Medellin: A City Transformed
From Chaos to Citizen Security
From chaos and despair, Medellin has emerged as a city transformed through the affirmation of hope and the attainment of citizen security against daunting odds.
In 1991 Medellin was the murder capital of the world, with a homicide rate of 381 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. The city was a battleground among warring armed groups, and the headquarters of the Medellin drug cartel, whose leader, Pablo Escobar, was killed in 1993.
Entire neighborhoods were off-limits to law enforcement and other government personnel. Schoolchildren were afraid to go to class in many low-income, excluded neighborhoods for fear of violence. Colombia’s second city, with a population of 2.3 million, seemed caught in an endless downward spiral of insecurity.
That catastrophe has been reversed. After two decades of improved law enforcement applied in conjunction with massive infrastructure and social investments, Medellin has regained its reputation as a city with an attractive quality of life and a good place to do business. It has built a metro and a critical cable car transportation system that enables citizens in hillside communities to travel downtown to work or accomplish other business in a matter of minutes, whereas previously the same trajectory took hours in frustration.
New green spaces and bicycles lanes have been built throughout the city. New “library parks” – a combination public library, park, and community center with architecturally attractive structures– serve multiple purposes of education, recreation and social cohesion.
Prior to the investments in infrastructure and social services, law enforcement authorities re-established government control in targeted neighborhoods once under the dominion of armed bands. Simultaneously, youth in these violence-ridden areas were offered job training and educational opportunities.
The results have been striking. In addition to becoming more appealing as a city with modern architecture, green spaces, and active commerce, the homicide rate was cut by more than two-thirds from its peak rate in 1991. In some excluded neighborhoods along the cable car transportation line, uniformed young guides show tourists the sites of armed conflicts in the past among Medellin’s rival armed bands, converting a violent past into a historical curiosity.
How was the turnaround achieved?
The multisector approach, combining law enforcement with social and infrastructure investments, had a major impact. Citizen participation in community and municipal decision-making also played an important role. Strong leadership from the mayor’s office, with frequent meetings with community leaders and persistent follow-up activity to make sure promised investments and services were in fact delivered, made a real difference in achieving goals that might otherwise have fallen by the wayside.
Yet nobody is yet able to quantify the specific impacts of each program ingredient.
Trial and error was important. Some projects failed. A job retraining program aimed at benefitting a portion of the more than 5,500 demobilized armed militants only managed to graduate 129 students in 18-month courses between 2004 and 2006. Another 294 were either expelled from the course or judged unqualified to justify their further attendance.
Particularly disturbing was a slippage in the battle to reduce the homicide rate, which rose from a decade low of 29 per 100,000 in 2007 to the current rate of 80 per 100,000 and higher in recent years. The upsurge appears to be the result of a renewal of gang activity. For whatever reason, the backsliding demonstrates the necessity to continually monitor and adapt policies to ever-changing patterns of violence.
Among the challenges ahead will be better and more precise quantitative analyses of citizen security programs to demonstrate which projects will produce measureable benchmark results – such as lower homicide rates and youth job creation. Better intelligence and policing of some high-crime districts is required. Coordination with national authorities is imperative for more effective planning and the mobilization of greater resources.
The IDB supported multiple activities of Medellin’s citizen security program with a $57 million loan in 1998 that also supported projects at the national level and in the cities of Cali and Bogota. Medellin’s citizen security program has been designated by the IDB as a model for other countries addressing public safety issues.