Colombia’s reincarnation

The Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, whose story was chronicled in the wildly popular Netflix series “Narcos,” made Colombia synonymous with the cartel, cocaine, and violence. From an almost failed state with countless problems of drug trafficking, violence, and guerrilla warfare, Colombia seems to be opening a new era of change. How did Colombia achieve such a remarkable transformation?

Colombia’s violence started at the midpoint of the twentieth century. Several armed guerrilla groups emerged during this period, also known as La Violencia. Created in 1964, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) was the country’s most prominent and best-equipped guerilla organization. Due to the fragility of state control, guerrilla forces created extensive strongholds in many areas where they implemented local government policies and exercised significant control over the local population. The guerrillas gradually gained strength in partnership with the drug cartels, which provided them with weapons.

For twenty years, cartels effectively took over the country. Founded and led by Pablo Escobar, the Medellín cartel was the first major Colombian drug group to emerge in history. It rapidly became a ruthless organization, systematically kidnapping or murdering those who resisted the cartel’s intimidation, including politicians, journalists, and innocent bystanders. Violent crime tripled between the 1970s and 1990s. Escobar wielded tremendous influence and wealth, with a reported worth of 25 billion dollars. The drug trafficker had so much money to spend that he had a 7.7-square-mile estate, a private airport, and an actual zoo with giraffes, lions, elephants, and hippos. Eventually viewed as a preeminent threat by the authorities, Escobar was caught and killed by a Colombian police unit in December 1993. 

Although the Medellín cartel was partially dismantled, cocaine trafficking became the economic and commercial base of the country for years to come. The power vacuum left in the illegal drug business by the death of Escobar was sought to be filled by FARC and other paramilitary and drug trafficking groups. During Escobar’s reign, Colombia was not a big coca producer. The cartels used to import coca seeds and paste from Bolivia and Peru. The coca products were processed into cocaine in Colombia and then smuggled through most of the trafficking routes into the United States, the world’s largest consumer of cocaine and other illegal drugs. Between 1993 and 1999, Colombia became the leading global producer of raw cocoa, refined cocaine, and one of the major exporters of heroin. 

Despite enduring years of high crime and violence until recently, Colombia achieved what many thought was impossible. After years of painstaking negotiations and political obstacles, the Colombian government and the FARC rebel movement signed a peace agreement in 2016, ending a five-decade-long conflict. Since then, safety conditions have improved, and the economy has rebounded. Colombia has become a strengthening middle-income country with a lot of potential, prompting many businesses to relocate to Colombia to take advantage of its growth opportunities. 

The country’s second-largest city Medellín is one of the few cities that has undergone an enormous transformation. It all began in 2003 when Sergio Fajardo was elected mayor of Medellín. The reforms he led focused on education and community-building; he aimed to restore peace and equality among residents and prevent youngsters from falling into criminal behaviors.

Edgar Jimenez | Flickr

The city government invested heavily in its poorest neighborhoods that creep up the hills. Medellín created extensive transportation systems to give people living in the deprived areas of the city more accessible access to economic opportunities in the downtown area. The Metrocable, an aerial cable car similar to a ski lift, has become the emblem of Medellín’s transformation. Taking a ride on the Metrocable is cheap and easy. Likewise, a giant 384-meter covered outdoor escalator was built in Comuna 13, the “thirteenth commune” of Medellín located on one of the hillsides. These groundbreaking transportation systems have significantly reduced the commuting time of the population. The residents of Comuna 13 who have long had to make a long and sweaty climb of hundreds of steps – the equivalent of a 28-story building – can commute conveniently to the town center in about six minutes.

Moreover, the poorest slum housing now has adequate and reliable access to water and electricity. The city also built an extensive network of quality public libraries, schools, parks, and other facilities citywide. These far-reaching measures helped the city turn a page on its bloodied past, dramatically easing poverty and crime. 

Although many problems still afflict Medellín, the city has established itself as a trailblazer for social inclusion and innovation in Colombia and Latin America. Today’s Colombia is both beautiful and complex, but the country intends to do more and better. The government wants to be seen as a nation focused on protecting its biodiversity with ambitious climate-change targets. Colombia has committed to reducing its carbon emissions by at least 20 percent by 2030, with plans focusing on tackling deforestation and creating renewable energy sources. As today’s one of the strongest-performing economies in Latin America, Colombia is progressing forwards, accepting its past, and moving toward a brighter future.

Lucile Guéguen

Insight Crime, Colombia’s Criminal Evolution 25 Years After Pablo Escobar’s Death
Time, What to Know About the Origins of Colombia’s FARC
Journal of Illicit Economies and Development, Colombia, the Drug Wars and the Politics of Drug Policy Displacement – from La Violencia to UNGASS 2016

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