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Medellin - from drug capital to poster child of urban renewal

Once notorious for its drug business, Medellin in Colombia now hosts the regional World Economic Forum on Latin America. The 500 high-level participants are experiencing a city that has reinvented itself.

A bright red vest makes her easy to spot from afar. Tour guide Jeaneth Perez Hoguin makes sure things are in order in the Comuna 13, answering questions from tourists who’ve made it up to this neighborhood 1,800 meters above sea level.

The small houses and shacks cling tightly to the mountains above Medellin. Comuna 13 is an attraction for many who want to see how the neighborhood, once notorious for violence and death, looks like today.

Hoguin lived through those dark times and still struggles to talk about it, having lost both her uncle and her brother to the violence of those days. "The police didn’t dare to come here. Often there were corpses lying in the houses because of the drug wars, but nobody came to remove them."

She quickly changes the topic. "Look at the beautiful escalators and the flowers over there. Now everything is different," the 36-year old mother of four says.

escalators

Today, modern escalators aid the ascent to neighborhoods that used to be slums. A spotless subway train crosses the city and a cable car goes all the way up to areas where people live, who were once barely visible in Medellin’s public life.

Onwards and upwards

The change really is remarkable. Today, everyone can easily reach their schools or jobs. The investments in infrastructure have made the city visibly more modern and more livable.

The Geneva-based World Economic Forum declared Medellin's "a stark example of successful 21st century urban innovation" at the conference.

The city’s mayor, Frederico Gutierrez Zuluaga sits on several panels at the WEF conference. Himself an engineer, he’s become a central figure in the push for the city’s transformation since taking office in January this year. His agenda includes promoting culture and boosting the city’s infrastructure.

Kolumbien Weltwirtschaftsforum Lateinamerika in Medellin

More than 500 participants are expected at the WEF in Medellin: CEOs, civil society representatives and politicians, many of them heads of state.

Party in the Plaza Botero

He invited WEF participants to Plaza Botero in the city for the forum’s opening reception. The square is named after the famous Colombian painter who donated 23 of his massive sculptures to the park. Medellin is Botero's home town.

"The choice of Medellin as the venue for the World Economic Forum on Latin America is bold but absolutely justified. It doesn't always have to be about capital cities," Francesco Starace, head of the Italian energy company Enel tells DW.

He has flown in from Rome just to discuss the opportunities for the entire region. He’s convinced many are to be found.

The Medellin model

"Everyone is looking at Medellin and saying: If the whole country was like this, we would be fine," Thomas Voigt, head of the German-Colombian Chamber of Commerce tells DW.

But the whole country isn’t quite like Medellin. "In the past 10 years, the Colombians have lived well. They imported a lot and because of the high commodities prices, they could afford it, too," says Voight. "Now the prices have dropped severely and the economy is only growing by 2 to 3 percent. By Latin American standards that's not bad, but for Colombia it's not enough."

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Colombia grapples with energy problems

Additional investments are needed

The fact is that there is not enough investment. The infrastructure in many regions of the huge country is still paltry. That is visible, even in Medellin.

In parts, the road from the airport Jose Maria Cordoba into the city is still a winding two-lane street - perhaps sufficient for a provincial airport but hardly appropriate for a major city of two million people. But the problem has long been recognized. On both sides of the road, excavators are already plowing into the bedrock. By 2018 a new road is supposed to be completed and make the city even more attractive to visitors and investors.

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