Medellin: From Murderous Drug Cartels to Smart City

Medellin: From Murderous Drug Cartels to Smart City

The Reign of Pablo Escobar

Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria was the pioneer in industrial-scale cocaine trafficking.  Also known as “El Patrón,” or “The Boss,” Escobar led the Medellín Cartel from the 1970s to the early 1990s, and his influence extended to as far as the United States where he ran distribution networks.

Escobar oversaw each step of cocaine production, from sourcing coca paste in Andean nations to feeding the expanding US market.  He also successfully challenged the Colombian government on extradition, demonstrating that targeted violence could force the government to negotiate.

Like most of his partners in the Medellín Cartel, Escobar came from a humble background.  He dropped out of school because his family couldn’t afford his education and soon got involved in petty crime.  His early criminal activities included smuggling stereo equipment and stealing tombstones to resell them.

Escobar then entered the cocaine trade and founded the Medellín Cartel in the 1970s.  He and the Ochoa Vásquez brothers (Jorge Luis, Juan David and Fabio) were initially the business brains of the outfit.  Escobar first oversaw the group's "protection" business before emerging as its undisputed leader.

During the Medellín Cartel’s heyday in the 1980s and early 1990s, Escobar controlled nearly the entire cocaine supply chain.  He oversaw the import of large, multi-ton shipments of coca base from Andean nations Peru and Bolivia into Colombia, where it was processed into cocaine in jungle labs.  They then stored the drug in Colombia before flying it to the United States.  In the 1980s, the organization is estimated to have supplied over 80 percent of all cocaine shipped to the U.S., sending across some 15 tons per day.

During this period, kidnappings made by guerrilla groups forced the Colombian government to collaborate with criminal groups.  The 1981 kidnapping of the Ochoa’s sister led to the creation of a Medellín Cartel-funded paramilitary group known as Death to Kidnappers (Muerte a Secuestradores - MAS).

In the mid-1980s, Escobar founded a criminal debt collection service known as the “Oficina de Envigado.” This was an office in the town hall of Envigado, a small municipality close to Medellín where Escobar grew up.  Escobar used the municipal office to collect debts owed to him by drug traffickers and sent the “sicarios” or hired killers on those who didn’t cooperate.

Unlike many of today’s drug traffickers, Escobar wasn’t afraid to flaunt his riches. His cartel is estimated to have earned around $420 million in revenue per week during the mid-1980s, and Escobar himself made Forbes' Billionaires list for seven years straight, between 1987 to 1993. His luxurious multimillion-dollar "Hacienda Nápoles" estate had its own zoo, and it was said that he ate from solid gold dinner sets.

Despite the opulent lifestyle, Escobar presented himself as a populist figure, persecuted by the upper classes for his own social background and efforts to help the poor.  He did exhibit some Robin Hood-like characteristics to win over disadvantaged communities by opening a public zoo, constructing 70 community soccer fields, and building housing for the poor.

Of course, Medellín's upper social classes would not accept him, which blocked his application to join the city's top social club.  His attempts to join the political elite were also crushed in the early 1980s when he was expelled from Colombia's Liberal Party and thrown out of his position as a deputy congressman.

Tensions escalated in the mid-1980s when the Medellín Cartel declared war on the Colombian government.  In 1984, the nation's Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla was shot dead by assassins working for Escobar.  The government responded by immediately signing into law Escobar's extradition to the United States.  In response, Escobar's hitmen murdered dozens of judges, police, and several journalists in the late 1980s.  During the 1989 presidential elections, Escobar's assassins murdered the Liberal Party candidate Luis Carlos Galán Sarmiento.  They then failed at an attempt to kill Galán's replacement, Liberal Party presidential candidate César Augusto Gaviria Trujillo.

Escobar eventually pushed the government to ban extradition of Colombian nationals in the 1991 Constitutional Assembly.  He managed to negotiate his surrender to authorities and took up residence in a jail known as the “Cathedral,” which he built.  It was a jail in name only as Escobar controlled the guards and had a playhouse built on the grounds for his daughter’s visits.  In his first year “behind bars” he reorganized the Medellín Cartel.

