The reign of Pablo Escobar left a dark stain on Colombia’s beautiful jungles and colorful streets. The city of Medellín felt it in particular. This was the hub of his cartel for over 20 years, filling the city with drugs, crime and poverty. Since then, however, crime in Medellín, Colombia has taken such a drastic downturn in the city that many consider it a miracle. Poverty rates have also dropped, and the city is now one of the most progressive urban spaces in the world.
History of High Crime
Pablo Escobar ran the Medellín Cartel from 1972-1993. In 1991, the murder rate of Medellín was 381 per 100,000 residents in a population of 2.1 million, making it the most dangerous city in the world at that time. Even though the city has seen a slight rise in homicide rates since achieving its lowest in history in 2015 (20 per 100,000 residents), it has come a long way, and this is largely due to its implementation of social infrastructure programs.
After Escobar died and the cartel disbanded, officials believed that increased police activity to break up gangs would lower crime rates in Medellín. However, murder rates still soared even after the cartel left. In the first year of an Escobar-free Medellín, the city still had a murder rate of three times that of the rest of the country. It did not match the murder statistics of the rest of the country until 2005 when it finally fell to 37 homicides per 100,000 residents.
The Start of a Transformation
Crime and poverty rates did not begin to continuously decline until the implementation of social infrastructure programs. Social infrastructure refers to facilities that include education, health and youth services that promote a high-quality lifestyle. The city has utilized social urbanism, an umbrella term that includes social infrastructure focused on mobility and safe public spaces. These developments have the public good in mind, with the intent of providing better outcomes for peoples’ livelihoods. In Medellín, the government focused on providing access to quality sanitation, clean water and public transportation.
Starting in 2004, the city built beautiful buildings in its poorest neighborhoods. These structures remind those communities that they deserve beauty just like everyone else. This then led to public transportation lines being available in these neighborhoods in order to connect them with the city center, which is also the economic hub. These projects continued to be implemented within marginalized neighborhoods and included: 10 new schools, large parks that doubled as museums and libraries, a cultural center and a public gondola to connect many inaccessible hilltop communities with the rest of the city.
Outcomes and Continued Work
The GDP of Medellín alone now accounts for 10% of the GDP for all of Colombia. In 2015, Medellín claimed the best quality of life in all of Colombia and in all of Latin America. As of 2017, the city saw a 56% decrease in poverty levels, with only 2.8% living in extreme poverty. It also now has the best access to clean water and sanitation than any other city of its size and wealth in Colombia.
MasterPeace is an international organization that works to promote peacebuilding projects in countries coming out of conflict, and/or have high crime rates. The Peace Hub works under MasterPeace in Medellín. It conducts projects such as youth boot camps, art, dance and writing classes. It also promotes the creation of social businesses in order to create solidarity with the community.
These organizations have recognized the importance of utilizing culture and community in bringing peace and reducing crime in Medellín, Colombia.
Peace deals and law enforcement have played an important role in revitalizing and reducing crime in Medellín, Colombia. However, the city flourished because its officials decided to attack the root of the problem. Crime is often a result of desperation from tumultuous conditions. When officials choose to look at root causes of crime, rather than reacting to crimes ex-post, they begin seeking long-term, sustainable solutions. The programs in Medellín are not one size fits all. Still, they teach a valuable lesson on the importance of revitalizing the dignity of marginalized communities. Medellín is a prime example of how access to basic needs can transform cities, as well as countries.
– Stephanie Russo