Americas
9:20 am
Fri June 14, 2013

Once Home To A Dreaded Drug Lord, Medellin Remakes Itself

Originally published on Tue July 2, 2013 5:03 pm

Of all the violent cities of Latin America, one stands out as a great success story: Medellin, a metropolis nestled in the mountains of northwest Colombia.

Once the home of the cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar, it recorded more than 6,300 homicides in 1991, making it the world's murder capital. Then, one city government after another built schools and libraries, parks and infrastructure. The police also received an overhaul and became more adept at going after violent trafficking groups.

The result was an 80 percent drop in homicides over a generation, making Medellin not only much safer, but also a model for other cities hoping to cut into crime. But 20 years after Escobar's death at the hands of Colombian police, it has become clear to city officials that the big gains on crime are hard to maintain -– showing just how difficult it is to make big cities safe in Latin America, which is beset by street violence and drug trafficking.

The challenges were apparent on a recent day in the northwest barrio of San Cristobal, which is perched on an impossibly steep hillside with a bird's-eye view of the glittering skyscrapers below.

Because cars can't make their way up, a team of soldiers deployed to protect residents had to lug their provisions up trails, carrying food, water and sleeping bags — as well as their assault rifles and ammunition.

Though the city is no longer synonymous with drug violence, there presence showed that it also isn't crime-free. And in some cases, officials have to respond in an extreme way -– in this case using troops on city streets.

The soldiers were deployed after warring gangs forced dozens of families to flee for their lives in May. With the arrival of the soldiers, the gangs abandoned the district and families returned, trying to go about their normal routines.

But their flight and the response by the army show just how complicated Medellin's problems can be.

Maria de Los Angeles Posada, 75, was among those who returned. She found a city seal on her door warning, "This home is being protected."

The message was directed at would-be intruders: If they take on Posada, they are taking on the army.

"Until now, we do feel safe," she said. "But who knows what it will be like later when they leave. That is what we are all thinking about, and it's making us afraid."

A City Transformed

Like many of the proud residents of this city, Posada said Medellin has made great gains from the bad old days. That was when cocaine cowboys fought it out. A bounty was placed on the heads of policemen, and the dead piled up.

And even after Escobar died on a city rooftop, shot in the head by police, the city was still murder central. There were more than 3,700 as recently as 2002, making Medellin the world's deadliest city that year. But local and national officials say a two-pronged approach transformed Medellin.

First came a tough police and military presence — attacking drug gangs hard, killing or extraditing top kingpins, those who inherited the business from Escobar. Officials also embarked on innovative projects designed to make life better in tough neighborhoods while giving people a voice on how the budget is spent.

The initiatives led the U.S.-based Urban Land Institute to name Medellin the world's most innovative city this year, beating out finalists New York and Tel Aviv. Those successes have also made Medellin a must-see for delegations of city officials and police brass from as far away as Rio de Janeiro and South Africa.

"Medellin has undergone a transformation in the last few years, what we call a metamorphosis because of its dimensions," said Mayor Anibal Gaviria. "All this in 20 or 25 years. We went from being the most violent city in the world to today being in the top 25."

The city built new, modern schools and futuristic libraries. There were new parks, complete with bike lanes and public squares. But the most famous innovation has been the use of gondolas and ski lifts to move tens of thousands of people each day, connecting them to a modern metro.

The city also found another way for residents to get around in neighborhoods built on mountainsides: an escalator that rises up the Comuna 13 district, taking residents 1,300 feet up toward their homes.

Astrid Ramirez, age 38, is among those who gush about the investments. She lives in a district that used to take an hour to get to, riding a bus along narrow streets that rose up into the mountains. Now, she spends a quiet few minutes riding above it all in a cable car.

"It's very good because it saves time from the traffic jams and it also saves money because you can ride really far for very little money," she said.

'Still Worried'

But despite the improvements to mass transit, Ramirez expresses concern about crime.

"On the theme of security, here in Medellin?" she said, frowning. "In all of Medellin? I think it's bad. There are too many gangs that want to take over the neighborhoods."

Indeed, Luis Fernando Quijano, an expert on crime and gangs, says that Medellin remains a dangerous city.

There are still warring drug traffickers, he says. He also talks of people who went missing and are likely dead, and the 9,000 residents who were forced from their homes last year because of crime.

"I'm still worried," he said.

Quijano said that extortion of small businesses remains serious, and that witnesses are afraid to talk to the police because of what street hoods might do to them.

The mayor of Medellin, Gaviria, acknowledges there's too much violence, pointing to the 470 homicides in the city in the first five months of the year. But he's also optimistic, saying a better economy and government social programs have cut into income disparities and poverty — which he says fuel violence.

"This signals a change that very few cities and very few societies can point to in a relatively short amount of time, which is 20 years," he said.

Gaviria also explained that while crime in the city does rise and fall, the overall trend is a reduction.

"We never get back to the historic highs we had," he said. "They are lower levels and they keep getting lower."

The mayor says the key to it all is making sure there's a security presence in once-forgotten neighborhoods — even in places like San Cristobal, the district perched on a mountainside.

As army troops settled into a house lent to them for staging patrols, Arnuflo Serna, the city's security director, said Medellin was showing both the residents and gang members that there was a state security presence.

"We are guaranteeing security when we take over this place," he said.

Among those who were thankful was Maribel Alvarez, 19, who has a 3-month-old baby, Isabela.

Watching soldiers patrol, Alvarez said she felt safe. But she also said she hoped that the changes would be permanent.

