Roman Mars: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.
RM: Back in the late 1980s, when Luis Gallo was a little kid growing up in Colombia, he and his brother didn’t have babysitters. They had bodyguards. His parents would send them to school in an SUV that was accompanied by another identical SUV, which was a decoy.
Luis Gallo: Because that meant if one of the vehicles was attacked, there’d be a chance we would not be in it.
RM: That’s Luis.
LG: Our life was strange in many ways back then. My brother and I had our own bedrooms, but every night, our whole family would sleep in the same room. It had a door to the back patio and a ladder ready to use in case we needed to flee. My parents made it seem like we were just having a slumber party.
RM: But the real reason that Luis’ family took these precautions is that Luis’ dad was a Captain in the anti-narcotics unit for Colombia’s National Police. And Pablo Escobar, the notorious drug lord, had declared war on the police. On the whole Colombian state, really.
(Newscaster): It’s become a typical day in Colombia. Three more judges have quit their jobs after being threatened by the murderous drug cartels. The government has imposed a curfew in nine cities in the heart of cocaine country including the cartel’s capital, Medellin.
LG: By the late 80s and early 90s, Escobar was supplying 80% of the world’s cocaine. And the violence surrounding the drug trade had gotten really bad. The epicenter of the violence was Medellin. Escobar’s cartel was based there, and they controlled much of the city.
(Newscaster): Thirteen bombs have gone off in Medellin since the weekend, all aimed at government owned banks, or state liquor stores.
RM: Medellin became the most dangerous city in the world. In 1991 alone, around 6,000 people were killed. The murder rate was almost 400 people per 100,000 residents, which to put things in perspective, that’s three or four times more than the most violent cities in the world today.
LG: But today Medellin is very different. In just thirty years, it’s changed from being the bloody cocaine capital of the world into a place that’s often described as a “model city.” It’s now safer than many cities in the U.S. And amazingly, one of the things that helped to pull the city out of the violence was a whole new approach to urban planning, including a major overhaul of the city’s public transportation system.
RM: Luis’ family experienced Colombia’s many changes. Luis is now a journalist and he’s gonna to help us tell the story of what happened, along with Maria Hinojosa, the host of NPR’s Latino USA. She covered the violence in Medellin back in the 1980s, and she went back again last year to explore the city with Luis.
LG: So, we are here in downtown Medellin. You were here 30 years ago. What was it like?
MH: Yeah, I remember when we came to this particular part, I just remember walking here and feeling very afraid. Feeling very afraid because everybody knew that at any moment, anywhere, a bomb could go off.
RM: Our story today is a collaboration with Latino USA.
RM: Medellin sits in a valley surrounded by steep green mountains. In the city’s early days, the mountains were undeveloped. But during the first half of the 20th century, the city rapidly industrialized. More and more people came to Medellin for manufacturing and textile jobs. And they began building homes and communities up the sides of those mountains. These informal settlements became known as “comunas”.
LG: The comunas were really thought of as separate from the rest of the city below, both because of their geographical distance from downtown, and also because they were neglected by city government. They didn’t receive the same services as other neighborhoods. Public transit didn’t reach them. It would take more than an hour to get from the farthest comunas to the city center.
RM: People in the comunas used to say “I need to go to Medellin to run an errand”, even though they were technically living in Medellin.
LG: But as the manufacturing economy boomed, and as city officials looked the other way, the comunas just kept growing; until the hills above city were crowded with houses stacked on top of each other like colorful boxes.
RM: But by the 1980s, many of Colombia’s manufacturing jobs were moving overseas. And as manufacturing was tanking, the drug trade was skyrocketing. The Medellin cartel began recruiting young people, mostly young men, from the comunas. These were young people who felt disconnected from the wider city, and they didn’t have a lot of other options for jobs.
(Manuel speaking Spanish)
RM: This is Manuel Espinazo. He says that back in 1989, he lived two blocks from where Pablo Escobar grew up, and his group of friends had to make a choice: to be seduced by the drug trafficking life or to continue studying.
MH: You were having to make that decision, am I going to be going and suddenly making fast money dealing drugs, or were you going to kind of you know, become a, something else… what did that look like?
