Indeed, since Escobar’s death, the homicide rate in Medellín has dropped 90 percent, while major industries have set up shop and the city’s poorest citizens have gained more access to jobs and education.
That’s not only because of Escobar’s demise, but because city officials and community leaders embraced a distinct plan: pursue ambitious projects and involve some of the most marginalized citizens. It’s an ongoing narrative in Medellín’s story, and plenty of substantial obstacles remain. But it’s also a chapter that’s at least as compelling—and far more hopeful—than the one that came before it.
AT AN OUTDOOR TABLE on a bustling corner in Medellín, a waiter serves tall glasses of mango juice as Diego Cardona recounts the life he witnessed on these streets a few decades ago: “Violence was very natural.”
Cardona, now a pastor of a local Baptist church, grew up here amid two conflicts: Colombia’s guerrilla armies fighting the government, and Colombia’s drug cartels fighting the guerrillas, the government, and each other.
Escobar rose to power as head of the Medellín cartel in the early 1980s, and some residents revered him: The drug lord—awash in extravagant wealth from the international drug trade—became popular among Medellín’s poor for building homes and apartments in some of the neediest neighborhoods.
But his persona suffered in 1984 when Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara exposed the cartel’s dealings and died in a drive-by assassination. Escobar was never convicted, but his image never recovered. Violence in the streets escalated, as the cartel waged a bloody war against rival cartels and the police.
Cardona says many of the youth in his neighborhood were drawn into working for the Medellín cartel. He estimates half of the young men he grew up with died before he reached 25. It wasn’t uncommon to see two or three people killed in the streets each week.
By the late 1980s, Escobar launched a campaign of bombings around the city, killing many innocent bystanders. Cardona recalls hearing a massive boom near his home one afternoon, and discovering a bomb had destroyed most of the block nearby: “You really didn’t see any homes—just a massive crater and thousands of bricks.”
Authorities finally hunted down Escobar in 1993 and killed him as he attempted to escape capture on a Medellín rooftop. The drug wars continued, but violence did begin easing, and the country’s president cracked down on offenders.
Others left the cartels voluntarily. Cardona says years of both criminals and innocent citizens losing mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters took its toll: “I really think there was just a desire for another life.”
IN MANY WAYS, Medellín was primed for another life. The city sits in a lush valley in the Andes and enjoys such idyllic weather it’s known as “the city of eternal spring.”
It’s also known as a city of hard work. The region’s citizens have a reputation for industriousness and entrepreneurship, and during the days of Colombia’s guerrilla warfare, many Colombians fled here to seek a safer life. The migration swelled the city’s population to 1.5 million by the 1980s. (The population is over 2.5 million today.)
Many of the city’s poorest residents settled into the steep hills rising up from the valley, and neighborhoods grew dangerous in both the city and surrounding mountains during the drug wars.
When city officials and community leaders began discussing how to move Medellín forward after decades of chaos, they made a deliberate decision to include the poor in the city’s improvements.
As they planned new projects like libraries and parks and soccer fields, they located some of them in Medellín’s poorest areas. And when engineers planned an innovative gondola system to serve as part of the city’s metro, they deliberately connected poorer parts of the city to more prosperous areas, making it easier for residents high in the hills to commute down into the city for better jobs and schools.