Spatial conditions of violence in the city of Medellin

To understand how the space has an influence in the dynamics of violence in the city of Medellin t is important to understand a series of elements. Fist is the scale of violence of the city of Medellin. Second is that the city today is socially and spatially segregated and this condition have implies this segregated areas (economically and social) are isolated from the center of production and more importantly to the main institutions of the state. This isolation provides environment that favor the free action of the different organizations that are contesting the legitimize power of the state at the national and local scale to use these territories as battlegrounds. And that the scale actions of this armed groups in these areas perpetuate the conflict and produce large externalities to the communities that have over time to deal with multiple armed actors.
I have divided this memo in four sections. i) Explain the dynamics of violence in Medellín, ii) Use a longitudinal study of the urban development of the city to explain why and how the city came to be physically segregated, the third shows how segregation and violence are related but further detail shows that in this city negative and positive resilience are not hegemonic over the segregated territories and explore some probable hypothesis to why this conditions exist. And iv) Zoom in from the city to the comuna scale to explore some of the physical conditions of the conflict and what repercussions has for  communities that deal with issues of oscillations from positive and negative resilience in its neighborhoods over long periods of time.

i)                    Violence in Medellin
Since the mid 1980s Medellín has been an extraordinarily violent city in the context of Colombia. In the first wave of violence between 1989 and 1994, Medellín experienced 25 percent[1] of all public order problems in the entire country.  This represents that in a country with a history of violence and an internal civil war, Medellín was the territory were those consequences were among the most visible. See Figure 1. The narcotraffic network based in Medellín played an important factor in this increase of violence, an increase that peaked in 1991. Since them new armed groups had appear and being replace in sucesition to the present.
Figure 1 Death rate in Colombia VS. Medellín since 1975 to 2002 Source: Instituto Nacional de Medicina Legal y ciencias Forenses, Regional Noroccidente. Boletin de prensa 2002

The fact that violence in Medellín is higher than in the rest of the country is in my opinion, the collision between externalities of the effects occurring in the larger national and local of conflicts. These groups are result of a confluence of local conditions in interaction with the changes in the national conflict in Colombia since the 50’s. Form the war of the cartels to the sicarios gangs looking for income after the dismembered cartels to the incursion of the urban branches of the left wing guerrillas (milicias populares) that where followed by its nemesis the paramilitary groups (Autodefensas unidas de Colombia AUC) that after their failed demobilization generated the multiplicity of Combos (bandas criminales emergentes BACRIMS) fighting for small territories to tax and control small drugs distribution in the present Bacrim.
In Medellin all this phenomenology of violence that cover almost three decades with actors entering and leaving occurred more intensely in two spatial distinct territories: 1) is in the CBD that is the place for the confluence of all armed actors and also is the place of exchange between the formal and the informal city and 2) in the lower income neighborhoods especially in those with large concentrations of informal housing or that come from a tradition of historical poverty.

ii)                  Spatial Segregation

In this memo I would focus on the second spatial category of lower income neighborhoods especially in those with large concentrations of informal housing located spatially in the steep hills at the edges of the city because if it’s true that the CBD is an outlier of the scale of conflict, the individuals that perpetuate the violent acts are in its majority residents of the second spatial category.  

The most important question is what explains the relationship between areas low income and the higher levels of violence in such areas. It is true that the same its applied as a cliché to most crime areas in the world. But in Medellin the time frame of the conflict the multiplicity of actors requires more detail into explain the environmental conditions that “maintain” these levels of conflict and violence.
Some authors explain this phenomenon of the concentrations of poverty in Medellin as the collision of rapid unplanned development (that by negligence and impotence of the state permitted areas considered of high risk to be developed informally) and by large the migrations from other parts of the country of exiled population fleeing the undeclared national civil war since the early 50’s. And that because this population were fleeing the conflict they arrive usually lacking (and this is still occurring today) resources to obtain housing in the overwhelmed formal market.