(Manuel speaking Spanish)
LG: Manuel says he started seeing friends with motorcycles and nice clothes. They talked about working for the narcos for a few months to get fast cash. They had money to party on the weekends, and they became the neighborhood’s playboys.
RM: By this point Pablo Escobar had been running the Medellin cartel for more than a decade. Forbes magazine had recently featured him in its “billionaires” issue with the provocative headline: “Presidente Don Pablo?”
LG: And that wasn’t a huge stretch. Through his network of informants, Escobar controlled much of Medellin and other parts of the country. He cultivated a Robin Hood type image, building housing and soccer fields in the comunas. He was a hero to some of Manuel’s friends.
(Manuel speaking Spanish)
LG: Manuel says he played soccer on a dirt field and the games would end at sundown. But one day a rich man came to celebrate the construction of a new lighting system that would allow them play at night. And guess who the man was?
(Manuel speaking Spanish)
LG: Manuel says that Escobar was very different from other rich men because he was generous, he was a benefactor. He was also becoming, in many ways, more powerful than the Colombian state.
RM: To try and solve this problem, Colombian law enforcement began relying on militarized policing tactics. Increasingly violent clashes started happening between the cartel and the police. Law enforcement would go into the comunas to try and control the drug-trafficking; and sometimes they’d end up killing young men from those neighborhoods. Then, after years of conflict between Escobar and Colombian authorities, the U.S. started its War on Drugs and passed an extradition agreement with the Colombian government. That meant that if or when Escobar was captured, he could potentially spend the rest of his life in a U.S. prison.
LG: The violence in Medellin got a lot worse.
(Newscaster): It may have been a bomb that blew up a plane in Colombia today. The Boeing 727 of Avianca Airlines had just taken off from Bogota on a domestic flight.
RM: In November of 1989, the Medellin cartel bombed an Avianca aircraft mid-flight killing all 107 people on board. The cartel was trying to kill a Colombian presidential candidate. The bombing of flight 203 was the deadliest single attack in decades of violence in Colombia.
Two Americans were among the dead, prompting then president George H.W. Bush to offer support to the Colombian forces in their search for Escobar.
LG: With additional American resources, the operatives trained to capture Escobar mounted dozens of raids, but he had so many informants in the government that he kept getting away. And, he retaliated. The Medellin cartel went on a killing spree that shook Colombia, and especially Medellin, to its foundation.
RM: This was when the city became the murder capital of the world.
(Sandra Arenas Speaking Spanish)
LG: Sandra Arenas says it was total chaos. She’s a sociologist in Medellin who’s studied the conflict and how it affected the city.
SA: habian sicarios, habían bandas delincuenciales peleando entre ellas: habian bombas en todos los lugares posibles.
LG: She says there were regular assassinations and fights among rival gangs. There were car bombs going off all the time.
SA: Pero especialmente esa sensacion que la calle era peligroso, que medellin era un lugar peligroso, en cualquier lugar cualquiera puede morir. En ese entonces no solo morian sicarios y policias, murieron muchas personas de Medellin.
LG: She says a sense of fear took over the streets. There was a feeling that anyone could die at anytime. Not only cartel members and police officers. Anyone.
RM: Public spaces that had once been lively started emptying out. To maintain control, the cartel imposed a curfew. Escobar’s men would throw leaflets from helicopters ordering people to stay inside past 8pm.
LG: The violence felt indiscriminate. Arenas described the era as feeling like a “long, black night.”
SA: la violencia era indiscriminada como una noche negra extendida
LG: Of Escobar’s top lieutenants, only four are left alive today, and three of them are still in prison abroad. The only one who is alive and in Colombia is Jhon Jairo Velasquez, also known as “Popeye”, or “Popeye” in English.
JJV: El año 1989 era el año más importante y está todo el huracán de la guerra en el año 89.
Actor: The year 1989 was the most important in the hurricane that was the war.
RM: That’s Popeye, Pablo Escobar’s right hand man and top assassin. He served 23 years in prison, but he can still vividly recall the most intense year of the conflict.
JJV: Estamos combatiendo en las calles, estamos matando policías, estamos dándonos plomo en las calles, cuadra a cuadra están estallando carros bomba en Medellín.
Actor: We are fighting in the streets, we are killing police officers, and having shootouts in the streets, block by block car bombs are going off in Medellín.
