land. I said to Andrea, “See, that gives me a break even point in three years. After three years we leave, sell the apartment, recover the investment, and we have something left over to go out and find a lot.”

[Daniel]: The plan sounded very good. They paid for half the apartment with their savings and the rest with a loan from a bank.

[Andrea]: And then the deal was closed relatively quickly.

[Jorge]: That was my first home. It was my… my first large investment. 

[Daniel]: They moved in less than a year later, once the remodeling was done. At that time, Andrea and Jorge were among the first owners to move to Continental Towers. They were happy. 

[Andrea]: We lived on the fifth floor where no one bothered us and there were no curtains anywhere. The view was spectacular. It was super-clean; the light was awesome.

[Jorge]: We had a 40-square-meter terrace. The usual thing was that on Fridays we always had people over. Friends always came.

[Andrea]: Everybody loved it. Because it was a very nice apartment.

[Daniel]: But very soon afterward, when the building began to fill up, things began to happen that seemed a bit strange to them: a neighbor who drove her car into the reflecting pool, another who left a candle lit and his apartment caught fire.

[Jorge]: Either someone fell off the balcony or someone else got into fistfights at the door, or the one who brought prostitutes to another apartment. Every weekend, something happened.

[Andrea]: The stories there are crazy. No, that wasn’t a normal building. That wasn’t a normal building. It’s as if it had a black cloud over it. Things happened there that don’t happen anywhere else.

[Daniel]: But in reality, they didn’t think those were strong enough reasons to leave the place. They were still in one of the best places of El Poblado and they still owed a debt to the bank. So they went ahead with their plan to stay in Continental Towers for three years… and that’s what happened. Three years later, they would leave that apartment, only for very different reasons than they thought. The serious problems were about to begin.

Journalist Adrián Atehortúa has been investigating this story for some time and produced it with our senior producer, David Trujillo.

After the break, Adrián will continue the story. 

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We’re back. Here’s Adrián: 

[Adrián Atehortúa]: Despite the awkward episodes that occurred at Continental Towers, Andrea and Jorge continued to live in apartment 505 as they had planned. They had a large supermarket nearby, a church next door, and the area was so quiet and safe that they could walk their three dogs at any time without any problems. Life there was very comfortable. 

[Adrián]: Until 2013, when they had been living there for three years. They began to notice a small flaw in their perfect apartment—the large casement windows did not close properly. That is, they did not fit into the frames. 

[Andrea]: So, going to work and leaving three dogs… well, I had to close the house. I had to call the engineer. “Look, the window doesn’t close,” so every time they came, they planed it. In other words, what they did was plane the upper part so that the window would close. 

[Adrián]: But no matter how much they sanded it, over and over again, the same thing always happened.  

[Andrea]: I mean, the window sash ended up being a triangle. I mean, it was no longer… it was no longer a rectangle. And I told the engineers that it wasn’t normal.

[Adrián]: But the engineer in charge didn’t even discuss it. They simply sent workers in to repair it as many times as necessary. But it wasn’t just that window; there were also other obvious damages in the common areas of the building. For example, the lounge was flooded all the time. 

[Andrea]: And they fixed it, but the same humidity came back and the pipes kept bursting. Then the sauna in the gym never worked.

[Adrián]: And cracks appeared in the hallways, and there were bricks that came loose…

[Andrea]: They came out like small blocks… really. In the hallway there was one that Jorge pulled off and said to me, “Well, what’s up with these bastards? What kind of concrete do they use?”

[Adrián]: Andrea was working as an administrative assistant at an engineering firm. Since the people from Continental Towers did not provide an explanation for the damage, she decided to take pictures and show them to her coworkers. She wanted to know what they thought and whether it was normal for this kind of thing to happen. 

[Andrea]: And they said, “That isn’t normal. That is very strange; those cracks should not be there. Something is happening in that building.” 

[Adrián]: But whatever happened, it remained a mystery. Neither Jorge, nor Andrea, nor her coworkers, found apparent explanations. And the building administration did not seem very worried. If there was some damage here, they fixed it… if there was another damage there, they fixed it… another one, they fixed it.

But the situation became much more worrying in the middle of that year, 2013. By that time, the building was practically full. Jorge is fond of motorcycles, and that morning, when he went into the parking garage, he saw one that he really liked. It was parked next to a pillar, and he wanted to take a picture of it.

[Andrea]: And Jorge was taking its picture when he felt a pop.

[Jorge]: Immediately afterwards, a piece of concrete from the pillar fell on me. 

[Andrea]: And a stone fell… a few pebbles landed on him.  

[Jorge]: The piece fell on me and I started taking pictures. 

[Adrián]: What you could see in the pictures was a small crack between the pillar and the floor, and one of the bottom corners was cracked. The next day, Andrea showed them to one of her office coworkers, an engineer. 

[Andrea]: Raúl asked, “Where is this?” And I said, “In the parking garage.” “But what part of the parking garage?” And I said, “On the first floor.” He said, “Danilo, come take a look.” Then Danilo asked, “Where exactly is it?” And I said, “In the parking garage, downstairs.” “Margarita, come, look.” And then they were all looking, and I said, “But what is happening?” And very seriously they all told me, “This is a compression implosion. You have to get out of there now.”

[Adrián]: A compression implosion meant that the pillar had cracked because it was not strong enough to support the weight of the building. It all seemed to make sense now: the casement windows were never going to close properly, the pipes were never going to stop bursting, and the bricks were never going to stop cracking, because the structure of the building, according to the photograph, was giving way.

