Medellin, Colombia is rebuilding itself two decades after drug baron Pablo Escobar was killed.
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.
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.
Alexis is older, 18, and grew up with the stories still fresh. “When Pablo Escobar was alive, he owned all this. When he died, everything spilt up into combos – people made a lot of money from drug dealing and everyone wanted a share, to fight for a piece of turf. When I was little, living with my grandmother, they killed two people in the bedroom of our house. One of them with a knife, tortured to death by a man called Carnicero, the butcher.
“Then came the possibilities for changing this place. And there was a deal – peace in exchange for jobs. The government gave them a job, and they stopped killing. They promised: ‘Work and a good life if you put down your guns.’ My father helped build this thing” – and he gestures towards the library. “Those buildings are the important things: the library, the new school.”
But for all the physical amelioration, though, “the biggest change”, concludes Alexis, “is in the state of mind. We’re different people.”
Rosalba Cardona sees the changes through an opposite end of the generation lens. She was one of a human rights committee that challenged the paramilitaries, and is its sole survivor. She also lost her son and husband in the violence. “You cannot imagine this barrio even 10 years ago. They were offering money to little kids to kill the police. It was desolate and dangerous, they were even putting bodies in the church. See the stream down there? They’d dump them in there at weekends. Then the army came, took people to jail and killed them. We had a committee, but they were all killed – and I ran away. I couldn’t stay and watch it all. Now look. I’m back. It feels like a dream, and I don’t want to wake up.”
There is no arguing with this. Yet Echeverri declines to gloat: “You can have the ideas,” he says, “and try to manage them at the levels society will allow.”
An odd remark – how so? There remain what Echeverri calls “the externalities” – the forces out there that caused this tribulation in the first place, and Colombia’s long war.
Colombia is in the throes of bold self-examination that shames most other governments. It has three enterprises of seismic significance. They are, first, an attempt to end one of the world’s longest-running civil wars by bringing the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias Colombianas (Farc) guerrilla army into mainstream politics. Secondly, an attempt to restitute land to those displaced, in a country where politics is above all that of land ownership and which has suffered the largest internal displacement, through violence, of any nation on earth. And thirdly, a gauntlet, thrown down to the rest of the world, to fundamentally change the premises and language of global policy towards drugs and drug traffic after 40 bloody years of the failed US-led “war on drugs”.
Escobar’s death in a police raid 20 years ago was not, of course, the end of strife in the barrios of Medellín. Various forces pounced to fill the vacuum. Leftist guerrillas – Farc, M19, the National Liberation Army and others – penetrated some of the city’s suburbs. On the other side, right-wing paramilitaries were consolidated under the command of one of Escobar’s men, Diego Fernando Murillo Bejarano, aka “Don Berna”, dominating the barrios in the name of law and order.
The paramilitaries had what they thought was a champion in high politics – the iron-fist president Álvaro Uribe, whose father had been murdered by Farc. Between 2002 and 2004, Uribe used his credibility with the paramilitaries to persuade them to disarm, dismantle and “reintegrate” into society, with promises of education and jobs. He half kept his promise. The paramilitaries were for the most part decommissioned, but Don Berna and other commanders were extradited to the US, tried and jailed.
A reformist alliance then emerged: between the man who was Uribe’s defence minister, now Colombia’s president, Juan Santos – seeking to “socialise” the centre-right – plus elements in the rival opposition Liberal Party and the politically independent Fajardo movement, united behind reform and against the war on drugs.
“Whichever way you look at it, the war on drugs has failed,” says Colombia’s ambassador to the UK, Mauricio Rodríguez, “and the more the ‘producing’ countries suffer, the more the ‘consuming’ countries blame them for contaminating ‘our poor innocent youth’. That is not how it is, and we now need radical and urgent change. Basta! We in Latin America have had enough.”
As hosts to last year’s summit of the Americas, Colombia launched an initiative “to re-think the whole issue from scratch”, explains Ambassador Rodriguez. “To devise an expert global analysis of the drug trade – the economics, the social cost, the laundering of the profits by major banks, everything. And to devise a new and radical global strategy.”
This initiative is based in part on calculations of how little the country benefits from the trade that has torn it asunder. Daniel Mejía, economics professor at the University of the Andes in Bogotá, and former colleague Alejandro Gaviria, now a minister, concluded that only 2.6% of the street value of what is produced in Colombia remains in the country. Mejía explains the stepping-stone price index of a kilo of coke. “In the Colombian jungle: $2,500-3,000. On the coast: $6-8,000. Once into Mexico: $15,000. Once across the US border: $35,000 wholesale, and on the street – between $150,000 and $250,000. The price rises exponentially after it leaves Colombia’s influence or gain. The only person who ever came near covering the whole chain was Pablo Escobar.”
In 1993, says Mejía, Colombia’s homicide rate was 420 per 100,000 – the highest in the world, “and Medellín was twice that”. Now, the national figure is 33 per 100,000, “but in Medellín, the figure has increased from 75 to 150 since Don Berna was captured [in 2008]. Some people say he made a deal with Fajardo, to keep things calm.” Everything that has happened for good and bad in the city is explained, says Mejía, “by the fact that it lies at the crossroads of routes in the cocaine- trafficking business”.
So Medellín, despite all the changes, the city that, 20 years ago, was the bastion of global cocaine traffic, is still a place through which vast quantities of the drug pass, and from which its passage is controlled. The question is: by whom, and how? As the failed war on drugs moves centre stage in global strategic thinking, debate rages over how to tackle the cartels.
Medellín still hosts the descendant of Escobar’s cartel, called the Oficina de Envigado, which contests territory against the paramilitary Urabeños from the Caribbean coast, who are on the offensive. In addition, Farc has itself become a major cocaine cartel. At the international level of supply, the Urabeños are allied along the Gulf Coast with the Zetas of Mexico, the most ferocious criminal syndicate in the world. Farc is reported to be in negotiation along the Pacific Coast with Mexico’s dominant Sinaloa cartel, the planet’s biggest, led by one of its richest men, Joaquín “Chapo” Guzmán.
What affects daily life in Medellín, however, is the way that cartel war operates nowadays, in the “post-pyramidal” epoch of narco-capitalism: those loose affiliations of organised and barely organised crime, gangs and what are in Medellín called combos or supercombos (depending on their size, clout and make-up). The other relative novelty, as in every Latin American city, is the rise and rise of domestic addiction to hard drugs – and crack cocaine in particular. For where the river runs through, people will drink – yet another scourge bequeathed by the rich “consumers” to the poor “producers” – and their young become consumers, too. Crack cocaine is now as much a curse of Latin American barrios as it is to Uncle Sam’s ghettoes.
When one is shown around Medellín by young functionaries from the mayor’s office, the news is all good. Questions about new gang formations and the complexities of post-Escobar drug turf are met with a shrug. On a day walking around Comuna 13, to admire an impressive escalator built into th