Medellin: A Saga of Civic Transformation

Medellin, Colombia, is the city that best exemplifies the revitalisation of a city. As a direct result of architects’ efforts, the public’s concept of what it means to live in a city has significantly changed over the last two decades. Based on the Medellin urban binary, a story of violence and regeneration in Medellin Media, sources from across the globe have made connections between these two significantly different types of urban environments to highlight the city’s architectural value.

Cities across the globe have experienced various transformations throughout time, both in terms of physical appearance and cultural makeup. It’s conceivable that these changes will be very subtle, take place over time, and go unnoticed. Urban expansion may be rapid, spectacular, and evident simultaneously, but that does create a rift between the already segmented society prevalent in these cities. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Sarajevo and Dubai experienced urban reconstruction. Changes to the city’s physical infrastructure, such as new buildings, transportation, and open space usage, may result in unforeseen planning, policy, and development difficulties. These fundamental movements may be investigated using maps, photography, landscape surveys, and other methods. Also, analysing and evaluating a city’s culture or identity might be challenging if the circumstances aren’t right.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Medellin was consistently recognised as one of the world’s most dangerous cities, with tens of thousands of people dying. Many people’s perceptions of Medellin have been influenced by Pablo Escobar’s exploits, Hollywood film depictions such as Tom Clancy’s Clear and Present Danger (1989), and dramatic news exposés of drug- and guerilla-related horrors in the city. In the early 1990s, when the police were hesitant to visit gang and rebel-controlled sections in Medellin, the city’s residents were subjected to up to 6,500 homicides each year. The Andes can be seen from Comuna 13, located in Medellin’s lowest portion and is home to people who are constantly struggling to make ends meet. 

At first glance, it seemed like the national and local governments had given criminal gangs and cartels control of regions like Comuna 13. This wreaked havoc on the city’s socio-economic fabric and suffocated any hopes for positive change in these neighbourhoods. Even though rural-to-urban migration decreased in the 1980s, neither industrial production nor unemployment in Medellin improved (or Colombia). 

The Medellin drug gang has seen extraordinary expansion due to the economic crisis, which the recession has aided. With his dominance of a multibillion-dollar cocaine trade, Pablo Escobar, Colombia’s modern-day caudillo, was responsible for forever changing the face of Medellin, Colombia and the entire Latin American continent. As a result of an increase in organised crime, gangs, urban crime, and vigilante justice and violence, Medellin’s civil institutions and the rule of law had deteriorated dramatically over the last decades of the previous century. The city’s core business centre was an excellent example of this. The Medellin cartel staged a series of terrorist strikes against the Colombian government to prevent the country from negotiating an extradition deal with the US. High-level government officials were among those targeted in these assaults. 

Colombian drug lords unleashed an unparalleled campaign of violence against government buildings and shopping malls in the 1980s. Furthermore, in 1989, they attacked an Avianca airliner, murdering all 107 passengers and crew members. It encouraged guerrilla groups like the FARC and El Nio to launch new operations against the Colombian army in the country’s south and provide financial and military support (or, in the case of M-19, to raid and kill 11 Justices in 1985). 

As a result, paramilitary and self-defence groups arose in Colombia, carrying out vigilantism actions with the military’s tacit permission (Bushnell 2003; Ceballos Melguizo and Cronshaw 2001). The most terrible massacre in Colombian history occurred in Medellin, the country’s capital. Between 1990 and 2002, Medellin had 55,365 homicides, the vast majority of which were committed against the city’s most defenceless residents (Cardona et al. 2005).

Many observers expected the organisation to dissolve and the level of violence to reduce after the assassination of Pablo Escobar by Colombian and US special forces in December 1993. The death of their leader, Pablo Escobar, demonstrated that the Medellin gangs were “more than just mercenaries for drug lords” (Ceballos Melguizo and Cronshaw, 2001). The number of gangs, paramilitary organisations, and criminal activity has increased in the post-Escobar era. This is because drug trafficking provides a path to upward mobility for the urban poor. The number of murders grew over the following three years after a significant decrease in 1998. Both local officials and locals were scared when it became clear that the violence had expanded beyond the districts with the highest concentrations of poverty. Colombian President Andres Pastrana, who served from 1998 to 2002, promised to redouble the country’s efforts to combat the drug trade, leftist rebel groups, and even rightist paramilitaries. The Pastrana administration using effective initiatives such as Operation Orion in 2002 brought about drastic revamps in how Medellin was and how it should be. 

The efforts by the erstwhile government can be explicitly seen in the fundamental up-gradation of the city. As of today, the Colombian government policies are now being introduced to understand better how the physical environment of neighbourhoods affects health outcomes. Medellin, Colombia’s municipal authorities, built a public transportation system in 2004 to connect the city’s low-income neighbourhoods to the city’s central business district. Transit-oriented development growth has been strongly correlated with increased municipal infrastructure investment. Based on the group’s basic idea, the reincarnation of the cult band Comuna 13 that happened in this decade has been examined further. The Metro cable system was created to allow inhabitants of Comuna 13 to engage more thoroughly in city life due to its strategic position. It is vital to emphasise that the new infrastructure of the Comuna is being created with integration in mind. 

According to Dávila and Brand (2011), the advantages of Metro cable to nearby inhabitants in terms of local companies, property, and housing have been constrained to those locals, while the system’s more significant mobility benefits remain uncertain. Contrary to the ‘reformed’ assumption, the murder rate in Comuna 13 in Medellin has climbed considerably in the preceding two years. This is particularly true for the city’s young males between 18 and 25, who account for most of the fatalities. Good social infrastructure and adequate transportation infrastructure are severely deficient, making social reform exceedingly tricky. In addition to the advantages afforded by improved transportation, boosting accessibility and mobility in neighbourhoods such as Comuna 13 may result in several long-term benefits such as expanded access to social services and an increased sense of safety. When making plans for a neighbourhood’s growth, it is vital to examine various other political and social factors, such as how the Comuna’s younger people feel about their career opportunities, mobility, and general well-being.

