“The situation with violence has gotten much better, and violence has gone down,” said Jairo Chalarca, 58, who lives in a barrio where gangs still roam. “It’s not just more police but lots of investment on social issues, because violence against violence isn’t the solution.”
Fear and silence
Still, Medellin officials have also found that the gains on crime and violence can be ephemeral.
In 2007, the city recorded 771 killings for a homicide rate lower than Washington’s. But by 2011, it was back up to 1,649 homicides. The number has since fallen fast once more, but gang expert Luis Fernando Quijano said the sharp rise and fall suggest that gang leaders may be fighting less, not that the state has control.
Quijano said that more than 9,000 people fled their homes last year because of crime and that an untold number of people reported missing may be dead. He said that low-level extortion of small businesses is pervasive, and that the shadowy leaders of drug gangs remain on the loose.
“This city has never really made the decision to strike a blow against the gang structures,” Quijano said.
The Medellin of the distant past seems to come alive in San Cristobal, where three gang members died fighting one another on its lush hillsides recently. Thugs then drove more than 200 people out of their homes. The residents returned only with soldiers carrying assault rifles.
Catching his breath as he trudged up San Cristobal, Arnulfo Serna, the city’s secretary of security, said residents had been threatened, instilling in them fear that they would pay with their lives for helping the police.
“The threats and intimidation cause many people not to report crime, or to collaborate with the authorities,” he said.
The presence of the state had led Maria de Los Angeles Posada, 75, to return to her home after nearly a month away. The city had posted a red seal on her door that served as a message to would-be intruders: “This home is being protected.”
“Until now, we do feel safe,” she said, sitting in her living room as pint-size grandchildren giggled nearby. “But who knows what it will be like later when they leave. That is what we are all thinking about, and it’s making us afraid.”