Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Medellín: Front Line of Colombia’s Challenges

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Colombian restorer working on a Botero sculpture. Photograph by Raúl Arboleda/Getty.

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Nestled in the Andean foothills of northwestern Colombia, more than 250 miles of mountainous terrain from Bogotá, Medellín is a city transformed. A unique combination of progressive businesses, an active and engaged civil society and visionary political leaders have worked together to lead what was once the poster child for narcotics trafficking, lawlessness, corruption, and both guerrilla and paramilitary-fueled violence into a new modern era. The transformation has thus far been largely overlooked. But in many ways the political innovations and global economic integration of Medellín reflect the deep and far-reaching changes that have been occurring throughout much of Latin America in recent decades, especially in “second cities,” beyond the usual international line of vision.

“Second cities” are less frequently visited by international journalists, scholars and officials, and are often outside the scope of U.S. media coverage, which tends to focus on the largest cities: Buenos Aires, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City, or Bogotá. Our goal was to understand the transformation of Medellín as an example of what has occurred in such second cities.

One of us, Lowenthal, is a veteran Latin Americanist who had never previously been in Medellín. The other, Rojas, is a Brown University undergraduate born in Colombia, who has lived primarily in the United States since age seven and wanted to connect with his native country by working in Medellín. We met there in July and have since been exchanging ideas based on our respective experiences. These include Lowenthal’s interviews with business, political, professional, and educational leaders, and Rojas’s work for three months in the office of Medellín’s mayor, focusing on an urban renewal project in Moravia, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

The Spanish first settled in what is now Medellín in 1541, but the region remained sparsely populated and agricultural for centuries. In the early nineteenth century, Medellín became the center of the Antioquia region’s booming gold industry, replacing Santa Fé as Antioquia’s capital. After the decline of Colombian mining in the late nineteenth century, coffee and textile exports spurred further economic and demographic growth. Between 1870 and 1940, Medellín grew from a town of 20,000 to a city of 170,000. Blessed with plentiful hydroelectric power, agricultural productivity and a hardworking business class, Medellín was prosperous, inwardly-focused, largely self sufficient, somewhat provincial, and known for industriousness and local pride.

Urban Development

One of the central differences between Medellín and other growing cities at the time was the emphasis placed on the creation of urban development plans by local business elites. The 1913 Plan Futuro provided Medellín with modern infrastructure projects, a public utilities company and some industrial development. In the 1940s, local officials and industrial leaders drew up the Medellín master plan to prepare the city for urban expansion.

But in many ways, these plans fell victim to their own success. Unrelenting migration from the countryside and improving public health produced more rapid urbanization than Medellín’s leaders had anticipated. The wave of migration and the city’s response unleashed a vicious cycle in which Medellín’s progress made it ever more attractive for rural migrants who overwhelmed the city’s infrastructure and institutions. Between 1952 and 1977, the city’s population exploded from 275,000 to 1.3 million. Informal settlements swelled on the city’s periphery, bringing with them new levels of crime and violence.

Municipal and regional governments were unable to maintain order or control a burgeoning contraband trade that soon led to commerce in marijuana and then in cocaine. As the cocaine trade grew in the 1970s and 1980s, drug cartels corrupted both national and local institutions, further diminishing the city’s already inadequate capacity to cope with rapid growth.

By the late 1980s and early 1990s, Medellín was a blighted city with a homicide rate of 380 per 100,000 in 1991, perhaps a world record. Drug traffickers, local gangs, guerrilla militias, paramilitary groups, and petty criminals terrorized every sector of the city, often informally supporting each other’s efforts. A new criminal class marginalized and corrupted Medellín’s business leaders. “The early 1990s were a period of public insecurity and deep discontent,” explains Julio Acosta Arango, vice rector of the Escuela de Administración y Finanzas e Instituto Tecnológico (EAFIT), a business-focused private university. “Illegal activities took over the local economy, disheartening hard-working people. Students treated degrees as tickets to jobs outside the country.”

The classic symbol of the lawlessness of the era became the palatial barracks from which convicted drug lord Pablo Escobar ran his empire. 

As part of a national movement to reverse Colombia’s deterioration, which included the drafting and approval of the reformed 1991 Constitution, Medellín’s private-sector leaders and emerging networks of civil society organizations, united by their rejection of violence, began early in the 1990s to reweave the city’s badly damaged economic and social fabric. “Things got bad enough that a consensus finally developed on the need to end illegality, strengthen the state and rebuild institutions,” recounts Juan David Escobar Valencia, Director of EAFIT’s Center for Strategic Thought.

