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The Medellin Miracle

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Voting Out Violence and Inequality

Medellin, Colombia, is a city of 2.5 million inhabitants nestled in a picturesque valley of tropical green. It is called the “City of Eternal Spring” because of its amicable year-round climate. Despite its natural beauty, the city is better known for its dark side. Mention of Medellin often conjures up images such as drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, the cocaine trade, guerrilla troops, paramilitary death squads and horrific levels of violence. The city’s grim past has changed to an increasingly bright future, thanks to a dynamic group of national and local politicians, businessmen and nongovernmental organization workers—overseeing what has come to be called the “Medellin Miracle.”

The turnaround is nothing short of remarkable. At the apex of the war between the national government and Escobar, the homicide rate per 100,0000 inhabitants reached 376, making Medellin the most dangerous city in the world. To put things in perspective, Mexico’s Ciudad Juárez, the city most directly affected by the recent wave of drug-related violence, suffered a rate of “only” 130 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2009. Medellin, in collaboration with the federal government, managed to lower the homicide rate to 34 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2007, making it safer than Baltimore and Detroit. National surveys find that Medellin’s people are now among the most hopeful and optimistic in Colombia.

What accounts for this dramatic transformation? The simple answer is that the government developed innovative solutions to combat the challenges facing its citizens. Public bureaucracies tend to be slow-moving and rigid, imposing one-size-fits-all solutions on populations with diverse and dynamic needs. One of government’s primary concerns is how to nimbly respond to the constantly evolving demands of its populace. This dilemma is particularly acute for municipal governments as they are responsible for providing the most basic and needed public services, including security, education, roads and public health.

Confronting Inequality and Violence

The case of Medellin is instructive because city officials developed a strategy that increased government presence in marginalized neighborhoods, used democratic mechanisms to empower local populations, and strengthened societal networks that had broken down over the years due to heightened levels of poverty and violence. The innovative municipal approach was built on security improvements achieved by the national government.

Years of civic dysfunction meant that the city failed to keep up with the demands of a growing population, which increased more than sixfold between 1950 and 2005. Fleeing a bloody civil war taking place in the countryside, immigrants established squatter camps on the hills surrounding the city. When the local government failed (or refused) to provide basic services, guerrilla forces and paramilitary troops took over these neighborhoods and governed, imposing their own version of justice. The hillside communities became nests of violence and criminality, where police dared not enter. The extraordinary profits associated with drug trafficking only empowered the criminal networks.

Trying to find a way to confront the intolerable levels of violence, city officials, business leaders, community organizers and the Catholic Church created a public forum in the early 1990s where they debated how to create a better future. A consensus eventually emerged among the city’s leadership on how to tackle the chronic issues facing Medellin, and the strategies were formally documented.

Sergio Fajardo, a math professor with a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, was present for the whole process. He and a group of supporters came to the conclusion that local politicians had failed to provide the leadership and vision required for a better future. “We realized that politicians are the ones who make important decisions in society whether we like it or not, so we said to ourselves that we have to get into politics. Instead of saying how things should be, we said this is the way it is done,” Fajardo said in a 2010 interview. The group identified two fundamental problems that were at the root of the city’s problems: extreme inequality and a culture of violence.

Strategy of Social Inclusion

In 2003, Fajardo gained the oppor_tunity to implement his ideas when he became Medellin’s mayor. Unaligned with any traditional party, his political support derived from an unorthodox coalition of business people, community organizers, academics and the middle class. The business leaders brought managerial capacity and encouraged good fiscal stewardship. The community organizers understood the region’s social issues and how to work in marginalized neighborhoods. The academics had systematically studied the city’s challenges and devised policy proposals. Representatives from the middle class provided broad electoral support.

Members of the new administration reformed the way the city was governed, boosting transparency, accountability and local participation. They made the budget public, posting it on the Internet for all to scrutinize. They championed slogans such as “Public Money Is Sacred” and conducted the “Here Are Your Taxes” campaign to ensure that voters understood their taxes were being spent judiciously. They created a new participatory budget scheme that handed 6 percent of the city’s budget to local communities to implement the projects they deemed most important.

A prominent feature of Fajardo’s strategy of social inclusion was the public works projects constructed in Medellin’s poorest neighborhoods. Based on the concept of “social urbanism,” which uses architecture to spur social change, the city assembled multidisciplinary groups consisting of architects, engineers, policemen, sociologists and community leaders to study marginalized neighborhoods. They then devised sophisticated policy interventions, or “integrated urban projects,” designed to increase social cohesion and diminish criminality. The core of the intervention was an architectural work, usually a library, from which social programsÑfor example, job training, community safety preparation and music classesÑwould be administered.

Medellin is now famous for its Metrocable, a ski-resort-style gondola system that travels up the city’s hillsides. In the community of Santo Domingo, the final destination of the gondola is the Parque Biblioteca Espa–a, a cubist-style library with park space that overlooks the entire city. Where paramilitary factions and guerrilla troops used to engage in deadly turf wars, international tourists now come to admire the remarkable social transformation. Ten years ago, the government failed to provide basic services, and traveling to the city center from Santo Domingo, a mere two miles to the south, was nearly impossible as it meant crossing areas controlled by rival armed groups. Today, the local government provides high-quality public services, and local inhabitants are connected with the rest of the city via a state-of-the-art public transit system.

This comprehensive approach has an important political goal as well. Fajardo explained, “Architecture sends an important political message. When you go to the poorest neighborhood and build the city’s most beautiful building, that gives a sense of dignity.”

Paving the Way

The social interventions would not have succeeded if not for a number of developments that occurred prior to Fajardo’s election as Medellin’s mayor. First, the national government improved the security situation in the country. For years, illegally armed groups controlled vast swaths of national territory. çlvaro Uribe VŽlez assumed the presidency in 2002 and advocated an agenda of “citizen security” that sought to increase the state’s ability to keep the nation safe. Between 1998 and 2005, the number of military personnel grew from 22,000 to 72,000. Military spending increased by 1.5 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. This boost in spending was partly funded by Plan Colombia, a U.S. foreign assistance program that distributed $3.8 billion between 2000 and 2005.

Uribe took a hardline approach against guerrilla groups, including the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia. The anti-guerrilla campaign involved military operations into urban areas. One such case was Operation Orion, where helicopter gunships and other military squadrons descended onto Comuna 13, a poor neighborhood in Medellin, to root out guerrillas in the area. The president also signed a controversial peace agreement, the Ralito Accords, in 2003 with the country’s leading paramilitary groups. Human rights groups claimed this agreement granted effective immunity to members of the right-wing death squads. While the methods were contentious, the result was a significant decrease in violence and a government that could better govern its own territory.

Another important precondition for Medellin’s turnaround was the adoption of democratic procedures at the local level. Direct elections of mayors began in 1988. The 1991 constitution made it easier for nontraditional parties to contest elections and increased the municipality’s control over its own budget. Without such reforms, Fajardo would not have been able to win the election and implement his wide-ranging reform agenda.

Medellin’s transformation shows that under certain circumstances innovative social programs can improve the welfare of a city. Security was a precondition for social development, yet security gains cannot be sustained in the absence of such development. Fajardo built on the gains achieved by the Uribe administration and used democratic mechanisms to develop social programs and ensure their political support. Democratic mechanisms and astute political leadership are important ingredients for cities seeking to address complex social problems.

The story of Medellin is far from complete. The homicide rate has increased in recent years, suggesting that the social programs failed to irrevocably turn back the waves of violence. The challenges facing the city are constantly changing, and even the best-designed program requires tweaks and alterations. It is up to the city and its leaders to build and improve upon a still-fragile transformation.


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