Good Times in Medellin
A city tainted by violence is experiencing a renaissance

by Malcolm Beith | jul 05 '04

Luis Fernando Betancur Merino gazes out of his eighth-floor office window, overlooking the Colombian city of Medellin, and smiles at the bustling panorama. Betancur is Medellin's administrator for urban development; every new license for construction must get his stamp of approval. He's been busy lately. Last year over 1.2 million square meters of property were developed in Colombia's second largest city, more than double the figure from five years ago. All around Medellin--which sits 1,500 meters above sea level in the Andes--new housing, hotels and office buildings are springing up, keeping Betancur happily buried in paperwork. "These are good times," he says. "We are experiencing a boom."

It's been a long time since Medellin was described with such upbeat words. Billionaire cocaine king Pablo Escobar, who headed the Medellin cocaine cartel from the early 1970s until his death in December 1993, had turned the so-called City of Eternal Spring into the City of Eternal Violence. During la epoca Escobar, car bombs, murder (a horrific homicide rate of about 450 per 100,000) and kidnappings paralyzed the city with fear. For investors, Medellin was untouchable. But Escobar was also a Robin Hood-like figure to the locals, building hospitals, schools and housing with his dirty money. Without his cash, officials feared, Medellin's economy would disintegrate.

In fact, just the opposite has occurred. Escobar's death lifted a shroud from Medellin, and it's now experiencing an urban and economic renaissance. Exports from the city--everything from textiles to cut flowers--topped $900 million last year, three times more than at the start of the 1990s. Paisas , as the roughly 2 million residents of Medellin are known, have never been more prosperous. The good news has fueled a resurgence of civic pride, and the signs plastered around town can actually claim to reflect the prevailing mood: SAY IT WITH PRIDE: I LOVE MEDELLIN.

Medellin always had considerable economic potential. The city has long been Colombia's primary textile manufacturer, and paisas are known for hard work and entrepreneurship. The city's transportation network--including the elevated Metro, built in 1995--is a model for the rest of the Andes, and its hospitals and universities are top tier. Meanwhile, privatization and financial deregulation at the national level have opened up the Colombian market. President Alvaro Uribe Velez's focus on security throughout the country has also helped. "The optimism surrounding Uribe's presidency is phenomenal," says Jennifer Satz, Latin America analyst for the New York-based Eurasia Group. "He's attempting to say, 'We're going to make this a welcoming place for your investment dollars'. "

Crime is still a problem--drug traffickers remain active in the department of Antioquia, where Medellin is located. Colombia's civil war, which on occasion threatens to spill into the city, is also a serious concern. But the social tenor of Medellin has improved remarkably. New city parks are filled with children, while shopping malls are no longer to be avoided for fear of bombings. Artistic creativity is flourishing, too. "In the past 10 years, Medellin's cultural scene has experienced an incredible transformation," says Asnhower Castro Tirado, a 26-year-old musician. "The music scene is rich with rock, jazz, rap, salsa--all types of music. [And] there's theater, art, opera... This wasn't common in the past." The success of hometown Grammy-winner Juanes has inspired paisa creativity even more.

Medellin's mayor since January, Sergio Fajardo Valderrama, hopes to nurture the budding revival. A cleanup of the Medellin River is in progress, as is the development of a cable-car system to connect some of the poorer hillside communities to the Metro. More parks are planned to cope with Medellin's growing population. "When people don't have space, this promotes violence," says Fajardo. He also wants to expand the city's police force and improve their training, to foster better relations with civilians. "Communities are starting to trust [the police]," he says. "But the relationship is still not what it should be."

Fajardo, who attended the University of Wisconsin, is eager to change the world's image of Medellin. He plans to aggressively court foreign governments and businesses to gin up more investment. Can he convince the skeptics? The odds are pretty good: net private investment in the city has increased by 300 percent since 1993, and more foreign firms are moving in. "This is Medellin, a city with many faces," says the mayor. "Escobar is part of the past, and we need to learn from the past, but move forward." That is clearly already happening. Medellin is buzzing with potential, having discovered its better side.

