I lived in Medellin for three months in 2007 and have fond memories of the city. Despite it’s history of violence, particularly during the Pablo Escobar era, it’s a city whose residents appear to take pride in being paisa, and the city government seems to take a more proactive role in improving the lives of its citizens than in other Colombian cities. Medellin is the only Colombian city with a metro system and a teleferico, a cable car system that provides quick transport from the city center to the impoverished comunas, it is home to the architecturally innovative Biblioteca Espana in the historically violent and impoverished Santo Domingo neighborhood and hosts dozens of fairs and festivals every year.
I was browsing NPR’s website and came upon an article about the transformation of Medellin from the world’s most dangerous city to a city with relatively moderate crime levels by Latin American standards. This relative peace comes at least party at the price of a heavy military and police presence (and perhaps Colombia’s vigilante social cleansing campaign of the 1990s). Honestly, I don’t know how sustainable this peace would be if the police presence were lessened. Colombia has alternated between periods of intense violence and relative calm for much of its history; when I was living in Colombia I often wondered if long-term peace was even possible in a country like Colombia. Does a society’s mindset change over time with enough police presence? Or is the armed presence (highway checkpoints, guards “checking” your purse before going into a mall, police asking for your documents at any time, etc) the only thing keeping Colombia safer? Granted, it does appear that the guerilla influence over Colombian politics has lessened and much of the drug trade has moved north to Mexico, but paramilitarism, drug trafficking, machismo and large disparities between the rich and poor still exist, and I don’t know that these elements can exist alongside sustained peace.
But it is interesting that Medellin is being held as an example of transformation in other Latin American cities. I hope the changes in Medellin are lasting and real, rather than artificially created and sustained. I think there’s a big difference between “controlling” violence and crime and changing a city/society/country’s mindset in a permanent and lasting way.
By the way, for those who are interested, the most dangerous city in the world is currently San Pedro Sula in Honduras.