The local government, in collaboration with these business and civic networks as well as scholars and professionals, formulated strategic plans for the city’s modernization and for combating violence. Many of Medellín’s most transformative projects, including the Medellín Metro, emerged from this collaboration. As national and regional efforts began to take effect, homicide rates, though still high, fell by about 50 percent between 1991 and 2000.

In 2004, mathematician Sergio Fajardo, from a prominent Medellín construction family, was elected mayor. An independent candidate representing a network of business leaders and civil society organizations called Compromiso Ciudadano, Fajardo mobilized many sectors of society around the emerging consensus that social integration was essential to lasting peace and sustainable progress in Medellín.

Invisible Wall

As Ana Mercedes Gómez Martínez, COO of El Colombiano, Medellín’s main newspaper, put it, “Besides the narcoenterprise, another major problem over the years in Medellin was the ‘invisible wall’ between the wealthy and the poor.” Under Fajardo’s leadership, private schools helped administer public schools in poor districts, university students helped execute and monitor urban renewal projects, and private engineering firms designed public building projects free of charge.

As mayor, Fajardo was able to draw on important support from his partners in the local business community. The private sector, which had been instrumental to Medellín’s progress in the early twentieth century, this time showed civic spirit by bringing investment to innovative social programs in the city’s marginalized, violent neighborhoods.
Among the first large projects inaugurated under Fajardo were neighborhood library-parks focused on inclusion and the recovery of public space. Overcrowded slums such as Santo Domingo Savio, high up in the mountains of northeastern Medellin, soon had beautiful open spaces for education and recreation.

The city also expanded the MetroCable, a unique aerial cable car transport system built under Fajardo’s predecessor, Luis Pérez Gutiérrez, that serves poor hillside neighborhoods. Part of the logic behind MetroCable was linking the “two cities” of Medellín: the commercial and industrial center with the historically marginalized periphery. On weekends, the MetroCable is used by the city’s middle to upper-middle class residents to visit Santo Domingo and other neighborhoods once considered a world apart from central Medellín. The project greatly reduced the time and cost of commuting from shantytowns to industrial and commercial sectors along the Medellín River, thus stimulating employment and social integration.

The new transport system has revitalized the local economy. Around the main MetroCable station in the slum of Santo Domingo, commerce is booming. Family-owned stores, restaurants and even banks now dot this neighborhood in Medellín’s poorest sector. The station connects, via pedestrian walkways, to the España library-park, with its three black towers, rising above the dense mass of shacks that have become one of the city’s defining landmarks and a great source of pride for the neighborhood.

Under Fajardo (2004–2007) and his successor, fellow Compromiso Ciudadano member Alonso Salazar—a left-leaning former journalist also backed by powerful and conservative business elites—Medellín has experienced five years of renewed (though still uneven) economic prosperity and relative calm. Medellín’s homicide rate in 2007 was 90 percent below its 1991 peak. Boosted by progress in local public transparency and improving security at both the local and national levels under the Democratic Security program championed by President Álvaro Uribe (himself from a prominent Medellín family), the local economy is attracting foreign and domestic investors.

Despite the flurry of social projects, poverty and inequality persist. More than 80 percent of the city’s residents belong to the lower three of Colombia’s six official socioeconomic classes.  Although marginalized areas have greatly benefitted from infrastructure and building projects, cultural and geographic barriers continue to hamper social integration. “Poverty and inequity have deep historical and cultural roots,” explains Aníbal Gaviria, a former Antioquia governor and current Partido Liberal contender for the 2010 Presidential elections, “and 20 million Colombians still don’t really produce or consume much but barely survive.”

Migration remains a strain on Medellín’s infrastructure and basic services. Although urbanization has slowed since the 1960s, the armed conflict in the countryside continues to drive thousands of poor people into Medellín each year. Many of Colombia’s 4 million displaced persons—the world’s second highest internally displaced population after Sudan—have settled in Medellín’s slums.

These persistent social problems, together with the intensified competition among regrouped local paramilitary and organized crime groups, have brought violence back to Medellín’s streets. A sharp rise in crime rates in 2008 caught the city by surprise, and this worrisome trend has accelerated this year. “Drug lords now keep a lower profile,” says Gómez Martínez, “but they are still involved in a complicated continuous war.” There were over 1,050 homicides in Medellín between January and July 2009, surpassing the total for all of 2008.

Municipal authorities attribute this sharp rise in murders to the extradition early in 2008 of local paramilitary drug traffickers to the United States, which created a dangerous power vacuum in the city’s underworld. To Medellín residents, this confirms old rumors that paramilitary leaders continue to control a vast criminal enterprise even while taking part in a national government amnesty program.

