Medellín, once epicenter of Colombia's drug war, fights to keep the peace
Medellín is seen as a success story of former President Álvaro Uribe, whose successor faces a crucial test amid the resurgence in drug war violence.
When Juan Manuel Santos was elected president of Colombia this summer, voters across the country said it was his security policy that drew them to the former defense minister. Under tough-fisted former President Álvaro Uribe, Mr. Santos helped wrest control back from drug traffickers, rebels, and paramilitaries.Skip to next paragraph
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But Colombia's transformation under Mr. Uribe is under threat in urban areas across the country, posing a crucial test for Santos. Perhaps nowhere is that more true than in Medellín, where the murder rate has skyrocketed in recent years. Visiting the city in early October, Santos urged citizens to report crime and pledged to send security reinforcements to help restore order. What happens in Medellín next could prove a political bellwether for Santos and the legacy of Uribe.
"This increase in violence, this is our biggest challenge of the day," says Piedad Patricia Restrepo, coordinator for Medellín Como Vamos, which studies public perceptions and city policies. "It affects everything from economic activity to social capital."
Homicide rate dropped lower than in New Orleans
A case study in urban security, Medellín is the former base of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, who in the 1980s turned the "eternal city of spring" into one of the most dangerous postal addresses on the planet. Since then, a combination of urban planning at the local level, security at the federal level, and a truce among gangs on the ground has given rise to what some say is no less than a miraculous transformation.
From an all-time high of 381 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 1991, Medellín's murder rate dropped to 33.8 per 100,000 in 2007. By comparison, New Orleans had the highest homicide rate in the United States in 2009 with 52 murders per 100,000 people. New parks, schools, and libraries have been built, many of them icons of modern design that helped turn a provincial town more outward-looking. Residents go out at night. They travel to the countryside.
But homicides are up sharply from 2007. The murder rate jumped to 45.1 deaths per 100,000 residents in 2008, and doubled again to 94.5 in 2009. Many wonder how permanent the reduction in violence is and how vulnerable the gains made are.
A city resuscitated
Medellín, with a population of 3.8 million, sits in Antioquia State, and rose in prominence as an industrial city surrounded on all sides by mountains. It became the capital of cocaine trafficking in the 1980s as Mr. Escobar's multinational Medellín Cartel earned up to $60 million daily in drug profits. Even after he was killed in 1993, violence persisted amid ongoing feuds between left-wing guerrilla groups and paramilitaries who worked for traffickers.
Medellín's annual homicide rate remained above 150 murders per 100,000 people through 2002, when Uribe took over the presidency. He immediately increased military presence throughout the cities and rural countryside of Antioquia. Two years later, then-Mayor Sergio Fajardo launched new projects, particularly in the poorest areas, such as gondolas to transport residents who once had to walk or rely on bus services through mazelike slums.