Nexus between informality and armed conflict. Looking at Medellin transformation trough the lens of urban conflict.

Figure 1 Urban Upgrading and gangs’ territory, how conflict for turf predictive model for conflict. Source: Jota Samper


Samper, Jota. 2018. “Nexus between Informality and Armed Conflict. Looking at Medellin Transformation True the Lens of Urban Conflict.” In Comparative Urban Design: Border-Making Practices in Medellin and Beirut Book Launch, edited by Catalina Ortiz. Cities, Design and Transformation 2. The Bartlett Development Planning, UCL.

Today we find ourselves during a new paradigm of warfare that of the so-called fourth-generation wars (Lind 2004). Four generation wars are military conflicts between asymmetrical contenders. Asymmetrical in the sense of capital and statehood. In these new types of disputes, we found non-state groups fighting states. Sometimes in incredible operational differences like al Qaeda vs. the United States. This twenty-first-century wars mostly offcut in urban battlefields. Eyal Weizman explain such condition “US military planners fear that the enemies defined by western powers – insurgents, terrorists, street gangs and criminals of all kinds and sorts may effectively set up extraterritorial enclaves within what the future battleground will inevitably continue to be – shantytowns, refugee camps, Kasbahs and the other so-called “bad neighborhoods” that seem to proliferate across a rapidly urbanizing world.”(Weizman 2000). I argue that the variable that maintains such conflicts over long periods of time is space.

Consistently more of those urban conflicts happen in the poor and unregulated areas of cities a phenomenon called “Slum Wars” (Rodgers D. 2009). These informal neighborhoods (slums) present advantages for non-state actors to hide from state military and policing actors. Informal settlement formation happens in the context of breaching legal agreements. The foundation of these places is an act of rebellion against land regulations and the states it represents; this occurs away from the eyes of the government. Settlers often evicted in violent ways by state and private actors looking to honor land regulations. Successful informal settlements are those who survive such evictions. However, the price paid by these communities is isolation from the benefits states can provide such as social services and security. This isolation and the context in which informal areas are created are ground for non-state groups to take siege in these places. Informal areas then provide hideout, turf for the expansion of illegal markets away from state oversight, recruitment grounds for their armies in the unemployed poor and an unfamiliar urban environment from which repel any attack by state armies. 
This process is nuanced non-state groups control not all informal areas these groups only enter to such areas at advance evolutionary stages of informality in which those benefits can be acquired easily (Samper 2017). The process of urban densification as part of the three stages of development of informal settlements (J. J. Samper 2014) mirror a process of intensification and sophistication of illegal armed actors. In this way, as the informal settlements become denser and more populated, the criminal organizations in them also appear to grow and become more sophisticated as part of this process. I have argued that this is the result of the multiplication of social networks included within the informal communities that grow in parallel with the criminal networks. These criminal networks flourish in these contexts because the absence of state presence in these areas, both regarding security (army and police) as regarding state services, social and economic programs create governance vacuums that are filled by the criminal networks. Physical disconnection with the city and multiple levels of population marginalization (racial, economic, social) are the variables that permit illegal armed actors to claim sovereignty and control territories of informal settlements.

Following this logic then, if a relationship between physical space and conflict exist in informal settlements, then the modification of such space would, in turn, affect how the conflict behaves. Is here where it becomes important to analyze the case of the “transformation” of the city of Medellin. Today in the media and academic articles presents Medellin’s interventions in poor informal areas as correlated with lower violence in those areas (Blanco and Kobayashi 2009; Peter Brand 2013; Fajardo and Andrews 2014; Merchan Bonilla and Arcos Palma 2011). Reality is less straightforward as pollical actors and the media presents. Here I explore examples of such modifications and determine the types of changes to the conflict that can attribute to those modifications.
I argue that intervention in the urban form of informal settlements in Medellín produces three types of modification to the conflict: (1) Intensification of violence product of higher extortion opportunities brought on by the infrastructure investments; (2) transformation of the urban environment changes the conflict, including the landscape of turf control and (3) state occupied projects exclude these areas from turf control.  Below, I concentrate on cases of state urban intervention in Medellín during the 2004-2014. Explicitly, I map three PUI (Proyecto Urbano Integrado) in three Comunas— 1, 6 and 13. The three interventions are each similar in scale and performed by the same state company Empresa de Desarollo Urbano EDU.