Andrea called Jorge right away and tried to tell him as best she could what she had just been told. One of her coworkers, distressed over the seriousness of the situation, asked her for the phone to speak with Jorge. 

[Andrea]: “Hand me the phone, hand me the phone,” Danilo said. “Look, Jorge, it’s very simple. You have two feet. If one foot is cut off, you fall to one side. That’s how it is. Something has to be done now. I mean, that building is going to fall.”

Well, I was paralyzed. I felt all kinds of things. Seeing them so stressed out and all glued to a photograph. My heart was going to burst. So… I was in a panic.

[Adrián]: Jorge decided to talk to some of the neighbors to see what they could do. They needed to meet. The first one he thought of was a neighbor who complained every time they met up…

[Jorge]: That his apartment was crumbling. The man would go out and tear his clothes and say, “This is bad, very bad.”

[Adrián]: The neighbors hadn’t really paid him much attention, because they thought his comments could cause panic. Now, knowing about the compression implosion, Jorge went to him and asked permission to enter his apartment and take pictures. The neighbor agreed, and when Jorge went in, he couldn’t believe the size of the cracks in the walls.

[Jorge]: Imagine that you had brought a car into that apartment and they had started smashing against the walls so that the walls would fall. That’s how the man’s apartment looked.

[Adrián]: Andrea and Jorge, of course,  had never seen those faults in their own apartment because they had simply removed most of the walls when they remodeled. But after seeing the magnitude of that damage, they had no doubt that there must be other neighbors with the same problems or worse.

So they decided to look for evidence. The first thing was to ask the administration for the book where they recorded owners’ complaints.

[Jorge]: When I pick up that book, there were 64 apartments, 180 complaints. The curious thing is that you began to see that they were repetitive: four or five times the same thing, the same, the same, the same crack, the same fissure, the door that opens and then will not close, or the exit door that will not let you out because the door is blocked. 

[Adrián]: Jorge went to several of those apartments and asked to be allowed to take pictures of the damage. The neighbors, who had been requesting solutions for a long time, agreed without hesitation. When he recorded all the damage, he put together a PowerPoint presentation, and he and the neighbors called for a special meeting of the board of Continental Towers. The board agreed immediately and called together not only the apartment owners, but also the representatives of the construction firm: Constructora de Obras, better known by its acronym, CDO.

Andrea and Jorge knew about that construction company even before they bought the apartment. In fact, that was a factor that made them feel safe signing the contract, because it has been a well-known company in Medellín for several years. Its founder, Álvaro Villegas, in addition to being a civil engineer and an important businessman in the region, was mayor of Medellín, governor of the department, and president of the national Senate.

And here something needs to be explained. In order to carry out the construction of Continental Towers, CDO had created a different legal figure, something like a paper company. This is something that construction companies often do for each individual project so that, if something bad happens, the parent company is not compromised. In this case, the corporate person was called Alsacia-CDO and was directly responsible for all the administrative matters of the building. Remember that name, Alsacia-CDO, because it’s going to be important later.

[Adrián]: Let’s go back to the moment of the extraordinary assembly. In addition to the owners, three CDO representatives attended that meeting: the manager, Pablo Villegas, who is the son of the founder. His right hand and the company’s construction director, María Cecilia Posada. And Jorge Aristizábal, the calculation engineer for that job, that is, the person responsible for calculating and managing the materials and quantities necessary for construction of the building. That was the first time that many of those present had ever seen them.

The meeting began. The neighbors told CDO about the multiple damages and the useless repairs done by the engineers, and asked directly whether there was any possibility that this could be dangerous. Andrea and Jorge clearly remember the unconcerned and even disparaging attitude assumed by CDO, one display by Aristizábal, the calculation engineer:

[Andrea]: He stood up and, jumping on the floor, he said, “You live in the safest buildings in the world.” Just like that, extremely arrogant.

[Adrián]: But the mocking tone changed when Jorge began to show them the PowerPoint he had prepared.

[Jorge]: The icing on the cake was when I showed them the last picture, with the shattered pillar. I said, “So is this also the safest building in the world?” Suddenly, those people started looking at each other.

[Andrea]: The guys panicked. Aristizábal stopped making his silly jokes and Pablo Villegas did nothing but stare at me, and María Cecilia didn’t know where to hide. 

[Adrián]: That pillar, the very one that had spit a piece of concrete out at Jorge, was the ultimate proof of everything bad that was happening at Continental Towers. The CDO people had no choice and agreed to what Jorge and Andrea already knew had to be done: a pathology study. Andrea’s fellow engineers had already explained to them that, basically, this meant studying the structure and materials used to make the building in order to find a solution to the constant failures that occurred.

When the meeting ended, they asked Jorge to take them to the exact point where the pillar was. He did, and the next day, they covered it over with plastic that hid the crack.

Although the commitment to the pathology study had reassured them, this would not last long. The Saturday following the meeting, October 12, 2013, is one the residents of Medellín remember very clearly.

Around 7 p.m., Jorge went out to the terrace of his apartment. He wanted to see an antique car that had been leased for a wedding at the nearby church.

[Jorge]: I was looking to the left and my mind was focused on seeing that old car coming down with the married couple. Suddenly you hear noise like when a dump truck starts dropping out rocks, which sounds like the impact of the rocks on the metal of the truck. Then all of a sudden, you begin to notice that all the poles out front, the poles that conduct energy, and the trees, begin to sway, they begin to strain and relax.