RM: Popeye would eventually admit to killing over 250 people. And for this, he had help. He used to operate in the comunas, getting to know the young men who lived in those impoverished and ignored neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city. Then he’d recruit them and train them as “sicarios” or hitmen.
LG: Escobar and his top leaders, like Popeye, had figured out how to exploit the geographic fragmentation of Medellin. They knew the kids in the comunas didn’t have a lot of opportunities and so that’s where they focused their efforts.
RM: Even now he can’t resist recruiting in a way, talking up how exciting it was to work for Escobar.
JJV: Mira Pablo Escobar para nosotros no era un patrón, un amigo, era un dios. Pablo Escobar Gaviria siempre nos dio mucho respeto, siempre comiamos en su mesa, estabamos en sus orgias. Por pablo escobar nos hicimos matar y fuimos a proision, el cartel de medellin era una gran familia.
Actor: Pablo Escobar for us was not a boss, or a friend, he was a god. Pablo Escobar Gaviria never disrespected us, we would eat at the table with him, we were in his orgies, we would die for Pablo and would go to prison for him, the Medellin cartel was a big family.
RM: When Maria Hinojosa, Luis’ reporting partner, was a younger reporter, she came to Medellin to cover the conflict for Rolling Stone and other news outlets. And she remembers getting threats from the cartel. And Popeye tells her that, yeah, she was being watched.
JJV: Mira los mensajes eran correctos, el patrón siempre notificaba a los periodistas para que se fueran. Esos mensajes eran correctos, el patrón notificara a periodistas para que se fueran, porque antes dale gracias a dios que no te ejecutamos. Corriste riesgo te hubiéramos podido ejecutar pero en una guerra hay que darle plomo a todo el mundo seamos sinceros estabamos en una guerra Maria.
Actor: Yeah, that’s right, we sent those messages. The boss always notified the journalists so they would leave. You should thank god we didn’t kill you. You were at great risk of us killing you because in a war you have to shoot everyone — let’s be honest, we were at war Maria.
LG: A war that my father also fought, as a Captain for Colombia’s National Police.
RM: Because of his father’s role, Luis and his brother had to learn things that most little kids don’t have to deal with, learn about, like when Luis was 5 or 6 years old, there was an explosion at a mall nextdoor.
LG: It was strange because it was so close to our house, and I remember asking my mother if it was safe to return to the mall. Not long after that, my father left the anti-narcotics unit and joined the national oil company. He was the head of security and logistics for an oil pipeline being built through dangerous territory. It went through both narco-controlled land, and FARC territories.
RM: The FARC is short for the “Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia”, were a leftist guerrilla group who took up arms against the government in 1964. By the late 80s, they were the largest rebel group in Latin America; and, at the same time as the Medellin cartel, they started drug-trafficking and kidnapping to fund their war against the state.
LG: One weekend, while my mother, my brother and I were out of town visiting my grandmother, we turned on the TV and saw breaking news that FARC rebels had attacked the pipeline where my father was working. The news anchor said the rebels had taken hostages. And one of those hostages was my father.
LG: In the past, when he was with the National Police, my father had fought those same FARC insurgents and they knew who he was: their enemy. Plus, my father was easy to recognize, standing tall, at about 6’ 3”, slim, with an air of pride and elegance that made him stick out in a crowd.
LG: So when my mother saw this on TV, she said she knew my father would die.
LG: The FARC rebels eventually freed the other hostages but they kept my father; they held a war tribunal, and then executed him.
LG: Right before his death, my father was able to leave a message that would later get passed on to my mother. He told her that she knew how to be strong, they had prepared for this moment, that it was now her duty to raise us and get us ahead in life, and that he was sorry, he was sorry that their time had run out so suddenly.
MH: How old were you?
LG: I was almost 6 years old, the funeral was paid for by the military, national police, the whole ceremony, it was surreal. I remember at the funeral home and asking when is he going to wake up, when is this over, is he going to wake up and play?
LG: Just like my family, there were many other families in Medellin that were mourning. The same year of my father’s death, in 1991, the city’s murder rate peaked. The cartel created fear through the idea that violence can strike anyone, at anytime.
