Half a Miracle


From the outset, Medellín had one big thing going against it: It was in Colombia. Over a 10-year period in the middle of the 20th century known as La Violencia, the country’s two main political parties engaged in a brutal civil war that claimed 200,000 lives. The warring factions brokered a power-sharing deal in 1958, but peace was only temporary; the pact excluded other political movements — most notably the leftist Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) — which took to the jungles and began a still-ongoing guerrilla war against the Colombian state.

The war was enabled, and prolonged, by the traditional weakness of Colombia’s national government, which operated only a small army and national police. Members of the country’s traditional elite liked things this way, preferring to protect themselves by arming local paramilitaries. Over time, the paramilitaries grew in size, power, and independence and, like the leftist groups, began trafficking in drugs to support themselves. As peasants fleeing the violence in the countryside sought refuge in Medellín, the city’s population exploded, growing from 350,000 in 1951 to 1.5 million in 1985 — an influx the city was in no condition to absorb. The new inhabitants colonized the hillsides and created insular communities, like Santo Domingo, in which the state had no presence at all.

These conditions were exacerbated by the rise of the drug trade in the late 1970s, driven by demand for cocaine in the United States. But Medellín’s problems didn’t end with the fall of Escobar and the dismantling of the Medellín cartel in 1993; other drug cartels, guerrilla groups, and paramilitaries stepped in. By the early 2000s, so many people were being kidnapped and held for ransom by the FARC that a weekly radio show, Las Voces del Secuestro, was established to allow their relatives to broadcast messages to them.

Things began to change with the election of Álvaro Uribe as president of Colombia in 2002. Pledging “Democratic Security,” Uribe dramatically expanded Colombia’s military and national police and launched an all-out offensive against the FARC. Doing so rewrote the basic Colombian social contract: Henceforth, it would be the state and not private militias that provided security to Colombian citizens. The president negotiated an agreement with the largest paramilitary organization, the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia; the group’s fighters were required to lay down their weapons and abide by Colombia’s anti-drug laws in exchange for pardons. But the demobilization has been severely criticized by observers both inside and outside Colombia. Human Rights Watch’s Maria McFarland, a longtime Colombia observer, argues that the policy was too lenient on the paramilitaries and unenthusiastically enforced; many within the Colombian elite, she and other critics have charged, could not afford to push the judicial process too far for fear of exposing their own ties to the militias. Nevertheless, between 2002 and 2003 Medellín’s homicide rate fell 46 percent, and it kept falling until 2007.

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