Swiss presence Medellin

100 years of Swiss presence in Antioquia

Although there is currently no complete historical balance that brings together in a single document or editorial project the study of the Swiss presence in Antioquia and, particularly, in Medellín, the Círculo Helvético de Medellín set out to fill this gap step by step with the help of the Paisa historian Leifer Hoyos Madrid.

Today, the records of people who had a notable influence in the fields of arts, science and industry are scattered in texts on business history in Antioquia or in small corporate and academic reviews. Hence, this study by Professor Hoyos is perhaps the first to delve into the Swiss population in this region and their cultural and technological contribution to Medellín and Antioquian society.

The processes of modernity and modernisation that took place in Medellín at the beginning of the 20th century required the recruitment of experienced engineers, scientists and technicians who could help to mark out processes that had been underway in Europe for more than a century, but which were still incipient in Colombia. Within the field of science, Pablo Zurcher, who arrived in Medellín in 1909 to teach at the National School of Mines, later the Faculty of Mines of the National University of Colombia, Medellín branch, was a pioneer in this field.

In the subjects of analytical chemistry, metallurgy and mining [...] From the beginning of his teaching work, the aforementioned Professor Zurcher, who also had a great business sense, found fertile ground in the prosperous capitalists of Antioquia to sow the seeds of the cement industry, which bore its first fruits in 1913, with the establishment of the Compañía de Cemento Antioqueño [...] and the subsequent founding of the Cementos Argos factory in 1934.[1].

Juan Weber was another Swiss engineer brought to the National School of Mines around 1925 to train future mining engineering professionals with a specific objective: to identify extraction areas that would help strengthen the national economy impoverished by the Thousand Days' War that had ended in 1903.

It was also around 1910 that two Swiss, Otto Fuhrmann (1871-1945) and Eugène Mayor (1877-1976), travelled to Colombia. The former was a professor of zoology at the University of Neuchâtel and the latter a doctor by training. Their desire to find the specimens required for their studies took them to Medellín where

Karl Bimberg, the German consul, on the recommendation of the Federal Council (...) offered them his hospitality by putting at their disposal his country house - La Camelia - in the middle of a coffee plantation overlooking the Amagá river valley, near Angelópolis, a small town southwest of Medellín. The two travellers settled in this coffee-growing finca until 20 September, multiplying their excursions in the region guided by Karl Bimberg's labourers. They then returned to Medellín, from where they sent the boxes containing the natural history specimens collected during this fruitful season to Barranquilla.[2].

Luis Heiniger and his wife Bertha Heiniger, owners of "La Perla" jewellers, were also foreigners of Swiss origin who put down roots in the city at the beginning of the 20th century, forging a high reputation in the field of watchmaking. Associated with the Ferrocarril de Antioquia, they produced a series of watches that even today still enjoy legitimate quality and are treasured by the heirs of those who owned one of these.

Figure 1. (Accessed: 15 October 2022)

The presence of the Swiss community also gave birth to a fundamental sporting milestone in the history of the department. "In 1912, two Swiss merchants: Jorge Herzig, trained in Physical Education in Paris (France) and John HeinigerThe first football club in the city was founded by a sportsman and a connoisseur of the rules of football: Sporting Foot-Ball Club".[3].

The food sector was also another area of the economy and industry in which the Swiss presence was a pioneering one.

In 1916 we find among the founders of the Fábrica de Galletas y Confites El Papagayo the Swiss Ernesto Vogt and Marcelo Vullerrnier, as industrial partners. This company merged years later with the Fábrica de Confites y Bombones de Chocolate Dux, which gave rise to Noel S.A. in Medellín.[4].

However, manufactured food products and the growing construction of a modernity in Medellín, which saw the transition from a town to a metropolis, allowed goods and services of a different nature to begin to be consumed more frequently. This is how one of the most important references of Paisa's gastronomic culture was born:

In 1930, Swiss-born Enrique Baer opened the Astor Tea Salon in Medellín, Colombia, where he had arrived a few years earlier to work as a pastry technician in a chocolate factory. From the very beginning, Don Enrique and his wife Anny Gippert were in charge of supervising the precision of the processes and the quality of the products they offered in their new Astor Tea Room, in a small premises on Carrera Junín, the social and commercial epicentre of the city, with five tables, ten employees and a modest and rudimentary equipment, compensated for by the vast knowledge of its owner. [...] Its clientele consisted mainly of Medellín's European residents, loyal from the start, and the most fashionable members of society, who, after strolling along the cobbled streets of the Carrera Junín or visiting its elegant shops, came in to indulge themselves with the delicacies of El Astor or to buy fine confectionery to take back home.[5].