But his influence within the cartel was waning.  He raised a tax on cartel members that created only resentment, making them pay between $200,000 and a million dollars in fees.  And when a stash of $20 million was found by Escobar's men at a property belonging to cartel member Fernando Galeano, Escobar summoned Galeano and another associate, Gerardo Moncada, for a meeting at the Cathedral.  Both were then killed by two of Escobar's assassins.

On hearing of the killings, President Gaviria ordered for Escobar to be sent from the Cathedral to a military base in Colombia’s capital, Bogotá; but before he could be transferred, Escobar escaped. Ultimately, Escobar's former criminal associates teamed up with the government and gradually dismantled his empire. Out of money, luck, and with just one bodyguard left, authorities in Colombia gunned down Escobar on the rooftop of a Medellín house on December 2, 1993.

Medellín had paid a high cost in blood for its role in the international cocaine trade. The city's murder rate was the highest in the world during Escobar's reign.

My First Visit to Medellin in 1996!

While I was somewhat familiar with Escobar’s reputation, and that the cartel was based in Medellin, I trusted my local Sales Manager, based in Bogota, that we were not risking our lives by flying to Medellin and meeting with the local telephone operator, Empresas Publicas de Medellin, known locally as EPM.  Afterall, he had a wife and two children and I had a wife and three kids, and we both knew each other’s families.  And this was only three years after Escobar’s demise.

The Aburra Valley, where Medellin is located, is roughly 37 miles (60 km) long and at its widest point, where you find the city of Medellin, is five to six miles (eight to 10 km) wide.  The elevation of Medellin is approximately 5,000 feet above sea level, yet the surrounding Andes Mountains reach up to 10,200; and I was astonished to discover that the airport was on top of the mountain- or on a mesa or mountain pass rather.  I assume that the valley was too narrow and heavily populated to support an international airport.

Thus, the route down the mountain was a series of switchbacks.  I’m sure it was a bit exhausting for the driver, but thrilling for me as at each turn I had another view of the city below with its buildings mostly dressed in red clay tile roofing against the back drop of the bright green Andes (at this latitude, so close to the equator, the tree line would be much higher than 10,000 feet!).

We didn’t have time to stop by the hotel to unload our suitcases or get a little freshened up, but we were used to that:  early morning departures, a little nap on the plane, then some strong coffee; and what jetlag, what lack of sleep, what hunger pangs?  No, with pillow creases in our faces, bad breath, and disheveled hair we made our way to our first meeting, a potential distributor/partner with whom we were eager to work with on a large project in Costa Rica.  I usually added “partner” to all forms of business entities, ‘just seemed a bit warmer than “distributor,” or “VAR” (value-added reseller), or “agent” (sounded like Maxwell Smart or 007).

We were greeted by our partner to be in their foyer, and then we expected to be escorted into our usual meeting room environment.  Instead, we were escorted directly through the building, which happened to be a renovated house, and out to our meeting patio, as it turned out.  Our meeting was being held outside!

I was aware that Medellin had a reputation for violence and had been the home of the now deceased Pablo Escobar, but I didn’t know that it had the world’s greatest weather!  Now, I live in San Diego, which probably has the best weather in the U.S., but at least our temperature varied somewhat throughout the year.  That said, we don’t exactly  talk about the four seasons, but rather we consider it beach weather or not beach weather.

In Medellin, it’s either rainy season or not rainy season.  The precipitation ranges from 2.6 inches (65 mm) in the driest month of January to 8.3 inches (210 mm) in the wettest month of October.  But the temperature is ideal, due to its perfect combination of latitude and altitude.  With average year-round temperatures of around 72°F (22°C) and daily highs near 86°F (30°C), the climate is about as good as it gets.  If spring is your favorite season of the year, you’ll be spoiled rotten in Medellín!  In fact, it’s known as the City of Eternal Spring!