Barring this specific Comuna, the majority of the fundamental concerns that led to Medellin’s social disintegration in the 1980s and 1990s have been addressed in and around the other parts of the city. The city is currently coping with many of the same difficulties that contributed to that collapse. Regardless matter how much better things have gotten since Operation Orion, several analytic types of research indicate that local and municipal governments still have a lot of work to do if future generations are to enjoy the advantages promised by policies and events in the preceding decade. The area named after Pablo Escobar contains falling roofs, twisting lanes, palm palms, and electrical lines. Cable cars that operate above the neighbourhood now allow riders to enjoy the landscape

Despite the current problems, I believe the city is regaining its footing and has the potential for a great future. Still, more research is required to have a more profound knowledge of how Medellin moves on after the tragic events of its past. Peace and opportunity may have a chance to triumph among the impoverished and desolate barrios that surround them, thanks to an organised civic and political drive that has already started on the city’s ragged fringes. Today, Colombia’s most inventive city is undergoing a green (R)evolution, returning to its tropical modernist beginnings marked by a rush of high-profile hotels, high-end residential projects, and holistic workplaces that prominently feature plants. Foliage is making a comeback in Medellin after decades of architects abandoning local fashions and ignoring local preferences. 

When analysing the journey to smarter cities, experts, particularly the judges of Newsweek’s Momentum Awards, often utilise Medellin as the criterion by which each city’s transformation target should be judged. The Medellin model in this regard is chiefly about building a cross-class and cross-income coalition for change. Whereas most smart-city initiatives assist the tech-savvy and well-resourced segments of the community, the transformation in Medellin has benefited chiefly those with the fewest resources. Smart-city programmes for the city tend to be conveniently organised, with tech businesses driving change, according to Soledad Garcia-Ferrari, an urban development expert at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland who has researched smart cities throughout the globe, Medellin looked for community-led events that addressed all aspects of society.

Formerly dubbed as the “most dangerous city in the world,” Medellin has undergone significant development. The city has adapted architecturally and mostly in terms of geography, culture, and story. Perhaps the most striking feature of Medellin’s astonishing rebirth has been the focus on empowering residents – persons who have survived the conflict – to reflect on the city’s history and shape its future. 

Two bird murals by Colombian sculptor Fernando Botero are surprisingly displayed in Plaza San Antonio. One of the birds is entirely uninjured, while the other has a tear in the middle and shrapnel marks all over it. The initial form bird was damaged in 1995 by explosives detonated at the foot of the monument during a public performance. The explosion killed 30 people and injured 200 more. Instead of relocating the bird, the city administration supplied a copy and asked that the pair perch side-by-side. The structures are now renowned as the Birds of Peace, and they represent a striking reminder of Medellin’s ability to heal without forgetting.

The Communa 13 escalators are yet another critical part of the social mobility effort that has been transformed into a tourist attraction. In 2011, a stairlift system got installed across the town, which drug cartels and conflict-related violence initially damaged. The modest solution facilitated access to and egress from the neighbourhood while simultaneously preventing gang activity. While Communa 13 still has issues, its residents invite tourists to see a distinct side of Medellin, complete with colourful graffiti and panoramic city views.

These civic and cultural improvements have fostered a strong feeling of pride in the locals; despite being 34 years old, the metro trains and cable cars are always spotless, and passengers never violate any eating policy. The metro and stairways at Communa 13 are symbols of Medellin’s engagement in its people and its commitment to progress. Today, Colombia has the fastest-growing local economy in Latin America, and annual tourism has reached a height of 2.5 million, increasing from 540,000 in 2002. Foreign investment and stories of Medellin’s remarkable revival have accompanied the influx, but Medellin has maintained control over its story. As opposed to burying the past, its remnants are incorporated into the city, forming the basis for future improvements.

Further, according to former Mayor Fico Gutierrez, “from the city of death, plagued by drugs and violence, Medellin is now poised to become the city of life.” This city has become a paradigm for urban reform worldwide, especially for communities in emerging countries with substantial inequality and marginalisation. The city has been effective in increasing social, economic, and geographical inclusiveness by, among other things, focusing on enhancing public spaces, enhancing physical linkages, and expanding education. Unquestionably, the city still has tremendous complexities, such as poverty and unequal social inclusion. Nonetheless, Medellin’s unprecedented success serves as a model for urban change that incorporates social innovation at its core. 

[Photo by David Peña, via Wikimedia Commons]

*Aakarshan Singh is a postgraduate student of International Relations, pursuing MA in Diplomacy, Law and Business, specializing in Defense and National Security Studies, and South-East Asian Studies from the School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Delhi NCR.

Ethnic Minorities of Bangladesh: A Stunning Success in National Integration

Unlike other countries in the region, Bangladesh has been an example for its integration of minorities. While the CHT region, the mountainous region  that...

Nancy Pelosi’s Visit to Taiwan: Another Round of Tensions

After weeks of speculations, Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, arrived in Taipei on Tuesday with her congressional delegation,...

South Korea and Japan Relations: Moving Beyond the Horizon

Under its new president Yoon Suk-yeol, South Korea has re-imagined the state's role in today’s changing geopolitical landscape as a global pivotal state. Global...