Just a few years ago, Medellín, Colombia’s second city, was hailed as a beacon of urban regeneration in Latin America and praised for its steep drop in violent crime. Urbanists and international dignitaries descended on its marginalised neighbourhoods to witness the transformation. They marvelled at the city’s makeover with bold public works and transport initiatives, state-of-the-art public libraries, landscaped parks, new schools, and community centres.
But recently, Medellín has been hit by a new wave of drug violence. The city’s renaissance risks being short-lived. So far this year, the local coroner’s office has recorded over 1,700 murders, nearly double the figure registered last year. Nowadays, the body count on any given weekend in Medellín can reach 20, a level similar to when drug kingpin Pablo Escobar ruled the city’s underworld in the 1990s.
The extradition of several of Medellín’s mafia bosses to the US last year, including the notorious one-legged capo Don Berna, has sparked turf wars among rival gangs, seeking to fill the power vacuum and secure their stake in the lucrative cocaine and extortion rackets. Violence has spiralled into a free-for-all. Professor Pablo Angarita, director of Violence and Territory studies at the local University of Antioquia, puts the surge in violence down to the break up of old power structures. “The difference between today and in the past is that there’s a process of atomisation going on. There’s no one boss or capo, rather it’s a dispute between multiple micro-powers,” he says.
Gang violence is still largely confined to the winding lanes of the city’s poor hilltop neighbourhoods. The majority of victims are young men and out-of-school adolescents tempted by the allure of easy money and the status that wielding a gun brings.
Government reintegration programmes, which have failed to provide sustainable employment and job training to demobilised fighters from Colombia’s armed conflict, are also to blame for the rising violence.
During the past seven years, over 31,000 right-wing paramilitary fighters have laid down their arms under a controversial peace deal with the government of Alvaro Uribe. Roughly a third of these fighters ended up in Medellín, living alongside other paramilitary factions who refused to surrender.
With few jobs and social safety nets on offer, some former paramilitary fighters are returning to their old ways and are being recycled back into the conflict. They are forming new gangs or are being actively recruited by existing crime cartels, eager to tap into their weapons expertise.
The government admits a “territorial war” is going on in Medellín. But its response has been largely reactionary, involving a series of ad-hoc measures that have failed to address one underlying cause of the violence – poverty.
Medellín’s mayor, Alonso Salazar, periodically declares an amnesty on personal weapons and declares the odd “free arms day”. Night curfews are also imposed in some neighbourhoods. Motorcyclists are sometimes banned from carrying passengers in an attempt to curb the number of contract killings carried out by hitmen, who favour using motorbikes as a speedy getaway.
Earlier this year, Colombia’s police chief set up shop for a week in Medellín to personally take charge of the fight against crime, promising to put more police on the beat. But Colombia’s defence minister recently said that “it’s not enough just to fill Medellin with police”, and urged judges to speed up trials and put more criminals in the dock.
Elsewhere in Colombia, drug-related violence is also on the rise. The significant progress made in recent years in reducing Colombia’s murder rates is unravelling in other cities too. The homicide rate in Bogotá is up 11 per cent in the last year, while in Cali, the country’s third city, the number of murders has risen by nearly 35 per cent this year.