[Andrea]: We felt a quake, but not a shaking from side to side, the way a tremor usually starts to quake.

[Jorge]: It seemed like a rebound. Like one of those gym balls that fall, and fall hard.  

[Andrea]: Up and down, up and down, up and down. So, of course I panicked. “This bastard is falling!” I mean, “We are all going to die.”

Then Jorge grabbed me hard and said, “Jackets, collars, dogs.” We left.

[Adrián]: They ran out with their three dogs. They went down the stairs in the midst of the panic of the other neighbors who, like them, were also fleeing without understanding exactly what was happening. They were among the first to make it downstairs.

[Jorge]: I remember when I came out. Some people were coming out of the Space parking lot, and they said, “It’s on fire, it’s on fire.”

[Adrián]: Space, a building on the block across the street, to the right, only about 200 meters from Continental Towers.

The only thing you could see in that direction was a very thick cloud of dust that was getting bigger and bigger. Through it were flashes that looked like fire… but it wasn’t a fire. 

[Jorge]: And it’s not that it caught on fire. There were some lights, street lamps, they are orange in color, so through the dust, they looked like a fire. As if it were fire.

[Adrián]: When the dust cloud dissipated, the neighbors saw what really happened. It was not an earthquake. Not an avalanche, either. What had happened was that Tower 6 of the 26-story Space Building had collapsed under its own weight.

[Jorge]: The building did not implode, but it began to fall like playing cards, spreading itself out. All the facade fell, it spilled off. That’s what happened.

[Adrián]: At that point, the residents of Continental Towers felt a different kind of panic. Because Space had also been built by CDO, the same construction company that had built the building where they lived.

[Jorge]: And we said, “Oh no, it’s the same here, this is going to end the same way.”

[Daniel]: We’ll be back after a break.


[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. I’m Daniel Alarcón. 

Before the break, Andrea, Jorge, and other residents of Continental Towers had just witnessed the collapse of Tower 6 of the Space Building, on October 12, 2013.

Andrea was there, a few meters away, and she remembers what she felt in those first moments after the collapse:

[Andrea]: It was a feeling of loneliness and silence… you cannot imagine the sadness. It was horrible.

[Daniel]: It started to rain, and people from the neighboring buildings brought out clothing for those who had made it out of Space.

Ambulances, paramedics, firefighters, rescuers arrived… 

[Andrea]: It was all very, very sad. Seeing the dogs show up, looking for bodies. And no one wanted to go up to their apartment, because it was raining and early in the morning and, well, how could anyone sleep.

[Daniel]: And even less knowing that CDO was the same construction company that had made their building, that was having so many problems.

Adrián continues the story.

[Adrián]: The rescue attempts were very complicated because of the rain.


[Vanessa de la Torre]: The country’s attention continues to be focused on Medellín, where, throughout the night, relief agencies conducted search efforts for the missing persons in the Space residential complex. 

[Adrián]: Neither Andrea nor Jorge nor their neighbors knew, until the day it fell, that the residents of Space had experienced exactly what they had. Ever since its construction, and during the last two years, they had been lodging constant complaints of structural failures. So a city news outlet did a story about it on October 11, just one day before the collapse. This is a testimonial from one of the residents: 


[Natalia Gutiérrez]: Each of our apartments has deep cracks. The closets and doors are hanging. Things have happened, things we have been talking about with the construction company for a long time and that have not been… well, some have been looked into, but we feel…

[Adrián]: That same day, officials from the Department of Risk and Disaster Management, DAGRD, went to Space to review the damage reported by the residents. That inspection revealed a compression failure in a structural pillar of Tower 6—a failure very similar to the one Jorge had photographed at Continental Towers.

The representatives of the construction company, CDO, were also there, and said there was no risk. They mentioned the architecture award Space had recently won and recalled the experience and prestige of the company.

Jorge Aristizábal, the calculation engineer who—remember—was the one who told the residents of Continental Towers that they were in one of the safest buildings in the world, was also in the news. He assured the public that there was nothing to worry about.


[Jorge Aristizábal]: An event occurred in a specific element of the structure, which we are working to repair, but it does not imply any danger at all of building collapse or safety of the people, nor did anything happen that is to be regretted.

[Adrián]: Fortunately, the DAGRD did find the situation serious and ordered the immediate evacuation of Tower 6. Thanks to that decision, many lives were saved, but not all. Of the 14 people who were in the building when it collapsed, only two survived. Three days after the collapse, the first fatality was found: Juan Esteban Cantor, a 23-year-old man, a resident of the Space Building, who was parking his car in the garage of Tower 6 when it collapsed. His friend, Felipe Ocampo, survived because the impact ejected him from the building. Others were found during that week. In all, ten days would pass before the final balance was known: 13 people under the rubble, of which only one survived—the 24-year-old security guard, Jader Lopera.

The fatalities included 9 people hired by CDO, engineers and workers, who were trying to repair the faults. A futile effort, of course, because according to the technical studies done post-collapse, the structure was badly built from the beginning and the probability of failure was almost 100%. The other two victims were security guards in that tower. One of them, Jesús Adrián Colorado, was rescued alive. He had never worked at Space and he’d arrived just that evening, after spending a week on vacation, to replace one of his colleagues. He died in January 2014, after three months in intensive care.

The collapse of Space set off the alarms in the city. The DAGRD hot lines crashed with calls from people all over the region reporting cracks in their own buildings. Not all of them were serious, but still, people didn’t feel safe after what had happened.