Science, jewellery, sport and food are some of the fields that the Swiss community came to occupy from the first decade of the century. Their presence helped to transform the modes of social and cultural relations in the nascent city of Medellín, which in those decades was just emerging as a modern city, eager to free itself from its colonial heritage and open its doors to the modern world that the Swiss brought with them.

By the 1980s, in a city plagued by social inequality, a factor that many humanists and thinkers in our context, such as the health specialist Héctor Abad Gómez and the sociologist María Teresa Uribe, have analysed as a central element of the crisis of violence that the city suffered in that decade and that Medellín is still experiencing, there was a new outbreak of prominent Swiss citizens.

In this difficult context, the Swiss Andreas Peter Hauri together with Ángela Echavarría Toro, Consuelo Gutiérrez de Restrepo and their group of companions called "El Costurero", took the first steps in May 1983 towards the creation of the Fundación Presencia Colombo Suiza.[6]. This is how an organisation was formed that since that decade has been fighting for the most needy children and young people, not only in the sector of La Iguaná as it was then called, but also in other parts of the city and the east of Antioquia, so that the most vulnerable people can have access to better living conditions through education as a means of social transformation.

Andreas Peter HauriFounder of the NGO Presencia Colombo Suiza

At the beginning of the 21st century, the Swiss dairy food company Alpina, originally based on the outskirts of Bogotá since 1945 and founded by Max Bänziger and Walter Göggel, made its presence felt in the municipality of Entrerríos, Antioquia, which is popularly known as the Swiss Antioquia, perhaps because of the mountainous landscape and the large number of cattle that can be seen in the distance.

This plant joined the Colombian multinational's plans in 2007 and began operating in June 2010, after an investment of around 50 million dollars at the time. It currently receives around 330,000 litres of milk per day from some 330 livestock farmers in the area and employs more than 200 people, 76 of whom are from Entrerríos.[7].

In recent years the city of Medellí has been the home of one of the most iconic works by the Swiss-born artist Ugo Rondinone (1964). The sculptural piece was installed at the Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín (MAMM) in Parques del Río and its donation was made possible thanks to the efforts of the Asociación de Amigos del Museo and the Fundación Sofía Pérez de Soto. Despite the fact that the artist has not had long periods of residence in the city, his work is a trace of his plastic legacy and of the Swiss presence in Antioquia. Like some of his other major works, this one consists of gigantic stones painted in bright colours and arranged vertically like a column or a tower. Rondinone said during the inauguration of the work that in a personal investigation he identified the five tutelary hills of Medellín and that is why he wanted the work to have five rocks as a reminiscence of the city.

Medellín Mountain, Parques del Río, Photograph: Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín, 2019

In recent decades, Antioquia has seen the arrival of foundations working for education as a means of transforming societies, the growth of the food industry and the erection of iconic pieces of contemporary art that modify the idea of the landscape for the passer-by in Medellín, all hand in hand with a Swiss community with a deep sense of humanism and a desire for social transformation.

This community has left its mark on the Aburrá Valley and the entire department of Antioquia, perhaps as a reminder of its mountainous Swiss homeland. The Helvetia School in Medellín, a sister school to the Helvetia School in Bogotá, which has been the educational and cultural epicentre of the Swiss community in Colombia for almost 75 years, has just begun to develop as of 2020. With this educational project, the history of the Swiss in this region has much more to build on after a century of significant contributions to industry, science, sport and culture in the country.

Historian: Leifer Hoyos Madrid

[1] Elkin Vargas Pimiento, Footsteps to the future: 125 years of Mining Engineering in ColombiaUniversidad Nacional de Colombia, Sede Medellín, Facultad de Minas, 2012, 23-24.

[2] Alberto Gómez GutiérrezThe Helvetic Expedition, Scientific Exploration Trip to Colombia in 1910 by Professors Otto Fuhrmann and Eugène Mayor, Bogotá Colombia, Editorial Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, 2011, 22 (Accessed 15 October 2022

[3] HistoryThus was born the Liga Antioqueña de Fútbol, (Accessed: 16 October 2022)

[4]Rodrigo de J. García Estrada, "Extranjeros en Medellín", Cultural and Bibliographic BulletinVol. 34. no. 44. 1997, 115 Accessed 16 October 2022)

[5] 1930: Our Swiss Heritage, El Astor Confectionery, (Accessed: 16 October 2022)

[6]History Colombo-Swiss Presence Foundation, (Accessed 10 November 2022)

[7] Juan Fernando Rojas, Why Antioquia is key to Alpina's business? El Colombiano, 26 August 2017 Accessed 14 November 2022

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