Colombia's Medellin pushes slum renewal in shadow of gangs

Wed Sep 9, 2015 8:38pm EDT
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By Anastasia Moloney

MEDELLIN, Colombia (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - On the upper reaches of one of Medellin's poorest hillside slums overlooking a warren of tin-roofed shacks, scores of residents lug wheelbarrows and mix cement as two gang members speed by on a motorbike.

The slum dwellers are helping to create a network of paved paths and steps, vegetable allotments and drainage canals that will wrap around Colombia's second city. The green belt will act both as a buffer to contain further slum sprawl and a forested park through which residents can stroll and cycle.

It's the latest in a series of initiatives by the mayor's office over the past decade focused on once no-go slum areas -- helping Medellin to rebrand itself from a "murder capital" ruled by drug cartels to a city in the vanguard of urban regeneration.

"I'm proud to be part of this change and make my community better. It's something I can tell my children and grandchildren I did. And it gives me a job," said gardener Kelly Ossa, taking a break from the hot midday sun.

The city is no longer at the mercy of Medellin native and drug lord Pablo Escobar after the demise of the world's largest cocaine cartel following his death in 1993.

But other organized crime groups, like the Envigado Office, which traces its roots back to Escobar, along with new gangs linked to former right-wing paramilitaries, hold sway in many poor areas where residents are deeply suspicious of authorities.

Winning over skeptical residents, as well as the gangs, is key to a transformation seen across the city: once neglected slum areas now boast landscaped parks, open-air gyms, schools, playgrounds and community halls where youth orchestras play.

In the precipitous Comuna 13 neighborhood, free electric escalators run alongside rows of brick and wood shacks with brightly painted facades, saving residents a steep climb.   Continued...

A view of the "Comuna 13" neighborhood in Medellin September 8, 2015. Picture taken September 8, 2015. REUTERS/Fredy Builes