Beyond Narco-Trafficking: The Lessons of Medellín

03/06/2016 20:29 | Updated 06 June 2016

Once branded the world's most dangerous city, Colombia's second city has transformed into a vibrant hub for innovation, putting inclusion and cohesion at the centre of its efforts to tackle violent crime. The valuable lessons learnt along the way reach far beyond drug crime and can be applied to current challenges tackling violent extremism.

Colombia has seen its fair share of violent crime. Communities have been wracked by some of the world's most dangerous drug gangs, cities divided by conflict and fear, and families tragically torn apart.

Gone, however, are the days in which the cartels, paramilitaries and their successors were able to mount a full-scale challenge to the legitimacy of the state and local infrastructure in its second city.

Today, cities and governments the world over look to Medellín as a prime example of a city which has turned around its fortunes by implementing creative and innovative city-wide initiatives. Its homicide rate - the highest in the world in 1991 - has dropped by more than 90%, and the city has launched scheme upon scheme to open up the city and provide a positive future for a youth population for whom crime and violence provided an obvious solution to poverty and a lack of opportunity.

Medellín's transformation isn't the standard story of better policing and security, working to isolate dangerous individuals. At its core, it represents a fundamental partnership between local authorities and the communities they serve and represent. It can serve as a model for cities the world over trying to tackle a range of challenges, including increasing social polarisation and the need to tackle violent extremism.

That partnership began from a point of acceptance; acceptance that a problem that affects one part of the city - namely the poor and the youth - is everyone's problem, and is in everyone's interest to resolve together. The city established a series of roundtables - one for each neighbourhood - where concerns and solutions were worked through together, making the planning and engagement process local and as collaborative as possible.

It also involved recognition of the factors which had allowed the drug cartels to strengthen their grip over the community in the first place. As in many cities, poverty, large and sudden waves of immigration (internally displaced by the armed conflict) and an overwhelmed urban infrastructure combined to permit the growth of slums and shanty towns around the city's circumference. In these unofficial, informal settlements, the state - in the form of the local authority - was unable to gain access, let alone be seen as a legitimate actor.

International trafficking cartels made these communities their breeding ground: they drew on the impoverished, the young and the vulnerable, recruiting them to their bloody agenda through a joint incentive of financial and social capital.

Fast-forward to today, and many of these comunas have been transformed. A vast Metrocable system connects the urban centre and the CBD to the surrounding hillside areas, transporting 40,000 people each day. Escalators climb the hills to key comunas that were previously difficult to reach. A network of canals, allotments and paths has been built with the help of slum-dwellers, imposing a new greenbelt around the city in an attempt to limit its endless sprawl. Parks and public spaces have been transformed into shared community areas. No fewer than 23 new public libraries have been built, many in the middle of the some of the city's most deprived areas. Medellín's new tech district and its Ruta N project - a joint public-private initiative involving leading multinational tech firms - is working to harness the creative potential of its youth. Community football clubs, music schools and arts festivals bring once-divided communities together.

Medellín's approach has required the city to build trust and buy-in from the community. In so doing, they have fostered a sense of civic responsibility across the city and sought to build what they term a 'citizen culture'. In the words of Santiago Uribe Rocha, the city's Chief Resilience Officer, "you can tackle crime every day, but the key is to build a cultural transformation. To do this you need trust, otherwise we are all just enemies and all part of the problem."

Importantly, Medellín has no pretentions that this is mission accomplished. Quite the opposite, the city authorities see this project as an ongoing effort that will need to adapt to future challenges and which would do well to learn from the experiences of other cities across the world, many of which are dealing with problems remote to the issue of narco-trafficking, racketeering and drug-related gang violence.

Medellín's experience is frequently seen as instructive to other cities which have suffered a similar drug crime affliction. But their example should have further reach, because what they have sought to tackle are problems common if not ubiquitous to other cities around the world dealing with crime, violence, extremism and discord, regardless of their particular manifestations. What is more, they have nurtured a programme that talks a language of positivity. It highlights opportunity, joint responsibility, interaction and bridge-building, and the propensity for every citizen to take ownership of their city and its community, for better or worse.

This is not to say there is a model here which should be in some way exported. Medellín's officials would be the last to suggest this. Instead, what is needed is to look beyond our immediate contexts and identify where there are examples of good practice and successful community development which can inform the way other cities work and communicate with their citizens. Cities around the world are engaged in a joint endeavour to build more inclusive and cohesive communities that are resilient to the scourge of violence, fear, hate and extremism. To do that, they need to look well beyond their own comfort zones.

The Strong Cities Network launched at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2015. It is the first ever global network of mayors, sub-national political leaders and local authority-level practitioners working to build social cohesion and resilience to violent extremism in all its forms. The authors spoke to Santiago Uribe Rocha, Chief Resilience Officer for the Alcaldía de Medellín on 11 February 2016. For more information about the SCN, visit or follow us on Twitter @Strong_Cities.