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Introduction: The Medellín Miracle

Medellín, Colombia, was once the most violent city on Earth. In recent years, however, the city has gained prominence not for its association with narco-traffic and the notorious Pablo Escobar, but for the regeneration policies, known as ‘social urbanism’, which appear to have dramatically reduced the city’s violence. Social urbanism was designed to address violence by tackling inequality and exclusion in the city, with projects including innovative public transport networks, public parks, and libraries. Although social urbanism has globally been deemed a miraculous success, within Medellín many are concerned that these developments are becoming too oriented towards city branding. In this polemic context, this volume identifies the political negotiations, coalitions, and compromises that took place behind the miracle, and the complexity and significance of the political processes involved.

1. The Politics of Violence and Urbanism

This chapter provides the theoretical framing for the discussion of violence and social urbanism in Medellín, drawing on work from geography, urban studies, political science, and regionally specific explorations of violence in Latin American cities. Theories of violence have tended to situate the problem either with the individual, in terms of criminal pathology, or with structural inequality. This chapter proposes a more dynamic analysis of violence as process, with a focus on how violence becomes a means to attain and retain power, and how violence enters into the ‘common sense’ of political and social life. This framework can offer an analysis of how places become violent, how violence relates to urban politics and geography, and, as may be the case in Medellín, how transformations in political processes may address the root causes of violence.

2. Medellín: The Most Violent City in the World

Throughout the twentieth century, Colombia was plagued by violence, as a bitter civil war was fought between the Liberal and Conservative parties, over a period which also saw the formation of Marxist guerrilla groups and paramilitary groups. However, violence in Medellín in the 1980s greatly exceeded levels of violence in the rest of the country and is particularly associated with the rise to power of Pablo Escobar and his Medellín Cartel. This chapter analyses the factors involved in Medellín’s violence in terms of how violence became part of the processes via which power and authority were gained in the city. High levels of inequality, insecurity, and exclusion contributed to a context in which the cartel, urban militia, and paramilitary groups were able to gain power by promising work, upward mobility, and security. However, the role of the State in direct military action in certain civilian areas, political populism, and a blurring of formal and informal politics, as well as legitimate and illegitimate authority, are crucial and often overlooked factors in understanding Medellín’s violence.

3. The Miracle? Social Urbanism

This chapter places social urbanism in a global context by examining the policies associated with the ‘Medellín Miracle’ alongside urban regeneration interventions from other ‘model cities’, including most notably Barcelona. City branding has become a global business as cities compete for foreign investment and various ‘mega-events’ such as the Olympics. Policies to achieve model city status tend to include the types of project that have been central to social urbanism: mass transport systems, public space, public art, and iconic buildings. Medellín is, however, exceptional in that these policies were designed, promoted, and enacted in a context of extreme violence, inequality, exclusion, and informality. The argument here is that the relationship between urban regeneration policies and violence needs to be understood in terms of whether the power struggles underpinning violence in the city have changed.

4. Behind the Miracle

This chapter analyses the political and economic changes, discourses, and dynamics that allowed leftist community leaders, social organisations, and activists to sit at a table with the city’s elites to develop and eventually implement social urbanism. During the 1990s, a number of changes at the global and national scales influenced narco-traffic and the struggles between guerrilla, paramilitary, and State actors in Colombia, and the Medellín Miracle needs to be understood in the context of the complex history of Colombia’s trajectory towards democracy. Key points in this trajectory include electoral reform and, crucially, the country’s new Constitution in 1991, but these steps have been accompanied by many other influences that have either reinforced or attenuated Colombia’s democratic progress both politically and economically, and the political processes behind the miracle in Medellín reflect these dynamics of progress and revanchism.

5. New Political Spaces

Despite the continued dominance in many ways of traditional elites, political spaces have emerged in Medellín over the last 20 years that have enabled different political actors to have a seat at the table, influence the agenda, and in some cases gain power within the formal mechanisms of local government. The contention here is that in these new political spaces is seen the real potential of the miracle, as they represent a disruption to the long-standing elite dominance of the city’s politics and economy. This chapter explores the ways in which those who were involved in the seminars, working groups, and coalitions that emerged in the wake of the crisis were able to make use of these fora. A more participatory approach to politics developed over this time that challenged clientelism and the lack of a clear demarcation between formal and informal politics that had underpinned the prevalence of violence. The forms of leadership and power that emerged represent a change in the values that frame ideas of authority and power and in the role of violence in establishing authority.


The conclusion reflects on the policies, discourses, and politics of the Medellín Miracle, asking how these political processes could have been related to the dramatic decline in violence. It is argued that the distinctive elements of the Medellín Miracle, which distinguish social urbanism from other international models of urban development, are the political changes that accompanied these policies. The broader significance of the Medellín case is that, if epidemic violence is understood as a question of how power is attained, wielded, and maintained in a certain context, then changes in political processes are as much a factor in the reduction of violence as the iconic buildings and infrastructure projects that have come to symbolise the ‘miracle’.


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