Once Home To A Dreaded Drug Lord, Medellin Remakes Itself : Parallels The Colombian city was the world's murder capital in the 1990s, but it managed to turn its fortunes around. Homicides were cut by 80 percent and made big gains on a number of fronts. But the city still faces many challenges in a region plagued by violence.
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Once Home To A Dreaded Drug Lord, Medellin Remakes Itself

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Once Home To A Dreaded Drug Lord, Medellin Remakes Itself

Once Home To A Dreaded Drug Lord, Medellin Remakes Itself

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As we continue our coverage of violence in Latin America, we have, this morning, a success story in a city with an infamous past: Medellin, Colombia.


It was once home to the drug lord Pablo Escobar and his Medellin cartel. And back in 1991, the city had more than 6,300 homicides, making it the world's murder capital. Two years later, Escobar was shot dead by police, part of a larger government crackdown on the drug cartels. This gave the city's government room to work on improving the quality of life, building schools, libraries, reforming the police force.

MONTAGNE: The result: homicides in Medellin have dropped by 80 percent, making it not only much safer for residents, but also a model for other cities. Still, as NPR's Juan Forero reports, maintaining that success has been far from easy.

JUAN FORERO, BYLINE: A good place to see the challenges officials face in Medellin is the northwest barrio of San Cristobal. It is perched up an impossibly steep hillside with a bird's eye view of the glittering skyscrapers below. But what it has in vistas it lacks in accessibility. This lush hillside is way too vertical for cars. That meant soldiers recently deployed to protect residents lugged their provisions up trails. The troops carry food and water and sleeping bags, as well as their assault rifles and ammunition.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: The city is no longer synonymous with drug violence, but it's not crime-free. The soldiers were deployed after warring gangs forced dozens of families to flee for their lives. In May, the troops came in, leading the gang members to abandon the district.


FORERO: The families are back now, music playing from their homes. But their flight and the response by the army show just how complicated Medellin's problems can be. Mara de Los Angeles Posada, age 75, is among those who returned, finding a city seal on her door warning: This home is being protected. It's a message to any would-be intruder that if they take on Posada, they're taking on the army.


FORERO: We feel safe now, Posada says, but who knows what it will be like later when the soldiers leave. We've been thinking about that, and we're afraid. She, like many of the proud residents of this city, say Medellin has made great gains from the bad old days. That was when cocaine cowboys fought it out, a bounty was placed on the heads of policemen, and the dead piled up.


FORERO: And even after Pablo Escobar died, as a news anchor told the world, the city was still murder central. There were more than 3,700 as recently as 2002. Medellin was that year's deadliest city. But local and national officials say a two-pronged approach transformed Medellin. First came a tough police and military presence, attacking drug gangs hard, killing or extraditing top kingpins. But officials also embarked on a series of innovative projects designed to make life better in tough neighborhoods, while giving people a voice on how the budget is spent. The initiatives led the U.S.-based Urban Land Institute to name Medellin the world's most innovative city this year, beating out finalists New York and Tel Aviv. The city's success has drawn mayors and police officials from as far as Rio de Janeiro and South Africa.

MAYOR ANIBAL GAVIRIA: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: We call it a metamorphosis because of the truly big changes, said Anibal Gaviria, the mayor of Medellin.


FORERO: The city built new, modern schools and futuristic libraries. There are new parks. But the most famous innovation has been the use of gondolas and ski lifts to move tens of thousands of people each day, connecting them to a modern metro.


FORERO: And so we're going over hillside slums. I'm about 60 feet above all the roofs. But then you go over the top of the hill and down into another valley. I'm not sure how long this is, but maybe two or three miles of a ride. It's actually quite amazing.

The city also found another way for residents to get around in neighborhoods built on mountainsides. One of them is an escalator in one of the poor neighborhoods. Instead of having to hoof it up the hillside, you can just ride on an escalator and listen to a little music.

Astrid Ramirez, age 38, is among those who love riding high above the city.

ASTRID RAMIREZ: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: This saves us so much time from the traffic jams, she says, and it's also cheap, because you travel far for very little money. But despite the improvements to mass transit, Ramirez expresses concern about crime.

RAMIREZ: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: Safety in Medellin? she asks. It's bad. There are a lot of gangs that are trying to take over the neighborhoods. Indeed, Luis Fernando Quijano, an expert on crime and gangs, says that Medellin remains a dangerous city. There are still warring drug traffickers, he says. He talks of people who went missing and are likely dead.


FORERO: He says 9,000 people were forced out of their homes last year by crime. He also talks of extortion of small businesses and witnesses afraid to talk to the police. Mayor Anibal Gaviria acknowledges there's too much violence, but he's also optimistic, saying a better economy and government social programs have cut into income disparities and poverty, which he says fuel violence. And he says you can't ignore that Medellin's homicide rate is a fraction of what it once was.

GAVIRIA: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: The mayor says the key to it all is making sure there's a security presence in once-forgotten neighborhoods, even in places like San Cristobal, the district perched on a mountainside.

ARNUFLO SERNA: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: Arnuflo Serna, the city's security director, is winded from climbing up the barrio's narrow paths. He led operations on a recent day.


FORERO: Army troops took up positions in a house a resident lent to them for staging patrols.

SERNA: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: We're here, says Serna, providing security for those who left because they felt threatened. Among the thankful residents is Maribel Alvarez, 19, who has a three-month-old, Isabela.


FORERO: Watching soldiers patrol, Alvarez says she feels safe. What she hopes for, though, are lasting changes that will benefit her daughter.

MARIBEL ALVAREZ: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: I want a safe Medellin, she says. You think about your children because they're just starting to live. So you want it for them. Juan Forero, NPR News.


MONTAGNE: And you can see the places and faces of Medellin at our website: npr.org.


MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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