Medellin: Narcos nightmare or new world city?

For Medellin, Narcos or world city feature by Andrew WightFrom left to right
Judith Bland????n Ram????rez (Mother)Ana Sofia Bland????n (Judith's youngest daughter).
For Medellin, Narcos or world city feature by Andrew WightFrom left to right Judith Bland????n Ram????rez (Mother)Ana Sofia Bland????n (Judith's youngest daughter).
For Medellin, Narcos or world city feature by Andrew WightJudith Bland????n Ram????rez??

For Medellin, Narcos or world city feature by Andrew WightJudith Bland????n Ram????rez??

For Medellin, Narcos or world city feature by Andrew WightJudith Bland????n Ram????rez??

For Medellin, Narcos or world city feature by Andrew WightJudith Bland????n Ram????rez??

For Medellin, Narcos or world city feature by Andrew WightFrom left to right in 4669:
Tania Gamboa Bland????n (eldest daughter of Judith)Sandra Torres (works at the cafe)Nazlin Robledo Bland????n (Judith's middle daughter, the one on track for the scholarship, currently lives with her father)Judith Bland????n Ram????rez (Mother of the three girls plus a son Alexander S????nchez Bland????n who's not pictured)Ana Sofia Bland????n (Judith's youngest daughter).

For Medellin, Narcos or world city feature by Andrew WightFrom left to right in 4669: Tania Gamboa Bland????n (eldest daughter of Judith)Sandra Torres (works at the cafe)Nazlin Robledo Bland????n (Judith's middle daughter, the one on track for the scholarship, currently lives with her father)Judith Bland????n Ram????rez (Mother of the three girls plus a son Alexander S????nchez Bland????n who's not pictured)Ana Sofia Bland????n (Judith's youngest daughter).

Medellin: It would be easy to dismiss the story of Judith Blandon Ramirez as a B-plot in an episode of Netflix's Narcos: a tough-as-nails single mum defying the odds to run a small business and raise a family in the face of local gangs in Medellin, Colombia.

But she is a real person, not a character. And her story ties in with the much more complex story of how Medellin became a modern, innovative city.

In the 1980s and '90s, Medellin was known as drug kingpin Pablo Escobar's personal playground. However, since his death, Medellin has won the World City Prize and received plaudits from the Wall Street Journal as the most innovative city in the world in regards to social development, education and policy.

So how do you sort fantasy from fact in this transformation story, especially when you're in the land of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's magical realism?

More than 20 years ago, this single mother of four became an internal refugee from her birthplace on Colombia's Pacific coast.

Displaced Afro-Colombians like Ramirez make up 10 per cent of the 7.4 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) that the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported in Colombia in 2017. This was the result of more than 50 years of armed conflict between Colombia's central government and a shifting milieu of leftist guerrilla groups, right-wing paramilitaries and vast criminal organisations encompassing drug-running, illegal mining and arms trafficking.

Over a cold glass of guava juice, Ramirez explained that during the '90s she lived in Medellin's most dangerous neighbourhoods because that's all she could afford. Through a turn of luck, she discovered displaced persons were eligible for financial benefits from the Unidad para las Victimas (Victims' Unit).

"I received money, but there were days where we were down to one portion of bread," she says.

While Ramirezwas raising her children, she ran afoul of one of the local gangs (combos) representing one of the major crime groups, after a former partner left town without paying a debt that was roughly equivalent to eight months of minimum wages.

"They threatened me here at the shop, but I asked them who would pay the debt if they killed me," she says. Fortunately, she was able to pay her debt when someone traded it for three meals a day (for life) at her restaurant.

Ramirez, who did not finish grade 7 at school, beamed with pride as she introduced her children. One of her daughters - a grade 9 student - was in the running for a scholarship. "My daughters are what keeps me going, they are my inspiration," Ramirez says.

Entrepreneurial 'antibodies'

From the headquarters of public utilities company Empresas Publicas de Medellin (EPM), Medellin looks like two cities haphazardly merged into one. The gleaming glass and steel of the El Poblado neighbourhood's apartment buildings and hotels stand in stark contrast to the brick and iron-roofed houses of the barrios populares (poor neighbourhoods).