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A Country Reincarnated

With Mexico going through a rough patch, Colombia is looking better for business and tourism.

By Malcolm Beith


June 10, 2007 - For years, Colombia has been virtually synonymous with anything bad—kidnappings, homicides, crime, cocaine, civil war and the escapades of Pablo Escobar, the drug kingpin from Medellín who terrorized the country in the '70s and '80s. But Colombia is beginning to reinvent itself in the eyes of the world.

President Alvaro Uribe Velez began a security crackdown in 2002, expanding the military in order to combat left-wing guerrillas after his predecessor's attempts at peace talks failed. As a result, kidnappings have dropped by an estimated 78 percent since his election. Medellín, which had the highest homicide rate per capita in the world at various times during the 1980s, now has a lower rate than Washington, D.C. The drop is largely attributed to Uribe's campaign to boost security in urban areas.

The payoff came last year. Boosted by exports of coffee, textiles and flowers, the Colombian economy rose 6.8 percent, its highest growth rate since 1978. Medellín is establishing itself as a regional commercial hub, hosting Philip Morris, Toyota, Renault and other multinational firms. Paisas, as Medellín's residents are known, continue to grow their famous flowers, of course, celebrating the industry every summer with a citywide flower festival.

In many respects, Colombia appears to be trading places with Mexico, where crime is on the rise, the economy is down and the government is resorting to Uribe-style military tactics to restore order. As foreign investment in Mexico declines, Colombia is beginning to pick up the slack, doubling last year to surpass the $6 billion mark. That's five times the rate of foreign investment of a decade ago; Mexico attracted $18 billion in foreign investment last year, but that's only double the amount of 10 years ago. "Colombia's growth potential is better than Mexico's," says Alberto Bernal-Leon, a Latin American markets expert at Bear Stearns & Co. in New York.

Tourism in Colombia suddenly seems to be brimming with potential, too. In 2005, the colonial port of Cartagena launched a worldwide PR campaign, "Colombia is Passion," which has helped attract tourists as well as the attention of the World Tourism Organization, which will host its annual convention there this November. Royal Caribbean cruise lines recently announced plans to include Cartagena on its itineraries. The allure of the Zona Cafeteria--the coffee-producing region in the west of the country--has helped boost foreign visitors to the country by 65 percent since 2002, to about 1 million a year. Meanwhile, the Mexican tourism industry has been hit hard of late. Last year, repeated hurricanes devastated the Yucatán peninsula and scared off would-be tourists. And the protests surrounding last year's controversial Mexican presidential elections—not to mention the government's heavy-handed response—were equally negative PR. "In Mexico, the door has dropped out of the bottom of the tourist sector," says Greg Benchwick, a Lonely Planet editor who specializes in Latin America. "When people see tanks rolling into a city in Mexico," referring to the state of siege in the attractive tourist destination of Oaxaca, "they think it's not safe to go to Mexico."

Clearly, Colombia isn't out of the woods. Cocaine is still produced in copious amounts in the rural regions (the drug traffic to the United States is a big headache for Mexican law enforcement), and Colombia still has its problems with organized crime, civil war and corruption. Mexico, with some 20 million tourists last year, is still leagues ahead of its southern counterpart. But for a country that's been little more than a source of bad news, Colombia's is off to a good start.
Colombia's City On A Hill
Medellín goes from murder capital to model city.
By Daniel Kurtz-Phelan
Updated: 4:21 PM ET Nov 10, 2007
Five years ago the hillside slum of Comuna 13 was the most brutal urban battleground in Latin America, a bloody microcosm of Colombia's drug-fueled civil war. Left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and well-armed drug gangs, often indistinguishable despite their ostensibly conflicting aims, had been fighting over the territory for years. Government, for most purposes, did not exist. In 2002, the casualty count for Comuna 13—in chaotic street fights, targeted assassinations and neighborhood-wide "cleansings"—numbered in the hundreds.

