Reducing Urban Violence: Lessons from Medellín, Colombia

The following article is one of four reports based on Vanda Felbab-Brown's fieldwork in different parts of Colombia in January 2011. Here she walks the comunas of Medellín. Read also her review of security in Nariño; her trip to the Colombia-Venezuela border, where smuggling is rampant; and her overview of the Santos government’s national security strategy.

As one walks the streets of Medellín’s comunas, it is striking how much more developed these poor and crime-ridden neighborhoods are compared to the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, the barrios of Ciudad Juarez, or shantytowns of Johannesburg. The hilly streets are wide and paved, and electricity, gas, and water are provided to over 90 percent of the population. Yet, despite the impressive public-goods distribution and other laudable shift in policies in Medellín over the past decade, homicides and other violence have increased again. With pervasive urban crime increasingly a 21st century phenomenon and urban "ungoverned spaces" posing important threats to public safety, Medellin provides useful lessons about the effectiveness of urban policies and their challenges.

In 1991, at the height of Pablo Escobar’s war against the Colombian state, the Cali cartel, and the emerging paramilitaries, Medellín’s murder rate was off the charts. At 381 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, it was 40 times higher than the UN marker of “epidemic” rate of 10 per 100,000. Then until about 2007, violence declined, partly due to the demise of Escobar and the takeover of the poor neighborhoods by the notorious drug trafficker cum paramilitary leader Don Berna. In 2002, the Colombian military eliminated the FARC, Colombia’s leftist guerrillas, from the city under President Alvaro Uribe’s Operation Orion. The operation also removed one of the sources of violence – the fighting between Don Berna’s paramilitaries and the FARC. Don Berna’s subsequent declaration of a ceasefire, as a part of the demobilization of Colombia’s paramilitaries, drove homicides and kidnappings down further. 

During this period of improving security, Medellín’s Mayors Sergio Fajardo and Alonso Salazar undertook a series of impressive policies that were well-financed by the rich city and the government of Spain.  They built the Metrocable and other infrastructure to the comunas and the famous public library that allows the comunas’  battered and battling youth to find a safe place to study, get on the internet, and engage in extracurricular activities. The community at large had a place where it could organize, and civil society could be nourished. Police presence in the communas was increased, and efforts to combat corruption were undertaken. Even with those efforts, homicides have been on the increase since 2007, as of 2009 (the latest available data) reaching 100 per 100,000, about six times as much as Bogota.

Several reasons account for the increase in violence and challenges to the effectiveness of Colombia’s urban policies.

The most important reason is that Medellín’s relative peace came not fundamentally as a result of law enforcement, but rather as a result of policy changes adopted by Medellín’s most famous criminal. Don Berna’s decision to keep violent crime low, his thorough control of Medellín’s myriad of rackets – from kidnappings to slot machines to ATM robberies – and his ability to enforce his decisions over the many fractured drug gangs in Medellín, brought violence down when he wanted it. But when he was extradited to the United States in 2008, his interest in and capacity to enforce the ceasefire was lost. What accounts for much of the rise in violence is the subsequent further fracturing of criminal gangs in metro Medellín and their fight over territories and rackets among each other, including especially between the two new big capos, Sebastian and Valenciano. 

Second, the increased police presence in the comunas brought little confidence to the inhabitants. After all, the drug gangs still vastly outnumber the police, who often patrol right next to the drug gangs, raising questions of corruption and long-standing connections between criminal gangs, paramilitaries, and the police in the city. The population in the communas have feared the police but not embraced them.

Third, fighting corruption is extraordinarily hard, especially when it pervades law enforcement. It requires sustained leadership that prioritizes and rewards reducing corruption, rather than only a decline in homicides, which can be achieved through pacts with criminal gangs. It also requires intensive oversight and monitoring at the police-checkpoint/station-level. Finally, the justice and correction systems need to be able to effectively prosecute, imprison, and reform law offenders.

Fourth, bringing economic development into marginalized urban spaces is important. It allows the community to embrace the state. But such efforts will be insufficient if authority and control of violence still lies with the criminals. Effective development also requires a great concentration of resources street by street. Dispersing one clinic here, one electric generator there will amount to only political handouts that won’t change the life of the community. The drug gangs can even reap political benefits from such limited handouts by portraying themselves to the community as those who negotiated the patronage from the state. Most importantly and most challengingly, urban revival requires legal jobs to be brought to the community in sufficiently large numbers, so that employment and social advancement are no longer linked to illegal economies.

The administration of President Juan Manuel Santos has identified reducing urban crime as a key security priority. Colombia’s National Police Chief Oscar Naranjo has unveiled an exciting policing plan, Plan Nacional de Vigiliancia Comunitaria por Cuadrantes, based on crime prevention, community policing, and local intelligence. These are important steps that can amplify the progressive policies of Medellín’s mayors. But Colombia also needs to rethink how it defines state control and what else it needs to do to allow historically neglected and marginalized communities to identify with the state and with legal behavior.