Tuesday 8 July 2008

Medellín: Revival and Risk

This article originally appeared in openDemocracy on 8 July 2008. It looks at the work of civil-society and human-rights groups in helping a Colombian city reach beyond conflict and notoriety.


"This city used to be the murder capital of the world, but now look around Medellín", Mauricio Mosquera tells me with a smile. The director of the community TV TeleMedellín has a point: there are so many visible improvements here, it is impossible to deny things are looking up for Colombia's second city.

You can see it all around as you travel in the cable car that takes you up the mountain to the neighbourhood of Santo Domingo Savio. The high-wire ride is not a tourist attraction; it is a part of the public-transport system that moves people from the metro train at the river up to what was once one of the most violent parts of the country. The bustling neighbourhood is still poor, but it is safe to wander around, and it exudes an unmistakable pride: there is almost no litter anywhere, and none of the cable-car stations, not even the posts supporting the line up and down the mountain, have the tiniest tag of graffiti.

This system, built in 2004, is just one symbol of Medellín's renaissance. Regeneration projects are improving the city landscape everywhere, and - from the new administrative and university buildings to the shopping centres to the public libraries in the popular neighbourhoods to the interactive museum - offer something for everyone. People are out and about in huge numbers in all the revitalised public spaces: lovers wandering amongst the Fernando Botero statues near the old townhall and children jumping through the pools and fountains across the river from the new one.

In fact, a few days in Medellín makes it hard to believe that this city's name was once synonymous with the local-boy-turned-bad Pablo Escobar and the massive violence surrounding the infamous drug lord's cocaine trade in the 1980s. The signs of progress are not just on the surface. For example, the bitter guerrilla and paramilitary viciousness against citizens here over the last two decades is being aggressively addressed on a number of levels. There are many activist victims' groups demanding to be heard, such as the inspiring Las Madres de la Candelaria, who are seeking justice for - and sometimes simply information about - hundreds of disappeared relatives. Even before the countrywide Justice and Peace Law was enacted in 2005, the city of Medellín had already established its own institution, the Armed Conflict Victims' Programme, to support local victims in their reconciliation claims and psycho-social needs. It now has over 5,000 local victims in its books, and continues to work independently of the Comisión Nacional de Reparación y Reconciliación (Commission of Reparation and Reconciliation / CNRR).

In the shadows

Yet, like much of the good news coming out of Colombia these days - with the daring operation that released the hostage Íngrid Betancourt and fourteen others on 2 July 2008 high on the list - Medellín's evident progress comes with some worrying signs. The main one is the city's murder-rate, which - though well down from the annual thousands of earlier years - has increased lately. The city saw 268 homicides in 2007, but there have been 313 in the first half of 2008 alone.

In a curious twist, this renewed violence is in part a by-product of the peace and reconciliation efforts, particularly the much-lauded disbanding of the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) between 2003 and 2006. A generation of paramilitary chiefs has been leaving the scene, whether voluntarily (surrendering as part of the national deal offering reduced prison terms for confessions) or unwillingly (being extradited to the United States on drugsmuggling charges - the fate in May 2008 of Medellín's own Diego Fernando Murillo Bejarano ["Don Berna"], an AUC leader and underworld supremo. But the departure of the old guard also leaves a power vacuum which former subordinates vie with each other to fill. What they tend to be fighting over is turf for protection-rackets, in which oficinas demand "vaccination" money from local businesses, still a thriving sector of the economy even in renaissance Medellín.

Moreover, new armed groups are appearing. Some demobilised fighters simply prefer the old life making $1,500 a month as part of an extortion gang to the promised new life of $200 a month offered by the reintegration programme. They return to their former ways, though perhaps in newly clandestine associations such as the murky and much feared Águilas Negras (Black Eagles). After paramilitary demobilisation, Medellín - and Colombia - are now presented with a worrying remobilisation.

In addition, the brutal Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Farc) continues its operations, though the guerrilla group has been hit hard by a series of blows: desertions, the cross-border killing of commander Raúl Reyes at his camp in Ecuador and the death of co-founder Manuel Marulanda, and the humiliating rescue of its most high-profile prisoner Íngrid Betancourt. But the Farc remains active in significant parts of the country and still holds hundreds of other abductees.

There is also the problem of drug-trafficking, which continues to haunt Colombia. The kingpin, Escobarian style of centralised distribution may be gone, but cocaine is still flowing on a massive scale through more cellular structures. The enormous resources spent internationally every year on interdiction and crop eradication - including the perennially flawed policy of aerial spraying, which is now failing to stem opium production in Afghanistan, too - have little effect in containing, far less curbing, the problem. Colombia still leads the world in cocaine exports; imports are increasing in Europe and in emerging drug markets like Brazil, Argentina and Chile, while stable over several years in the US. All the huge sums Washington and Europe have made available to Álvaro Uribe, Colombia's president, for use against the drug-money-fuelled Farc and other armed groups have been ineffective in staunching the flow.

By day, by night

In short, Medellín may be leading the country in peace-building efforts, but it can only ever be as stable as Colombia itself. This quickly becomes clear in a journey around hilly Oriente Antioqueño, a sub-region of the department of which Medellín is the capital. At first, nothing seems amiss: the well-developed infrastructure, roadside businesses and lush agricultural landscape makes it hard to recognise this as a conflict-zone.

But sadly, such fertility applies to guerrilla movements and new armed groups as well. Even in this relatively stable part of the country, as evening approaches, the army soldiers begin setting up their checkpoints. The roads may be safe by day - and that represents progress - but they are no-go areas for civilians by night. Illegal armed groups in this small corner of Colombia killed fifty-four people in 2007. Like Medellín, what you can see at first glance are real and impressive steps forward. But it's what's not so obvious that weighs heavy on its and Colombia's further progress.

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