By Stephanie Nollen

Published in The Globe and Mail, on Monday, Dec. 22, 2014

The transformation of Medellin must rank as the most remarkable urban redemption project in modern history. Two decades ago this city’s very name was a one-word synonym for “murderous-drug-and-crime-ridden-Latin-American-hellhole.” The drug baron Pablo Escobar ruled from a hilltop fortress, and his henchmen set off bombs in the middle of the city and executed police in their beds.

And today, in that same neighbourhood from which Mr. Escobar once ran a cocaine empire bringing in $60-million (U.S.) a day?

Slip ’n’ slide. Kids keep sneaking into the bathroom in the new community centre and stealing soap in the new community centre to suds up their shorts and slide down the wheelchair ramp into the fountain. There are toddlers playing clapping games in the free early-childhood program, and grannies learning Internet skills in the computer lab.

The city’s richest neighbourhoods are leafy and posh, full of boutiques and bookstores and sidewalk cafés. But its poorest are equally welcoming of strangers these days, humming with commerce and people on their way to work and school.

Medellin used some predictable methods to enact this transformation, including military raids into the most violent neighbourhoods.

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“We need to physically connect people with one other – to get people to mix and get to know what’s over there,” said Hector Cruz. An architect with the city’s metro company, he is in charge of project to take the tram system from the city centre up into another comuna. He gestured over the new tracks towards the shantytown on the opposite hill. “That area was supposed to be ‘bad.’ People didn’t go there.” That was a couple of years ago. Now there is a city-built basketball court, a goldfish pond – and a bridge.

All of this was dreamed up by Sergio Fajardo, who was elected mayor in 2003. A journalist turned mathematician turned politician, he ran as an independent, and managed to get buy-in from all corners for his schemes. Mr. Fajardo, who today is the Governor of the state in which Medellin sits, was assisted by the fact that he did not lack for cash. A state-owned company supplies the city’s energy, water, telecoms and waste processing. It is almost improbably well-run and profitable, and mandated by law to allot at least 30 per cent of its profits to the city budget – $600-million this year alone. Over the past 10 years, Medellin built 120 schools and nine of the signature library parks. A third of the city budget goes to education, including the much-lauded early childhood program called “New Beginnings.”

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