Medellín’s past is filled with rich culture and significant transformations. Colombia’s second-biggest city is no stranger to turbulent times, however, Medellín’s ability to recover and progress is what gives it such an interesting story. While the City of Eternal Spring is now one of the coolest holiday destinations in the world, it’s taken many decades to arrive at this status.
Whether you’re interested in growth and development in Colombia or are an expat wanting to understand more about your city, here’s a brief history of Medellín:
Medellín is found in the direct center of Colombia – equidistance from Bogotá, Cartagena, Bucaramanga, and Cali (the landscape means journeys between the cities vary by bus). Medellín sits in the basin of the Aburrá Valley and on all sides is lined with mountains. When the city was first colonized, it was relatively small and confined; nowadays, the greater metropolitan area includes Sabaneta, Itagüí, and Envigado in the south, along with Copacabana and Bello in the north.
The Aburrá Valley was first discovered by Spaniards in the 1540s but Medellín was not officially founded until 1616. Francisco de Herrera Campuzano is the conquistador credited with establishing Medellín. He initially named the city San Lorenzo de Aburrá and focused development efforts in what is now the Poblado comuna. The name was later changed to Villa de Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria de Medellín in 1675, and finally to Medellín around 1813 when it was declared the capital of Antioquia.
Some theories suggest that the first settlers in the city were Jewish and escaping the Spanish Inquisition. There are consequent theories that Paisas have such a strong identity because the founding peoples were fiercely independent and looking to build a new community. These early groups separated the land into farms which they worked themselves – a stark contrast to the widespread slave plantations that dominated other Colombian settlements at the time.
The economy and trade
Medellín’s economy didn’t emerge until the early 20th century when coffee production and the railroad industry began to boom. Primarily, coffee manufacturing was what placed Medellín (and Colombia) as a major player in the world market. Locals who profited from coffee invested their money in the textile industry, which was on the cusp of expanding. Industrialization took place towards the end of the century and solidified Medellín as South America’s leading textile industry. To this day, clothing, furniture, food, tobacco, agriculture machinery, cement, steel, and chemicals are still produced in the city, which fosters its original entrepreneurial spirit.
Drugs and the Medellín cartel
In the early 1990s, Colombia had seen only indigenous groups grow marijuana and use coca leaves for ceremonies. With the introduction of laws prohibiting the production and consumption of cocaine and opiates in 1914, a vacuum opened for cartels to take control of distribution. The beginnings of organized crime then coincided with the increased demand for cocaine from the U.S and Europe in the 1980s. As a result, cartels formed throughout the country, normally led by a particular kingpin – in Medellín, the notorious Pablo Escobar was most prominent.
The remainder of the decade into the early 1990s was plagued by Escobar’s rule in Medellín. At its highest point, his cartel controlled 80% of the world’s cocaine and Escobar himself was titled the seventh richest man in the world. The group was known for its brutality – shootouts were common in the streets, forced disappearances were high, and bombs were planted around the city. Thousands of civilians were murdered at the hands of the Medellín cartel and rival drug groups, and in 1988, Medellín was named the most dangerous city in the world by Time Magazine.
By the early 90s, the United States intervened in Colombia to target kingpins and stop the flow of cocaine through to North America. Special forces units worked with the Colombian government and police to stop Escobar and the terror he spread across Medellín. Escobar was killed during a police raid on a house in Laureles on December 2nd, 1993.
Following years of conflict and violence, Medellín focused its transformation efforts on mobility throughout the city. Even though Medellín’s railway industry had long declined, 1995 saw the metro system open, running between Niquía to Poblado. This metro was the first, and still is, the only metro system operating in Colombia. The trains connected the wealthier areas with poorer ones and so provided more job opportunities, shortened travel times, and improved social integration. Gradually, the metro expanded into two lines (A and B, these days covering just under 20 miles) and introduced a network of metro cables.
The metro cables were integrated with the metro trains at no extra cost to users, and reached neighborhoods located high up in the hillsides. Line K was the first metro cable and opened in 2004. Today, there are five lines in total and each one is a staple part of the Medellín cityscape and often draws in tourists – however, they were and still are, a primary source of transport for thousands of locals.
Likewise, Comuna 13 – once one of the most violent neighborhoods in Medellín – underwent an architectural change to help social mobility. A series of escalators were built into the side of the comuna in 2011, crossing the 384-meter incline up to homes and helping neutralize the area from gang activity. Currently, Comuna 13 is open to tourists and has tours available led by local residents.
Medellín has felt a sharp rise in tourism over the last decade – notably due to Colombia’s peace agreement with the FARC in 2016. Between 2002 to 2018, tourism in Colombia more than quadrupled (540,000 to 2.5 million). In 2018, Medellín witnessed over half a million travelers visit during the year.