Sergio Fajardo is the public face of change in the Colombian city of Medellín. He speaks about the origin and focus of his ambitious political project, which brought infrastructure, beauty and citizen entitlement to areas once ravaged by cocaine wars

Words by Juan Diego Mejia | 20 May, 2014

Built in a valley bisected by the Medellín River, and surrounded by mountains giving a small taste of the rugged geography of the entire province of Antioquia, the city of Medellín has a population of 2.5-million and is the second most important city in Colombia for trade and industry. Founded in 1675, Medellín pretty much retained its village character well into the 20th century, growing slowly until the 1920s when hundreds of rural families arrived in search of work in the textile mills. In the 1950s, this urban migration was accelerated by the outbreak of partisan violence that ravaged Colombia for more than a decade. On the hillsides of Medellín, entire neighbourhoods were built and slowly began to replace the green of the mountain with the red of bricks.

Medellín was the birthplace of large manufacturing companies that eventually succumbed to the competition from international markets. The Coltejer Tower, owned by one of the most important textile companies from that time and resembling the form of a weaving machine, is the tallest building in the city. Today, Medellín is a highly regarded Latin American fashion hub hosting large events and attracting experts from all over the world. The city is brimming with optimism, which is in stark contrast to the 1980s and 1990s, when Medellín was the epicentre of the drug war involving crime boss Pablo Escobar and other members of what became known as the Medellín Cartel.

Amidst a battle to control the cocaine trade, the city experienced years of terror resulting in the interruption of its development. Fear dominated Medellín, until a social engine comprised of business owners, cultural promoters and social activists began to explore ways to move past this dark chapter in the city’s history. The efforts of this broad-based social movement were capped by the election, in 2004, of Sergio Fajardo. Following a successful three-year term in office, marked by urban and moral transformation, Fajardo became the governor of the province of Antioquia. Now 57, Fajardo was raised in a highly demanding academic environment. He graduated as a mathematician from the University of Los Andes in Bogotá where he also completed his post-graduate studies. Later, he studied at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he received his doctorate and also achieved high recognition for his work. His life looked set to be one involving research, scientific publishing and scholarly work to solve ancient enigmas. There was no sign he would shift to a political life.

Interviewed on the 12th floor of the Antioquia Government Building, Fajardo spoke about the difficulties his movement, the Grupo Compromiso Ciudadano (Citizens Commitment Movement, also sometimes translated as Citizen Engagement), faced in the two elections before his resounding victory in 2003. It is a story of how Medellín was able to exit the deadly alley it had ventured into two decades earlier.

Juan Diego Mejia: Your movement came to power with no previous political experience. How did you manage to secure citizen support?

Sergio Fajardo: We started by wearing the city on our skin. It was the result of walking each and every corner of Medellín for years. The city permeated our flesh from all that walking and talking. We felt it, smelled it, touched it, heard it. I remember the first time we went up to Santo Domingo Savio [an informal settlement] in 2000. I found a group of people lined up who would only look to the ground. I had never been anywhere in Medellín where people looked down. They had clearly been oppressed and we took a chance by making direct contact without intermediaries. We would give them flyers, put up banners, spend time with residents on the street corners. That’s how we established a relationship.

JDM: Is that what distinguished you from traditional politics?

SF: I believe that addressing people with respect is one of the powerful tactics that set us apart. I have a profound love for Medellín; it is not simply a project. The way we have entered politics is different from conventional practice. Generally, the first step is to aim for a seat in the city council instead of going for the mayor’s office directly. We decided to go for the mayor’s post at once and began to build a city project. Then we worked to convene the people who had been thinking of and working for a new Medellín amongst different sectors.

JDM: How were you able to unite such a diverse group?

SF: I remember sitting in a tango bar called Homero Manzi with journalist Alsonso Salazar and novelist Laura Restrepo in 2000. We spoke about Medellín, about its inequalities, the need to offer the city an alternative, and Laura said why not build a tape or ribbon going from El Poblado, a wealthy neighbourhood in the south, to Moravia, a former dumpsite in the north, from the neighbourhoods of the rich to those of the poor, a tape uniting the city. That night we simply reflected and dreamed out loud but the following day, she wrote me a note on one of her books: “You are the tape.” I understood that I could be that binding factor throughout the city, talking to the rich and the poor. I would be that tape.

JDM: What did you know about the city at that point?

SF: Alonso took me to places I had never seen. I always speak of our first visits to informal settlements. I remember meeting Froylán, with Adolfo and Juan de Dios Graciano at District “12 October”. There we learnt politics one-on-one and connected with the city in a special way, so that when we took office we already carried Medellín in our heart and were able to convene around our project those working and studying the city. I stopped lecturing at the University of Los Andes and moved to Medellín. We worked with discipline. I was at the office by 8am every day; I attended each meeting and participated in addressing all issues. That encouraged the rest of the movement.