"I want a safe Medellin," she said. "You think of your children because they're just starting to live. You think about it for them."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

As we continue our coverage of violence in Latin America, we have, this morning, a success story in a city with an infamous past: Medellin, Colombia.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

It was once home to the drug lord Pablo Escobar and his Medellin cartel. And back in 1991, the city had more than 6,300 homicides, making it the world's murder capital. Two years later, Escobar was shot dead by police, part of a larger government crackdown on the drug cartels. This gave the city's government room to work on improving the quality of life, building schools, libraries, reforming the police force.

MONTAGNE: The result: homicides in Medellin have dropped by 80 percent, making it not only much safer for residents, but also a model for other cities. Still, as NPR's Juan Forero reports, maintaining that success has been far from easy.

JUAN FORERO, BYLINE: A good place to see the challenges officials face in Medellin is the northwest barrio of San Cristobal. It is perched up an impossibly steep hillside with a bird's eye view of the glittering skyscrapers below. But what it has in vistas it lacks in accessibility. This lush hillside is way too vertical for cars. That meant soldiers recently deployed to protect residents lugged their provisions up trails. The troops carry food and water and sleeping bags, as well as their assault rifles and ammunition.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: The city is no longer synonymous with drug violence, but it's not crime-free. The soldiers were deployed after warring gangs forced dozens of families to flee for their lives. In May, the troops came in, leading the gang members to abandon the district.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Singing in Spanish)

FORERO: The families are back now, music playing from their homes. But their flight and the response by the army show just how complicated Medellin's problems can be. Mara de Los Angeles Posada, age 75, is among those who returned, finding a city seal on her door warning: This home is being protected. It's a message to any would-be intruder that if they take on Posada, they're taking on the army.

MARA DE LOS ANGELES POSADA: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: We feel safe now, Posada says, but who knows what it will be like later when the soldiers leave. We've been thinking about that, and we're afraid. She, like many of the proud residents of this city, say Medellin has made great gains from the bad old days. That was when cocaine cowboys fought it out, a bounty was placed on the heads of policemen, and the dead piled up.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: And even after Pablo Escobar died, as a news anchor told the world, the city was still murder central. There were more than 3,700 as recently as 2002. Medellin was that year's deadliest city. But local and national officials say a two-pronged approach transformed Medellin. First came a tough police and military presence, attacking drug gangs hard, killing or extraditing top kingpins. But officials also embarked on a series of innovative projects designed to make life better in tough neighborhoods, while giving people a voice on how the budget is spent. The initiatives led the U.S.-based Urban Land Institute to name Medellin the world's most innovative city this year, beating out finalists New York and Tel Aviv. The city's success has drawn mayors and police officials from as far as Rio de Janeiro and South Africa.

MAYOR ANIBAL GAVIRIA: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: We call it a metamorphosis because of the truly big changes, said Anibal Gaviria, the mayor of Medellin.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN PLAYING)

FORERO: The city built new, modern schools and futuristic libraries. There are new parks. But the most famous innovation has been the use of gondolas and ski lifts to move tens of thousands of people each day, connecting them to a modern metro.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR OPENING)

FORERO: And so we're going over hillside slums. I'm about 60 feet above all the roofs. But then you go over the top of the hill and down into another valley. I'm not sure how long this is, but maybe two or three miles of a ride. It's actually quite amazing.

The city also found another way for residents to get around in neighborhoods built on mountainsides. One of them is an escalator in one of the poor neighborhoods. Instead of having to hoof it up the hillside, you can just ride on an escalator and listen to a little music.

Astrid Ramirez, age 38, is among those who love riding high above the city.

ASTRID RAMIREZ: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: This saves us so much time from the traffic jams, she says, and it's also cheap, because you travel far for very little money. But despite the improvements to mass transit, Ramirez expresses concern about crime.

RAMIREZ: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: Safety in Medellin? she asks. It's bad. There are a lot of gangs that are trying to take over the neighborhoods. Indeed, Luis Fernando Quijano, an expert on crime and gangs, says that Medellin remains a dangerous city. There are still warring drug traffickers, he says. He talks of people who went missing and are likely dead.

LUIS FERNANDO QUIJANO: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: He says 9,000 people were forced out of their homes last year by crime. He also talks of extortion of small businesses and witnesses afraid to talk to the police. Mayor Anibal Gaviria acknowledges there's too much violence, but he's also optimistic, saying a better economy and government social programs have cut into income disparities and poverty, which he says fuel violence. And he says you can't ignore that Medellin's homicide rate is a fraction of what it once was.

GAVIRIA: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: The mayor says the key to it all is making sure there's a security presence in once-forgotten neighborhoods, even in places like San Cristobal, the district perched on a mountainside.

ARNUFLO SERNA: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: Arnuflo Serna, the city's security director, is winded from climbing up the barrio's narrow paths. He led operations on a recent day.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUSTLING)

FORERO: Army troops took up positions in a house a resident lent to them for staging patrols.

SERNA: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: We're here, says Serna, providing security for those who left because they felt threatened. Among the thankful residents is Maribel Alvarez, 19, who has a three-month-old, Isabela.

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY CRYING)

FORERO: Watching soldiers patrol, Alvarez says she feels safe. What she hopes for, though, are lasting changes that will benefit her daughter.

MARIBEL ALVAREZ: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: I want a safe Medellin, she says. You think about your children because they're just starting to live. So you want it for them. Juan Forero, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: And you can see the places and faces of Medellin at our website: npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.