Urban Projects and Intensification of conflict

Urban projects during their construction phase increase the potential for conflict by expanding the pool of extortion market for local gangs. This intensification happens because they provide income for gangs that profit from extortion, which in turn creates space for higher levels of competition.  In the fragile context of a fragmented conflict in Medellín, this, in turn, produces more violent conflict.
In the PUI Northeastern (see Figure 1b) with its 25+ urban projects (library, two road improvement, bridges, parks and schools). The intersection between gang territories and urban projects created an opportunity for these 50+ criminal organizations in two Comunas to compete for the opportunity extortion in the form of unsolicited security services what in Colombia is called “vacunas.”The intersection of state and community projects and gangs presented an opportunity for projects to become sources of income to the multiple warring groups. The junction of future projects with various gang territories opens space for income disputes alongside warring groups claiming territorial sovereignty. Projects crossed the feared invisible borders, with data provided by community members in Comuna 6 permitted to create a map that estimated the probability of conflict by establishing the extortion value of the projects vs. the number of invisible borders that those projects crossed (Figure 1c). Mapping project value vs. some gang territories crossed permitted to create an estimate of what areas were the most prone to conflict. The resulting map presented street improvement projects as the riskiest areas of intervention. 

The electric escalator in the neighborhood Independencias Uno in Comuna 13 presented an opportunity to see how those projects increased levels of conflict. This escalator navigates a 45-degree incline up the unpaved Andes Mountain that turned into mudslides during frequent tropical rain. It increased access between communities in the upper and lower areas of the hillside with more amenities, including public buildings and public spaces. This project included widened streets and expanded the pedestrian networks within the densely populated, steep hilled neighborhood. In addition to crossing physical barriers of height, this project crossed several ‘invisible borders’ (fronteras invisibles) between drug gangs. Here the topography-caused difficulties of mobility and had naturally separated two warring gangs in the space of fewer than 300 feet (91meters).
A contractor in this Comuna 13 project explained the context of the conflict in which the project developed. In which often they had to hide while shootouts between warring gangs. Also, how they have to pay for “security” arguing that “Then they demanded that we need to pay two million pesos (1,000US in 2013 pesos) every 15 days” (Interview 752). The construction of the state project increases possible revenue and the extent of the project open space for competition given the intersecting gang areas that the project crossed. The project then intensified the conflict within the neighborhood. The contractor continues to explain that gangs competing for the tax would kill each other to assert its control saying “That started a war. There were shootouts up to 4 times a day for 20 days.” (Interview 752). In a guided visit of the escalator project en EDU social worker points up to a house in the proximity of the escalator project and explained that as part of the confrontation. “In that house at night they [the Barbado gang] came and killed 3 in front of their family.” (Interview 639). The contractor explained that it is clear to those working on the project that their proximity to several gangs makes them more prone to have more extortion.  “The construction company knows that there are four combos here and that this means that we need to pay four vacunas [extortion payments]” (Interview 752).

This story of violence in the midst of construction of such urban projects present the intricate exercise of building in the middle of gang turf and state policing absence. However, construction is a temporary stage and soon or later projects are completed. What happens after the projects and their benefits arrive? Moreover, how those spatial changes challenge turf control and sovereignty claims?

New space new turf

Turf fights are not foreign to these groups. Turf gets negotiated on a day-to-day basis. This electric escalator, however, redefined Comuna 13 and Independencias Uno residents’ perception of their territory. The escalator increased mobility to tourists, mothers with small children, and older adults as they made their way back and forth up and down the hill to the market or downtown. The one narrow path is now a single connected space from the top of the mountain all the way to the bottom. In turn, the fragmentation of space that separated the two groups removed, and this changes how space gets negotiated.

This escalator increased mobility and decreased distance between warring gangs. In the end, the lower hill gang killed most of the members of the upper hill gang. The protection that the physical space and topography allowed was disturbed by the physical project, so it was not only fought over taxation of the project, but it became a fight in which the battlefield had redefined. Thus, changing the spatial environment through changing urban project changed the way these drug sponsored gangs interpreted their sovereignty, redefining their own socially constructed or imagined space of boundaries and threats.  This killing was not part of the City of Medellín’s intention in building the escalator, but it does provide an example of how space conditions the rules of engagement in a drug-related conflict before, during and after urban renewal. By unifying space, these projects force gangs located in proximity to a fight that would end in the consolidation of territory. By doing so, it also homogenized the perverse actors in this area, reducing future confrontations. However, it increased the capacity of the gang to control more substantial amounts of territory.
Figure 2. Comuna 13 Gang fight over turf (a) electric stairs, (b) gangs territory and (C) final gang territory after the confrontation. Source: Jota Samper

Today the project, the public buildings, new tourist tours, and increased state security create a very different context than the one before and during construction. The everyday shootouts are not as present anymore; gang control continues, but its violent expressions are less visible. The people who live near this escalator say it has improved their living conditions. So, the project did not remove all perverse actors it force a homogenization of violence but also in the eyes of community members presented some security benefits.