The meeting went well, and the people were as gracious as one could ever imagine.  And later we met with EPM in a very modern building with limited security, and were treated to the same level of cordial professionalism and respect before adjourning to our evening dinner with our new friends, the “Paisas,” as the local people are called.  There were no bombs, no guns, and all was quiet- Medellin was on the mend.

We also visited Cartagena and Bogota during that trip, both roughly one hour flights away from Medellin.  Bogota is the capital city and financial center based high in the Andes with a cool and rainy climate and challenging traffic situation.  But it’s the heart of the country and produces over 25% of the country’s GDP and with great shopping, restaurants and clubs.  

Cartagena is a walled city- a fairy tale-like city- from a bygone time of swashbuckling pirates and a Spanish-built fort overlooking the Caribbean.  The Spanish were smart to build the larger cities up in the mountains to protect its wealth and its citizens from pirates as well as to escape from the sweltering heat found at sea level.  

But inside the walled city of Cartagena is a magnificent display of architecture, great restaurants, bars, plus musicians and dancers practicing their art among the cobblestone streets.  It has a distinct Caribbean atmosphere, with women dressed in colorful outfits carrying fruit and other groceries in baskets balanced on their heads.  Being so close, it’s an easy weekend getaway for visitors to Medellin.

That trip to Medellin was over 25 years ago and I still remember vividly how impressed- and surprised- I was with the natural beauty and the famously friendly people of Medellin.  Since then, Medellin has undergone a miraculous transformation and often comes up as a standard against which any city's vision for transformation should be measured—including the judges of Newsweek’s Momentum Awards.

Gondolas, Escalators, Libraries, and Social Change!

Where most smart-city initiatives are for the already tech-savvy and well-resourced segment of the population, Medellín's transformation has for the most part been focused on people who have the least.  "Smart-city efforts tend to be centrally planned, with change driven by tech companies," says Soledad Garcia-Ferrari, an urban development researcher at Scotland's University of Edinburgh who has studied smart cities around the world.  "Medellín looked for initiatives that are inclusive of every facet of society, and they were driven by the communities themselves."

Medellín embarked on its smart-city journey in the mid-1990s (recall that Escobar was killed in 1993), more than a decade before "smart city" was a thing.  Progress since then has spanned many mayors of different political parties.  Today, Medellín's homicide rate is one-twentieth of what it was in 1993, and nearly two-thirds of those who were once mired in poverty have emerged from it.  Virtually everyone in the city, including the majority that a decade ago had few basic services, has full free access to education, health care, transportation and range of cultural, economic and online services, with most of them cost free.

The key ingredient of Medellín's transformation, experts agree, is perspective:  The city looked beyond technology as an end in itself.  Instead, it found ways to integrate technological and social change into an overall improvement in daily life that was felt in all corners of the city—and especially where improvement was most needed. "Medellín's vision of itself as a smart city broke from the usual paradigms of hyper-modernization and automation," says Robert Ng Henao, an economist who heads a smart-city department at the University of Medellín.  "It replaced them with a more anthropocentric vision of the city's future."

"Instead of rebuilding homes after a natural disaster, we were rebuilding society after a social disaster," says Jorge Pérez Jaramillo, dean of the School of Architecture at Medellín's St. Thomas University and chief planner of the city of Medellín for several years during the 2000s, under two different mayors. "The mayors never told us what to do.  They saw their job as doing what the citizens told them to do."

The citizens told them to do a lot.  Most residents still lived without basic necessities, such as sewage systems, clean water and schools.   Their children had nowhere to play.  Rains brought flooding and mudslides that washed away homes and even entire villages.  There were jobs in the valley, but getting there from the mountains required a two-hour commute each way on multiple buses.

