Taking Back Medellin: the State's successful battle against public insecurity
In 1991, the city of Medellin’s homicide rate had reached one of the highest in the world at 381 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. By 2014, this number had fallen to 27 out of 100,000. How did the city achieve such an extreme turnaround? What public policies were enacted to enable such a transformation? And what can be learned from this initiative? With public insecurity increasingly becoming a civil and governmental concern in several countries worldwide, the case of Medellin presents an innovative policy shift that has much to offer.
1970s, Medellin: the second most important city in Colombia in terms of population and resources after Bogota, is simultaneously affected by two phenomena of urban violence: armed conflict and drug trafficking. Placed within a context of vulnerability and poverty, the State falls back, creating a fertile ground for the emergence and consolidation of urban violence. The vulnerable and poor youth are encouraged to become a member of these criminal groups as a way of survival and social recognition.
Flash forward to 2004, Medellin is still ravaged by insecurity and urban violence. Searching for a solution, the Mayor of Medellin, Sergio Fajardo Valderrama, implemented a new model of civil security and violence prevention. From 2004 to 2007, the city’s initiative met with great success and received international recognition for its efforts and results. By 2013, Medellin was even recognised as the City of the Year by the Wall Street Journal and the Citi Group. This shift in such a short period of time represents a significant achievement, but also a potential model. Its achievement can be explained from the definition of violence as a multi-causal process and the implementation of a program based on three cardinal points: institutional strengthening, military empowerment and promotion and design of inclusive infrastructure.
The principal goal of this policy is based on the recovery of public spaces by the state, an essential condition to build a secure and peaceful city. According to the former Secretary of the Municipal government, Gustavo Villegas Restrepo, "in order for the State to exert its legitimate power in the territory, it was fundamental for the State not to be weak". A central point therefore, was the need to occupy the empty and ungoverned spaces with the presence of the State.
1. Institutional strengthening and inclusion of important actors.
The first axis, institutional strengthening, was centred upon the decentralisation of the state structures and the rapprochement toward the citizens through the creation of local committees of government. In these new public spaces, citizens would express their problems and construct their own solutions along with the administration. A clear instrument of participatory democracy was thus established. At the same time, ongoing dialogue was created between the local and national governments producing more coordination and synergy among the different groups.
In addition, this measure garnered the support of the private sector that joined the State in its efforts to include the vulnerable youth in the working environment. As a result, the levels of social stigmatization and exclusion were reduced to encourage the full integration of young people in work and social life.
2. Recovery of the monopoly of violence.
Institutional strengthening was complemented with two measures to reinforce the monopoly of the armed forces and affirm the presence of the State in the whole territory. The first was the Plan of Disarmament, launched and supported by the United Nations Development Program, which aimed to seize weapons and disarm the population. Between 2006 and 2007, 42,000 bladed weapons were seized, and between 2004 and 2007, 80,000 bladed weapons were destroyed and 26,997 firearms were seized.
The second measure implemented was the Peace and Recovery Program, which consisted of the disarmament and the detachment of youth from the armed conflict. By encouraging access to education and the generation of income, Medellin provided young people with legal alternatives to live and earn a living. This legal route allowed the principal protagonists of the armed conflict to transform themselves into agents of peace.
Source: “Modelo de intervención de regreso a la legalidad”, The Municipal Government of Medellin
3. Transformation of the city and reallocation of public space.
The third axis sought to promote the transformation of the city through the reallocation of public space. This program, Plan Urbano Integral (Integrated Urban Plan), was based on the construction of infrastructure and areas for recreation and leisure that transformed the public space and generated urban and social inclusion. Among its accomplishments was the construction of the Metrocable which sought to connect the suburban and least developed areas of Medellin to improve the quality of life of the most vulnerable populations. Today, this system is composed of three lines and includes a total of 9.7 kilometers.
The city of Medellin highlights the importance of correctly defining public issues. In this concrete case, violence is identified as a multicausal phenomenon which leads to the creation of a multidimensional program that tackles several fundamental points: institutions, citizens and infrastructure. With this three-pronged approach, Medellin was able to transform itself from a cradle of crime to a city of peace.
Nevertheless, this public policy faces challenges. Although the city of Medellin has been able to drastically reduce its homicide rate and include ungoverned spaces into the realms of the State, certain critics challenge the sustainability of the project in the long term. There remain a number of questions that are still unanswered, including the mayor’s future plans for the project. Whether or not the project will be successfully maintained in the long term remains to be seen. In spite of this, its accomplishments and innovative thinking offer potential to serve as a guideline for public security policies in the future.
Alcaldía de Medellín, “Plan de Desarrollo de Medellín 2004 – 2007. Medellin, Compromiso de Toda la Ciudadanía”, Medellín, 2004
Alcaldía de Medellín, Departamento Municipal de Planeación, “Políticas Poblacionales para una Ciudad Diversa e Incluyente”, Medellín, 2007
Beatriz Mejía Restrepo, Iniciativa Centroamericana del Sector Privado, “Estudio de caso: Modelo de Gestión de Seguridad Ciudadana en Medellín Colombia”, 2013
Fajardo, S. , “Medellín del Miedo a la Esperanza”, speech at Tecnológico de Monterrey, Ciudad de Juárez- México, 2009, viewed 18 October 2015