RM: Around this same time, Escobar made a deal with the Colombian state. The extradition of Colombian citizens to the U.S. had just been prohibited by a newly-approved Colombian constitution, so that possibility was now off the table. Escobar agreed to surrender to authorities and to stop all criminal activity; in exchange for a reduced sentence and preferential treatment, including no extradition to the United States.
LG: And he got very preferential treatment. Escobar was locked up in his own luxurious private prison, built especially for him. It was called “La Catedral” and it featured a soccer field, a bar, a giant doll house, a jacuzzi, and a waterfall.
RM: Then it became clear that Escobar was continuing to orchestrate criminal activities from within the prison. Authorities made plans to move him to a new location, but Escobar escaped before they could.
LG: There was a manhunt, and in December 1993, Escobar died in a shootout.
RM: But even before Escobar died, the city had undertaken an ambitious new project to try to figure out how to pull Medellin out of the drug-fueled violence that had affected the city for so long.
SA: De una gran tragedia también ese es el momento donde la ciudad empieza a encontrar las claves para salir de esta situación y ahí es donde se dan las pautas para la transformación posterior de Medellín
LG: This is Sandra Arenas again. She says that it was during the worst of the violence that Medellin began to figure out the formula for its own transformation.
RM: What happened was the national government sent policymakers out into the neighborhoods of Medellin, especially the most remote comunas to hold public forums and to meet with people from all across the city.
SA: y quien iba a los foros? Iban los líderes comunitarios, los educadores, la iglesia, educadores, funcionarios públicos…
LG: Arenas says these meetings were attended by community leaders, teachers, religious figures, and public servants. Academics, artists, and everyday citizens came too.
SA: En esos foros se pensó que la ciudad y los ciudadanos necesitaban espacios, espacios para reunirse, espacios para hablar..
LG: Arenas says that in the forums, they figured out that the city needed to reclaim public spaces. Places where people could meet up and to talk.
RM: Many of these spaces, like parks and plazas had been abandoned because people were afraid to be outside with all the violence.
LG: People also said the city needed to invest in community groups. There were already lots of artists collectives and community organizations doing important work in the comunas. They just needed more support.
RM: And finally, the city could no longer neglect and ignore the comunas on the steep hills above the city center. Those neighborhoods needed to be integrated with the rest of Medellin. The city needed a modern metro system.
NA: El transporte publico y todo el sistema en Medellin se ha entendido mas como un proceso de inclusión.
LG: That’s Natalia Castaño; and she says that the public transportation system became a way to create a sense of inclusion throughout the city. Castaño is an architect and she helped to implement some of the ideas that came out of those early community meetings.
RM: In 1995 the Medelllín Metro opened, linking parts of the previously fragmented city. The richest southern district was now easily connected with the poor comunas to the north.
NA: Se estaba viviendo un momento muy crítico por todos los actos violentos que se estaban dando, carros bomba, sicariato… y pues claramente la infraestructura del Metro podría ser un foco de un objetivo.
LG: Natalia says, they were living in a time when violent attacks, car bombs, and assassinations were common, and obviously the metro’s infrastructure could be targeted. The drug cartel hitmen were part of a conservative Medellin culture and many of them were Catholic. So the city came up with the idea of placing a statue of the virgin Mary in each one of the metro station. They thought it would be a reminder to keep things calm and peaceful on the trains.
RM: To complement the metro, the city built something else: an innovative system of cable cars that went right up the steep mountainsides to link the comunas to the rest of the city. And this made a huge difference. It had once taken people in the comunas over an hour to get to the city center. Now it took more like 15 or 20 minutes.
LG: Before, people in the comunas used to say, “I need to go to Medellin to run an errand”. Now they felt like they were part of Medellin, like they belonged.
RM: There was other investment in the comunas too. The city built big public libraries, parks, soccer fields, job training centers, and health clinics. And they poured money into already existing artist’s collectives and community organizations.
NA: Por qué. Porque entendíamos que era la zona con mayores deudas que se tenía en la ciudad tanto por la planificación que se tuvo por una ausencia del Estado.
LG: Natalia says it’s because the city had come to realize that they owed the comunas. Those neighborhoods had been neglected and underserved in the past.
RM: In a way, Medellin’s big innovation was to tackle crime and violence not through more policing, but through urban planning, infrastructure, and social programs. They invested in neighborhoods that had been the most isolated, and where the cartels had previously had the most success recruiting members.
