At midday on Friday, February 22nd, 2019, a loud explosion is heard in one of Medellín’s most affluent neighbourhoods. The explosion is so large that it engulfs the neighbourhood, covering the surrounding apartment blocks in a cloud of orange dust. Yet this is not the work of drug cartels or FARC guerrillas, but rather the city mayor and his new initiative, ‘Medellín – Abraza Su Historia’ or, in English, ‘Medellín Embracing Its History’. The building demolished that day was the Monaco building, drug lord Pablo Escobar’s luxury home for much of the 1980s where he planned some of his most violent acts. While the building had been left more or less abandoned after it was seized by the Colombian government in 1990, its gruesome past meant that it quickly became a popular tourist destination. Frustrated with the dominance of Escobar’s legacy in Medellín, the mayor decided that this ‘symbol of evil’ needed to be entirely obliterated and replaced with a memorial dedicated to the victims, rather than the perpetrators, of the city’s bloody past. Over the last decade, an enormous amount of time and money has been put into reinventing Medellín, Colombia’s second-largest city. Once named the most dangerous city in the world, Medellín has since become known as ‘the most innovative’, winning an international prize under this label in 2013 for its successes in social development. Yet at the core of this regeneration lies a more fundamental question: will Medellín, or even Colombia as a whole, ever be able to truly overcome its past and create a new legacy for itself while there is still a high demand for cocaine?
Medellín provides a microcosmic example of Colombia’s fight against Escobar’s legacy – that is to say, a fight against its international reputation as a politically corrupt and violent nation, as well as being a major producer of cocaine. All cities are made up of the remnants of their past, both in material and non-material form, and this provides a particular challenge when the recent history is one made up of so much bloodshed and crime. As the Harvard University study ‘Roots of Violence in Colombia – Armed Actors and Beyond’ points out, ‘Colombia’s history is one of the most violent in the hemisphere, with organized killing existing at chronically high levels, punctuated with episodes of high-intensity murderousness, for nearly two centuries’. Medellín became the centre of this ‘endemic violence’ in the latter half of the 20th century.
To understand how Medellín became an urban war zone, we need to understand the city’s past. Following an industrial revolution in the first half of the 20th century, Medellín became a hub of economic activity, the population increasing sixfold between 1905 and 1951. The influx of rural migrants led to the development of poor comunas in the hillsides, not dissimilar from Brazil’s favelas. The economic growth that took place across Colombia in the 1970s may have improved life for white-collar workers, but the World Bank suggests that this was highly damaging for poorer communities, with unemployment rapidly increasing in Medellín. During this period, cocaine also reemerged as a fashionable drug in the US and Europe, providing the city’s struggling, marginalised communities with a route out of poverty – drug trafficking. The dominance of the Medellín Cartel grew alongside the richer countries’ appetite for cocaine which consequently led to the city being named ‘the most dangerous in the world’ in a 1988 article by TIME Magazine. The article describes how what was once known as the ‘city of eternal spring’ had become ‘the city of eternal violence’, policemen pacing suburban streets with automatic rifles and civilians walking around with pistols underneath their shirts. In 1987, 3000 people were murdered in Medellín, a homicide rate five times higher than that of New York the same year. Drug-trafficking had turned the city into a notoriously dangerous place, with around 80% of the cocaine imported to the US coming through the Medellín Cartel. Bombings, assassinations, shootings, torture and sexual assault were daily occurrences in some neighbourhoods of Medellín throughout this period, with cartels controlling every aspect of civilian life. Bearing all this evidence in mind, the task of creating a new legacy for Medellín and for its younger generations seems laughably impossible, but it was after Escobar’s assassination in 1993 and the consequential downfall of the Medellín Cartel that this challenge became the mayor’s policy.
Stanley Stewart summarises the city’s impressive and bizarre reinvention in a 2018 article for The Telegraph: ‘How Medellín went from murder capital to hipster holiday destination’. Stewart, perplexed by the city’s sudden transformation, asked his tour guide what lay at the core of the regeneration’s success, to which the tour guide replied “Transport”. The idea that public transport could put an end to decades of widespread crime and violence seems bizarre, but this is the commonly-held belief of the city’s natives.
In 1995, the Medellín Metro was established in a desperate attempt to reconnect the divided city and avoid the geographical segregation seen in places like New York, Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro. The Metro became an important cultural symbol in the city for marginalised workers, and was soon followed by the Metrocable, a gondola lift system which provided a solution to the steep hills that mark Medellín’s topography. This transport network is more than a means of getting around as it symbolises the transformation of Medellin for the city’s inhabitants and is regarded with something approaching reverence. Announcements on the Metro call on people to behave in the outside world as well as they do in the train carriage, all part of what is known as the cultura metro. When I visited Medellín in 2018, a woman in a tienda in Villa Sierra (once Medellín’s most dangerous comuna) told me that most people’s commutes into the city centre had been halved by an hour thanks to the new gondola system. Medellín’s Metrocable has since become the inspiration for many other cities across the globe which are considering a similar approach to tackle social segregation. By addressing the issues which led to such high levels of poverty and crime, Escobar’s legacy in the city diminished and was replaced with a sentiment of determination.
