The city of Medellin has undergone dramatic changes over the past decade. What used to be the world’s most dangerous city became an example of successful urban regeneration, only to fall back again into old patterns of violence.
Both the improvement and subsequent relapse of the city are the result of national and local policies, as well as the evolution of Medellin’s underworld.
Key players in the city’s yo-yo between violence and peace are former President Alvaro Uribe, former mayor Sergio Fajardo, current mayor Alonso Salazar, former AUC-head “Don Berna” and his successors “Sebastian” and “Valenciano.”
While Uribe and Fajardo are widely credited with implementing effective policies and Salazar is considered a complete failure, the city’s underworld, and primarily the influence of Don Berna, have had more effect than any government policies.
When Alvaro Uribe was elected president in 2002, the poor neighborhoods in Medellin were crawling with both paramilitary groups and urban militia branches of the FARC and ELN, the latter primarily in Comunas 1, 8, 9 and 13, which not coincidentally is where the main roads to enter or leave Medellin are located.
The armed forces, which according to locals worked together with paramilitary forces, cleared Comuna 13 of guerrillas in 2002, securing the road to Uraba. Comuna 1, 8 and 9 were cleared of ELN militias by paramilitary groups Bloque Metro (commanded by “Doble Cero”) and Bloque Cacique Nutibara (commanded by “Don Berna”) between 2002 and 2005, securing the city’s eastern and northern entrances and exits.
Bloque Metro was expelled from the city in 2005, after which Don Berna had full control over the urban territory. He officially demobilized his troops over the next two years.
By this time, Sergio Fajardo had taken office as mayor and, carefully avoiding clashes with Don Berna, started constructing the metrocable, building libraries and other social projects that gave Medellin worldwide fame as an exemplar of urban regeneration projects.
However, there was no doubt who really ran Medellin between 2004 and 2007. It was Don Berna who provided the security in the neighborhoods where Fajardo was building his libraries. Uribe and the armed forces in the meanwhile were pushing the FARC away from economically important rural areas, leaving Medellin in paramilitary hands.
Despite being in jail, Don Berna kept a tight leash on the thousands of paramilitary fighters who had officially demobilized, and continued to do so until his extradition to the U.S. in May 2008. This is the only time that a decision taken by Uribe had real effect on the security situation in Medellin, unfortunately, with very negative consequences.
The homicide rate per 100,000 inhabitants went up significantly from 34.8 in 2007 to 46 in 2008, and exploded in 2009 when it hit 93.9, with 2,200 deaths.
While Salazar did nothing and Uribe sent more than 1,300 extra troops to Medellin, militarizing Comunas 1 and 13, the violence did not diminish.
At this point it had become apparent that none of the state security entities ever really had control over the neighborhoods and it was the person controlling the thousands of (demobilized) paramilitaries who decided on peace or war. Apparently, Sebastian and Valenciano, both former members of the AUC under Don Berna, are now fighting over the control of the city that once was in the hands of their superior.
Newly elected President Juan Manuel Santos this week announced he was sending some 1,000 extra troops to Comuna 13, which has become the favorite troubled “barrio” for national and international media, which ignore the fact that the same violence is taking place in Comunas 1, 3, 4 and 5.
And while Santos declares war on violence, local police seem very reluctant to get involved in the conflict. Despite the political rhetoric the commanders must understand that if they really start messing with the paramilitaries and become an active party in the violence, they may just unleash a Pablo Escobar-like war, which will only result in even more deaths.
It’s better to do what Uribe and Fajardo did so successfully; just wait until one of the paramilitaries takes control and restores order.