But the most worrying cases were not so far away from Space. On the same block were two more high-rises built by CDO. Continental Towers was one of those. And although the residents of the three buildings did not know it until that moment, they had all been reporting the same failures for months.

Andrea, also alarmed, began to push much harder for CDO to do the pathology study of Continental Towers they had already promised. She asked her neighbors to join the claim. Some supported her, others not so much. 

[Andrea]: And I can’t forget those words from one neighbor: “Andrea, don’t cause a panic.” To which I said, “Don’t cause a panic? Don’t cause a panic?” With a building next door already on the ground.

 [Adrián]: But thanks to that panic, several neighbors agreed to pay for the study themselves. 

[Andrea]: That is where engineer Rochel comes into our lives. Praise the Lord. Our guardian angel.

[Roberto Rochel]: My name is Roberto Rochel, and I am a civil engineer. I have practiced this profession for 50 years.

[Adrián]: Roberto is recognized in his trade as an authority in matters of consultancies and structural design. In addition, he is a professor at EAFIT, one of the most prestigious universities in the city, where he has taught several generations of engineers. This is why the residents of Continental Towers contacted him.

Roberto started his pathology study eight days after the fall of Space.

[Roberto]: The first thing you do is check that the structure actually built does match the blueprints that are available.

[Adrián]: And that the quality of the materials used also matches that design. But when Roberto and his team arrived to do the inspection, they came up against the building administration, which was employed by the construction company. According to him, they weren’t allowed to take many tests, and they were restricted from entering certain areas. Basically, they were only able to inspect the failures on the upper floors. But even so, from what he could see, Roberto didn’t need much time to give his diagnosis. 

[Roberto]: What I am going to tell you seems unbelievable, but it did not take more than two days for me to reach my opinion. For a very simple reason: the flaws in the structure were obvious. A very simple load evaluation showed that the building had vertical load problems. 

[Adrián]: This means that the building was barely able to withstand not only its own weight, but also the weight of the residents, the furniture, the cars… that is, the basics. Neither of the two towers at Continental had the capacity to withstand additional loads such as hail, strong winds, or earthquakes.

But that evidence was not what surprised engineer Rochel the most. When he went to compare these findings with the blueprints, he couldn’t believe it. The building was built following the structural design plans to the letter. And to top it off, the authority in charge of issuing construction permits in the city had approved them.

In other words, it is not that the building had been well planned and something had gone wrong during construction. No, it was a disaster from is very planning.

[Roberto]: The structural plans did not meet the standards that Colombia had set. That is the big problem with that building, that the calculation engineer did not follow regulations, did not follow the building codes, and he thought that he was the code. By trying to get exceptionally cheap structures, he went to the extreme of having a structure as unstable as the one he designed.

[Adrián]: Roberto shared his findings with the Continental Towers board of directors in a report, and the neighbors were just as shocked as he was. 

[Andrea]: They did not build what they were supposed to build, and they lowered the quality of the materials when they built. They cut corners, saving on materials, and not only that, they mixed styrofoam into the concrete.

[Adrián]: Icopor, as it is known in Colombia. Or, in other parts of the continent, unicel, telgopor, espumaflex, plumavit… The technical name is expanded polystyrene. 

[Andrea]: It was a miracle those bastards didn’t kill us.

[Adrián]: 17 days after the Space Building collapsed, Andrea received a call at her office. It was an acquaintance, a woman from a company that supplied materials to the engineering firm where Andrea worked. She remembers what the woman told her, in a mysterious tone:

[Andrea]: “Andre, is it true that you have an apartment in Continental?” And I said, “Yes.” “Oh! I will call you back right away.”

[Adrián]: She hung up. Andrea did not understand what that was all about. A few minutes later, the woman called again and asked in the same mysterious tone:

[Andrea]:Andre, if I file a complaint, can I say that it is in your name?” And I said, “How do you mean?” “I’ll call you back.”

[Adrián]: Andrea was getting pretty nervous. 

[Andrea]: I stopped going to work. I was nervous, walking back and forth.

[Adrián]: By the third call, the woman spoke clearly:

[Andrea]:Andre, look, I’m going to tell you the truth. It turns out that an engineer came to consult with us. We have the modeling here, and Continental is going to fall.”

[Adrián]: That engineer was Roberto Rochel. During the pathology study, he had called different vendors to compare the quality of the materials CDO had used. When he sent them the calculations for the construction of Continental Towers, everything became clear. The woman went on explaining to Andrea: 

[Andrea]: “I am going to raise a scandal in City Hall, but I cannot raise a scandal on behalf of the company. In other words, I have to show what is happening, but I have to file a complaint with the DAGRD and it has to be an owner’s complaint.”

[Adrián]: DAGRD, the disaster prevention department. Andrea did not hesitate—she gave her the green light. 

[Andrea]: Name, ID and she said, “Someone who is willing to go to the building right now with someone from DAGRD.”

[Adrián]: To confirm the failures and make decisions. Andrea asked Jorge to go, and he did. He showed them all the damage in the common areas and accompanied them to each apartment so they could see the cracks. After a 3- to 4-hour inspection, they left without saying anything. A while later, the woman called Andrea again:

[Andrea]: “They are going to evacuate you. Be prepared. If not tonight, it will be tomorrow morning.” And I’m… “What?” She said, “Andre, go and remove everything from the house right now.

