Security in Medellín: Improvements over Time
The city of Medellín can offer us important advances in terms of citizen security, even in times of Covid-19. With the reduction of economic activity and GDP – like other parts of the country and the world, the economy was greatly affected by the closure of many sectors. This was decreed by the authorities during 2020 and even in 2021 restrictions exist almost daily, to flatten the contagion curve with the stated goal of saving lives. Despite the increase in unemployment and poverty that the pandemic has generated, a crime wave is yet to be experienced. The figures for 2020 and so far in 2021 are very positive.
True Story of a Paisa Friend Who Lives in a Popular Area
Carlos Miguel, a man born in Medellín, tells us that throughout his life he has lived in one of the most humble neighborhoods in the north of the city. Recalling the time of violence – he tells us almost through tears that he still remembers as if it were yesterday when he learned firsthand the meaning of the word: “balacera”, which he had never heard at home, or in the school.
Precisely one day when he was playing soccer with his friends – he was just over ten years old, very close to his house, he heard a deafening noise and almost instinctively ran to hide feeling afraid for his life. At that moment he could hear a powerful burst of shots that rang out from all sides. He closed his eyes and wished to be anywhere else. At that time there was a bloody confrontation between rival gangs – which was very frequent a few dozen years ago in Medellín. When the shooting finally stopped and he was able to leave the place where he was hiding, he could see that the lifeless bodies of 3 people were on the ground, who had become victims of the violence that for many years sowed pain in Medellín. Carlos tells us that it was undoubtedly a hard experience that he has not been able to forget, even after twenty years.
Medellín - A City with a Dark and not so Distant Past
When Colombians or foreigners hear something about Medellín, they almost instinctively think of that terrible time that this city experienced, in which the world’s newspapers reported on the relentless fight that the government was waging against criminal gangs and drug trafficking. At that time, armed groups controlled large areas of the city. Thousands became victims of the violence, as the fight against criminals led to numerous clashes and the regrettable loss of innocent lives in the middle of a fierce pitched battle between security forces and gangs. Fortunately, this war bore its first fruits on December 2, 1993, when the legendary drug lord Pablo Escobar Gaviria was executed by state security forces. Still, even after the death of Pablo, another decade of violence and warring criminal factions plagued the city.
Finally, the reign of terror came to an end in 2002, in an unprecedented military operation in the country’s history. A coalition of civil, military and police forces carried out an attack called: “Operación Orion”, which managed to defeat many of the worst criminals who organized their terror on the city from the confines of San Javier (Comuna 13).
To better understand the historical importance of illicit drug trafficking and its incidence in crime rates, it is estimated that in Colombia drug trafficking generates profits of more than 18,000,000,000 USD per year. This is double the estimated amount for coffee, another famous Colombia export.
Why are drugs such a lucrative business? The answer is not so difficult to understand, if we consider that a kilo of cocaine produced in the country sells on average for $1,260 USD in the local market. However, in the United States the value can reach up to $32,000 USD, and in major European cities it can be even twice as much as that. These large profit margins explain why each year thousands of criminals try their luck in the world of illegal trafficking of these illicit substances.
Every year the authorities seize tons of drugs whose main destination is the market in Europe and the United States. Some experts estimate that for every ton seized, 2 more tons manage to enter the destination countries. Thus, Colombia may export an average of 394-450 tons of cocaine – equivalent to 38% of world trade. The most conservative statistics indicate that the amount of money that large drug traffickers receive in Colombia is the size of the GDP of an entire country like the Dominican Republic; therefore efforts to control the problem are often futile.
How Did Crime in 2020 Compare to Historical Averages?
All foreigners who think of coming to Medellín ask themselves the following question before: Is Medellín safe? & What is happening in Colombia?. When analyzing the official crime figures, a positive trend is clearly observed in terms of a significant reduction in the homicide rate, from 43 to 26 per 100,000 inhabitants. It’s the lowest rate in 40-plus years for which figures are available, and while skeptics will attribute this to lockdowns, it’s encouraging.
Additionally, in 2020 several other positive records were established: the highest number of non-consecutive days without homicides (144 throughout the year), the five least violent months of this decade (January, March, April, November and December) and for the For the first time since the technical crime measurements were carried out, there has been a simultaneous reduction in homicides in 13 of 16 municipalities and in 4 of the 5 townships, including Palmitas, where there were no cases in 2020.
An admirable example that the city gives us has been the aforementioned Comuna 13, where significant efforts have been made to recover spaces that were previously at the mercy of crime. Today, these areas an example of art, culture and the promotion of historical tourism.
The Misery Beyond The Crime Numbers is a Challenge To Continue Advancing
There are some places in the city of Medellín where you might feel scared, for example when walking through the historic center you can realize that behind the current tranquility, there are traces of a current reality. In this area, it is very common to ask for money, and people often look for food scraps in the garbage and recyclable materials to sell and generate some money. These are mostly people who have drug or other mental health problems, and most are unemployed and live on the street. In these precarious conditions, they survive on less than a dollar a day.
Medellin’s society is very diverse. There is a very dynamic middle and working class. However, despite the progress made with the urban and social transformation of the last twenty years, there are still high levels of poverty and inequalities, so it is logical to think that for peace and progress to be sustainable over time, it is essential to continue making progress on these issues and to lift these people out of extreme poverty.
Crimes Against Property
Aside from homicides, another class of crime that has a high incidence in the city is crimes against private property. It is common for people to take special care when walking on the streets, as the theft of smartphones is still very frequent. There is a popular phrase in Paisa language and that they tend to warn tourists when they say: “NO DAR PAPAYA”. This means that you should not show your belongings such as electronic devices or money, since thieves are usually very skilled. They appear from one moment to the next out of nowhere and thus many people have lost their belongings, although this type of theft is rarely carried out with extreme violence.
In 2019, 25,578 cases were reported, most of them occurred in the city center (El Centro – La Candelaria). However, in recent years criminals have begun to operate in more prosperous districts such as El Poblado and Laureles, so the authorities have redoubled efforts and frequent vigilance to control and prevent crime in those areas.
Data From 2021 Shows Continuing Trend
Continuing with the positive balance, at the end of March 2021 again the crime of homicide has been reduced by a percentage of 14.5% compared to the same period in 2020.
Leonardo Buitrago León, Undersecretary of Security of the Mayor’s Office of Medellin, points out that these excellent results are due to a joint effort of society and the authorities and a firm commitment to life. He says that the fight against crime does not rest, because citizens want to maintain peace and security.
He points out that most of the homicide cases that continue to occur to a lesser extent in Medellín are generally due to particular situations, such as conflicts between criminals. Alternatively, they happen as well due to events that occur due to the consumption of alcohol and drugs.
Finally, it is noted that so far in 2021, 47 alleged murderers have been captured, thanks to the unrestricted support of anonymous informants. In these cases, the police offer attractive cash rewards to those who provide information that helps to arrest the criminals. The goal is that the paisas can sleep peacefully knowing that a fight is being waged in the streets to continue advancing in terms of citizen security and whoever violates the rules of coexistence will receive their punishment.
Since the police took control of the most dangerous areas in the city, crime has been on a consistent downward trend. Beyond the numerical reduction of crime rates, it is evident that there is a policy of long-term citizen security. Despite the ups and downs of politics, each elected mayor has respected the social pact and given administrative continuity to the best practices in crime reduction. With the well-being of the citizens of Medellin in mind, it has been possible to advance step by step in this goal.
No city is perfect and there expats should always remain vigilant but Medellín continues to much safer than it was just a few decades ago.