Today Comuna 13 feels like a completely different neighborhood. Its streets are relatively safe. School construction and public-transportation projects are now underway. But it is only the most dramatic example of the remarkable transformation of Medell?n, a city that struggled for decades to shed a notoriety, well earned in the days of Pablo Escobar and the Medellín drug cartel, as "the most dangerous in the world." In 1991, the annual murder rate was 381 per 100,000 people—more than 500 homicides a month. In 2002, it was 184 per 100,000. Last year, it fell below 30, making Washington, D.C., look bad in comparison.

Medellín is Colombia's second largest city and traditional business center, and as security improved, the economy also flourished. Since 2003, per capita income has increased by 25 percent, unemployment has fallen from 17 percent to 12 percent, and business investment and new construction have surged. At the same time, the percentage of the city's schools considered low-performing by national standards fell from 50 to 14. Complaints about congestion and pollution are typically met with the observation that residents have gone from discussing the daily body count to grumbling about their commute.

Medellín's transformation took off in 2002, when Alvaro Uribe took over as Colombia's president, promising a "firm hand," get-tough approach to security. He began a process of demobilization of right-wing paramilitary organizations, and confronted the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and other guerrilla groups. In Medellín, soldiers and police stormed Comuna 13 in helicopters and armored vehicles, fighting and winning a series of pitched battles against various armed factions. But while this reduced the guerrilla presence, there was still an enormous amount work to be done, and a year later Sergio Fajardo, a shaggy-haired mathematician with a University of Wisconsin Ph.D., was elected mayor of Medell?n with a platform that suggested military victory was merely the first step to turning the city around. "Every reduction in violence," he says, "we had to follow immediately—and 'immediately' is a key word—with social interventions."

So when he took office, Fajardo did not just install new police outposts in Comuna 13. He built deluxe new schools, flooded the neighborhood with social workers and microcredit specialists, and commissioned a prominent architect to design a gleaming library and community center. He started construction on a mass-transit system of gondola cars that reach into Medellín's most dire slums—giving the poor access to the economic and civic life of the city's more prosperous center. Fajardo also increased the city's education budget by 65 percent and poured millions more into new schools and five "library parks," like the one in Comuna 13, designed by high-end architects and located in poor neighborhoods. "The mayor understood that you don't get peace from soldiers and police alone," says Carlos Jiménez, a Comuna 13 development worker.

Some critics say that Fajardo's approach is mere symbolism, showy grandstanding that does little to help the city's poorest. But Fajardo counters that these symbols are among his most potent weapons. "When the poorest kid in Medell?n arrives in the best classroom in the city, there is a powerful message of social inclusion," he says. This iconoclastic approach to urban transformation mirrors his willfully iconoclastic persona. Fajardo carries a backpack, rides a bike around town and shows up to work every morning in jeans. And while he uses the majority of public revenue on the poor, he does so without scaring businesses with the kind of radical populist rhetoric that so often emerges from the mouths of Latin American political leaders. "By showing that he is capable, he has brought credibility to the public sector," says Olga María Ospina, an economist with Medellín's business association. Result: his approval rating has remained around 80 percent, fueling speculation that he will one day succeed Uribe, who was mayor of Medell?n in the 1980s, as Colombia's president in 2010.

Fajardo remains publicly coy about his presidential ambitions. Yet he is clearly angling for the job. His term expires at the end of the year, and while his former chief of staff will become mayor and continue Fajardo's reforms, Fajardo himself plans to travel across Colombia, mimicking the door-to-door strategy that he used to build a political career out of nothing in Medell?n—and trumpeting the power of his model. "Medell?n has been the most complicated and the most violent city in Colombia," he says, "so if we can do it here, it can happen throughout Colombia."

But doing so will mean reining in a fractious nation. Uribe's approach displaced guerrilla groups but did not eradicate them. The drug trade still thrives nationwide. The country is also struggling to cope with the aftermath of Uribe's demobilization of paramilitary factions. They had a hand in defeating the guerrillas, but they allegedly did so in coordination with military and police officials and government figures. In Medellín, Fajardo used city resources to build one program to reintegrate former paramilitary fighters into society and another devoted to working with victims. These measures are now being replicated in other cities, giving credence to Fajardo's insight that a "firm hand" is only the first step to healing Colombia.


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