Q&A: Medellín Mayor Turns City Around

Medellín, Colombia, has struggled to shed its notoriety, well earned in the days of Pablo Escobar and the Medellín drug cartel, as "the most dangerous city in the world." But in fact the city has undergone a remarkable transformation in recent years—presided over, since 2003, by Mayor Sergio Fajardo. Not only has the murder rate fallen below that of Washington, D.C. (from a high of more than 500 homicides a month in the early 1990s), but Medellín has also become a showcase for innovative urban planning and social policies. Fajardo, a mathematician, will leave office at the end of this year, succeeded as mayor by his former chief of staff, and speculation about his future in national politics has already begun. He spoke with NEWSWEEK's Daniel Kurtz-Phelan. Excerpts:

When you took over as mayor in 2004, what were the most critical problems facing the city?
Sergio Fajardo: I walked Medellín from end to end to get a clear conception of its problems, going house to house and talking to people. The first problem was inequality, and to start working toward equality you must improve education—public education. Public education must be the motor of social transformation. The second problem was violence. Everyone in Colombia today has lived in a violent society, but in Medellín we had a particular kind of violence because of drug trafficking. It is a violence with deep roots, and it has profound effects on a society, and it is a kind of violence that no other place in the world has the same experience of. But we have had results here. In 1991 there were about 6,500 murders in Medellín—381 per 100,000 inhabitants. Last year, 2006, approximately 700 murders—about 29 or 30 per 100,000 inhabitants. That is less than all other comparable cities in Latin America. My approach was to treat these challenges like math problems.

What was your formula?
Pragmatism built on basic principles, like math. We had to reduce violence, but every reduction in violence we had to follow immediately—and immediately is a key word—with social interventions. The order is important. Social interventions require time and resources to work, so they will have little effect in the midst of such profound violence. It is true that you must have effective social interventions to make sure violence does not return, but first you must do something about violence. I never before in my life thought that I would work closely with the police or that I would call for more police on the streets. But you need security for democracy, and for that we needed more police—as long as they were police who respected human rights, and out of conviction, not just because Human Rights Watch tells them to. Now the police force is the pride of Medellín.

Everyone in Medellín seems to disagree about where you fall on the ideological spectrum—left, right, center. How do you describe your governing philosophy?
We have broken the traditional structure of politics here. In 1999 I got together with 50 people, friends, from different arenas—academia, cultural organizations, social organizations, NGOs, business—all of whom were, in one way or another, interested in working for the city. We realized that we could work, talk, dream, but to really do anything we had to go into politics, because politicians are the ones who have power. So after many years of being outside of traditional politics, we built an independent civic movement. As a mathematician, I think in terms of axioms on which we can construct everything else. And that is how I came up with a proposal for the city. I don't define myself as liberal or conservative, left or right. Those old classifications don't mean anything today in Colombia. Now I can explain why public education must be the engine of social transformation, or why we have to work for equality in order to improve growth, and a conservative person can listen to me and see a lot of reason in what I say. That is what we have achieved: creating a new space to work together. It is a civic philosophy for the 21st century.

How did you go about improving education in the city?
We had to have a comprehensive approach. It is not just about schools. It is about the whole life of a society. And I should emphasize: it is about making public education good, not privatizing education. We went school to school, classroom to classroom, designing and carrying out "quality pacts." We mobilized everyone—business leaders, universities, private schools—to start working in the public education system. We increased spending on education to 40 percent of the municipal budget. We also built a lot of new schools and five "library parks" in the poorest neighborhoods in the city. These are not just libraries; they are community centers, the new axis of the neighborhood. And we made sure that they were beautiful, with spectacular architecture.

Some of your critics accuse you of wasting money on fancy new buildings that do more for your image than for poor communities or poor students.
People who say that a beautiful building doesn't improve education don't understand something critical. We have to build Medellín's most beautiful buildings in the places where there has never been a real state. The first step toward quality education is the dignity of the space. When the poorest kid in Medellín arrives in the best classroom in the city, there is a powerful message of social inclusion. That kid has a newfound self-esteem, and he learns math more easily. If you give the most humble neighborhoods beautiful libraries, you make those communities proud of the libraries. That is powerful. We are saying that that library or school, with its spectacular architecture, is the most important building in the neighborhood. And it is sending the rest of society a very clear message of social transformation, but of social transformation without rage. This is our revolution. The most powerful people see us focusing on the most humble, and they are supporting us—that is an important achievement.

Where are the resources for all this coming from?
From taxes. We have improved transparency in the city's finances, so more people are paying their taxes. When businesses trust that we are not stealing, and they know that we are going to use their money effectively, they pay. Business supports us because they see how much this can help them.

What are the continuing problems in Medellín?
Of course there are still problems. But with our history, the key is to keep building on the positive—because that will make people believe, which will help us solve the problems that remain. We must continue healing the old wounds while making sure that new wounds are not created. We are walking a tightrope, but every day the rope is getting thicker, and at some point it will be thick enough that we won't fall easily.

What about drug trafficking? Many people still have the image of Medellín as the cocaine capital of the world.
Drug trafficking has changed in Colombia. It is not what it was in Medellín 20 years ago. Drug trafficking is not the city's biggest problem anymore.

President Alvaro Uribe, a former mayor of Medellín, has won wide acclaim for his approach to reducing violence nationally, but he has also generated considerable controversy. How do you view his leadership?
I am neither pro-Uribe nor anti-Uribe; as mayor of Medellín, that is not my concern. Our relationship is respectful. I have known him for years. Where we have common interests, we know how to work together well. But we have many obvious differences. I come from a different world. I am a professor, not a warrior—I discuss, I argue. My approach to social interventions shows a different understanding of politics, of society, and of how to solve the problems we face. But, ultimately, with Uribe it is about how we can work together. There are some political leaders who are totally opposed to him and others who want to copy him exactly. I want to take what is valuable in his project and build on it.

People talk a lot about your image: an apolitical professor who wears long hair and jeans.
No one ever thought that a Ph.D. in math would come in and do this. I don't have an image consultant. This is how I was the first time I went out in the street. I am a professor. I love to explain things, and I respond to every question asked. The fact that I come from a different world makes a lot of the traditional politicians angry. They have seen what I've done, and they have started to attack me.

Uribe's second term ends in 2010. Do you want to be president?
I never in my life thought I would ever be mayor. Now you ask if I want to be president. When did I ever expect to have to answer that question? But I know why people are asking: because what we are doing here is very powerful. I am very proud of what we have done, and I know it has significance on a national level. When I leave, I want to travel across all of Colombia to see and listen to and get to know the people, just like we did here at the beginning. The national formula is the same: to maintain important principles, to understand problems, to come up with solutions. Medellín is the star today because we have come through a painful history. The U.S. secretary of commerce has been here twice in a month with American congressmen to show them what we are doing. Medellín has been the most complicated and the most violent city in Colombia, so if we can do it here, it can happen throughout Colombia.

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