Words: Juan Diego Mejia
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
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.
Fear enslaves, it divides and leads everyone to think about saving themselves at any cost, which goes against building citizenship
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?