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Aug 2, 2015 | 13:36 GMT

Medellin Emerges from a Dark Chapter

A view of Medellin, Colombia. (David Pena/Wikimedia)
(David Pena/Wikimedia)

By Mark Fleming-Williams

Traveling up the Magdalena River in 1802, Prussian naturalist and geographer Alexander von Humboldt said "the whole province of Antioquia is surrounded by mountains so difficult to pass that they who dislike entrusting themselves to the skill of a [human] bearer… must relinquish all thoughts of leaving the country."

Even today, in a world where technology has largely overcome the limits of terrain, arriving in Antioquia's capital of Medellin feels like you are encroaching on some isolated fortress. A taxi ride from the airport, nestled in a neighboring valley, takes the visitor on a winding climb before descending down into the city itself. Steep slopes rise in a circle around Medellin, and one sees nearly the entire city at once — the spikes of the skyscrapers in the center of the bowl-like valley and slums spreading up the sides like porridge. The immediate impression is of giant ramparts, walls protecting Medellin on all sides from the elements and from unwelcome visitors. The city is impressive in its scale, but there is also something in Medellin's layout that fosters a feeling of intimacy, the sense that all its residents are within touching distance, almost on top of each other. In the 1980s, when Medellin was the murder capital of the world, this closeness must have been intimidating. Today, however, any lingering menace is undetectable. In spite of the city's difficult past, its future prospects are quite bright as Medellin's dynamism shifts away from the illegal economy and toward innovation.

Although Medellin is an extreme example, its isolation and altitude are emblematic of Colombia's fractured geography. Colombia is the fourth largest Latin American country in terms of land area, but 78 percent of the country's population is crammed into just 21 percent of its territory. The three largest cities — Bogota, Medellin and Cali — are all concentrated in the Andean mountain range, where high altitudes offer much-needed relief from the equatorial temperatures at sea level. Bogota, with its population of 6.7 million, is the nation's core and sits at 2,640 meters (8,600 feet) on elevated plains that give the city a cool climate. Throughout its history Bogota's communications were aided by access to the Magdalena River, which connects the interior to the Caribbean coast.

Medellin is located in another mountain range on the western side of the river and has around a third the population that Bogota does. The city is closer to sea level but is cut off from the Magdalena River by natural barriers. Before 1900, it required an arduous 14-day trek to reach the river to begin the journey to the coast. In 1826, one Swedish adventurer who made the journey said of the route, "you can't call this a poor track because you can't even call it a track." This left Medellin — and all of Antioquia — relatively isolated and self-contained for much of its history.

Another 17 percent of Colombians brave the heat of the Caribbean coast. This leaves only 5 percent of the population — a tiny minority that is dispersed across the remaining two-thirds of the country that encompasses vast eastern plains, southern rainforests and the swampy Pacific lowlands. From its inception, Colombia has had a great deal of difficulty integrating most of the country into a suitable infrastructure and communications network. Consequently, Bogota has consistently struggled to project centralized power. Like its mother country, Spain, separatist movements and arguments over the role of the Catholic Church have long plagued Colombia. The result has been two centuries of civil war, ranging from countless small skirmishes to the Thousand Days War (1899-1902), which left 100,000 dead.

Workshop of the Nation

For much of its history, Medellin's natural barriers protected the city from outside interference and enabled it to stand above the squabbles of its peers, focusing instead on its main strength: generating capital. Within its giant ramparts it was a hotbed of innovation and commerce, and Medellin gradually became Colombia's workshop. At the turn of the 19th century, Antioquian goods started to flow out of the region in earnest, sped up by the construction of the Antioquia Railway in 1914, which connected the city with the Magdalena River. The people of Antioquia have long had a reputation for being commercially minded and industrious. Part of this might be due to the unusually high number of immigrants to the region from Spain's Basque Country. The fractured terrain of this Spanish region yielded customs in which precious land was not divided among heirs, leaving a large number of landless Basques looking to make their fortune and instilling entrepreneurialism into the culture.

Antioquia is also blessed with resources. The Spanish sunk the first gold mines and, after independence, British and Colombian companies followed suit. The region benefitted from the associated industry and commerce that the extraction process encouraged. The resulting capital was soon put to work in the budding coffee business and over time the area became an important hub for textiles and industry. In 1932 Antioquia and neighboring Caldas together produced 47 percent of Colombia's coffee, which at the time accounted for 78 percent of the country's exports. Medellin was also the home of Colombia's two largest textile companies. In 1945, home to just 14 percent of Colombia's population, Antioquia was responsible for 24 percent of its industrial production. The departmental motto "For Colombia, we Antioquenos can do more" had never been more appropriate.

