The fortunes of Colombia’s second largest city are taking an unexpected turn for the worse. Heralded as the "Medellin miracle" by local authorities some years back, violent crime in the city´s slums or Comunas is fast spiralling out of control. Mafia-style killings, violent clashes, police retaliation, arbitrary detentions, and forced displacement are all on the rise.
Once credited with leading the country´s renaissance, Medellin is now receding to the more brutal Middle Ages. A spate of high profile assassinations of musicians is a tangible sign of the city’s decline. A teenage member of a local criminal gang shot and killed hip hop star Elider Valera, aka “El Duke”, in late October. Just a few days ago Roberth Steven Barrera, popularly known as “Garra” also died in a hail of bullets. Both artists routinely denounced violence and the militarization of society in their lyrics.
Their deaths must be added to a grisly toll of artists killed in the Medellin´s Comunas over the past few years. The sense of fear on the city’s streets is palatable. More than sixty musicians were threatened with death immediately after El Duke´s funeral. The ceremony was considered a provocation by armed criminal groups or BaCrim as they are known in Colombia. Predictably, hundreds of people fled Comunas 8 and 13 with their families, including the rapper groups Son Bata and La Elite. What is not clear is whether the targeting of musicians represents a calculated plan or whether it is instead a symptom of wider disorder in these neighborhoods.
Making matters worse, the city’s police and the country’s armed forces launched heavy-handed operations to tamp down local unrest. As the crackle of gunshots rings throughout the city, local residents see unsettling echoes of the past. During the 1990s, Medellin was considered to be the most violent city in the world with a homicide rate exceeding 350 deaths per 100,000, and lorded over by powerful drug lords such as Pablo Escobar. And following the killing of two police men in a shoot-out with gang members late last month, the police are in little mood to compromise. Confronted with what they see as gang-related violence, police operations are adopting ever more brutal and repressive tactics. While expressing sympathy for the deaths of policemen, Comuna 13 resident and activist Lukas Jamarillo is concerned with how, “the police come in aggressively and are focused on hard metrics: catching criminals and dismantling illegal networks”. Heavily armed security forces are shaking down and extorting ostensibly pacifist Rastafarians and Reggae artists. Their forceful methods are perpetuating stigmas while eroding what little trust and solidarity remains with community residents.
Notwithstanding ritual displays of captured guns and gang members in the national newspapers, some locals feel that the Medellin authorities are failing in their duty to provide security. This may be due to a gap in the capacities of the police force, according to Mayor Anibal Gaviaria. And as opposition to police brutality continues to mount, it is becoming obvious that a change of tune is urgently required.
A new approach, Jamarillo contends, “should refocus attention to promoting personal safety and security, adopt more accountable and communicative measures, and treat people with dignity and civility”. This recent wave of violence should be set against remarkable progress in Medellin during the past two decades. The city´s previous mayors, including Sergio Fajardo and Alonso Salazar, are widely credited with improving public security and expanding access to basic services, including to poorer areas. In less than a decade, formerly gang-held territory was recovered and new ways of physically and symbolically connecting the city were piloted, including the renowned Metrocable (cable-cars). What is more, a strategy of proximity policing and local patrolling was introduced to marginalized Comunas.
After years of innovation, however, the city is reverting to old ways. The recent surge of violence reveals the fragility of past efforts to bring security to citizens. Yet the situation can be reversed. New tactics are needed to recover trust, including a greater emphasis on restoring safety to the streets – especially for young people. There should be less emphasis on killing and capturing Mafioso or small time drug dealers. As Jamarillo observes, “murders here represent a failure of our whole society … we propose a strategy that celebrates life, promotes reconciliation, and recovers territory”. Ultimately, the police must demonstrate that they are in the business of protection and not punishment.