Sunday, August 30, 2009

Medellín: The Comuna 13 District

Once a battleground, Medellin's Comuna 13 now a place of hope.

On October 15, 2002, the residents of Comuna 13 lived in the most dangerous and lawless neighborhood of Medellin, Colombia, caught in the crossfire between heavily-armed rival factions fighting to control this mountainous district of twisting roads and ramshackle homes.

On October 16, 2002, all of that changed.

On that day, 3,000 Colombian soldiers arrived in Comuna 13 to restore order. They were met with violent opposition from gangs and Marxist FARC guerillas, but within 48hours their bloody victory was assured.

At the time, critics asserted that the government action would only lead to an escalation in violence, that order could not be maintained here, and that right-wing paramilitary groups would continue to terrorize the populace. So far, nearly seven years later, those prophecies have not come to pass, largely thanks to the city’s Proyecto Urbano Integral (PUI—Integral Urban Project).

PUI was the brainchild of popular former Medellin mayor Sergio Fajardo, now a candidate for president of Colombia.

“Every reduction in violence, we had to follow immediately—and ‘immediately’ is a key word—with social interventions,” he told Newsweek magazine two years ago.

Four areas of the city, including Comuna 13, were identified as the top priorities for PUI. Carlos Escobar, PUI’s architectural coordinator in Comuna 13, said these were “zones where there was no presence of the state and the quality of life was very low.”

These areas often had little or no infrastructure. The city brought in architects, engineers, social workers, and communication experts to work with the local community to identify needs.

Escobar said the first task for these specialists was to overcome the “mental barrier” of the local population, which had often seen politicians promise improvements in exchange for votes, but never deliver on the promises.

“That’s why sociologists are so important,” he said.

Escobar said local statutes required the involvement of the local community in planning improvements. For example, he said people might say, “We want to create a park in this area.” The people would then be asked questions like, “What are your dreams about a place like this? What do you want to have?”

The specialists draw up plans based on the public input and then present them for review at public meetings. Based on the feedback received, any necessary revisions are made in the plans.

“Even at this stage, the community can say, ‘This is not what we wanted; we need to modify it,” Escobar said.

Once the majority of the community is satisfied with the plans, construction can begin, which provides benefits beyond whatever is being built.

“They want to generate employment, as well,” Escobar said of city officials, “so people from the community can work on the project.”

Once the work is done, the local residents are asked to make a pact with the city -- a promise they will take care of the new addition to their community.

Today, Medellin officials are proud to show off the changes that have come to Comuna 13, as they did earlier this month to a group of five American journalists. Our visit was sponsored by Colombia es Pasion, the organization charged by the national government with improving the country’s image around the world to increase business, including tourism.

Comuna 13 is not a tourist destination, though some people do take the Metro to the San Javier station and then ride the Metrocable. This is one of PUI’s projects, a gondola ski lift without a ski area or skiers. It carries residents from their mountainside homes, some of which are not served by roads, down to the Metro station, parks, and the library. It used to take the people who live at the top of the mountain 40 minutes or more to walk the distance the Metrocable covers in a few minutes.

At the end of the Metrocable line, we were joined for the ride back down by one of those people, a young woman named Melalyn. She had arrived in Medellin in June from northern Colombia.

“I was displaced by drug violence,” she explained through an interpreter. “I came to Medellin looking for a safer place.”

Today, Medellin, once the murder capital of the world, is considered “a safer place,” and the Comuna 13 project has become a model for others to follow.

When they were developing ideas for what to do in Comuna 13, Medellin city officials visited Rio de Janeiro, to study how the Brazilian city was dealing with its notorious favelas.

“Now,” Escobar notes, “the people from Rio come here.”

By Dennis D. Jacobs - August 27
Chicago International Travel Examiner

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