M-19 rebels in the Santo Domingo mountains carry the coffin of a leader killed by police in April 1989. (ESLY SALINAS/AFP/Getty Images)

But 1948 brought a new level of unrest to Colombia. The assassination of populist politician Jorge Eliecer Gaitan led to "La Violencia," a period of civil unrest that lasted ten years and killed 200,000 Colombians. This time, Antioquia's geographic isolation could not preserve it from strife. The department suffered the fourth highest death toll in Colombia. Most of the casualties in the region and throughout Colombia were sustained on the state's periphery, but the atrocities left lasting scars across the country. In the aftermath, various armed groups emerged, including the still-active Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The impunity with which these groups acted exposed Bogota's inability to command a monopoly on violence.

Unrest in the countryside sped up the already ongoing flow of people into the cities. Medellin grew from only 358,000 residents in 1951 to 1 million by 1973. The city's traditional bourgeois leadership found itself with a new, large, population of poor citizens leading to high levels of inequality. The challenge to Medellin's status quo happened to coincide with the growth of a new market in the late 1970s when a generation of U.S. consumers developed a taste for cocaine. The trade only became more lucrative as U.S. authorities attempted to stem the flow of the illicit drug. The cocaine trade presented the famously assiduous Antioquians with a new outlet for their entrepreneurial efforts.

Over the following two decades, the Colombian government in Bogota faced the downside of having industrious Medellin, a highland fortress, as its second city. Antioquian productivity shifted its weight behind the illegal trade of refining Peruvian, Bolivian and later Colombian coca and flying the finished product to the United States. Bogota's weakness, combined with Medellin's inaccessibility, made the drug cartel led by Pablo Escobar virtually above the law.

In fact, it was the government that found itself under attack, suffering several high-profile assassinations. In 1985, with Escobar's backing, one of Colombia's armed groups took over the Palace of Justice in Bogota, killing half of Colombia's 25 high court justices. Illegitimate capital flowed into the Colombian economy during this period and estimates put the peak cocaine revenues at about $4 billion in 1984, equal to roughly 10 percent of Colombia's GDP. With the influx of wealth, Medellin transformed. Escobar gained the devotion of many of the city's poor by investing in their districts. El Poblado too, the affluent district in the center of town, saw great sums of money spent on architecture.

The tenor of the city, however, changed completely in this period. At one stage Escobar placed a bounty on the head of every policeman. The absence of police and state power in general meant that private security became paramount and an individual's status was made most evident by the security and self-sufficiency of their residential compound. Citizens learned to stay off the streets whenever possible. Meanwhile, the legitimate economy suffered. Traffickers looked for ways to launder vast sums of money and one solution was to import foreign goods and sell them cheaply in Colombia, undercutting the once-thriving local industry now struggling to compete. Ultimately the problem of Escobar and Medellin proved so great that Bogota did not have the power to solve it alone. It took extensive support from the United States, along with a murderous campaign by Los Pepes, a group of embittered former Medellin cartel members bankrolled by their Cali counterparts. Escobar's operation was subsequently taken down, piece by piece, before he was finally killed on Dec. 2, 1993.

Colombian police and military forces storm the rooftop where drug lord Pablo Escobar was shot dead just moments before. (JESUS ABAD-EL COLOMBIANO/AFP/Getty Images)

New Dynamism

Travelling through Medellin today, the scars of the past are still visible. Visitors pass the rubble of former cartel buildings once destroyed by bombs and left intact by a superstitious public reluctant to build over them. These structures, however, belie the fact that Medellin is well on the way to recovery from its dark period. Signs of innovation abound. In some ways Medellin is starting to lead Colombia again. In 1995 it became the first city to build a metro rail system, and residents will tell you that the religious icons placed outside each station help guarantee that the public respects them.

The struggle against violence of the informal mountainside settlements has been aided by the installation of a cable car extension to the metro. This metrocable serves three purposes: it transports the disadvantaged, draws tourists and shuttles constant witnesses over areas where crime once thrived out of sight. El Poblado is still the city's most affluent area, but it is now home to high-class hotels catering to foreign business travelers coming to invest in the growing region. In 2012, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released a report with recommendations for Antioquia, largely focused on improving education levels. This report was clearly noted and there are signs everywhere proclaiming that Antioquia will soon be number one in education.

The years since Colombia's independence have demonstrated that Medellin and Antioquia are capable of great productivity. When Bogota is able to harness this productivity, the region has the potential to be the engine that drives the country. If, on the other hand, a power is allowed to emerge in Medellin with goals divergent to those of Bogota, the city's dynamism can become immensely destructive, and Bogota will struggle to regain control of its subsidiary without outside help. But for now, Medellin and Antioquia appear to be back under control.

In the mid 1980s, Colombia began to move oil in bulk: It now makes up 30 percent of exports. The recent drop in oil prices has left many oil exporters seeking alternatives, however, and Colombia is no different. In April, Colombia's minister of trade delivered a presentation to Antioquia's entrepreneurs in which she set a target for them — raise non-mineral exports by 54 percent over the next four years and contribute 25 percent of Colombia's total in 2018. For Colombia, Antioquenos can once again do more.

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