Figure 2 Informal Settlements in Medellin and socio spatial distribution (estratos)

The development of informal housing in Medellin is a way of new immigrants to cope whit those challenges of find housing and employment in the city.  John J. Betancur (2007a) acknowledges the benefits that other authors see in informality as a way for underdeveloped societies to cope with the consequences of globalization, but he also cites the dangers in the intrinsic separation between the state and the individual. “One of the economic benefits of informality is flexibility, but it represents a deep social dilemma. Operating outside or in violation of the rule of law severs ties with the material and social basis of citizenship, legitimacy, and recognition.”[2] Furthermore, Betancur sees informal citizens, through their status as informal, as likely to become criminals. He conclude that once your economic source of employment is consider illegal (selling food on the street) individuals are more likely to move to other types of criminal economical activities. I would argue that the fact that informality is illegal is what makes the line between legal and illegal very difficult to locate. Being a resident of an informal settlement automatically deprives you of your rights to citizenship to the formal state. A similar rhetoric between legal and illegal, informal and formal citizen are employed today against illegal immigration in the United States. We have to be careful when we make a connection between a citizen being informal and being a criminal.
In terms of the spatial distribution of these populations over the territory of the city is clear to visualize how the rapid expansion of the urban edge of the city and the scarcity of land in a city located in a valley. Leave only the edges of the steep hills as areas accessible thru invasions.  Also is important to annotate that different to flat cities where poor are expelled to the edges. In Medellín the topography actually makes the accessibility to these territories exponentially more difficult. The transport of goods and population become more difficult with each meter climb and walk. The perceive distance of this communities to the CBD is larger than the one the maps represent this is visualized by the use of the rhetoric  between neighborhood and city used by the inhabitants of this communities in my interviews they do not say that they go to the centro (CBD) they say I go to Medellin. Is in the dual qualities of this expression that makes the this communities different one is the realist distance measure in time and the second is the characteristic of isolates and excluded from the participation of the urban dynamics of the city of Medellin.

Figure 3 Urban growth city of Medellin 1700 to 2000

The Informal City in Medellín


Most low-income immigrants to Colombian cities availed themselves of housing through land invasion or acquisition of illegal land partitions and self-settlement in the urban periphery. Thus, illegal forms of tenure, precarious dwellings, and violations of established regulations and codes characterized most of their settlements. Local governments could not intervene because they would be violating private land property rights or their own rules. Hence, improvements depended largely on settlers. Eventually, government developed a mechanism of intervention based on the distribution of construction materials and the loan of heavy equipment to settlers who then carried out the work. Meanwhile, government policies addressing the housing needs of the poor evolved from direct development of public housing to the provision of subsidies. “
Betancourt 2007

Understand the informal housing practices of Medellin are a proxy of understanding the relationship between the state and the communities that live in these territories. Pockets of informal development in Medellin represent 20 to 40% of the urban territory; these areas housing and infrastructure have been developed not by the state but first by the inhabitants. The government later followed up by consolidating public services like water, energy, sewer, telephone and paving of main roads as well supporting already institutions precariously implemented by the community such as schools, sports facilities. But all these interventions are afterthoughts and not part of coordinated planning strategy of the planning department as is for the rest of the city. The modern “comprehensive Plan” or Plan Piloto of the 1950s considered most of these areas unbuildable and intentionally did not incorporate them into the urban perimeter of the city. But just 10 years later the city had already incorporated those territories for speculation. As it show figure 4.

Figure 4 Comuna 1 and 2 from 1950 and 1990 showing current locations of MetroCable. Source: PUI Nororiental EDU.

It is important to understand this relationship between the state and the communities that occupy these territories. In the case of the PRIMED,[3] Betancur (2007b) explores this relationship in the Integrated Slum Upgrading Program of Medellin (Programa Integral de Mejoramiento de Barrios Subnormales en Medellín or PRIMED). First, he brings to light the legal impediments that the nation and local state had imposed on itself that prevents it from engaging with the large illegal settlements in the city. And historically map the series of institutions that the state created to try to cope with growing prove of informal housing in the city form the 1960s to the present. Adding to the institutional incapacity of dealing with the concentration of informality and poverty is that. For decades, the neighborhoods where these policies were applied in the city of Medellín were isolated from the city’s general population and in some cases even from the traditional repressive arms of the state police or army. Those consider these areas to dangerous as to execute its constitutional mandate.
Added to the idea of isolation as the main characteristic of the relationship between state and community. another layer that is important to analyze is the one of the state as accomplice of the segregation.