And no one felt safe.  The dissolution of the cartels didn't end gangs and crime.  The obvious solution would have been to flood the neighborhoods with armed police.  But through neighborhood meetings, the people of Medellín convinced the city administration to take a different approach:  alleviating the poverty, isolation and lack of opportunity that led young people to seize on crime as their best pathway to success.  "Instead of putting more guns on the street, they decided to invest in the poor communities and treat the residents like first-class citizens," says Boyd Cohen, until recently an urban strategist and dean of research at the EADA Business School in Barcelona, Spain, and now the CEO of urban-mobility-app developer Iomob. "That's how you change lives."

How could they pay for the programs that would save the city?  In spite of its recent crime-ridden history, Medellín's economy had robust elements, including strong oil and clothing industries.  Manufacturers were able to shoulder much of the burden in taxes, trusting that a city renaissance would provide a return on investment.  To close the remaining gap, the city government looked to its public utilities company, EPM, which not only provided water, energy, telecommunications services and waste management to Medellín but also competed as a private company throughout Colombia and in other countries in Latin America and elsewhere.  Most of this I didn’t know when I was a youngster selling telecommunications equipment!

EPM would eventually boost its average annual contribution to Medellín's budget to $400 million a year.  The city focused these resources on the program.  Whereas cities in South America typically devoted about a quarter of their budgets on development and services, Medellín has been dedicating, on average, more than half its budget on that spending since the early 2000s.

The various initiatives that emerged from those mid-1990s community meetings and panels of experts took years to implement, and in some cases decades.  Proposals and studies started in 1995, including some for a gondola line, but the first tangible results didn't start to take shape until 2000, with the election of Mayor Luis Perez.  He convinced the management of the city's Metro subway line, which is jointly run by the city and the Colombian state of Antioquia, to split the cost of building the gondola line with the city. Construction began immediately, and the gondolas started operating in 2004, cutting the commute time for residents of the poor mountain communities to their jobs in the city center from two hours down to 20 minutes. That original line carries 30,000 people a day now, and since it opened, four additional gondola lines have started operating.

Under Medellín law, mayors can serve only one four-year term.  In 2004, Perez turned the reins of the city over to Sergio Fajardo, a mathematics professor and the son of an architect.  Fajardo campaigned door to door in the city's poorest neighborhoods, promising to let the people make the big decisions about spending on new projects.  He kept his word, and during his term he frequently solicited and followed the guidance of neighborhood councils to set spending priorities.

Under the local councils' direction, Fajardo revamped the city's education system, putting 20,000 teachers through additional training at special centers that focused on innovative teaching approaches.  All children now have free access to local after-school programs that include courses in culture, science and technology, and language learning.  Initiatives to guide more young people away from crime pulled thousands of young children each year out of the gangs, and efforts at raising the rates of college education directed tens of thousands of young people to one of the city's 30 universities and technology training centers.  Fajardo also upgraded health care, with extra attention for children, initiating child care centers that offer health and nutrition services to young children and their families.

Fajardo also won the councils' support for projects aimed at improving the city's cultural and quality of life.  The city began adding what would eventually amount to more than 4 million square feet of public space for a variety of uses, including the building or renovation of 40 public parks.  Fajardo authorized the building of the Spanish Library Park, a massive, contemporary library surrounded by green space at the mountaintop that just happens to be the site of the end of the city's first gondola line.  That park, close to poor communities, has become a global tourist draw, along with a 50-mile stretch of highway along a river that has been converted into a greenway.  Fajardo also directed the creation of one of the world's most popular science museums, funded primarily by city businesses.  EPM, the utilities company, has since built a second massive library.

Even though Fajardo had to step down at the end of 2007, his initiatives and community-driven style were so popular that it became virtually impossible for politicians who followed him to win election without promising to keep the projects coming.

Fajardo's immediate successor, Alonso Salazar Jaramillo, built a series of outdoor escalators into the hills that are as long as 1,200 feet each, reaching tens of thousands of other poor mountainside residents who aren't close to gondola stations.  He also expanded the park and library systems and the cable lines, and he continued investing in improved education and health care.