[Adrián]: Andrea ran to her apartment. The only thing she and Jorge could do was get their things out.

[Andrea]: The first thing I got was the deeds, passports, in other words, all the documents, all the clothes. Jorge went like this, zoom, handing things to me. And I would pack up, roll up, and take downstairs.  

[Adrián]: They filled the car as much as they could and took the things to Andrea’s parents’ house. Then they came back for more. 

[Andrea]: Several neighbors behind me asked, “Andre, what is happening?” “They are going to evacuate us, man. What are you doing here? Go pack. The deeds, the passports, whatever you need now.” 

[Adrián]: At about 7 pm, the DAGRD officials arrived and officially ordered immediate evacuation. They went apartment by apartment giving the same instructions. Each person was given a couple of garbage bags and told that they had a few hours to collect whatever belongings they could, and leave the building as soon as possible. Two weeks had passed since the collapse of Space, and with this sudden evacuation there was no other possibility in their mindstheir building was going to end the same way.

Andrea and Jorge had managed to get several of their things out, as did some of the neighbors with whom they had managed to speak. But there were others who had just got home from work and didn’t even have time to take in the news.

 [Andrea]: You experience it as if it were in slow motion, everyone in panic. Everyone coming out with the dogs, with the animalschaos. Cars coming in, cars going out.  

[Adrián]: She remembers seeing a neighbor leave with only a change of clothes and a bottle of Scotch. She also had to help another find her car because in the panic she couldn’t remember where she had parked it.

The DAGRD did not say whether they would be allowed to come back or not. When asked what was going to happen, they gave just one answer:

[Andrea]: “We have to evacuate, we have to evacuate. We are going to take you to a hotel and we are going to decide on the way, we’ll see what happens.” And Jorge said to me, “We are not coming back here. Get used to the idea once and for all that we are not coming back here.” And I said, “Yes, I got that very clear. I know that we are not going to return here.”

[Adrián]: CDO managed the accommodation of the residents evacuated from the 64 apartments of Continental Towers. That night, they ended up in a hotel that had just opened its facilities so they could stay there while the situation was resolved. Together they bought some food and made themselves as comfortable as they could.

[Andrea]: So, everyone was walking around nervously; who could sleep? It was a bewilderment, and we didn’t know what to do. I mean… you lost your home, you don’t know what’s going to happen.

[Adrián]: The next day, since no one gave them any explanation, they decided to organize on their own. A group of neighbors was in charge of collecting everyone’s information and putting together a database. Another focused on communications and speaking to the media. A third group set about looking at how they might take on CDO. This is Jorge again: 

[Jorge]: It was very interesting because while we lived in the hotel, we began to have meetings every night to see how we were going to face this—fighting against a construction company that was very powerful.

[Adrián]: DAGRD gave them only one piece of sure information: from that moment on, shifts would be scheduled every week so that the residents of Continental Towers could return to the building, apartment by apartment,  and remove their belongings in a maximum of four hours. 


[Journalist]: During two weeks, the 45 families evacuated from the Continental Towers development will be able to remove all of their belongings. The CDO construction company will oversee the transfer.

[Adrián]: When it was Andrea and Jorge’s turn, a month had passed since they first arrived at the hotel. They had managed to remove more things than other neighbors on the day of the evacuation, but that did not make things any easier. The whole process was very uncomfortable.

[Andrea]: They made us feel as if we had done something wrong. There was an engineer behind us, taking inventory of what we took from my house. 

[Adrián]: But it was all theirs, so they were prepared to take whatever they had left behind. They didn’t want to leave anything to CDO. For that reason, they took the opportunity to remove what they could, with screwdrivers and wrenches in hand—from the red leather padded sofa more than 2 meters long that they had to remove through the terrace, to the water heater embedded in the wall.

[Jorge]: All the rest, we left there, things like lighting, wiring, copper, pipes. All of that stayed.  

[Adrián]: During all that time, there was never an official answer to the owners’ questions about what would happen to their apartments. The construction company only repeated what they had been saying for the last three weeks: that they would take care of fixing the building, but they did not say how. While they waited for things to get clear, many of the owners decided to live with relatives temporarily. Others moved into rented places.

In the end, the only thing CDO took responsibility for was the hotel accommodations, and they promised to provide rental assistance while they worked on the building, but they stopped paying shortly after a year.

As a lifesaver, the residents sought out the apartment insurers to cover their damage, but it turned out that bank insurers didn’t do that.

[Andrea]: Because it is assumed that if you are going to move in, the building is in good condition, it has no structural flaws. So that is not covered. So the insurers never covered anything, never stepped in.

[Adrián]: And, according to Andrea, in the contract they had with a State insurer…

[Andrea]: There is a clause that says that the contract can be unilaterally terminated, so they left us without insurance. Just so you know: the State insurance company left us in the filthy street. They dumped us.

[Adrián]: Desperate and lacking many other options, Andrea and Jorge moved into another rented apartment, and together with their neighbors, they decided to get involved in a long legal process against Alsacia-CDO, the corporate person that, under the law, had built the building.

Meanwhile, the country kept their eyes on everything that had to do with the Space Building tragedy. Three months after the collapse of Tower 6, in January 2014, the court ruled that the building was definitely uninhabitable and irrecoverable, and they ordered implosion of the other towers that remained standing. Anyone who was in Medellín that year remembers the moment when Space went down for good on Tuesday, September 23. The media covered that implosion live. 