From here, EPM Group's general manager Jorge Londono De la Cuesta paints a rosier picture of Medellin.

"From even before the time of Escobar, entrepreneurship has been in our DNA," he says.

From the late '90s, this spirit has combined with a steady stream of legitimate income for the city's coffers. Although EPM is a multinational company, Londono De la Cuesta says that $US3.2 billion ($4 billion) went to the city government between 2003 and 2013.

EPM has a unique corporate structure; it is a public utility wholly owned by the city of Medellin, but is subject to the provisions of commercial law. Its general manager says because of this structure, half of its profits were re-invested in continued efficiencies and growth, while the other half was reinvested in Medellin.

This led to the construction of the city's famous libraries, sporting facilities and other landmark public architecture. But Londono De la Cuesta doesn't shy away from the city's dark side, describing the city's crime and corruption as "a virus".

"Imagine Medellin is a body and that the private enterprises are antibodies. As long as the antibodies are strong, the body will survive," he says.

The city's mayor Federico Gutierrez Zuluaga also gives credit to the business community. "In the darkest years Medellin lived through, the businessmen decided to stay in the city; taking a gamble on its development. Thanks to that decision Medellin today has a solid business base that has allowed it to become a united and resilient city," he says.

Metro culture

The new Tranvia light rail system, which connects up to a cable car line that ends up near Ramirez's house, is the latest addition to Medellin's Metro system of rail, trams, bus-ways and cable cars - another key to its transformation.

Social management boss of the Metro Juan Correa says they carried an estimated 270 million passengers in 2016, with an average daily user base of 1 million people, 93 per cent of them from working class neighbourhoods.

With a smart card, a 2000 Colombian peso ($1) trip will take you across the whole network. In Medellin, where the minimum monthly wage is about $320, being able to cheaply get all the way into town in 20 minutes is a game-changer.

"More than just saving time or money, the Metro has contributed to a more inclusive culture, because everyone rides the same lines," Correa says.

Mayor Gutierrez says the Metro and other social infrastructure created islands of security and government presence within neighbourhoods formerly completely isolated from the city centre. "It's allowed the arrival of the state to certain corners [of the city] which were immersed in illegalities. It lets the children and young people get to know each other's realities and to have new dreams. It is of utmost importance that children have good role models and dream big, within a legal framework," he says.

The Pax Mafiosa

Unfortunately, award-winning architecture or new trams won't help if people are afraid to leave home.

In 1991, Medellin's murder rate peaked at 375 murders per 100,000 people according to statistics published by Colombia Reports. To put that into perspective crime-ridden Caracas, Venezuela, reported 140 homicides per 100,000 people in 2016.

Following the death of Pablo Escobar in 1993, Diego Fernando Murillo took control of Medellin's underworld. Known as Don Berna (and depicted in Narcos), his near-monopoly over Medellin's crime ecosystem was seen as a key factor in violence levels plummeting - paramilitary groups started to demobilise, guerrilla groups were pushed out and criminal activity became more clandestine.

This downward trend in violence has largely held since, interrupted in 2009 after the extradition of Don Berna to the United States. Since the last clashes in 2013, violence declined rapidly under a so-called Pax Mafiosa, a pact that ensures criminal territories are overlooked by authorities provided relative peace is maintained.

The executive director of Insight Crime, an investigative think-tank that covers organised crime in the Americas, Jeremy McDermott, says that despite lower levels of violence, criminal enterprises are thriving.

"You can't divide the dirty and clean money in this city," he said. Money laundering continues to be a fact of life in Medellin, with police breaking up a $US72 million ($93 million) laundering ring linked to a narco-paramilitary as recently as August 2017.

Which came first, peace or prosperity?

According to the mayor, Medellin's transformation isn't as simple as drawing causal relationships between the lowering of violence and economic development.

Like its geographical patchwork, Medellin's social and economic mix (and the interplay between) seems dizzying complex, but for now, it does seem to work.

Ramirez, back in her cafe, has no doubts about the future.

"Medellin is the best city in the world," she says, smiling.

This story Medellin: Narcos nightmare or new world city? first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.