The Case of Villa del Socorro

I have concluded that the areas of this study comprise a large portion of the city’s territory, and territory that has not had significant intervention of the state. Other institutions in conjunction with the state had engaged in the construction of the environment. This is the case of Villa del Socorro, one of the neighborhoods that form Comuna 1.  Today, the inhabitants aditions to the original low income units made them look like the rest of the neighborhoods in the Comuna, but in reality it is part of one of the first experiments in the world in core housing,[4] a prototype that is based on the informal citizens’ strategy to build their homes and environment through incremental development.
This and similar projects in the north of the city took the problem of informality housing and economy that existed in the downtown of Medellín and transferred the housing component to the north periphery of the city. I conclude that because the government did not follow up with infrastructural services, this initiated a process in which these areas of the periphery became even more vulnerable to being informal. This then created a type of economic, social, and spatial and physical segregation of its inhabitants and environment from the rest of the city.
This example is interesting for two reasons. First because it shows that, in a way, it actually was the state who initiated the process of urbanization of these steep and isolated geographies, and it did so in a way that generated a path to follow—an economically, geographically and culturally segregated path. Second, these first attempts were not followed by others state-oriented projects that either corrected or continued this path. No substantial interventions by the state happened, for nearly 35 years, until the PUI in 2004. The entire infrastructure in place at this moment in 1969 became the formal structure of the entire northern communities that we see today.

Figure 5. Villa de Socorro Before (as a plan) and today Comuna 1. Source: Urban Dwelling Environments and aerial image from Google Earth 2010

The limits of the infrastructure of this project became the limits (borders) with the city.  From this border, all material to develop new housing, churches, steps and roads, were carried up the hills to the invasion territories.
Luz Marina Saldarriaga, in my interviews with her, narrated the process in which she, her family and other families invaded the territory. She also talked about purchasing the illegal title to the land (from a pirate urbanizer) and the fights to keep from being evicted from the state authorities. In a narrative that could be a chapter in a Gabriel Garcia Marquez story she said, “at that time [in the 1970s] the mayor had ordered for this land to reclaimed [by the state] and sent the military to expel us from here…the Captain [of the Fourth Brigade] ordered their soldiers to not evict any family that had the Colombian flag raised… and we knew about that… the next day we made flags out of our clothing and that was the way that we were able to stay here.”[5]
This contestation of the tenure of the territory, the constant threat of eviction by the authorities marked the initial and continued relationship of this community with the state. This contestation and open knowledge of illegality are, in my consideration, important elements that facilitated the birth, conquest and contestation of authority of this territory. The state acknowledges the existence of this community and their illegal appropriation of the territory, but at the same time the state also lacks the power or will to deal politically with the consequence of evicting people from their homes. This delaying of resolution stops further improvements of the territory, and the ones that are made are to address problems that have already spiraled out of control such as the proliferation of violent groups.

Figure 6 Comunas 1 and 2 with the project Villa del Socorro developed 1967 and areal image 2010 Source: Instituto de Credito Territorial and Google 2010

In my interviews, people narrate ways that these conditions of extreme poverty and the state’s lack of accountability catapulted the first waves of what might be called “regular crimes”–home robberies, vandalism, pick pocketing. These crimes quickly escalated to organized crime waged by different criminal gangs that by the 1980s become formalized as the Sicarios (assassins) who worked directly with drug lords. These Sicarios would come to terrify the city throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s. After the main narcotraffic networks in the city of Medellín were dismantled in the early 1990s, these criminal groups were absorbed by other illegal groups that challenged the authority of the state.  

In a series of essays based on a compilation of stories told by members of the neighborhoods of the northeastern section of the city, “Somos Historia Comuna Nororiental,“ 1991 where the comuna 1 and 2 are located, narrates part of this process. They talk about how urban guerrillas used the opportunity to take over the comunas territories after the gangs of sicarios had lost their leadership. A member of the then new MP (milicias populares) talks about this process of absorption:  “We executed many of the bosses and members of the gangs of the Sicarios. We did not have any alternative— they were rotten people and we knew that they would never rehabilitate.[6] These executions were sufficient to make an example of the other small groups, to make them understand that we were talking seriously.”[7] To the presence of a new armed groups in these neighborhoods, the General Pardo from the Cuarta Brigada, a battalion located in Medellín’s National Army responds, “These new organizations had their umbilical cord attached to the Coordinadora Gerrillera (guerrillas), that has taken advantage of the social decompositon in the comunas to collect the harvest in a field fertilized by violence and narcotraffic.”[8] Similarly violent and non-violent process of absorption will follow to the contestation of the territory by the paramilitary groups in the late 1990s. and early 2000’s
This shows the evolution of the physical space (community self-constructed public and private space) along with the political implications and consequences of that evolution (the recognized condition of illegality imposed on an entire community and the inability or neglect of the state to legally intervene in the resolution of physical and social issues)— all in an environment of extreme poverty. This is a recipe for the incubation of criminal activities and further escalations of violence in a country like Colombia where multiple illegal groups contest the power of the state.