Physical public interventions as tools to exclude territories from turf control

What happens after building urban upgrading projects and how do they impact security conditions in informal settlements? Currently, in the media, Medellín is portrayed as a historically violent city that has succeeded in controlling security through the introduction of urban projects in impoverished areas. Medellín still has a significant level of conflict in deprived areas, and illegal armed actors are as present and as dominant in these areas as they were before. However, I argue that beyond those indicators there have been noteworthy contributions to security by these urban projects. Specifically, these urban projects have impacted how community members feel about their neighborhoods. Most of the interviewees see the interventions as positive. A resident of Comuna 1 framed these projects as responsible for enhancing the neighborhood security, explicitly calling on mobility projects as spearheading the security changes. This resident says, “After the construction of the physical projects there was an effect on the amount of violence in the neighborhood, it was a huge change… (interview 609). A resident of Comuna 13 believes the key projects that have transformed his neighborhood especially include the metro cable, PUI, the PB, and the Parque Biblioteca. Several community members also mention the metro cable as transforming their neighborhoods and daily lives in significant ways. A resident in Comuna 13, said of the Parques Biblioteca in his community, as providing services that he cannot provide to its kids and as creating spaces for vertical economic integration and a way out of conflict for youth. “You see kids of all economic levels (estratos) in the Parques Bibliotecas. There is no discrimination in the way you dress. They treat everyone as equal.  [This provides the] capacity that the kids need to acquire [knowledge] to get out of the conflict”. (interview 607). As expected, many community members perceive the programs held in these new public buildings to have had a positive influence on the conflict by provided spaces of escape spaces from the dangers of the streets. Others see the projects as motivators of economic development. One community member said about the food stands and craft vendors outside the metro cable and lining the walkway up to the Parque Biblioteca entrance.

Figure 3. Comuna 1 and 2 PUI projects and gang territories 2012. Sources: EDU, the author, Véronique McKinnon, Luis Mosquera, National Police, Alcadia de Medellín.

An important question then is this: if there is still a presence of non-state armed groups and violence, why is there an overwhelming positive answer to projects as having improved areas of security? A necessary clarification before we dwell on this question is that while most interviewed were positive about the new urban projects, a small minority of projects that did not receive favorable reviews have something in common. These negative reviews are usually from individuals for whom the projects had little effect on their daily lives. For example, community members in Independencias Dos in Comuna 13, just 200 meters away from the project, whose area was not impacted by the electric escalator, responded less positively and even negatively to the role of urban projects. In contrast, community members in Independencias Uno, where the escalators and connecting pedestrian paths were improved, have overwhelming positive reactions toward the project and its effects on security, even if security as such has not, in measurable terms, improved. In other words, a short distance from the physical interventions, positive attitudes about the projects quickly diminish. That is why people are more positive regarding mobility infrastructure (metrocable, for example; that carries people from the upper mountains to the city center) than the other projects because it affects a larger pool of people than the other interventions. Other scholars have brought that point to attention (P. Brand and Davila 2011).
Figure 4. Santo Domingo Savio Homicides from 2004 to 2014 locations and point density map. Source SIC and Jota Samper

What is the real impact of urban interventions on the phenomenology of conflict?  A mapping of gang territories in Comunas 1 and 2 built with community members and security officials help to bring some light into this phenomenon. This map shows those gangs in a relationship with the urban interventions of the Northeastern PUI (Figure 3). It also shows how gangs are peripheral to urban projects introduced by the PUI. Gangs appear to avoid areas of intervention of urban projects. A closer look reveals areas, where new projects built, also show gang presence. These areas disconnected from other municipal projects. Clustering of projects, meaning areas where many urban projects are close to each other are the areas that tend not to have high gang presence. Figure 4 shows homicide clustering from 2007 to 2014. It shows how areas with higher occurrences of homicides are further away from the cluster of urban projects. This image of clustering of homicides away from urban projects mirrors community narratives about these spaces as safer since being built and populated by the community members and people from the outside. While numbers of homicides is not a direct correlation of security, it does provide a glimpse into the value and impact of these projects. Clustering of urban projects is a possible explanation of how urban form affects safety in these informal areas. I have presented this idea of grouping of physical projects as providing protection as “safe spaces”  (J. Samper 2010).

Concluding thoughts

I argue here that before considering Medellin as a benchmark of innovation in addressing urban violence is necessary to have the clarity to what are the real effects of the urban policies implemented in this city. Relevant here is to understand the role of space in the “slum wars” of Medellin. Planners need to be aware of the limitations of urban policies in resolving violence and furthermore they need to understand the role of such “benign” policies on intensifying conflict and in turn producing more violence. Medellin is an example of all the above. Projects create an unbalance of power by changing the battlespace in which wars happen. What the outcome of battles part of this unbalances the loss of lives of youth participating in the violence and community members in the midst of it. Urban projects success in creating vacuums of gang control are marginal and come at a tremendous economic and on lives cost. Urban plans do not include in their balance sheets those calculations because all those transactions are either invisible or hidden from public view. We required more evidence and attention to the implications of such policies and project before we force other communities around the world to go thru paid such high costs.   



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