A Conversation with Alonso Salazar

“Medellín is not a paradise,” said Alonso Salazar, the city’s mayor, during a discussion at the Inter-American Dialogue on June 7th. Indeed, while Medellín is Colombia’s second largest and fastest growing city—and has experienced rapid economic development over the course of the last three decades—it is also the most dangerous major city in the country. Salazar addressed both the advances and challenges for Medellín, saying that it “has passed from being a city with no future to one with a very promising future.” Salazar highlighted the successes of various reforms undertaken during his administration and that of his predecessor Sergio Fajardo. Since assuming office in 2008, Salazar has increased investment in education and infrastructure. Recent development projects have brought transportation, schools, and basic services to Medellín’s poorest neighborhoods and poverty rates have begun to slowly decline. Salazar also presented his administration’s priorities for the city: to ensure transparency, guarantee a greater respect for human rights, increase public involvement in the political process, beautify the city’s architecture and landscape, and promote more socially equitable development. Medellín’s economic progress has allowed some movement towards these goals, but Salazar admitted that the city has yet to shed the association with violence that has long tainted its national and international reputation. Crime rates have paralleled social and economic growth, and efforts to combat drug-trafficking networks have yielded few positive results. According to Salazar, violence is embedded in Medellín’s culture. Ending violence will, consequently, require cultural transformation through education, prevention, and punishment programs, he said. Salazar addressed a wide range of questions following his remarks. He argued that the “War on Drugs” model has not worked and lamented foreign companies are hesitant to invest in Colombian cities such as Medellín while the US-Colombia free trade agreement remains stalled. Salazar also revealed that he has felt more comfortable working with the current government under President Juan Manuel Santos than with his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, a popular Medellín native who continues to wield great power over the region. Though Salazar recognized the efficacy of Uribe’s strategies in reducing the influence of the country’s guerilla forces, he argued that the former president further polarized the country with an “incomplete model” that allowed for human rights abuses to be committed. Salazar hailed the Santos administration for inaugurating a new era of cooperation by renewing and strengthening Colombia’s relationship with its neighbors and the international community.

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