RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Colombia's image is still tainted by its long and violent drug war. But its second-largest city is now becoming known for an innovative form of budgeting.
As Alex Schmidt reports, residents of Medellin have a direct say over how tax dollars are spent.
ALEX SCHMIDT: Twenty-six-year-old Jhon Jaime Sanches grew up in the hills of Medellin, under the legacy of Pablo Escobar's violent drug cartel.
Mr. JHON JAIME SANCHES: The militias - (Through translator) Militias would come to our school and tell us we had to take up arms to make revolution to change how we were living. I liked the idea that we needed to find a solution to change things, but what I didn't believe is that we needed to do it with violence.
SCHMIDT: So Sanches started a music group called Son Bata.
(Soundbite of music)
SON BATA (Music group): (Singing in Spanish)
SCHMIDT: Over the years, Son Bata has grown from a band into a social service force against the crushing poverty of his neighborhood.
(Soundbite of crowd chatter)
SCHMIDT: Ramshackle homes pile on top of each other, and open sewers pour down nearly vertical streets. Son Bata's colorful cultural center stands out.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Child #1: (Spanish spoken)
Unidentified Child #2: (Spanish spoken)
SCHMIDT: Hundreds of children find an escape here through free music classes, and working musicians from the slums get help finding performing jobs.
Ingris Joanna Jaramillo works at Son Bata.
Ms. INGRIS JOANNA JARAMILLO (Employee, Son Bata): (Through translator) Son Bata, for me - for me it's everything. Son Bata is my life. When I started being part of Son Bata is when I started to dream.
SCHMIDT: Part of what's helped the group is Medellin's process of participatory budgeting. It divides the city up into small neighborhoods. Residents allocate part of the city budget to health centers, college scholarships and youth music groups that have sprung up in Medellin. Jhon Jaime Sanches gets 30 percent of his operating budget through the system.
Mr. SANCHES: (Through translator) With participatory budgeting, Son Bata has contracted with professors. We bought instruments. We are creating a music studio.
SCHMIDT: Participatory budgeting originated in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1989. Medellin is one of the largest cities in the world to have successfully adopted it. It's 5 percent of the city budget. Sanches says it's not enough to make deep structural changes. But by most measures, the system here has been a success.
Alberto Diaz-Cayeros of the University of California at San Diego has been studying the ways such systems take root in Mexico. He says there's not a lot of research about it. But he knows that historical factors have to be just right, like they were in Medellin.
Professor ALBERTO DIAZ-CAYEROS (University of California, San Diego): This happened in an environment of a city which was the most violent in Latin America, in a deep crisis, where a mayor that had no connection to any of the established political parties came in with a completely new vision about how to run local government.
SCHMIDT: That mayor, Sergio Fajardo, is now running for governor of the Colombian state of Antioquia. He worries that another challenge remains: keeping citizens engaged.
Mr. SERGIO FAJARDO (Former Mayor, Medellin; Candidate for Governor, Antioquia): In the communities, they may get tired and say, oh, once again, we have to go and discuss with these guys who are boring or so. So you have to make sure that you mix things up, you keep the flame alive.
SCHMIDT: For musician Jhon Jaime Sanches, at least, the flame shows little sign of fading.
Mr. SANCHES: (Through translator) Participatory budgeting is a very valuable way for the youth to understand how, with a resource, I can try to solve the problems of my community.
SCHMIDT: This budgeting process didn't create Sanches' group. Son Bata existed a year before it even came into effect. But it did make city money easier to get, for him and dozens of youth music groups in Medellin.
For NPR News, I'm Alex Schmidt.