The mayor and the Colombian government were also aware that Medellín’s public spaces needed to be redeveloped in order to create a safer environment in the city centre. Many squares were hubs of drug trafficking and prostitution, the Plaza Cisneros being the most infamous of them all. In 2005, the mayor of Medellín decided to put 300 towers of light in the square to quite literally dispel any darkness – without any dark corners, it became impossible for the square to become a hub of illegal activity again and it was transformed into a popular attraction for tourists and locals alike, now known as the Plaza de las Luces (Square of Lights). And this is not an exception – examples of the city uprooting its past and putting in place the foundations for a brighter future are abundant. In June 1995, the year that the process of regeneration began, 30 civilians were killed and 200 wounded by the detonation of a 20-pound bomb at a music festival in the Plaza de San Antonio. The bomb had been placed at the base of a sculpture called ‘The Bird’, the work of Medellín’s most famous artist, Fernando Botero. What remained of the artwork was a distressing reminder of the event, a jagged hole tearing through the bird’s metal stomach. Instead of removing the sculpture, Botero decided that it would make more sense to create a new legacy of peace by keeping the damaged bird and placing a new version of the original beside it. Named ‘The Birds of Peace’, the two statues side by side embody the new path that the city is attempting to follow – one which both embraces the past and looks towards creating a better future.
Yet trying to transform a city so drastically in such a short space of time is ambitious, and whether such a feat will be able to sustain itself is a worrying prospect for Medellín. While the city’s art museums and botanical gardens do attract many tourists, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has suggested that Escobar’s legacy has provided a whole new wave of tourism in the city – narcoturismo. That’s to say, tourists going to Medellín to take or traffic drugs and visit brothels, the city supposedly having “the most beautiful women in the world”. The UN study also explores the link between tourism and the sex trafficking of children and adolescents, a pertinent problem in many of Colombia’s touristic hotspots, such as the colourful, colonial city of Cartagena.
Many foreigners go to Medellín to feed their morbid curiosity by visiting sites related to the famous Medellín Cartel, including Escobar’s country estate ‘Hacienda Nápoles’ which is now a theme park and ‘La Manuela’, another of the drug lord’s properties, which overlooks Guatapé’s reservoir which is now used by tourists as a paintballing venue. Guatapé, reportedly one of the most beautiful towns in the country due to its colourful houses and astounding green landscape, has only recently reemerged as a tourist destination after years of chaos under Escobar. Like much of the region, Medellín is home to some of the most beautiful natural landscapes and architecture, yet despite its many charms, it seems that some tourists are more interested in the darker side of its history.
Nonetheless, Medellín is fighting against Escobar’s legacy with an arguably more influential force for change – education. Nelson Mandela famously said that ‘education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world’, and Medellín has invested in this belief with its system of ‘library parks’. A ‘library park’ is a concept native to the city; these multi-purpose educational buildings surrounded by green space open to the public aim to provide education and innovation in the most deprived neighbourhoods of Medellín. The most famous is the ‘Parque Biblioteca España’, created in 2007 in one of the city’s most notorious northern neighbourhoods – Santo Domingo Savio. The building provides the comuna with a library, a cultural centre, a community centre and internet access. The architectural design focuses on providing a sanctuary for the locals; many of the rooms have small vertical windows to allow young people to escape from their environment for a few hours.
Medellín’s regeneration project suggests that the city is creating an exciting new future for itself – one of innovation and determination in spite of such adversity. And this is without mentioning its environmental projects, education schemes, street art and the music genre which has begun to dominate the city’s image on a global scale – reggaetón. There’s even a twenty-minute documentary dedicated to the city’s ‘Rebirth through Reggaeton’. The short film made by Complex News explores Medellín’s newfound role as the epicentre of the genre through interviews with various reggaeton superstars, including the Latin Grammy award-winning artist J Balvin who tells the viewer ‘You’ve just got to go [to Medellín]. I guarantee that you’ll be back. 2000 per cent. If not, I’ll give you your money back.’
However, despite so many successes, Medellín is still struggling with crime and violence. In 2018, the city’s murder rate rose for the first time after years of decline with 626 murders, an increase of almost 10% from the previous year. The national newspaper El Tiempo called 2018 a bloody year for Medellín, one local government official stating that such violence hadn’t been seen in the city since 2008. Most of the violence that year occurred in Comuna 7 and Comuna 13 between local gangs who control the majority of the city’s drug trafficking. Cressida Dick and Sadiq Khan are among many public figures who have attacked middle-class liberals for the hypocrisy of their cocaine use which ‘perpetuates a chain of violent activity’, creating misery and environmental degradation at every level in the supply chain. It is not only Escobar’s legacy that Medellín (and much of Colombia) is fighting against but also our national demand for drugs, with Britain estimated to have a cocaine market worth around five billion pounds.
Ultimately, Medellín’s regeneration project has completely transformed the city’s landscape and atmosphere, seemingly ridding the city of much of its dark past. Yet, while this did initially lead to a considerable drop in the crime rate and gave the city a brand new identity to present to the international community, the city is still struggling with the problems left from decades of drug-trafficking and guerrilla warfare. This is to be expected as modern art galleries and chart-topping music cannot wipe away years of violence nor fix the destruction of much of the city’s infrastructure, yet there is also another obstacle that is far too often overlooked – our role, as Britons, in Medellín’s development. Cocaine leaves victims at every level of its production, be it the children forced to make the drug, the police officers who face violence and death for trying to fight the cartels, the mules who ingest the drug for transportation or the teenage victims of knife crime in London. And this is to name but a few. Medellín, like all great cities, has many problems but the drug-trafficking and the violence that the cocaine trade brings with it is at the very top of their concerns. In the globalised world in which we live, we are all mutually responsible. Drug-trafficking is not just a Colombian problem, but a global issue. As long as there is a demand for cocaine, Medellín’s drive for a new future will never entirely succeed, and ‘the city of eternal Spring’ will be cursed with many more years of insecurity, crime and violence.
Image credit: Phoebe White