[Journalist]: Almost 40 seconds after 9 o’clock, a succession of 20 micro-explosions was heard and seen, a product of the 200 kilos of indugel installed in 1,200 perforations. In a matter of six seconds, the four towers that were still standing collapsed.  

[Adrián]: But Continental Towers’ problems were far from over. That same week of the Space implosion, they received the only solution proposed by CDO: to retrofit the building. That is, to reinforce its structure so as to make it livable again. This had also been proposed in the case of Space.

The owners flatly rejected the proposal on two occasions. For one thing, the adaptations were absurd: 

[Jorge]: Which is my case: a pillar across the door. And so on. Terraces with a beam crossing horizontally at a height of one meter.

[Adrián]: And for another thing, engineer Roberto Rochel had already made it clear.

[Roberto]: How can you reinforce a building that cannot bear its own weight? The clearest example is if someone were born with a skeleton that could not support their weight. There is nothing you can do.

[Adrián]: By May 2015, CDO was still adamant that that was the only way they could help the owners. And, while pursuing the legal battle, the owners still had to deal with the snowball their problems had become. They had been homeless for almost a year and a half, some were living in other people’s homes or renting other spaces, and worst of all, they had to continue paying taxes on their apartments as well as the debts that many had incurred with banks in order to buy.

They had to wait until mid-2015 for the courts to finally summon them to hearings. Representing Alsacia-CDO, the corporate person they had sued, were only their lawyers. On the side of the victims, almost all the owners of the 64 evacuated apartments were present. They each gave their testimonies. Devastating testimonies. 

[Andrea]: That hearing was so tough. You cannot imagine the number of things that came out in those hearings that we had not been aware of.  

[Adrián]: It was like a kind of collective catharsis, a way of understanding the personal dramas triggered by the cracks in the building and the eviction. Some of those stories stuck with Andrea: 

[Andrea]: I remember another neighbor who was breastfeeding at that time and had to stop breastfeeding. She couldn’t feed her baby again because the stress was so awful that she didn’t have anything. She was not able to breastfeed.

[Adrián]: Or the case of Sergio, another neighbor who was diagnosed with cancer. 

[Andrea]: And it was very hard because we hadn’t seen Mr. Sergio in a long time. It was very hard to see him like that. He said, “I’m going to die and they won’t pay us.” And Mr. Sergio died and he never got anything.

[Adrián]: After a series of very long hearings that lasted for two months, on January 22, 2016, they were summoned for the verdict.

[Andrea]: When he begins to read that ruling, all our hearts were popping out.

[Adrián]: And as it rarely happens in Colombia, justice forcefully ruled in favor of those affected.

[Andrea]: I tell you the truth, I didn’t think we were going to win.

[Adrián]: The judge issued very clear orders to to the construction company: 

[Jorge]: That is, to return the money. You made a poor quality product that does not meet the minimum. So you have to refund all these people.

[Adrián]: But the ruling not only ordered that Alsacia-CDO had to reimburse the value of each of the 64 apartments; they also had to pay for the remodeling the owners had done, plus compensation for moral and economic damages caused in the last two and a half years after the eviction. The figure reached 13,400 million pesos, almost 4 million dollars. The highest authority of the court that issued the verdict described it as historic.


[Fidel Puentes]: In our process, we handed down the ruling and we expect the construction company, in good faith, to comply with it. We also hope that the process being carried out at Supersociedades will be most favorable for everyone, including these consumers.

[Adrián]: Supersociedades, or Superintendency of Companies, is the agency that oversees and controls commercial companies in Colombia, such as Alsacia-CDO.

[Adrián]: Although it was a final decision, that is, no other legal remedy can be applied to change it, CDO did not comply and appealed the decision. Meanwhile, they kept pushing for six more months to get their retrofitting permit approved. But, once again, the courts ruled in favor of the owners of Continental Towers, and in mid-2016, gave the strongest reason for rejecting the construction company’s proposal. It was simply unfeasible from every point of view.

[Andrea]: Given the pressure from the media, the pressure from the mayor and from everyone who was alert to the issue, they were super-rigorous. The permit was denied four times.

[Adrián]: If there was still any doubt of CDO’s guilt, it was finally reconfirmed on September 7, 2016, eight months after the first ruling. At that time, the court resolved the appeal filed by the construction company and once again agreed with the co-owners in the second instance. In summary, CDO had to pay, period. Well, not exactly CDO, but the paper company they had created for the construction of Continental Towers, Alsacia-CDO. And, even with two rulings against them, the response they gave was unexpected.

[Jorge]: They filed for bankruptcy. 

[Adrián]: It was a strategy from CDO that Jorge, Andrea, and the owners of Continental Towers were only just realizing. In the six months that passed, while the courts responded that they could not appeal, and while the issue of the retrofitting permit was settled, the construction company began the process of dissolving Alsacia-CDO. That meant that when the Superintendency of Companies intervened, all they could do was try to distribute the money that was left from the paper company the way the law says. First they must pay the employees, then they go on to debts with the State, then administrative credits and other categories, and finally getting to what the lawsuit required. 

[Andrea]: But the money, obviously didn’t go that far—it didn’t even get as far as the administrative payment.

[Adrián]: In the end, all they got out of their entire three-year court battle were two pieces of paper in hand that said they had won, but that no one ever enforced.

[Andrea]: No, it’s just that they are bastards. I mean, we are in Colombia. They let them take the money out, the Superintendency of Companies did nothing. Their accounts were not frozen.