JDM: Traditional politicians speak to multitudes. Your party speaks to small groups.

SF: Thinking of that period I recall specific anecdotes. Once, we attended a meeting in Altavista, one of the five small rural counties within the municipality of Medellín, on a Saturday afternoon. When we arrived only four women were there because on that day the conservative party had sent buses to the area to pick people up and take them to a free concert at the Pablo Tobón Uribe Theatre. The women apologised on behalf of those who had left but we delivered the programme as we would have done to the most influential business owners. We treated each individual the same. If we hadn’t done things that way we would have never achieved change in Medellín. That is very important for us. It was the way in which we established a relationship with people that broke the electoral machinery.

JDM: What was the reaction of the traditional political class of the city to the popularity of your proposal?

SF: We won without paying for a single vote. We defeated the opposition without negotiating with them. In 2003, a month before elections, the opposition offered to withdraw and support us but I thought that accepting this state of affairs, after four years of campaigning against corruption and politicking, would mean death. We didn’t take it and were therefore free to govern. We had a clear agenda—it was anti-corruption and in favour of education and citizen culture—and so we started to work.

JDM: Why did you decide to first tackle the physical city?

SF: The city needed a new skin because it had been deeply touched by violence. Fear enslaves, it divides and leads everyone to think about saving themselves at any cost, which goes against building citizenship. Citizens ought to encounter each other in public spaces. We knew that to fight fear we needed to come together again, but our public spaces were charged with death. We knew we needed to convene around education, science, technology, innovation, entrepreneurship and culture.

JDM: In your government, a strategy for Integral Urban Projects was promoted with a focus on investing in certain areas. How did you prioritise areas for spending?

SF: The expression Integral Urban Projects (Proyecto Urbano Integral in Spanish, or PUI) came about as a strategy to deal with areas hardest hit by violence and neglect. We made the decision of targeting the northeast zone for the first PUI. At the same time, however, we built library parks in other parts of the city, we went into schools across all sectors, intervened in all communities and were always communicative about our activities. That was the case of the San Javier Library Park. We announced that a library park would be built there and when architect Javier Vera won the bid we said, “Here are the plans, and here is the architect.” We then organised group workshops so people could understand the process. That is how we were able to ensure each step was coherent with policy and that people felt our intentions were genuine.

JDM: You always said that public works in popular neighbourhoods must be beautiful. What is the role of aesthetics?

SF: For us everything was exciting. We were changing the skin of the city under the premise “the most beautiful to the most humble”. Every word we spoke was linked to the things we were doing on the ground. It was a thrill for us. The children’s science museum Parque Explora was growing, the botanical gardens were transforming, library parks were being built, and in that process the city’s history was transformed through public works.

JDM: Did you ever consider public service during your life as a scientist?

SF: There are events that mark one’s life. In 2001 I noticed a small spot on my right arm. I went to see a doctor who had been a classmate and I was diagnosed with Cutaneous Lymphoma type B. I had to undergo twenty sessions of radiotherapy. My personal situation was also very difficult as I was separating from my wife. One day, while I was on my bicycle going down the beltway near Colegio Nueva Granada, a high school in Bogotá, a tube blew up. I fell, scraped my skin. With a wound resembling a third degree burn and a damaged rotator cuff, I still managed to get into a taxi. In these precarious conditions I went to the radiotherapy session alongside other patients in advanced stages of cancer. It was during that session that I heard, while I was lying on the stretcher, that the World Trade Centre towers in New York had been struck. I thought they had made a mistake—those twin towers could never be toppled. I thought about my books and my bicycle, which encompassed all my belongings. Amidst the difficulties I had the strength to carry on; there couldn’t be a bigger calamity. Then we won the mayoral elections in Medellín.

JDM: Is Medellín laying out a duplicable model?

SF: For me the model starts with politics. Urban planners can outline how to carry out a project in a community, but the model is reaching out to that community. Public space must serve as a place to come together and that entails a number of conditions. When we speak of “the most beautiful to the most humble” we are fighting inequality, which begins at a cultural level. Thus, as we intervene at the physical level we are explaining each step of the process. It is no coincidence that in Medellín not a single person has been killed in the library parks, the botanical gardens or Parque Explora. Why? Because of what these spaces mean to the community. The gardens are free. At the beginning people thought things would be stolen—the plants and everything else—but to this day no theft has been reported. And if we go to any of those places, we will find they are well kept because they were built with the community. That is powerful.

Juan Diego Mejia is a novelist based in Medellín