Reversal of Progress

The rising violence is reversing some of the recent social progress in marginalized neighborhoods. On one September day alone, six people died in gun battles near the Santo Domingo MetroCable station and library-park, icons of the area’s transformation.

So far, the local government has responded to the rising violence by imposing curfews in Medellín’s most violent neighborhoods, including downtown, sparking complaints from small business owners. Mayor Salazar also reintroduced a ban on male passengers on motorcycles this summer due to the proliferation of motorcycle-riding assassins, adversely affecting thousands of working-class people who commute on motorbikes.

But Medellín’s long tradition of an active and progressive business class and a vibrant civil society is still its best hope. Just as they did in the early and mid-twentieth century, dynamic and far-sighted business groups are playing a central role. Proantioquia, one of several socially conscious business coalitions in the city, helps the city monitor and evaluate its public schools. Nine of the city’s largest firms came together in 2006 to invest in Parque Explora, a science museum that provides free entry to Medellín’s poor majority. Across the street from Parque Explora is the recently renovated Medellín Botanical Garden. Funded by local environmental organizations and the city government, the garden has begun to breathe life back into Aranjuez, a formerly depressed neighborhood that was once known as a school for teenage assassins. Business and grassroots NGOs have also collaborated on countless community forums to discuss the resurgent violence and how to respond.

Business groups also help make the public sector more efficient and accountable. One notable example is Medellín Cómo Vamos, a citizen survey funded by Proantioquia and the Medellín Chamber of Commerce. Part of Proantioquia’s “Institutional Strengthening” program, the survey evaluates the impact of the city’s development plan on the well-being of its citizens. Medellín Cómo Vamos has become citizens’ primary opportunity to evaluate its leaders and voice their collective concerns.

A prime example of private-public links in Medellín is Empresas Públicas de Medellín (EPM), the city’s public utilities company, established early in the twentieth century. With strong support from local business leaders, EPM has become one of Colombia’s most successful firms. It provides Medellín with the best public services coverage in Colombia and has expanded nationally and internationally, supplying power transmission throughout the Andean region and beyond. Its telecommunications subsidiary, UNE, is one of the country’s leading broadband Internet providers.

The Medellín business sector is focused on global competitiveness. Once fearful of foreign competition, local business groups are now bypassing Bogotá and establishing their own international links, rapidly adjusting to current economic and technological changes. The city is increasingly diversifying its textile-dependent economy and specializing in booming sectors such as financial services and software development. Nacional de Chocolates operates in 15 countries and has plans for further expansion. It makes, among other successful products, the new brand of Starbucks instant coffee recently introduced to U.S. consumers. Productora de Software, a local firm, recently became the first in the Spanish-speaking world to receive Carnegie Mellon University’s Software Process Achievement Award. Bancolombia, also based in Medellín, is Colombia’s largest bank. Protección, S.A. has pioneered private sector approaches to health insurance and pension planning that are internationally innovative and competitive. Inversiones Argos, a local cement firm, has recently acquired concrete companies in Texas and Georgia. According to business climate surveys compiled by the World Bank, Medellín is now the second most competitive non-capital city in Latin America, behind only Córdoba in Argentina.

The city’s universities have also developed international links. EAFIT, whose motto is “Open to the World,” has established academic exchange agreements with dozens of universities from Canada to Chile to China. It is opening centers on Latin America and on South Asia to help businesses, professionals and students become knowledgeable about the expanding markets in which they must compete. EAFIT is also running a program in which business executives and scholars train community and NGO leaders on how to incorporate business basics regarding organizational cohesion, efficiency and results into their social mobilization. Medellín’s two most prestigious public universities, the Universidad de Antioquia and the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Facultad de Minas, are known throughout Colombia and beyond for their modern degree programs in business administration, information technology and engineering.

The Fajardo and Salazar administrations have striven to develop local human capital for a global economy, even in the most underprivileged neighborhoods. Public schools have been equipped with broadband-connected computer centers and state-of-the-art science laboratories, while library parks offer entrepreneurship courses to the public. The administration has also taken steps to make Medellín a more business-friendly city, encouraging foreign investment and hosting international conferences, including the fiftieth anniversary conference of the Inter-American Development Bank last year.

Finally, Medellín draws strength from its residents’ strong sense of belonging. “There is a deep sense of belonging in Medellín,” explains Gómez Martínez, “a great sense of regional identification and pride.” Paisas, as locals are called, unite around civil society networks that bridge wide social, cultural and ethnic divides. Looking toward the future, these coalitions will be central to the city’s ongoing efforts to reduce social inequities and end deeply entrenched cycles of violence.

Tags: Abraham F. Lowenthal, Medellin, Pablo Rojas Mejia
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