By John J. Betancur (University of Illinois at Chicago) and Peter Brand (Universidad Nacional de Colombia)
When the world is dark, any ray of light feels like the sun. Emerging from the profound crises that decimated the economy and social fabric of Colombia’s second city Medellin in the period 1980-2000, a grassroots movement and a powerful corporate group (GEA) formed a governing alliance that assured the world that the city had risen from the ashes. The new millennium saw strategic signature interventions in the poorest and most violent sectors of the city which captured the attention of the world while a public-private partnership consolidated the interests of the corporate group. This followed in the wake of a shadowy partnership of national government and paramilitary forces which produced the violent expulsion of urban militias of the left. An ensuing national amnesty and local pacts allowed control of large parts of the city by narco-paramilitary organizations in exchange for drastically reduced homicide rates – an essential component of some formidable city marketing which sold to the world the idea of the Medellin ‘miracle’ based on its social programs and progressive urbanism. This myth earned the city 21 national and 30 international awards (Mazo, 2016) but ignored critical works characterizing it as smoke and mirrors (see Hylton, 2007; Brand, 2013; MacLean, 2015). After the dust settled, this study spoke to 40 of the protagonists of the Medellin model and examined documents, reports, and archives to reexamine the coalition behind this experience.
Constructing ‘the Medellin miracle’
The story starts in the 1980s when progressive forces established city-wide and community-based NGOs to confront the urban crisis. A presidential commission joined them in 1991 by experimenting with comprehensive programs of physical improvement (for example the Primed neighbourhood program) and social infrastructure (Nucleos for Citizen Development) involving dialogue among representatives of government, the private sector and civil society. These public dialogues, along with a parallel process among corporate interests, produced social and economic blueprints that an independent movement called Compromiso Ciudadano turned into a mayoral campaign platform for candidate Sergio Fajardo, heavily supported by the business community. The subsequent election of his right-hand man Alonso Salazar led to eight years of continuous policy implementation between 2004 and 2011.
While the two administrations’ spending was concentrated in modestly spectacular interventions in the poor sectors of the city, they simultaneously and vigorously partnered with business organizations in a program of neoliberalization prioritizing the insertion of the city into the global economy through local companies. This was accompanied by cohabitation with the criminal economy, now organized around a central directorate, which diminished the violent clashes of the 1980-2000 and allowed all parties, legal and criminal, to maximize their earnings. But the traditional parties ancestrally governing the city strengthened their patronage machines, returning to power in 2012 and ending the social programs and commitments of Compromiso Ciudadano.
Despite an impressive record of investments in the poorest and most violent sectors of the city, the replacement of political with technological cadres, the suspension of patronage politics and open corruption, the incorporation of inner city leaders and NGOs in government, a participatory budget program, inner city tourist destinations, and the leadership of the only two independent governments to ever govern the city, the legacy of Compromiso Ciudadano is limited to what was achieved during its tenure. Social urbanism came to an end and with it, its signature programs that so impressed the world and left behind many headaches to the following administrations. Although temporarily alleviating poverty, these programs did not make a dent in the city’s inequality (Volckhausen 2013). In fact, 56.2% of the population continue depending on the informal economy for income and employment (Colombia Reports 2021). The alliance between the business group GEA and the grassroots disintegrated as did the social movement Compromiso Ciudadano, and many NGOs involved in it were severely weakened. Patronage politics now continues dominating elections and although homicide and crime in the city have not reached the levels of the 1990s, the criminal economy continues to dominate the inner city and many businesses throughout the metropolitan area.
Compromiso Ciudadano was the product of constitutional reforms ending the monopoly of the two-party political system governing Colombia ancestrally, and the unique conjunctures leading to the once only association of the grassroots with the corporate sector—with the acquiescence of the criminal economies controlling much of the city. Signature developments have moved from the poor to the wealthy sectors , and poverty and inequality continue unabated. Nevertheless, the coalitional government of Compromiso Ciudadano illustrates the possibilities resulting from comprehensive investment in the poorest sectors of the city and pacts or ‘understandings’ with powerful criminal forces. It also demonstrates what an independent government of the Compromiso Ciudadano style can achieve. But these experiments cannot be duplicated in laboratory fashion since they respond to unique circumstances in which pressures and support from below break through ancestral monopolies of government and economies. Consultants formed in the Compromiso Ciudadano administration have advised many city governments in the design of ‘social urbanism’ programs with limited success; after all, inequality is a structural problem that calls for deeper transformations that an add-on program can offer. Ultimately, Compromiso Ciudadano was a ray of hope in a sea of despair; however, the ray of hope did not last long, while the corporate sector’s hold of the local economy and urban policy increased.
Brand, Peter. 2013. “Governing Inequality in the South through the Barcelona model: ‘Social Urbanism’ in Medellin, Colombia.” Paper presented at the Interrogating Urban Crisis: Governance, Contestation, Critique, 9-11 September, De Montfort University, UK.
Colombia Reports. 2021. “Medellin”. Colombia Reports. August 8. Available at: https://colombiareports.com/medellin/
Hylton, Forrest. 2007. “Medellín’s Makeover”. New Left Review, 44 March-April, 71-89.
Maclean, Kate. 2015. Social Urbanism and the Politics of Violence. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Mazo, César Augusto. 2016. Prácticas discursivas y marketing de ciudad. Un acercamiento a la transformación de Medellín desde el mercadeo gubernamental, período 2004-2015. MA thesis, Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Medellin. Available at https://repositorio.unal.edu.co/handle/unal/58132
Volckhausen, Taran. 2013. “Colombia has most unequal cities in Latin America: UN.” Colombia Reports. Available at: https://colombiareports.com/un-report-colombia-unequal-cities-latin-america/
John J. Betancur is professor of urban planning and policy at the Department of Urban Planning and Policy, University of Illinois at Chicago.
Peter Brand is professor (r) of the School of Urban and Regional Planning, Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Medellín campus.