The remarkable, inspiring story of Medellin

Optimism can be an incredible force for positive change. If enough people adopt the belief in a realistically better future and accept the joint effort, long-term investments and patience that are required to get there, great things can happen. It creates an upward momentum, a state in which actual improvements strengthen the belief that real progress is possible, aligning everyone to accomplish even more improvements. This is the story of Medellin, the second largest city of Colombia.

After having read a lot about Medellin and its remarkable transformation from global “murder capital” in the 1990s to an award-winning, innovative and inclusive city, I wanted to see this place with my own eyes. I spent the past 2 1/2 weeks there. I just left but I can’t wait to go back.

When arriving somewhere new with an existing mental narrative, one’s perception is influenced by it. Maybe how I’ve experienced Medellin is not how every local would describe it. Perhaps not every resident of Medellin shares my impression of an “upward momentum”.

But beyond all subjectivity, there are measurable indicators for Medellin’s rise from the ashes of Pablo Escobar’s legacy and Colombia’s armed conflicts. Medellin’s murder rate has dropped from its terrifying peak of 380 per 100,000 people in 1991 to 20 per 100,000 in 2015. For comparison, it’s 4.8 in the U.S. and 0.85 in Germany. According to a survey, Medellin’s residents are Colombia’s most satisfied with life. The city’s modern and efficient public transport system with its metro, cable car lines and escalator that connect the disadvantaged hillside neighborhoods is unique in the country and presumably one of the best in the greater region. Personally I made heavy use of it.

While the metro trains are almost always packed, people behave very disciplined and considerate of others. There is little vandalism, nobody eats or drinks inside, and it’s remarkably clean. People take pride in their public transport system and feel responsible for it. One time a young guy who also was waiting for the train told me to not overstep the platform’s safety line. I’ve never experienced this elsewhere before.

The first metro line was opened in 1995, less than two years after the notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar (who, as I was told, people don’t like to talk about too much as they prefer to look ahead, not back) died in a shootout. So there is clearly symbolism involved. It was the beginning of the end of Medellin’s dark times.

Another important and well-documented driving force as well as evidence for progress are the numerous libraries, often featuring impressive architecture, that have been built over the past 10 years in in downtown and in many of the poorer communities. Their role is both to give locals access to education, information and spaces to gather, but also that of a symbol for a new era and a better future.

During a walking tour in downtown Medellin that I joined (highly recommended), our guide called the practice of transforming no-go areas into buzzing and safe meeting spots through the placement of cultural buildings, educational institutions and art installations, “democratic architecture”. As far as I can tell, the city has done a great job at that. While “El Centro” still has some rough corners and probably is not very comfortable to walk around in at night, I found spending time there during the day very pleasant and insightful. Even some of the most notorious slums (called “Comunas”) aren’t completely off-limits anymore.

Interestingly, I met some locals who live in the better areas of Medellin who hardly ever go to downtown. There was even a local couple who joined the walking tour to visit the part of their town which they otherwise never get to see.

In other words: Inclusion has its limits, even in Medellin. Of course it has. Medellin’s transformation process is far from finished. There still are a lot of issues. I’m now in Lima and cannot help to notice a significant better feeling of public safety. My impression has little to do with me witnessing actual crime, but rather is related to how the locals behave. Fewer people in Lima are carrying their backpacks in front of them (a very common sight in Medellin), more are openly playing around with their phones on the street and more walk wearing headphones (= less situational awareness). There are fewer beggars and fewer people with apparent drug habits. Generally, people appear to be more at ease while outside than in Medellin. And that despite — in my subjective impression — a less visible police presence in Lima.

The noticeable differences in behavior clearly tell something about perceived safety, and in parts probably also about actual safety. For example, Colombia is the country in Latin America with the highest number of stolen smartphones. However, maybe they also are related to history. Consider Medellin: 20 years ago — from what I understood — most people lived in fear and didn’t even dare to go outside. In fact, the improvements started to show first around the years following the millennium shift, when Colombia’s President at that time, Alvaro Uribe, cleaned up the country and disarmed thousands of guerrillas and paramilitaries. So we are only looking at 10 to 15 years since the end of the troubled times.

Most residential complexes in the wealthier areas are heavily fenced off.

This inevitably leaves psychological scars. These take time to heal, while trust into the system and authorities that are supposed to keep people safe (and maybe even in other people?) has to be rebuild. I am certainly speculating here. But it would be strange if the events of the not so distant past don’t, to some extend, still shape the (unconscious) behavior in public.

Essentially, people particularly in Medellin but in many parts of Colombia, are faced with a new paradigm: relative peace. A few days ago the New York Times published a feature article about the conflict between Colombia’s soda industry and supporters of a sugar tax. It includes the following telling quote by a lawyer named Diana Guarnizo:

“Here we were, an organization that had dealt with peace, violence, land reform and gross injustice, and suddenly we had the luxury to talk about what mothers are putting in their children’s lunchboxes.”

But back to Medellin: The city is worth a visit for its pleasant climate, multifaceted cultural life, friendly people, beautiful surrounding nature (which also can be reached by cable car) and vibrant nightlife alone. But it’s also a great place to learn from, on a philosophical and political level. The story of Medellin shows how a miserable situation can be turned around within a comparatively short amount of time, if there is just willingness to put in the effort, resources and patience.

In a cable car, I got into a chat with a guy from Bogota who was visiting for a Metal festival. He described Medellin as a city where stuff gets done. According to him, Bogota, the capital of Colombia and three times the size of Medellin, was also supposed to get a metro system — but it still hasn’t been realized.

If you, like me, speak very limited Spanish and only spend a short amount of time in city of a country that you’ve never been to before , you only manage to access a tiny piece of the whole story. But that piece alone is a very intriguing one. There is a lot to learn from the city’s transformation. Not the least how crucial it is to seriously invest in giving everyone the opportunity to get their piece of a growing cake.

Sign up for my weekly email loaded with great things to read about the digital world. Sent to more than 500 verified subscribers (November 2017).