Once known as one of the most violent cities in the world, Medellin in Colombia achieved an astonishing reduction in violence and crime over the past ten years. In this article, Gabriela Aguinaga sheds light on the reasons behind this successful violence prevention. Gabriela finished her studies of Political and Administrative Sciences at the University of Konstanz with a bachelor's thesis titled “Violent cities. How can violence be reduced? Lessons learnt from Medellin, Colombia”. She currently interns at the GIZ Inclusive Violence and Crime Prevention (VCP) Programme. In a series of blog posts, Gabriela will share some of the lessons learned and insights of successful violence prevention in Colombia.
Urban violence globally
Urban violence is a growing concern for many cities across the world, particularly for those located in the global South. In Latin America and Africa, urban violence in some cities has reached alarming levels, posing serious challenges for the inhabitants’ safety and for the cities' economic and social development.
Governments around the globe often tend to regard violence mainly as a security concern and have predominantly focused on strengthening the police and law enforcement. This hard-line (or ‘mano dura’) approach, however, has failed on its own to provide a sustainable solution to high rates of violence and crime.
This realisation contributed to an increasing consensus among policymakers that violence needs to be tackled holistically, taking into account its social and economic root causes. Some initiatives, such as the ‘mano amiga’ policies in Central America, have embraced this approach full-heartedly, but did not succeed and were claimed to be ineffective .
However, recent research into the safety policies of the city of Medellin, the second largest city of Colombia , has shown that a combination of both approaches - effective law enforcement as well as socio-economic policies - can be very successful in reducing high rates of violence and crime states .
Medellin: a success story
In the 1990s, Medellin was widely known as one of the most violent cities in the world. Scenes of armed confrontation belonged to everyday life and death rates were comparable to a civil war.
The dismantlement of the drug cartels and the pacification policy with the guerrillas and paramilitaries during 1993 to 2003, did not, however, put an end to violence, exposing that the problem was structural and deeply rooted in society. Repressive policies had shown to be ineffective or even counterproductive and it became evident that another approach was needed.
Sergio Fajardo, an independent mathematics professor whose 2004-2008 term as mayor of Medellin was strongly supported by the business elites and civil society, recognised this. He made his formula against violence and insecurity the linchpin of his term of office: “Medellin, the most educated city” and “The most beautiful things for the poor”.
In fact, Fajardo and his administration designed a comprehensive policy aimed at tackling the root causes of violence but without overlooking the importance of strengthening the police and the law enforcement. The strategy focused on six main aspects:
- Implementing pacification and community policing
- Improving access to good basic services by marginalized communities.
- Changing the built environment and the spatial segregation of the city.
- Addressing youth unemployment and youth-at-risk
- Promoting social capital and cohesion within the city.
- Improving urban governance for security.
This holistic strategy proved to be very successful. Within a few years, Medellin cut its homicide rate by 90% - the most significant decrease in its history - turning from the city with the worldwide highest murder rate with over 350 homicides per 100.000 inhabitants in 1991 to 52 per 100.000 inhabitants in 2012. Consequently, Medellin has been hailed as a model case for other violent cities in the world.
What were the main success factors in Medellin?
The case of Medellin shows that a holistic response to violence and crime that combines law enforcement policies as well as social and economic policies can be effective .
On the other hand, socioeconomic policies were introduced that addressed the root causes of violence and aimed at what Farjado called 'paying back the historical debt' of the city with disadvantaged communities which had been historically deprived of any public services or investments.
One of the most innovative measures concerned the upgrading of marginalized neighbourhoods and connecting them to the more affluent parts, thus creating spaces for social interaction.
For example, so-called ‘library parks’ were built that serve as meeting and recreation points for the communities and the new ‘Metro Cable’ transport system connects the remote marginalized communities with the city centre.
Furthermore, the commitment of the main political and social actors in the city to work together in implementing the new policies proved to be a crucial condition for their success. Participation and coordination between the main actors in the city, namely civil society, communities, national and local governments and business elites, was essential.
In this sense, the most important role was played by the economic elites as well as civil society organizations, which supported a joint campaign for the candidature of Sergio Fajardo who could integrate the interests of both sides:
Economic elites acknowledged that Medellin had become a more service sector based economy and the bad image of the city was discouraging more than ever investment and human capital. Therefore, they were interested in the implementation of a city-branding campaign, which became an important part of Sergio Fajardo’s strategy.
However, Fajardo’s strategy went much further, implementing the civil society’s demands for a real change in the city’s structure in a way that really benefited and integrated the previously marginalized communities. In fact, Fajardo strongly committed to the participation of civil society actors, who were not only involved in the discussions but were also integrated in the institutions assuming key positions in the sector of citizens’ security.
1. Guitierrez, F., Pinto, M., Arenas, J. C., Guzman, T., Gutierrez, M. C. R., 2013. "The importance of political coalitions in the succesful reduction of violence in colombian cities". Urban Studies 50 (15), 3134_3151. Online Version: http://www.lse.ac.uk/internationalDevelopment/research/crisisStates/download/wp/wpSeries2/WP442.pdf
2. Jutersonke, O., Muggah, R., Rodgers, D., 2009. "Gangs, urban violence and security interventions in central america". Security Dialogue 40, 373. Online Version: https://www.oas.org/dsp/documentos/pandillas/2sesion_especial/SMALL%20ARMS%20SURVEY/gangs%20and%20urban%20violence.pdf
3. Aguinaga, G. 2014. Violent cities. How can violence be reduced? Lessons learnt from Medellin, Colombia. University of Konstanz
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5. Rodin, J., 2014, "The transformation of Medellín provides a model for cities worldwide", The Guardian, 10 April, <http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2014/apr/10/medellin-transformation-model-cities-worldwide-resilience>
6. Sibylla, B., 2014, "From murder capital to model city: is Medellín's miracle show or substance?", The Guardian, 17 April, <http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2014/apr/17/medellin-murder-capital-to-model-city-miracle-un-world-urban-forum>
7. Stiglitz, J., 2014, "Medellín's metamorphosis provides a beacon for cities across the globe", The Guardian, 8 May, <http://www.theguardian.com/business/2014/may/08/medellin-livable-cities-colombia>
8. UNHABITAT, 2011. Building urban safety through slum upgrading. Online version: http://issuu.com/unhabitat/docs/building_urban_safety_through_slum_upgrading