[Adrián]: And like some absurd game of Monopoly, all they gave the Continental Towers owners were parts of the building’s apartment ownership that CDO was never able to sell. In other words, they distributed to the owners percentages of apartments that no one was ever going to inhabit.

[Andrea]: To make matters worse, that is, as if none of what is happening to us is enough, I have an apartment and a piece of another one. I mean, it makes no… It’s ridiculous.

[Adrián]: News about CDO kept coming. In 2018, five years after the collapse of Space and the eviction of Continental Towers, the court sentenced Pablo Villegas, María Cecilia Posada and Jorge Aristizábal for the manslaughter of Juan Esteban Cantor, the only one of the 12 fatality victims who was a resident and died in the collapse of Tower 6. It was the first time in Colombia that a sentence of this type was handed down for the collapse of a building. The penalty was four years of house arrest, some 15,000 dollars of financial penalties for each one, and they were prohibited from practicing their professions for five years. Meanwhile, the owners are still owed 60% of the compensation the court ordered for the loss of their apartments.

That same year, the authorities ordered the evacuation of another building, called Bernavento, in which the calculator Jorge Aristizábal had also been involved. Unlike Continental Towers, the retrofitting in this case was approved by the owners, who moreover had to pay for it. But the results were so disastrous that the building had to be imploded less than two months later.

In the end, the defendants spent only a year and a half under house arrest. They were released because, under a confidentiality clause, they negotiated a higher compensation for the family of Juan Esteban Cantor, which in Colombia can be considered comprehensive reparation. We tried to talk to them, but they have stayed away from the media since their release. I tried to contact Pablo Villegas, but he never answered my calls or my chats.

But the odyssey of the owners of Continental Towers did not end there, even though little or nothing continued to be said about their case. They were never able to return, not even to remove the things that many had left behind. To enter into the abandoned building at all, they had to get the simultaneous approval of the Superintendency of Companies, the DAGRD and the Police.

And yet, that bureaucracy was not an impediment to the building being looted by thieves, day and night during six years of neglect.

[Jorge]: The building was completely abandoned, completely neglected, and left to its own devices. 

[Andrea]: People were even coming to live there.

[Jorge]: Anyone who wanted to could go in, sure, but we, the owners, could not go in.

[Adrián]: And the situation got worse in 2020, when lock-downs were imposed because of the pandemic.

[Andrea]: Since we were all locked up, some took the opportunity to ransack the building.

[Adrián]: Thieves managed to remove everything that the former residents could not—and much more: glass, pipes, doors, bricks, wiring, and even the elevator motor were stolen. All they left behind were the bones of the building.

This deterioration caused two serious problems. The first was that residents of the sector began to complain to the police about the insecurity and the presence of thieves in the building. But what the police decided was that the owners had to guarantee the tranquility of the neighborhood by hiring private security, even though they had not lived there for nine years.

Furthermore, the degree of looting was such that the structure couldn’t take it anymore; it could collapse on any of the nearby streets at any time. The DAGRD decided to declare it a public calamity in September 2022. But as if there weren’t enough absurdities in this story, if Continental Towers fell, like Space, those directly responsible for the damage would be the owners.

[Andrea]: That damned building falls on Las Palmas, kills 100 people, and we get into… In other words, something happens to someone because of that monstrosity and we are the ones who are going to pay jail time. That is the magnitude of our problem. 

[Adrián]: The solution was becoming more and more obvious: implosion. And that’s what the mayor ordered. But the new question was who would pay the 4,600 million pesosthat is, one million dollarsthat that operation costs. The owners of Continental Towers feared that they would also have to bear that cost.

[Jorge]: We didn’t have the means. Not even recovering the money from the apartment would have been enough for all of us to pay for an implosion. We had no way.

[Adrián]: Two more months went by in that new limbo, waiting to know who would pay for the Continental Towers implosion, or waiting for it to fall by itself. Finally, in November 2022, the Medellín Mayor’s Office ruled on the matter. This is Daniel Quintero, then mayor of the city:


[Daniel Quintero]:  The declaration of public calamity means we can use public resources to do various tasks in this case. The first…

[Adrián]: As if there were still doubts about what should be done, the Mayor’s Office again called engineer Roberto Rochel to confirm and reconfirm what had been known since 2013.  

[Roberto]: Time has shown that the building certainly was in bad shape and that the decision they made now to demolish it should have been made ten years ago. 

[Adrián]: A decision that the owners had been waiting for so long was finally a reality. Although not exactly because the authorities had agreed with them.

[Andrea]: Paradoxically, the people who helped us were the ones who had damaged the building. They looted so much that they ended up damaging the building even more, leading to the decision of the DAGRD and the current administration to implode it.

[Adrián]: The process took more than three months of preparation. The buildings near Continental Towers were evacuated, which required extensive and bureaucratic logistics to relocate the residents of the sector, carry out the relevant studies, and request the necessary and exact amount of explosive charge. The operation was carried out by the same company that had imploded Space. The implosion was scheduled to take place on December 8, 2022 at 10 in the morning.

The area was evacuated in the early morning hours over a one-kilometer radius.  The media gathered on the Avenida Las Palmas, together with those curious who wanted to watch the live collapse of another sick building in Medellín. Andrea was also there. I accompanied her the whole time that morning.

[Adrián]: How are you doing?

[Andrea]: Oh, I don’t know. Scared.

It is like a very strange feeling to see it and think that now, now it’s about to disappear. That we are finally going to get some peace.

