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Mountain movers

Medellín, Colombia, once the murder capital of the world, now bustles with better activity

Mountain movers

Medellín skyline (iStock)

Fourth in a series on changing cities

On a clear morning in mid-February, a giant boom and a billowing cloud brought a dramatic turn in one of Colombia’s most infamous storylines. Engineers in the northern city of Medellín triggered 180 detonators and demolished the six-story building that drug-lord Pablo Escobar once called home. 

The cartel chief died in a shootout with Colombian authorities in 1993, but the building where Escobar once orchestrated his terrifying campaign of bombings and murders still stood decades later.

Onlookers both cheered and wept as Escobar’s abandoned headquarters crumbled on Feb. 22. The city’s mayor vowed to create a park on the site as a memorial to the thousands of people—including hundreds of police officers—killed by Escobar and his sicarios during a cocaine-fueled heyday in the 1980s and 1990s. 

Luis Benavidez/AP

People look at the six-floor apartment building that former cartel boss Pablo Escobar once called home prior to its implosion on Feb. 22. (Luis Benavidez/AP)

But while many of Medellín’s residents were relieved, at least some tourists were disappointed.

Though the bustling city nestled in the Andes Mountains has experienced remarkable progress in the years since it was known as the murder capital of the world, a macabre tourism business has flourished around the sites of Escobar’s criminal reign. 

What locals call “narco-tourism” has surged, particularly since Netflix produced a popular series based on Escobar’s life and international drug empire. Tourists visit “narco-ruins” like the abandoned prison Escobar designed for himself as part of an agreement to surrender to authorities. (He escaped from it a year later.) At the home where the fugitive spent his last night before his death, visitors can climb into a bullet-riddled truck and pose for pictures. 

Many Medellín residents bristle at the terror-turned-entertainment in their hometown—at least partly because Escobar’s violent grip was a reality they lived, not a show they watched. But it’s also because cartels and cocaine are only one part of the city’s story.

Eric Vandeville/Abaca/Sipa USA via AP

Pablo Escobar in 1983 (Eric Vandeville/Abaca/Sipa USA via AP)

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.

iStock

Medellín’s gondola system (iStock)

Cardona remembers a heated public debate over whether residents in poorer sections would vandalize the Metrocable cars: “But it turned out the people who cared most about them were the poor.” 

Indeed, a ride in the city’s Metrocable system reveals clean, well-kept cars traversing high into the mountains. (You’ll realize just how high if the car that’s suspended from a wire pauses for a moment and swings back and forth above the trees and houses below.)

In Comuna 13, once known as one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city, engineers built a series of outdoor escalators zigzagging up the hillside and allowing easier commuting into areas below. 

The center city boasts a new science center, bustling plazas, outdoor restaurants, a lush botanical garden, and a museum full of pieces by Colombian artists. City officials have also drawn in tech companies and multinational corporations. 

Many of Medellín’s public projects are paid for through a series of public-private partnerships, and in 2013 the Urban Land Institute named the town that had been one of the most dangerous cities in the world the most innovative city of the year.

THE IMPROVEMENTS have made Medellín safer and more stable, but they haven’t solved the problem of poverty that still besets many living in neighborhoods and communities throughout the city. 

That includes thousands of Colombians who have fled violence and moved into the surrounding hills over the past three decades. And it increasingly includes Venezuelans now fleeing their own country’s collapse and eventually making their way to Medellín.

Take the Metrocable to its last stops high in the hills, and you’ll still have to hike up steep terrain to reach communities living above. Many include tin-roofed homes perched precariously on the mountainside.

Soeren Stache/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP

Apartment buildings in an impoverished area of Medellín (Soeren Stache/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP)

At a Christian community center situated high on a steep hill, the workers say many teenagers living in the surrounding area suffer from depression and troubled homes, and also from the temptation to get involved with the still-ongoing drug trade and prostitution. Violence still plagues some areas both in the hillsides and the city below, and concerned locals give plenty of warnings about areas to avoid. 

It’s a reminder that even the best programs won’t solve decades of poverty and warfare, and it leaves plenty of work for churches looking to bring hope to communities of both the rich and poor. 

Cardona says that’s a challenge in Medellín, where the number of evangelicals has grown in the last two decades but still lags behind evangelical growth in other cities in the predominantly Catholic nation. 

He thinks part of the slower pace may be due to the entrepreneurial spirit that helped revive Medellín: “People want to be leaders, but many don’t want to be followers.”

Whatever the case, Cardona says good teaching is critical for evangelical churches to grow.

David Adams agrees. The American lives in Medellin and runs Poiema, a nonprofit Christian publishing company that specializes in publishing Reformed theology books translated into Spanish. Adams says there’s a growing demand among Colombian evangelicals for good books and an ongoing need to teach Christians how the Bible informs all of life. Adams says this is where both personal and cultural change begins. 

“It’s not just that Christianity has rules that can apply to all areas of life,” he says. “But that the gospel can transform all areas of life. … We have to aim for the heart.”

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the political beat and other topics as national editor for WORLD Magazine. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.