In the early 1990s Medellín, the second largest city in Colombia, was the most violent city in the world. The homicide rate reached an unprecedented and chilling scale of 381 murders per 100,000 people in 1991, close to 40 times greater than the UN’s definition of endemic violence, at 10 per 100,000 people. Much of the violence can be attributed to the notorious drug-lord, Pablo Escobar, who used Medellin as a base for his cartel, which took the city as its namesake and controlled 60% of the world’s cocaine. The thriving illicit trade and turf wars between the cartel and the state led to spiralling levels of violence that hit the poorest and most deprived parts of the city worst.
Since the early 2000s, however, the city has seen a remarkable transformation, with rates of violence plummeting. The rate of murders in 2015 was 20.17 per 100,000 people – still relatively high, but comparable to other large Latin American cities. In the last two decades Medellín has become a world-renowned centre of innovation with a thriving civil society, and is beloved by city planners around the world for its innovative architecture and public infrastructure. In 2013 the city beat off competition from New York and Tel Aviv to be granted the World’s Most Innovative City award, just one of 40 international prizes the city has been granted in recent years.
Certainly, Medellín still faces serious challenges with crime and poverty, and levels of inequality in the city remain higher than the Colombian average. However, Medellín has transformed from a no-go zone for foreigners into a thriving tourist hub with high levels of foreign investment and a strong civic culture – all of which would have been unimaginable just two decades ago. A progressive coalition of academics, community organisers and business people came together to seek solutions to Medellin’s crisis in the late 1990s – the collaborative, participatory, pro-poor innovations that they introduced were the building blocks of the rapid transition that has been termed the “Medellin Miracle”.
The case of Medellín’s rapid transition is an example of a crisis being turned into opportunity through an open participatory process of civic engagement. The scale of the violence that the city had endured became a unifying force for a generation of civic actors, who came together to work out how best to tackle the violence and reintegrate the poorest and most marginalised parts of the city. A movement of civil society leaders, business people and academics from the city’s leading universities came together in a series of public debates on the crisis, seeking to collectively define measures to address the violence. The movement actively sought to engage with community organisations from the most marginalised areas, and to encourage poor communities to participate in the governance of the city.
Throughout the 1990s this urban coalition came up with proposals to invest in education, public infrastructure and public spaces in the city. The coalition came to be called Compromiso Ciudadano (“citizen commitment”), and eventually formed into a political party. In 2003, the party’s mayoral candidate, Sergio Farjado, was elected on a ticket based on the movement’s proposals. Farjado dedicated his mayoral term to “repaying the historic social debt” to the poorest parts of the city. The collection of policies that he put in place included developing new public spaces, schools, parks and public libraries and supporting local businesses in the lowest-income areas of the city. The introduction of this suite of policies, that Farjado deemed “social urbanism”, was the turning point in Medellín’s transition.
The case of Medellín highlights the intersectionality of distinct agendas in progressive urban transitions. The original aim of the Compromiso Ciudadano coalition was to reduce violent crime and inequality in the city. However, the drive for a social change also resulted in actions promoting urban sustainability – Medellín now hosts Colombia’s most advanced sustainable public transport network, and the city has vastly increased and enhanced green spaces, including through the development of a new green belt around the city’s periphery. Medellín has recently taken on a leadership role in the C40 group of cities combating climate change.
The escalation of violence in the 1980s and 1990s in Medellín was driven by Pablo Escobar and his Medellín cartel. Escobar had run for and been elected to the Colombian House of Representatives in the 1980s, but resigned when he was denounced as a drug-lord by the future minister of Justice, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla. Escobar had Bonilla assassinated, and sought to improve his relations with the state by offering to pay off the Colombia’s national debt of 10 billion USD. When the offer was rebuked and the Colombian Government sought his extradition to the US, Escobar declared war on the state. He ordered the assassination of several presidential candidates, detonated scores of car bombs throughout the streets of Medellín and made an open offer of 2,000 USD for the murder of any policeman in the city.