LG: And the city started to change. Commute times dropped, soccer fields stayed lit up into the night, the city built inviting new outdoor spaces, and the streets became busy again.
RM: And along with all these changes, the murder rate plummeted, by ninety percent; from its peak in 1991 to today.
RM:: The approach to urban planning that developed in Medellin has now become known as “social urbanism.” It was a grassroots approach, not a top-down one. And people all over the world now look to Medellin as an example for how to do this well.
Of course, there were other reasons the violence declined in Medellin. The Medellin cartel was dismantled, the economy was getting stronger, and a series of progressive mayors kept building on each other’s work; but the urban planning and public transportation did play a big role.
LG: Maria and I wanted to see this change for ourselves, so we made our way to comuna 13, historically one of the most violent and stigmatized neighborhoods in the city.
RM: Comuna 13 is a dense neighborhood built on a steep hillside; and now, running right up through the middle of it are these massive outdoor escalators.
MH: Like what’s an escalator doing in the middle of an outdoor community? And there’s another escalator! Whoa. Just the notion that you’re riding escalators up a hill, literally and it’s taking you up a city on escalators that are outdoors but what you’re also seeing is everywhere you turn there’s art. Huge mural art at every turn.
[Sound of kids rapping]
LG: Up at the top of the escalator, we see huge paintings and kids breakdancing and beatboxing.
RM: 30 years ago, this neighborhood was a dangerous place. Police would’ve been afraid to come here. And now it’s flourishing with art and color and tourists from all over the world.
RM: Foreign tourism has gone up by 250 percent in Colombia in the last decade. And many of those tourists are coming actually because of the city’s drug-trafficking legacy. It’s something the locals call “narco-tourism.” Even Popeye is cashing in on this type of tourism, which has only been amplified by the hit Netflix show, Narcos. He leads drug related tours of Medellin, taking people to sites around the city, like Pablo Escobar’s grave.
“Popeye Tour Tape” Hey guys we’re here with Medellin City Services, this is the stuff you get to do if you come see us. I’m here with Popeye, Pablo’s top killer, at Pablo’s grave. Say something for them, Popeye.
RM: And it’s good that Medellin is safe enough for tourists now. But there’s also something… uncomfortable about knowing that Popeye is now profiting off a glorified version of the city’s violent past.
RM: The city has a complicated relationship with this kind of narco-tourism. One of the main narco-tourism sites is a place called Edificio Monaco — it’s the building compound where Pablo Escobar used to live with his family, and tourists love to visit it. But Medellin’s current mayor, Federico Gutierrez, says that they’re actually planning to tear down Edificio Monaco
FEDERICO GUITIERREZ: Vamos a demoler el Edificio Mónaco y vamos a construir un parque en honor a las víctimas. Y demoler no significa esconder esa realidad, sino transformarla a favor de las víctimas.
LG: He says in its place they’re going to build a park in remembrance of the victims; not to hide that history but to transform it. Because part of healing is not forgetting.
FG: Definitivamente tenemos tenemos que trabajar muy duro, y nunca ocultar lo que paso en medellin porque aqui pasaron cosas terribles, y justamente eso es lo que hizo que hiciéramos tocar fondo y que entendiéramos que teníamos que unirnos como sociedad.
LG: He says that the terrible things that took place in the city can’t be forgotten, because that’s what made the city hit rock bottom. And hitting rock bottom is what eventually made people come together again as a society.
RM: It’s undeniable that Medellin today is a different city. There’s still massive inequality and drug trafficking, there are still criminal gangs that control parts of the city and sometimes extort people and businesses. But it’s way more democratic, inclusive, and peaceful than it was 30 years ago.
And today, you can take a trip across town that would’ve been impossible a few decades ago. In the morning, you can get on the metro downtown, in a station decorated with virgin mary statues. You can ride up into the comunas on an outdoor escalator that carries you past murals and beat-boxers. And then, as evening descends, not worrying about any curfew, you can hop on a cable car and float back down the mountainside, the slopes of the comuna softening behind you in the twilight the lights of the city center becoming clearer as you draw closer and closer. Its streets and shops and busses bustling with life. With people from all over Medellin, from all over the world; a city finally connected.