By declaring the occupation of the territory illegal, the state removed the citizenship of the community members. Every day that this illegal condition is maintained, further distances the citizens from their participation in society at large and further creates the aura that each inhabitant is, by de facto, a criminal. This criminalization of the existence of the community is not removed once the state concedes the titles of property to those who live there. The physical atrophy that the neighborhood has suffered through decades of neglect corroborates this idea of the inhabitant as a third-class citizen.

The absence of the state in the area of informal settlements makes these areas perfect environments to be appropriated by groups who are contesting the authority of the state. In Colombia, exists a complex situation. On one hand, as much as 64 percent[9] of the population lives below the poverty line and a large percentage of this population lives in informal settlements. On the other hand, in Colombia and in Medellín, there is a long list of illegal armed groups who operate outside of the state (paramilitaries, guerrillas, narcotraffic groups, and other crime organizations). These informal spaces are necessary for the survival of these armed groups. Informal neighborhoods become contested territories among these warring armed groups.

Figure 7 Homicides rates in Medellin from 1994 to 2009 by Comuna

III.              III. The violence is not a constant over the territory
Violence concentrates in areas of the city that are segregated both spatially and socially. Also is important to consider that violence in Medellin is historically since 1992 is generally following a downward trend but this trend is not constant in all areas of the city, violence decrease and increase in different areas at different times. See Figure 7. I attribute these fluctuations to actions to the variety of armed actors (Gangs, Urban Guerrilla, Paramilitary and the National Army) in the conflict of the city of Medellín that are activated or by intrinsic conditions at the city scale (like the action of Combos) in combination with externalities of the national conflict.
Moments of negative resilience (increase in violence) reflect an unbalance in the coercive power of the armed organization in command. this unbalance is the result of the incursion of a new armed group on its territory. In contrast positive resilience (reduction on the scale of violence) reflects a tendency towards hegemonic control of a single group. What the longitudinal data of homicides rates in Medellin seem to prove. See figure 7 is that the reshuffling of armed actors does not occur at the city scale but rather at more condense scale that should be situated below the district (comuna) scale. 

This reshuffling  that happen in most of the territory of the city and but just at small scales suggest the following two hypothesis: 1) is that any of the armed actors in the city of Medellín including the armed forces of the state does not have the power to assert hegemonic control over all territories of the city and thus this requires for any armed actor to engage in sectarian wars to control territories up to the level of its military capacity (a block, neighborhood or District). 2) that the multiplicity of armed actors in Medellin pus the military strategies of acting at less than the district scale, maintain and perpetuate the level conflict and violence in the city because these colliding issues impede to any of the armed actors to claim complete hegemony over the territory of the city.

This reshuffling of groups and this constant activation of new war for territories has had as conclusion that by 2010 Medellín poses the larger percentage (20%)[10]  of interurban displaced population of the nation (13.541 officially counted) [11] this are individuals that need to flee their neighborhood for fear of new armed group acting in its neighborhood.

IV.                From the city scale to the district (comuna) scale
I have concluded that multiple actors’ occupy territories in the absence of strong state in areas that are similar to the reach of its military power. The question is them what this scale of the conflict represents for the communities that coexist with a multiplicity of armed actors? And how this conflict manifest at the physical scale?

One one site is presence of the state and its repressive forces in this areas. In marginalized neighborhoods like the ones in Comunas 13, 1 and 2, loitering in public space, such as the street (more specifically a street corner) is synonymous with criminal activity. Poor youth gathered on a street corner in Medellín is seen as a sign of youth involved in a criminal activity and this context of loitering usually inspires repressive police force. Where “randomly” community is constantly seen for the state armed forces as the enemy and as such treated like it.
On the other hand are the criminal organizations and its turf war. In January 2010, Medellín saw a new increase of violence result of fights among small gangs fighting for power over territorial commercial areas. That had opened up by the extradition of Don Berna,[12] a paramilitary leader in Medellín. As a result of the complex and failed peace process with illegal armed actors in Medellin, the ex-militants of the paramilitary groups that once were part of the peace process had regrouped into a multiplicity of small gangs “Combos, Bandas and Oficinas” (Avendaño 2009).  These groups[13] had a larger presence in informal settlements. Once again gangs divided these neighborhoods into small territories they could control, sometimes at the scale of a single block.

This made free mobility through the neighborhood difficult. When interviewing in community members in this areas, I conducted many of the interviews inside public buildings such as the Parques Bibliotecas, and PUI offices, and/or in the public spaces dominated by these buildings where interviewees felt that it was safe for them and for me. Sometimes as part of the interview we would venture beyond the public spaces up to the limits where interviewees were, by the new armed groups, not allowed to cross. See Figure 8. This is a map that graphically shows how the previonew BACRIM organizations had fragmented the territorie of into a multiplicity of illegal armed actors distributed over the territory of the Comunas 5 and 6.

