MEDELLIN, Colombia – Once notorious for its drug violence, the Colombian city of Medellin has shown that a better and more peaceful future can be forged through social investment.
It is no secret that this northwestern metropolis nestled in the Andes mountains was once controlled by Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel, which at its height in the 1970s and 1980s moved 80 percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States.
Escobar, who was killed in 1993, built an army of cartel enforcers drawn from the ranks of poor young men lacking economic opportunities, who spearheaded an explosion of violence that resulted in 60,000 deaths in 15 years.
“At that point, the people of Medellin understood that either we brought about change or we’d all perish,” Federico Gutierrez, the mayor of this city of 2.1 million people, said in an interview with EFE.
A consensus was reached at the highest political levels about the urgent need to make residents of marginal areas participants in the city’s transformation through large-scale infrastructure projects.
A metropolis known only for violent crime 20 years ago thus became the first in Colombia with a metro system, while other public transport projects such as the Medellin Metrocable, an aerial tramway system, and giant hillside escalators led to it being selected in 2013 by the non-profit Urban Land Institute as the world’s most innovative city.
Challenges remain, however, as new illegal armed groups fight for control of drug sales in certain low-income neighborhoods.
“Medellin is a city where we’re aware that it’s increasingly important to defeat criminality ... we’re determined not to let our guard down,” Gutierrez said.
But that crime-fighting effort is complemented by initiatives such as funding for health care, cultural activities and sports, as well as university scholarships for low-income students to keep them out of the clutches of the criminal gangs.
“It’s a battle that continues between opportunity and illegality. That’s why the goal by 2018 is to invest two points of gross domestic product in innovation, science and technology-related activities,” the mayor said.
And it is that more inviting and prosperous image of Medellin that the mayor’s office intends to demonstrate this week to a group of foreign journalists attending the 28th edition of Colombiamoda, Latin America’s leading fashion trade show.