The violence sparked by Escobar’s war was exacerbated by the long-standing history of inequality and exclusion in the city. Economic liberalization had led to high rates of unemployment, especially amongst the young – resulting in many ready recruits for Escobar’s turf wars. The topography of the city also served to exacerbate patterns of inequality and exclusion. Medellín sits in a valley of the Andes, with the poorest and most marginalised barrios climbing up into the steep mountain sides. 30% of housing in Medellín is informal, with settlements ballooning along precarious cliff-faces as rural migrants entered the city, fleeing from the country’s long-running civil conflict.
The richer parts of the city developed in the valley to the exclusion of the poorer ones in the city’s periphery. There was limited public infrastructure connecting the richer and poorer zones, which allowed the city’s elites to disregard the violence for many years. It was only in the late 1980s when Escobar’s bombing campaign reached the expensive neighbourhood of Poblado that Medellín’s urban elite began to take notice.
In 2002, newly elected President Álvaro Uribe launched a series of military strikes on Medellín, supported with funds and equipment from the United States. The most notorious – Operation Orion – saw the militia-controlled area of San Javier recaptured by the state, through intense military assaults involving tanks and military helicopters. There is dispute about the impact of these strikes, with many arguing that they were necessary for the pacification of the city and supported its eventual transformation; whilst human rights organisations highlight the extra-judicial killings and collusion between the state and paramilitaries which arguably fuelled further violence.
The key social factor that spurred Medellín’s rapid transition was the crisis point the city reached in terms of the scale of violence. This crisis forged a critical juncture in which the city’s elites came together across traditional partisan lines to seek solutions to Medellín’s long-standing problems of inequality and exclusion. The participatory process that ensued bore a vibrant civic culture that still exists today – with academics, civil society actors, business people and community leaders taking an active role in shaping the city’s future.
Decisive to Medellín’s social and security transition was the transformation of its physical space to be more inclusive. Colombia launched a new National Constitution in 1991 which recognised public space as a constitutional right – a fact that Farjado and subsequent mayors used to justify Medellín’s efforts to democratize space in the city. Before the 1990s there were no public spaces in Medellín. Farjardo and subsequent mayors opened up parks, botanical gardens and centres for science, education and arts that were free to the public.
Conspicuous infrastructure projects that supported the inclusion of the most marginalised areas were also critical factors in the city’s transition. Farjado’s predecessor, Luis Perez, introduced the first cable car – which employs Alpine ski-lift technology to connect one of the most dangerous parts of the city’s hillsides to its wealthy centre. 3 more cable car lines connecting other marginalized barrios have since been built. The cable cars intend to support a more inclusive economy, providing economic opportunities to poor residents, whose average travel time to the centre was cut down from over an hour to 15 minutes (excluding queuing time). The cable cars also hold a powerful symbolic value in areas of the city that had long felt neglected by the state – with one resident interviewed for a recent study remarking ‘I used to say I’m going to Medellín, now I say I’m going to the city centre.’
In terms of political factors, Farjado’s technocratic approach made a break with populist models of urban governance that predominated in Colombia. Decisions on public investments were based on data from the Human Development Index – the areas with the lowest indicators received investment. Farjado also introduced a Participatory Planning and Budgeting programme, in order to bring urban planning and governance closer to the citizenry. The infrastructure projects were also accompanied by social programmes – including a programme of cash grants similar to Brazil’s successful Bolsa Familia programme. Business development support centres were launched in the poorest parts of town, offering free technical advice and favourable loans to residents interested in launching their own microenterprises.
A critical economic factor in Medellin’s rapid transition was the financial support provided by the publicly owned utility company, Empresas Publicas de Medellín (EPM). EPM is one of Latin America’s largest companies, providing water, gas and electricity services in countries across the region. As a publicly owned company, EPM provides 30% of its profits to the city – an economic boost that has allowed the municipality to make investments in public infrastructure that might otherwise not have been possible.
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