Former mayor of Medellin, Sergio Fajardo
Sergio Fajardo's Speaking Engagement
When: Saturday, November 22
Location: Plaza Major
Time: 9:00 am - 12:00 pm
Contact: 448 6048 / 216 3633
Newsweek - Archive Article Q/A
"The Mathematician of Medellín"
Sergio Fajardo has presided over a transformation of Medellín in recent years.
Newsweek Web Exclusive | Nov 11, 2007
By Daniel Kurtz-Phelan
Medellín, Colombia, has struggled to shed its notoriety, well earned in the days of Pablo Escobar and the Medellín cartel, as "the most dangerous city in the world." But in fact the city has undergone a remarkable transformation in recent years—presided over, since 2003, by Mayor Sergio Fajardo. Not only has the murder rate fallen below that of Washington, D.C. (from a high of more than 500 homicides a month in the early 1990s), but Medellín has also become a showcase for innovative urban planning and social policies. Fajardo, a mathematician, will leave office at the end of this year, succeeded as mayor by his former chief of staff, and speculation about his future in national politics has already begun. He spoke with NEWSWEEK's Daniel Kurtz-Phelan. Excerpts:
When you took over as mayor in 2004, what were the most critical problems facing the city?
Sergio Fajardo: I walked Medellín from end to end to get a clear conception of its problems, going house to house and talking to people. The first problem was inequality, and to start working toward equality you must improve education—public education. Public education must be the motor of social transformation. The second problem was violence. Everyone in Colombia today has lived in a violent society, but in Medellín we had a particular kind of violence because of drug trafficking. It is a violence with deep roots, and it has profound effects on a society, and it is a kind of violence that no other place in the world has the same experience of. But we have had results here. In 1991 there were about 6,500 murders in Medellín—381 per 100,000 inhabitants. Last year, 2006, approximately 700 murders—about 29 or 30 per 100,000 inhabitants. That is less than all other comparable cities in Latin America. My approach was to treat these challenges like math problems.
Sergio Fajardo out on the streets of Medellin
What was your formula?
Pragmatism built on basic principles, like math. We had to reduce violence, but every reduction in violence we had to follow immediately—and immediately is a key word—with social interventions. The order is important. Social interventions require time and resources to work, so they will have little effect in the midst of such profound violence. It is true that you must have effective social interventions to make sure violence does not return, but first you must do something about violence. I never before in my life thought that I would work closely with the police or that I would call for more police on the streets. But you need security for democracy, and for that we needed more police—as long as they were police who respected human rights, and out of conviction, not just because Human Rights Watch tells them to. Now the police force is the pride of Medellín.
Everyone in Medellín seems to disagree about where you fall on the ideological spectrum—left, right, center. How do you describe your governing philosophy?
We have broken the traditional structure of politics here. In 1999 I got together with 50 people, friends, from different arenas—academia, cultural organizations, social organizations, NGOs, business—all of whom were, in one way or another, interested in working for the city. We realized that we could work, talk, dream, but to really do anything we had to go into politics, because politicians are the ones who have power. So after many years of being outside of traditional politics, we built an independent civic movement. As a mathematician, I think in terms of axioms on which we can construct everything else. And that is how I came up with a proposal for the city. I don't define myself as liberal or conservative, left or right. Those old classifications don't mean anything today in Colombia. Now I can explain why public education must be the engine of social transformation, or why we have to work for equality in order to improve growth, and a conservative person can listen to me and see a lot of reason in what I say. That is what we have achieved: creating a new space to work together. It is a civic philosophy for the 21st century.
Biblioteca España in Medellin's barrio Santo Domingo
How did you go about improving education in the city?
We had to have a comprehensive approach. It is not just about schools. It is about the whole life of a society. And I should emphasize: it is about making public education good, not privatizing education. We went school to school, classroom to classroom, designing and carrying out "quality pacts." We mobilized everyone—business leaders, universities, private schools—to start working in the public education system. We increased spending on education to 40 percent of the municipal budget. We also built a lot of new schools and five "library parks" in the poorest neighborhoods in the city. These are not just libraries; they are community centers, the new axis of the neighborhood. And we made sure that they were beautiful, with spectacular architecture.
The education of Medellin.
Some of your critics accuse you of wasting money on fancy new buildings that do more for your image than for poor communities or poor students.
People who say that a beautiful building doesn't improve education don't understand something critical. We have to build Medellín's most beautiful buildings in the places where there has never been a real state. The first step toward quality education is the dignity of the space. When the poorest kid in Medellín arrives in the best classroom in the city, there is a powerful message of social inclusion. That kid has a newfound self-esteem, and he learns math more easily. If you give the most humble neighborhoods beautiful libraries, you make those communities proud of the libraries. That is powerful. We are saying that that library or school, with its spectacular architecture, is the most important building in the neighborhood. And it is sending the rest of society a very clear message of social transformation, but of social transformation without rage. This is our revolution. The most powerful people see us focusing on the most humble, and they are supporting us—that is an important achievement. (continued)
The Transformation of Medellin, Colombia
Michael Paul reports from Plaza Mayor in Medellin, Saturday 21, 2008
The Fajardo team is youthful and Obama like in its youth and enthusiasm. Fajardo spoke to an exuberant crowd, and he was cheered throughout. At the end, many got up on stage and the took photos with the popular former mayor of Medellin.
Sergio Fajardo is expected to announce his official candidacy for President of Colombia in May or June, but today's speech was to enunciate his platform and organize and structure his movement.
The theatre space was nearly packed to capacity and people lined the walls. They were displaying orange and green balloons and waving them about.
Sergio Fajardo speaks at Plaza Mayor in Medellin.