Three teenagers are break-dancing in the courtyard of a government building in Medellín, Colombia. A boom box blares hip-hop — pure bass against the concrete walls. A dozen other teens sit cross-legged or lean against backpacks. Johana Pabon stands near the building’s glass entryway staring at the break-dancers, arms crossed, hips thrust sideways, eyes narrowed. Her tight smile, though, shows unmistakable pride. “They have this space,” she says. “They can use it whenever they want.”
Pabon is a docent at the Parque Biblioteca San Javier, which opened in 2006 — one of nine “library parks,” combination community centers and social service hubs, currently operating or under construction in the slums that ring Medellín, a city with 3.5 million people. The city’s poorest residents live in these barrios on steep mountain slopes that were settled haphazardly, illegally, during the massive urbanization of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s.
The library parks are some of the most architecturally impressive buildings in the city. The Parque Biblioteca San Javier, designed by Colombian architect Javier Vera, hugs a hillside in western Medellín — four tiered concrete blocks that drop vertically but also stretch horizontally. Inside, the blocks resemble giant steps connected by wide staircases and open ramps. Glass panels both partition and link the interior in a flow of classrooms, computer labs, and studios.
Within, locals of all ages sit at computers, practice ballet steps, take English lessons. Nine new mothers sit in a circle in one classroom and share advice while a trained nurse listens and offers guidance. Outside the classrooms, men and women, some orbited by children running manic laps, sit together on benches and plush chairs. There are few physical barriers and no opaque walls or sharp corners to separate groups. From every corner comes laughter; conversations overlap and spill across railings to lower tiers.
“This is a safe space for the community,” Pabon says. “Before there was nothing like this. There was no place that was safe.”
The March-April 2012
This article appears in our March-April 2012 issue under the title “Sowing Sanctuary” To see a schedule of when more articles from this issue will appear on Miller-McCune.com, please visit the
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She isn’t exaggerating. In 1991, there were 6,349 murders — 17 a day — in Medellín, making it the most violent city in the world. And for more than a decade, San Javier was the epicenter of that violence. Drug gangs carved up the neighborhood. A local source shows me a burned-out house that was a lookout for one gang. Young assassins were paid handsomely for killing rivals, and peering through soot-blackened windows they often made mistakes. Factions of the Oficina de Envigado, an armed group founded by Pablo Escobar, patrolled streets in stolen cars and abducted enemies; their torture houses are still legendary in San Javier. Leftist guerrilla groups, farc and ELN in particular, recruited heavily in the area. It was widely known that anyone seen talking with them would be pegged an enemy by the paramilitaries, vigilante groups that had sworn to cleanse the neighborhood. Families ate and slept away from walls to avoid stray bullets. Some residents, compelled by fear or force, soaked up information and used it like currency, allowing gangs to track down individuals suspected of breaking the rules.
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In 2010, Colombia’s drug trade was worth $8.7 billion, and much of it still flowed through San Javier. Nevertheless, homicides in Medellín — 2,019 in 2010 — were down 68 percent from their 1991 high.
One reason is the 2002 decision by President Alvaro Uribe to send troops into San Javier in an action code-named Operation Orion. That October, as light broke over brick-and-tin houses, soldiers in squat, pug-nosed tanks, with support from Blackhawk helicopters, rushed up the steep streets. Their targets were the guerrillas, paramilitaries, and dozens of drug gangs that operated in San Javier.
Armed gang members quickly barricaded roads with tires and set them on fire. They took over homes and shot at the troops from above. After four days of fighting, the last of the gang members finally abandoned their weapons. Government troops recovered rocket launchers, machine guns, and explosives. Among the hundreds detained were 23 suspected gang leaders. For the first time in years, San Javier was secure.
In 2004, Sergio Fajardo became mayor of Medellín. A picture in a 2007 New York Times article perfectly captures the image he crafted for himself. Wearing jeans, a black shirt, and a flowing mane, he’s flanked by children. A smiling older woman presses against his side. His right arm is extended, palm up, and he gazes above the camera, as if looking into the future.
When he assumed office, Fajardo knew that Operation Orion had weakened Medellín’s criminal gangs. His government had a chance to establish a lasting nonmilitary presence in the barrios. He diverted 40 percent of the city’s $900 million annual budget to education, much of which was used for his flagship project: the library parks. He chose San Javier for the first park.
Mistrust of the government had always been high in San Javier. During the years when families lived in what seemed a war zone, they felt abandoned by those in power. Operation Orion had shifted opinion somewhat, but 38 residents had been injured in the assault and one child had died from a soldier’s bullet. There were rumors of extrajudicial killings and mass graves.
To gain support for his project, Fajardo barnstormed San Javier. He led children on tours of their neighborhoods. He proclaimed that the city would put its most beautiful structures where its poorest residents lived, that it would create hilltop sanctuaries where they could learn, interact, and relax. He invited residents to meet with architects, academics, and developers. Community representatives sketched ideas on rolls of white butcher paper. Wizened old men and 20-something women told officials that the green space around the library park had to be bigger, that they should offer movie nights, that none of it would work unless a bridge was built over Calle 44, where drivers never slowed down.
The sloping, grassy space below the Parque Biblioteca San Javier is now crisscrossed by pedestrian walkways. Every day 1,500 locals ascend these paths and enter the building. And every day government-funded social workers in blue vests leave their offices here and head out into the community. Going door-to-door, they fill out forms to secure legal documents for residents. They enroll entrepreneurs in business courses and help them with applications for government microloans. They simulate arguments between husbands and wives, then point out constructive ways to address differences. They pore over lists of government entitlements for utilities, education, and food. In the past four years, 30,000 families have received subsidies, and 15,000 children have benefited from new literacy initiatives and after-school programs.
A new gondola, the Metrocable, glides down the mountain in San Javier and ferries residents to the city’s main metro line below. There are new grass sports fields where there were dirt lots, a new high school and several well-lighted parks where there were drug houses. In September 2011, Alonso Salazar, the current mayor of Medellín and a Fajardo disciple, toured a remote site in the barrio where a series of public escalators will link residents on a particularly steep slope with an emerging business district below.
“We have achieved something fundamental in Medellín, especially in this zone,” Salazar proclaimed to the hundreds gathered under a light drizzle. “Always the power is local, central, from the community. This formula is indispensable.”
Young children dodged in and out of the crowd as he spoke, an improvised game of tag. In San Javier, there is another safe space for the community. It is the legacy of a hard-earned trust between the government and the city’s most vulnerable residents.