Salazar brought a more explicitly high-tech, digital perspective to the ongoing stream of improvements—targeting, for example, the city's choking and outright dangerous car traffic.  By 2009, 40 cameras at the most accident-heavy intersections were keeping watch over 1 million cars a day, flagging speeders, red-light runners, and reckless drivers who swerve between lanes. The system reads the license plates of offenders and fires off tickets via mail, cutting violations between 2009 and 2014 by 80 percent.  Another 80 smart cameras detect accidents or disabled vehicles causing jams, calling them to the attention of police and other services.  Altogether, more than 800 cameras watch Medellín's roads for trouble of any sort. Twenty-two electronic messaging boards throughout busy areas provide drivers with up-to-the-minute guidance on the best routes.

Under Salazar, the city began to build and nurture a digital economy to reduce its dependence on manufacturing.  It set up an innovation district, called "Ruta N" (Route N), and provided offices, seed funding, expertise and other support for high-tech startups.  It also helped broker partnerships between Ruta N companies and larger tech companies, and it lowered the bar on the requirements needed for companies to bid on city projects to ensure that even tiny startups would have a shot at contracts.  Salazar carved out two percent of the city budget for Ruta N companies and other efforts at fostering innovation.  Partly as a result of these efforts, more than 170 companies from 25 countries have set up operations in Medellín, generating nearly 4,000 new jobs in just the past three years.

Aníbal Gavaria Correa, who took over as mayor in 2012, set up a series of programs addressing dangerous flooding and mudslides, installing sensors that monitor rain, water levels, soil moisture and soil movement on hillsides throughout the city.  This provided earlier, more precise warnings of where flooding and other catastrophes might occur. Citizens in villages who were at risk of floods and slides could use smartphone apps that let them supplement sensor data with their own observations and pictures of potential hazards. Planners used the data to locate drainage pipes and other conduits to direct excess rainwater away from vulnerable areas.

A lack of access to Wi-Fi sidelined many city residents on the mountainsides and elsewhere from the online revolution.  So the city set up more than 150 public Wi-Fi zones, which are free. In addition, it put free computers in more than 500 locations where residents could get access to them, and it established 48 internet-education centers offering free classes.  Two-thirds of the city's lowest-income residents now have smartphones, and almost 500 companies have agreed, under Gavaria's encouragement, to allow employees to work remotely via telecommuting, helping alleviate traffic.

Under Mayor Federico Gutiérrez Zuluaga, who took office in 2016, the city established online programs that offer education and personal advice to pregnant women and new mothers.  A new citywide online system was set up in order to easily make any sort of health-related appointment at a hospital or clinic, and a revamping of health care emergency services cut response times by 37 percent.  The city also built dozens of new sports facilities focused on youth participation.  To continue the city's mobility improvement and cut down on pollution, Gutiérrez added 64 electric buses and a citywide free bike-sharing service, along with 60 miles of separated bike lanes.

Smart-city-related efforts have helped rocket Medellín from its grim situation in the early 1990s to its current status as a city with some of the lowest rates of poverty and crime—and highest rates of education and health care access—in South America.  Residents' sense that they have actually helped make decisions that moved Medellín toward these improvements has been a critical part of the process, notes Edinburgh's Garcia-Ferrari. "Smart-city solutions need to be combined with this sort of participatory platform," she says.

No one claims that Medellín's transformation is a finished project.  While the poverty rate has plunged over the past 20 years from its highs of 48 percent, in recent years it has leveled off at a still troubling 14 percent.  But there's great satisfaction in what's been done so far—at least to judge by the mayoral election at the end of October.  That election saw the surprise resounding defeat of a right-wing candidate whom many have compared to Donald Trump.  The victor, Daniel Quintero Calle, a former Colombia deputy minister of the digital economy, campaigned on continuing previous mayors' investments in education, infrastructure and high-tech initiatives aimed at especially benefiting the poor and vulnerable.  Apparently, Medellín is not ready to cut short the renaissance that claims a gondola as its emblem.


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