Figure 9 Comuna 5 and 6 Distribution of Illegal armed groups 2009: In red are the territories controlled by each one of the gangs (Combos or Bandas) that operated in 2009 in the Comunas 5 and 6.

This multiplicity of groups divided the limited territories of the neighborhoods. The community members that get included inside the limits imposed by the new conditions of conflict had to forge willingly or unwillingly alliances with the current group. This alliance is true to the conditions of today as to similar narratives at the different changes of armed control over the last decades. This alliance automatically generates grievances to all other actors. These automatic alliances further limit the free mobility of community members’ participant or not on the active armed conflict. Male youth are the most affected by these new territorial distributions but all community members are affected in one way of another and the raising number of interurban displaced population Is evidence of this phenomena. Figure 10 analyse how the action of such multiplicity of armed actors in figure 9 determine the level of risk of mobility of all community members.
Figure 10 mapping of the levels of risk in the circulation network in the comunas 5 and 6 given the number of armed groups. Source: the Autor Jota Samper

V.                  Bibliography

Alcaldia de Medellin. 2010 Secretaría de Bienestar Social Gerencia Para la Coordinación y Atención a la  Población Desplazada, Unidad De Análisis Y Evaluación De Política Pública “Análisis del contexto y la dinámica del desplazamiento forzado intraurbano en la ciudad de Medellín” july.

Avendaño, Mary Luz. 2009. Las bandas de Medellín | ELESPECTADOR.COM. April 8.

Betancur, J.J. 2007a. "Urban Challenges in Latin American Cities: Medellin and the Limits of Governance".

Betancur, John J. 2007b ."Approaches to the Regularization of Informal Settlements: the Case of PRIMED in Medellin, Colombia." Global Urban Development Magazine, November. (accessed February 2, 2010).

[1] “With 7% of the national population, the city reported 25% of public order problems in the country in 2001” Betancur, John J.. "Approaches to the Regularization of Informal Settlements: the Case of PRIMED in Medellin, Colombia." Global Urban Development Magazine, November 2007. (accessed February 2, 2010).
[2] Betancur, J.J. 2007. "Urban Challenges in Latin American Cities: Medellin and the Limits of Governance".
[3] Integrated Program for Improvement of Subnormal Barrios in Medellín.
[4] Caminos, Horacio, John F. C. Turner, and John A. Steffian. 1969. Urban dwelling environments; an elementary survey of settlements for the study of design determinants. Cambridge, Mass: M.I.T. Press.
[5] Luz Marina Saldarriga, interview in “Proyecto Histórico de Memoria” la Violencia no es toda la Historia, 2008 DukeEngage Medellín, Tamera Marko and Jota Samper, 2008.
[7] Estrada C., William, and Adriana Gómez V. 1992. Somos historia: Comuna Nororiental. Medellín, Colombia: this an extract from the revista Semana, abril 9,1991
[8] Ibid Estrada. 1992. page 172
[9] United Nations Development Programme, Population living below national poverty line (%), most recent year available during 2000-2007. Human and income poverty: developing countries / Population living below $1.25 a day (%), Human Development Report 2009, UNDP, accessed on December 19, 2009.
[10] Alcaldia de Medellin,  Secretaría de Bienestar Social Gerencia Para la Coordinación y Atención a la Población Desplazada, Unidad De Análisis Y Evaluación De Política Pública “Análisis del contexto y la dinámica del desplazamiento forzado intraurbano en la ciudad de Medellín” July 2010.
[11] Interurban displacement is the forced displacement of population (individuals, families or communities) by illegal armed groups inside the boundaries of the city, all against a  landscape of generalized violence armed conflict and violations of human rights.
[12] Hugh, Bronstein. "Colombia's Medellin hit by new wave of drug violence | Reuters." Business & Financial News, Breaking US & International News | (accessed May 6, 2010).
[13] Some authors refer to these new organizations as “neo-paramilitary groups” because of their possible alliance with political ideologies or the dismantled paramilitary groups. I opt to use the self denomination use by these groups because it is unclear that all groups had or maintained linkages with the previous organizations. Also because, even when they self proclaimed, under the peace process, to be part of the paramilitary groups, the actual link was called into question by human rights groups during the questioning about the improprieties of the peace process.


  1. Hi I was wondering were you found the data for Figure 3 Urban growth city of Medellin 1700 to 2000?



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