Fifteen years ago, a single mother named Libia Gomez converted part of her modest cinder-block house into a shop selling sundries ranging from pencils to toothpaste. The location was hardly ideal. Gomez lived in Santo Domingo Savio, a onetime squatter community on a steep, forested slope overlooking the Colombian city of Medellín that had evolved into a permanent slum.
Santo Domingo had grown so violent that even the police would not dare to enter. Gomez could see Medellín's city center, a mere two miles to the south, from Santo Domingo, but getting there safely was nearly impossible because traveling down the hill into town would have required crossing multiple zones controlled by rival armed groups. The rest of the city was not much better: Several years after Pablo Escobar, kingpin of the Medellín cocaine cartel, had been gunned down by police while fleeing across the rooftops of the middle-class barrio Los Olivos, Medellín remained the world's most violent city.
Today, Gomez is able to look down on the once impassable route from aboard the Metrocable, a ski-resort-style gondola system that carries residents of Santo Domingo high over the cityscape of red-brick buildings to the metro linking them to the rest of Medellín. Her shop sits in the shadow of the Parque Biblioteca España, an ultramodern library complex that presides over the city like the Spanish citadels of 500 years ago. The surrounding community has become one of the city's most popular tourist draws. "In the old days, my son would be afraid to walk to school. Now he walks freely," Gomez told us.
This is the sort of story people offer when they talk about the "Miracle of Medellín." In 1991, the city had an astronomical 381 homicides per 100,000 residents (by contrast, the murder rate in Ciudad Juárez, the bloody epicenter of Mexico's drug war, was only half that last year). But today Medellín has, incredibly, become as safe as Washington.
Medellín's reinvention holds potentially important lessons not only for the drug war in Mexico, but also for everyone else. Over the past generation, Americans have grown cynical about grand experiments in urban planning and other sweeping social-policy programs. But for most of the world's population, consumed with the necessities of day-to-day existence, getting social services right matters a lot more than ideology, as populist autocrats like Hugo Chávez and Islamist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah have figured out. Think government can't deliver smart, intelligent urban design that changes lives? Travel to Medellín, and it's hard to remember why it is that Americans have given up trying.