Once notorious for its high crime rates in the 80s and 90s, Medellin has transformed into a leading example of social innovation and urban development, garnering international recognition and prestigious awards, including the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize. This remarkable turnaround has positioned the city as a compelling destination for visitors, investors, and global South governments.

Photo Reiseuhu for UNSPLASH

Medellin is a world reference in terms of social transformation. Considered one of the most unsafe cities in the world in the 80s and 90s, it has become one of the most innovative cities in Latin America, which has earned it a series of recognitions and awards such as the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize (recognized as the "Nobel Prize" for urban development), making the city a place of interest for visitors, investors and local governments in the Global South.

The changes that the city has undergone are the result of a sum of efforts and confluences of different factors in the public, private and academic spheres, which have made possible the implementation of projects and programs aimed at urban and social regeneration.

The processes of security and coexistence have been one of the most significant transformation axes of the city. The approach of the Local Administration so far this century has varied according to the challenges and technological advances available, along with a process of transformation and sophistication of the criminal structures present in the city and the region. A high level of investment in infrastructure has been consolidated to strengthen institutional presence in areas with high rates of violence and poverty, together with the development of social and cultural programs to address problems of coexistence, accompanied by policies focused on strengthening security and surveillance technologies. This has led the city to have sustained processes for the improvement of information and data centers for security and coexistence (such as the Information System for Security and Coexistence -SISC- and the SIES-M).

About Medellín

It is the second most populated city in the country, after the capital Bogotá DC, with a total of 2,612,958 inhabitants and a little more than four million in its metropolitan area. It has an annual per capita GDP of approximately US$4,000, which contributes 7% to the national gross domestic product, making it the second most important city in the country in economic terms.

Its relevance in the national panorama was consolidated at the beginning of the 20th century due to the economic growth resulting from the boom of the textile industries. As happened in other sectors with the opening to the global market, the lack of competitiveness and high specialization made it unfeasible to maintain the textile sector in the country. The economic crisis resulting from globalization was compounded by the phenomenon of drug trafficking in the 1980s, an illicit business with a high level of profitability that caused an increase in violence (homicides, kidnappings, terrorist attacks) never before experienced in the city.

In the mid-1990s, the national government and international cooperation agencies, together with a number of social and political actors in the city, began to address this scenario with actions that were developed in the city's social processes and subsequently scaled up by the local administrations, in collaboration with the social sector, the private sector and academia. The transformation of the scenario corresponds to collective actions that consolidate business clusters, enabling economic strengthening in sectors such as energy, construction, industrial and textile, and technology. Policies have been developed to integrate the city's marginalized sectors through public transportation systems, decentralization of security and justice services, investment in improving educational and social infrastructure, and housing improvement and social urban planning projects.

Recently, the city is committed to continue developing an economy focused on technology, so in 2021 it becomes a Special District of Science, Technology and Innovation of Colombia, which gives it powers to define Special Treatment Zones to strengthen and facilitate all kinds of activities focused on Science, Technology and Innovation, enhancing sectors and seeking urban renewal, high accessibility, connectivity and reindustrialization.

Security and coexistence

The city was recognized worldwide for the dominance of the drug cartels, especially the Medellín Cartel. This violent organization has mutated into structures linked to organized crime processes structured in "Combos", which are mostly made up of young men from peripheral neighborhoods who exercise territorial control in middle and low-income neighborhoods.

It is estimated that there are between 350 and 400 "Combos" in the city, which control drug trafficking, extortion and other criminal activities. Part of the efficiency of the business depends on their legitimacy and control in the territories where they commit crimes, so that they become "caretakers" or "vigilantes" of the areas through alternative mechanisms to the state. Their presence in the territories makes them providers of protection, surveillance and conflict resolution and mediation among the inhabitants of the area, among other services, which contributes to increasing their power and social control.

Security and surveillance technologies.

Since 2010, Medellin has invested heavily in security technologies, which has positioned the city as the second with the most surveillance cameras in the country after Bogota, and has allowed it to create a robust integrated system of technologies. The technological approach to security in the city has become a strategy with high political returns for governments. These strategies include the technological provision of a helicopter, the use of drones, the intelligent system of integral mobile monitoring (commonly known as Robocop), and the efforts that have been made to make Medellin the first city in the country to use facial recognition technologies.

In the conversations and research that the Institute has developed since 2021, it has pointed out that technology is a tool that must always be accompanied by a strategy that weighs its pros and cons: it is not a solution in itself for security problems. Therefore, it is relevant to question and raise the conversation about the role of technologies and their real impact on security indicators and, above all, to open spaces for participation and conversation with citizens in order to provide transparent information about their real limitations and possibilities.

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