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.

By , Staff writer

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    A skater showed off at a skateboard park in Medellín, Colombia, in July. Urban planning, better security, and a gang truce have revitalized the city in recent years.
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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.

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."

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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.

At the end of one of these gondola lines is the Parque Biblioteca España, a library inaugurated three years ago that today averages 1,500 visits a day. "It is so much calmer here now," says Maria Garcia, who owns a store across from the library, once ridden with gangs and gunfire. Elsewhere in the city, a renovated botanical garden is now the "chic" place to get married. On a recent day it was packed with schoolchildren and university students. One of the major downtown streets, perhaps the city's most chaotic, is now pedestrian-only. There are new schools and cultural centers in the poorest zones, built by the best-known architects in the country. With each project, the mayor's office imagined integrated services, so that a school would never just be a school but a place for health services, a community center, a space for adult education.

"The idea was to stop the thinking that because people are poor they should get the poorest things," says Laura Villa, who works with an organization for the mayor's office to promote Medellín internationally. "So that people feel dignified and value their neighborhoods."

While mayor from 2003 to 2007, Mr. Fajardo adopted the slogan "from fear to hope," and the sentiment set in as public projects revitalized the city. "Something changed in the spirit of the people," says Ms. Villa. As violence dropped, Fajardo's political stardom rose. He was the runner-up for vice president in the recent national election and is said to still eye Santos's presidential office.

Fighting surges between paramilitaries

While increased security and local planning played a role, a bigger reason for reduced violence was that former paramilitaries began to demobilize in 2003 and made a truce to gain legitimacy during dialogue with the government.

The groups never disbanded, however, which allowed for the recent flare-up in violence. "The demobilization meant handing in weapons, but they did not demobilize the structure of the paramilitaries," says Aldo Civico of Rutgers University in New Jersey. They were ready to rearm when the 2008 arrest of Medellín crime boss Don Berna caused a power vacuum. "When he was in charge, the city was relatively calm," according to a June briefing from the International Crisis Group, attributing most of the 2009 killings to the 150 to 300 gangs still operating here.

Ms. Restrepo of Medellín Como Vamos says perceptions of the city are down, and the homicide rate shows improvements were not uniform. "When we talk about the transformation we have to be careful about what we are talking about," she says. "We still have two cities."

Jorge Giraldo, a lifelong resident of Medellín, says locals won't let safety deteriorate to pre-2003 levels. "There are drugs in the US and Mexico, the same as in Medellín," he says. "The reason we transformed the city here is because of the spirit of our people." Keeping it safe, however, may well depend on Colombia's new president.

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