Medellín — winner of the 2013 "Innovative City of the Year" award — is also at the cutting edge of a more troublesome urban trend: a violence epidemic that's turning it and cities like it into war zones. A study released last month [PDF] by a Brazilian think tank determined that urban violence in Medellín is equal in lethal intensity to that of more traditional armed conflict, even if it lacks the organization to qualify as such.
And it's hardly alone. While conflict-related deaths are falling worldwide, urban violence in many parts of the world is surging. In 2011, there were roughly 55,000 conflict-related deaths around the world, compared to 471,000 homicides outside of war zones (one of the standard metrics used to measure violence). The World Bank estimates that one in four people in the world are affected by violence, and experts are raising red flags regarding a trend of non-war zone violence in cities in Latin America, the Caribbean, and Central and Southern Africa. While Africa accounts for 37 percent of the world’s homicides, the homicide rate in the Americas is more than double the world average homicide rate of 6.9 per 100,000. Latin American and Caribbean cities, especially, are leading rankings of homicides (caveat: obtaining reliable data for many Central and Southern African cities is often impossible). Urban violence claimed the lives of nearly 38,000 people in Latin America last year, and forced thousands more to leave their homes, becoming refugees and internally displaced people. The World Bank has calculated that a major episode of violence can "wipe out an entire generation of economic progress."
These grey areas of urban-based conflict are slowly garnering the international community’s attention. Robert Muggah, research director of the Brazilian Igarapé Institute and coordinator of the HASOW project, which commissioned the Medellín study, says the city might be a "canary in the mine" for a larger urban violence trend.
Cities like Medellín might be a "prelude to new forms of organized violence," just as they have been ahead of the curve in global rapid urbanization, Muggah says. Nearly 80 percent of Latin America’s population now lives in cities. "We’ve already passed the big moment of that massive shift of population. And it happened very quickly, it happened in some cases in an unregulated way. It has generated all sorts of contradictions as city authorities have struggled to try to manage that massive transition. And across Latin America, almost without exception, cities present much higher rates of homicidal and organized violence than virtually anywhere else in the planet."
This has important implications for the international community, as well as for municipal and federal governments. HASOW focuses on what the changing face of violence means for agencies dedicated to humanitarian aid, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, which last year launched a new program in Medellín that aims to curb violence in a setting that’s very different from the traditional conflict areas in which it operates.
Though Medellín is far from being the most violent city in the region, it has several variables that make it a good starting point to examine these trends. Medellín has a long history of violence, as does Colombia itself. International aid agencies have a track record of working in the country. Medellín, which recently added an Urban Design award from Harvard to its list of international tokens of appreciation, also has very strong municipal and national institutions. This last element, especially, is a key difference between traditional and grey conflict areas.
That there is such intensity of violence in Medellín might be surprising to outsiders. The city was notoriously one of the most dangerous places in the world in the early 1990s, under the influence of Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel, when it had a shocking homicide rate of 444 per 100,000. Nowadays, the city is considered a major success story: by 2007 the homicide rate was at a low of 28 per 100,000. Around the same time, the municipal government began to implement innovative policies under the umbrella of "social urbanism," a series of programs targeting the city’s poorest neighborhoods with infrastructure investment and social programs, all with a participatory bent. The results have been internationally lauded, and include a series of architecturally striking library campuses, kindergarten and school facilities, escalators and cable car connections for vertically isolated shanty-towns and social outreach programs.
Yet, from 2008 to 2011, the city’s homicide rate more than doubled, and in some of the poorest areas of the city, the numbers are even worse. In 2010, nearly 6,000 people were displaced into the countryside due to urban violence, while another 5,900 moved within the city for the same reason.
It is more difficult to pinpoint statistics on sexual violence, which is also used as a mechanism for territorial control or retaliation by armed groups in Medellín, known as combos. In 2011, there were nearly 1,350 reports of sexual violence in the city, with hundreds of cases in the most violent neighborhoods. Forced disappearances are also underreported, but official statistics point to at least 50 in 2011.
The HASOW study relates this increase in violence to the extradition of a local paramilitary leader, which threw the balance of power between the city’s many armed groups into flux. At any given time, according to the study, there are up to 300 combos in the city, which can operate within shifting larger organizational structures.
"The problem with Medellín right now is the sheer numbers of armed groups,” says Muggah. “The groups are very dynamic. This creates a very difficult challenge: What is the best approach to dealing with different groups, different levels of violence?”
Groups like the International Committee of the Red Cross believe that the urban violence phenomenon in cities like Medellín will become increasingly prevalent in rapidly urbanizing countries in the coming years. So they are developing strategies to work in areas of chronic urban violence. In these settings, the groups must tackle long-term development strategies and coordinate with local authorities. As the face of conflict changes, these strategies may be of increasing importance in humanitarian aide. Both the ICRC and Médecins Sans Frontières are working in a variety of cities across the region, and, earlier this year, the European Commission’s humanitarian aid arm approved two million euros in funding for violence-hit slums in Central America and Mexico.
However, these organizations and experts are wary of “mission creep,” operating outside of international humanitarian law, which governs in war zones. And national governments are worried about issues of sovereignty and jurisdiction. Yet, the ICRC notes that many mayors already use the language of armed conflict to describe what is happening on the ground in their cities, and are welcoming of the agency’s efforts.
The ICRC is exploring the idea that aid agencies can act as neutral facilitators in these settings, which allows them to work with all the actors involved. Muggah agrees that “their very presence can send a strong message.” But he cautions that aid agencies must adapt to the institutional terrain they find on the ground: recognizing the public, private and civil society actors that are already working in these areas and empowering rather than substituting for them. "They almost serve as intermediaries that can support, through influence and persuasion and some technical expertise, the direction of aid efforts, as opposed to actually carrying it out." Aid agencies are learning to lead from behind, he says.
Top image: A boy watches a funeral procession for Esteban Alvarez and Esleider Asprilla, both 11, who were killed in the Comuna 13 neighborhood in Medellín, Colombia, on Feb. 20, 2013. Comuna 13 is one of the city's poorest and most violent districts, where rival armed gangs fight for the control of the neighborhood. (AP Photo/Luis Benavides)