[Adrián]: I saw her go from one place to another, organizing the neighbors to watch out for the moment of the implosion. For her, it was like a time of bereavement. Jorge, for his part, decided to break the security protocols and went down the Avenida Las Palmas. He wanted a closer view of the building collapsing. Suddenly, a siren began to wail.

And it continued to wail two more times at 10-minute intervals. That announced that the moment of the detonation was getting closer.

Everyone around was waiting expectantly. But hour zero arrived, and there was no detonation. 2, 5, 10 minutes passed… Andrea was impatient.

[Andrea]: What are they waiting for? Wasn’t Space faster?

[Adrián]: 20, 30 minutes passed… Until finally…


There’s a strange feeling about watching a building implode, especially one as big as Continental Towers. Its two towers, 19 stories each, took no more than three seconds to fall completely. The first thing that happens is that you see the structure burst, as if it were a helium balloon, and only thousandths of a second later you hear the sound of the detonation. That asynchrony produces a devastating effect that disorients you. In those few seconds, it’s as if your brain did not take in that the object you are staring at is no longer there, as if it were a magic trick. You simply cannot believe that it is now just a cloud of dust. Andrea couldn’t believe it, either. As she processed that the building had disappeared, the media rushed to point cameras and microphones at her to record her reaction.


[Journalist]: Andrea, tell us what are those mixed feelings you have right now.

[Andrea]: Oh, it is not there anymore. No… a weight is lifted off me. Now I just want to… move on. Now… what caused us so much damage and suffering is gone.

[Journalist]: At the moment when the building collapsed, what did you feel?

[Andrea]: Oh, like a hole in my heart. I know that we are going to be fine and we are going to get our money back.

[Adrián]: However, the fall of Continental Towers has not been the end of Andrea and Jorge’s problems. Today they live on the outskirts of Medellín in a small, unfinished farm, and the bank continues to pressure them to pay the debt for an apartment that everyone in Colombia knows no longer exists.

[Jorge]: Oh no, that nightmare is worse. Every day they call me from the bank. An offer was made to them and it is not good enough for them; the only thing is, “Pay me all the money you owe me,” and that’s it. For the bank, “If you have to go live under a bridge and pay us our money, pay it and go live under the bridge; that is not our problem.” So I tell them, “No, the point is that I already lost everything.”

[Adrián]: At this time, they are still in another legal tangle to get out of that debt. They hope that they will be proven right again, as in the other cases they have solved in these ten years by just insisting.

Even so, for Andrea and Jorge it is not enough. For them and for the other co-owners of Continental Towers, justice is still lacking. So far, 11 of CDO’s buildings have been proven to have serious structural problems, and while the only fatalities were at Space, the builders knew perfectly well that that was a possibility on every one of those projects.

[Andrea]: Do not come telling me that they didn’t know what was happening. If you have the same pathology, do not come telling me that you don’t know what is happening. And those people should not have permission to build or move one fucking brick. Well, sorry, but that’s how it is. They should not be lifting one fucking brick in this country or anywhere. And they should be in jail. That is attempted murder, because they knew what was going on.

[Adrián]: And, of course, they have still to get their money, what they have been demanding for a decade.

When we closed this story, none of the owners had received the money they invested in the apartments or in the remodeling or repairs for the damage caused, as ordered by the court.

[Jorge]: That is what we demanded: refund us the money we invested here. So we can be rid of the problem. We pay what we owe to the bank and with whatever we have left, we’ll figure things out.

[Adrián]: But in a decade, debt and living costs have risen. 

[Jorge]: If they returned the money to us now, that would not be enough for anything. 

[Andrea]: Let’s be real. This should never have happened, and it did. In other words, everything that should not happen, happened. 

[Jorge]: It was our savings that were in there. That was all. I mean, we were trying to play safe, and it wasn’t safe.

[Daniel]: With the implosion of Continental Towers, the owners hope to stop paying administration costs and only worry about some taxes. They also plan to sell the lot and recover some of the money they lost. But even if that were to happen, the problem goes beyond Continental Towers. Today, in Medellín and its metropolitan area there are 22 buildings with structural problems, including those by CDO. These have been called ‘sick buildings’.

In 2016, Congress approved what is called the Safe Housing Law or Anti-Space Law to—among other things—protect people who buy homes, increase the security of buildings, and strengthen the institutions that issue construction permits. 

The journalist Adrián Atehortúa is from Medellín and lives in Bogotá. He co-produced the episode with our senior producer, David Trujillo. He also lives in Bogotá.

This story was edited by Camila Segura. Bruno Scelza did the fact checking. Sound design is by Andrés Azpiri and Ana Tuirán with original music by Ana.

 The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Paola Alean, Lisette Arévalo, Pablo Argüelles, Aneris Casassus, Diego Corzo, Emilia Erbetta, Camilo Jiménez Santofimio, Rémy Lozano, Selene Mazón, Juan David Naranjo, Ana Pais, Melisa Rabanales, Natalia Ramírez, Laura Rojas Aponte, Natalia Sánchez Loayza, Barbara Sawhill, Elsa Liliana Ulloa and Luis Fernando Vargas.

Carolina Guerrero is the CEO. 

Radio Ambulante is a podcast by Radio Ambulante Estudios, produced and mixed on the Hindenburg PRO program. 

Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.



Adrián Atehortúa and David Trujillo

Camila Segura

Bruno Scelza

Andrés Azpiri and Ana Tuirán

Ana Tuirán

Julia Tovar


Episode 32