In the face of a string of leftist successes in the Andes, with radical-populists elected in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, the Right can boast one spectacular triumph. Medellín, the most conservative city in Colombia, the continent’s most conservative country, has been undergoing a dramatic boom for the past few years. Levels of high-rise construction now surpass those of Los Angeles and New York combined. Since 2002, the profusion of apartment towers, luxury hotels, supermarkets and shopping malls has been breathtaking. The country’s largest conglomerates and over seventy foreign enterprises now have their Colombian headquarters in Medellín, among them Phillip Morris, Kimberly Clark, Levi Strauss, Renault, Toyota and Mitsubishi.  A 30,000 square-foot convention centre opened in 2005, and over a dozen international conferences have been held there annually, generating more than $100 million in investment and business deals. Medellín’s fashion industry is at present second only to São Paulo’s; its medical sector is a Latin American leader in organ transplants, aids and cancer research. An upscale museum-park complex in the city centre, replacing the old outdoor market and red-light district, houses the work of world-renowned Medellín artist, Fernando Botero, with his sculptures featured in an open-air setting.

Article figure NLR44hyltonmap1

In 2005 Colombian tv launched a local version of the us programme, ‘Extreme Makeover’, in which contestants submit to the cosmetic surgeon’s knife and emerge with a radically altered appearance. In Medellín, the show’s popularity was emblematic of the city’s own transformation over the last half-decade. Medellín is a media-saturated, image-conscious city, dominated by advertising and public relations; billboards abound. So it is impossible to avoid the message, projected by civic boosters of every stripe, that Medellín is improving at breakneck speed. With the consolidation of a de facto pact between right-wing narco-paramilitary forces, on the one hand, and a media-friendly centre-left municipal government on the other, Medellín itself has undergone a series of cosmetic operations quite as drastic as anything on tv. During the 1980s the city had been notorious as the home of narco-baron Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel. It ranked as the homicide capital of the world: between 1990 and 2002, 55,000 people were murdered in Medellín, mainly young men. The velocity of the change has been startling, even for cocaine capitalism: the city’s homicide rate has been reduced by a factor of six, and by 2005 was distinctly lower than those of Detroit, Baltimore or Washington, dc.footnote1 To cap it all, in 2006 Medellín’s native son, Álvaro Uribe Vélez, succeeded in winning a historic second term as Colombia’s President, having pushed through the necessary re-write of the national constitution. What follows is an effort to understand the nature of the plastic surgery involved in Medellín’s new look by analysing the evolution of youth gangs, the cocaine business, leftist guerrillas and paramilitaries in the transition to a service-sector economy.

Medellín’s role as the capital of reaction in Latin America—and as the motor force in the politics of Uribe’s Colombia—can only be understood in terms of its longer-term place in the country’s history. Its contemporary particularities reflect patterns of class, racial and regional formation inherited from the past two centuries. Medellín is situated in a broad upland valley, with mountain ranges to its east and west, in the ranching and coffee-growing province of Antioquia, where a deeply conservative Catholic Church has long been entrenched. Founded as a gold-mining town and trading centre in 1675, Medellín emerged as the region’s commercial capital by the late 18th century; its merchants profiting from the export of slave-mined gold and the long-distance overland trade in cheap imported commodities. In the 1880s the region became the epicentre of the new coffee boom, tying Medellín more closely to its rural hinterland: the city’s merchant bankers controlled the credit, pricing, distribution and transportation of the crop, while coffee-growing smallholders colonized the Andean uplands. These paisas—‘countrymen’: the Antioquians’ name for themselves—were united by a tenacious regional-chauvinist ideology: hard-working, light-skinned Catholic conservatives, identified against the ‘lazy’ and undisciplined indigenous and Afro-Colombians in the south.footnote2

Fin-de-siècle banking crashes prompted antioqueño coffee merchants to diversify from a single cash-crop, vulnerable to price collapses on the international market, into light manufacturing. From the start, industrialization in Medellín developed out of local entrepreneurial initiatives and capital formation, rather than as a result of us investment or franchises. By the beginning of the 20th century Antioquia—having emerged unscathed from the three-year civil conflict of 1899–1902, known as the War of a Thousand Days—had moved to the centre of national economic life, and Medellín became an important nexus for investment, speculation and the accumulation of value. The coffee boom, together with rapid industrial growth, spurred urban expansion: Medellín’s population doubled to 100,000 in the first two decades of the 20th century, and the organization and occupation of urban space changed dramatically as paisa elites adopted a self-consciously modernizing ideology.

Urban planning was institutionalized in 1899—thirty years before New York City’s Regional Planning Association—through the Sociedad de Mejoras Públicas, a ‘society for public improvements’ run at the behest of the business lobby. The smp allocated municipal contracts for parks, roads and neighbourhoods, and organized the paving of Santa Elena Canyon. An electricity plant was built in 1897, and streetlighting installed in 1898. In 1889 an engineering school supplemented the city’s first university, founded as early as 1871. Medellín had a regulated slaughterhouse in 1911, sewage treatment in 1913 and trolley cars by 1919.footnote3

Most crucial for Medellín’s subsequent development, however, was its burgeoning textile industry. Don Emilio Restrepo founded the region’s first cotton mill in 1905, converting the nearby town of Bello into an industrial suburb. The initial workforce largely consisted of young women from the surrounding countryside. Textile factories offered a ‘respectable’ occupation, under the patriarchal protection of family firms and the Catholic Church. The Jesuits—following Leo xiii’s Rerum Novarum—were an important influence on the first-generation working class, which enjoyed relatively good wages, benefits and labour legislation. At the same time, migration from the rural coffee municipios of southern and southeastern Antioquia was crucial to the formation of Medellín’s political culture, bringing a paternalist pattern of clientelism to the new industrial setting.

Led by the Restrepos and the Echeverrías, the city’s industrialists exercised a personalized authority, reproducing modes of domination characteristic of domestic servitude. Catholic Social Action influenced the management of Don Jorge Echeverría’s business empire—the two largest firms were Coltejer (founded in 1907) and Fabricato (1923)—emphasizing ‘absolute personal loyalty and obedience’ to help shape a working-class ethos of vertical ties to patrones and prompt, efficient execution of orders. Catholic elites and middle classes adopted an ideology of private charity and good works: the obligations of social betters to perceived inferiors. Where it emerged—as in a Communist-led strike wave in the mid-1930s—independent labour action was ruthlessly crushed.