Reinventing the world’s most dangerous city

Two decades after drug baron Pablo Escobar was killed, can the city he presided over ever move on?

Flying high: cable cars over Santa Domingo, Medellin. Photograph: imagebroker/Alamy

The cable car floats over the mountainside above rickety rooftops, labyrinthine streets, palms and pylons of a barrio built by, and named after, the most renowned criminal of all time – Pablo Escobar. Below it lies what was until recently the fortress of the cocaine king, on the northeast edges of Medellín in Colombia.

There is strange silence up here where vultures soar above the bustle, but eventually the cable car reaches its terminus, disgorging passengers into the animation of the place now optimistically renamed Santo Domingo – after the patron saint of hopeful mothers. A donkey-drawn cart full of mangoes, an ostentatious SUV, many old Volkswagens and crowds of young people vie for right of passage along the vivacity of the main street.

The cable car is an articulation of the change since the street and warrens were Escobar’s fiefdom. As is the building that towers above the barrio’s skyline, a granite cliff of award-winning modernist design, the parque biblioteca, or library park, where some of the poorest people in the world come to study, use a computer or just seek respite.

These are symbols of defiance and resurgence in Medellín, two decades ago the most dangerous and murderous city on the planet. A place where several car bombs a day could explode as Escobar’s cartel went to war with the state, its apparatus, elites and society at large. They are part of a bold civic and political venture: to force breathing spaces into the desperately poor and exhausted barrios on the city’s frayed outskirts, in which peace and even opportunity might stand a chance of prevailing.

The enterprise had a face: Sergio Fajardo, mayor of Medellín from 2003 to 2007. He explained his project to a meeting of business people in, of all places, Ciudad Juárez in Mexico, which had inherited Medellín’s mantle as the most dangerous city in the world and epicentre of the global drug war. It was autumn 2009 and he gave a power-point presentation showing the parque biblioteca, literacy projects and arts centres housed in architecturally acclaimed premises on what were once narco-battlefields and landfills. “The [national] politicians told us we were dreamers,” Fajardo told the burghers of Juárez, but he and his team had, he insisted, “closed the door to crime and opened the door of opportunity”.

Now stepping off the cable car in Santo Domingo is Fajardo’s man in the field, responsible for masterminding the resurgence of Medellín on the drawing board and the ground – Alejandro Echeverri.

“Medellín is fiercely proud of its separate identity,” Echeverri says, introducing his native city. “It was colonised by Basques rather than Spaniards; people here call themselves Paisas to distinguish themselves from the rest of Colombia. One thing about Medellín is that things happen – for good and bad, but they happen. We replace our own cell structure. Things move. We provide presidents, academics, writers – and drug lords. Pablo Escobar could only have come from here; on the other hand, what we have tried could also only have started here.”

The city is “sharply divided”, he says, between a wealthy south and blighted north, and also cut east-west by a river.

The cradle of change, explains Echeverri, was the department of urbanismo social (social civic planning) at the Medellín Academy. There, during the mid-1990s, “a small group began to think in terms not of top-down policy, but of one that would begin with the poorest neighbourhoods and re-conquer spaces that had been lost to the violence; it was both a concept and a physical strategy, a mixture of ideas and bricks.”

The plan was helped by the fact that paramilitary groups which held sway in poor comunas in the wake of Escobar’s death in 1993 were decommissioning under a national government agreement just as the projects got started. But not at first: Echeverri and his pioneers still needed to work with warlords and gang leaders to achieve even a start. “We had to call on the guys who managed the barrio – and often the person we needed to deliver the plan was also one of the bad guys, part of the problem,” he remembers.

The sky’s the limit: Medellin’s transformation includes the construction of transport networks, libraries and parks. Photograph: Samuel Aranda/Corbis

The sky’s the limit: Medellin’s transformation includes the construction of transport networks, libraries and parks. Photograph: Samuel Aranda/Corbis

However, the fact that “we didn’t have any experience of how party and power politics operated helped us”, Echeverri continues. “We just had our ideas – get public transport into the poorest areas; open the spaces, build the schools and centres of learning, create jobs – and people listened. Most people’s map in a Latin American city covers only 20% of that city. We needed to connect these barrios to each other, and to the rest of Medellín.”

Beneath us in the cable car was a new bridge connecting a barrio called Andalucia with its neighbour. “They had been at war for decades,” Echeverri had said. “Now there’s a bridge, which is what it is, and does what it does.”

Now, in the barrio, we walk past one of the cedezos scattered through the poor ‘hoods – these are “entrepreneurial development centres”, explains Echeverri, “where people can get a cheap credit loan if they want to start up a small café or shop”. In the parque biblioteca is an atmosphere of diligence and purpose, people poring over books or computers. But the real attestations to change are the teenage boys mooching around beneath murals painted to commemorate las victimas del conflicto in Comuna 1 (they are vividly depicted: a thicket of crosses; a woman bound, gagged and chained, another violated; a man with his leg blown off).

The boys look like most others in the barrios of the hemisphere: lanky, savvy, oozing mischief and guile. But what they have to say is unusual in the extreme. “This was the most dangerous barrio in Medellín,” says Sebastian, aged 16, wearing an Oklahoma City Thunder basketball cap. “It was impossible to reach the centre of town; we were stuck here. All our elder brothers were on drugs or dealing drugs. I just lived in the house, and the bullets came flying in, during dinner…”

And now? “I use the cable car, I use the library – I have a card, I can take books out – but I also go there to do homework. I like history best – I like reading about Simón Bolívar, and what he did for the people.” If it wasn’t for all this? “I’d probably be dead,” he says, “or else I’d be in a combo“– the Paisa word for gangs that still patrol the city, carving turf and frontiers in the barrio dust.

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