How Libraries Turned Around Colombia’s Former Drug Capital

Sergio Fajardo; Credit

You have probably heard the story before, Medellin, Colombia was the home to the infamous drug boss Pablo Escobar. The city was riddled by crime and a thriving drug trade. Meanwhile, a rebel group known for kidnappings, trading drugs and terrorizing Colombians situated itself in the mountains in the vicinity of Medellin. A 1988 article in TIME Magazine declared Medellin as the most dangerous city.

Things began to change when Escobar was killed in a firefight with the Colombian National Police. However, fighting continued, the government remained corrupt and the drug trade chugged along. Enter a University of Wisconsin trained mathematician and an idea to revitalize the city with libraries.

Sergio Fajardo; Credit
Sergio Fajardo; Credit

Sergio Fejardo led a group who wanted to transform the city. The way to do it? Build a coalition of support and take the most important position in the city, mayor. So, Fejardo set on to build a grassroots campaign that culminated in an electoral victory in 2003 and the assumption of the mayors office at the start of 2004.

He started with three problems to solve: inequality, violence and corruption. The issue of corruption was a starting point in office. “Contracts would be transparent,” he explained in a conversation hosted by IREX on Tuesday. Everyone would have to apply out in the open if they wanted to complete a government job. The long standing deals and favorites were wiped out.

“There should be many eyes and few hands,” he continued in reference to increasing transparency. “The problems are when there are few eyes and many hands.”

Fajarodo stepped into office at a time shortly after the Colombian government negotiated with the paramilitary groups that controlled the city’s drug trade. The agreements were largely kept during Fajardo’s time in office. With a sharp reduction in violence thanks to the agreement, Fajardo was then able to pursue his other ambitions.

To Fajardo, education is the ‘engine of social transformation’ for communities. He wanted to go further. That led to the development and establishment of his Educational Parks. They would be spaces that in first and foremost for the community. He called on architects to propose plans for the buildings and spaces.

Educational parks included public libraries, teacher training centers and university level education opportunities. They were to be a source of pride for local communities going further to foster a sense of ownership.

Reforming education required partnering with the unionized teachers as well as the parents who sent children to city schools. Quality pacts were employed as a form of agreement between the mayor and all groups involved. They were a signal to the commitment of not only the mayor, but of the teachers to work with him and the parents to provide support.

Building support with the teachers meant showing is appreciation. Fajardo joked that the only time you could see him in a tie was for an event honoring his teachers or students. Annual city events celebrated the teachers and awarded the most outstanding students, an event he jokingly called the Oscars of Education. “If you are treated with dignity, you will do things better,” stressed Fajardo multiple times making it clear that dignity was the foundation upon which he built his programs.

The work produced results. According to a Princeton University case study the number of public high school students performing below average on national exams fell from 65% to 11.6%. Meanwhile, students performing above average on the same test rose from 6.4% to 36.9%. An achievement that lived up to the Fajardo phrase “Medellin: The Most Educated.”

The work continued in Medellin after Fajardo left the mayor’s office at the end of his term and is continuing at a large scale across the state of Antioquia. Now governor, Fajardo is working with individual communities to develop 80 more educational parks. He hopes to break ground in the next few months and traveled to Washington DC in order to round up more funding to meet the projected $120 million cost to implement the projects.

Like he did as mayor, the Fajardo administration invited towns to bid on the educational parks. The governor then traveled to the towns to develop social pacts with the mayors and the towns themselves. In many cases, he is working with political opponents who campaigned against him.

The same quality pacts are being employed and Fajardo is taking some of his other programs to a larger scale. This includes a program modeled after Teach for America that will bring well trained teachers to areas of the state that are in greater need. He transformed the state-wide beauty pageant into a young women’s talent contest. “We know we have physically beautiful women in Colombia,” he said. “But we need to celebrate their accomplishments.”

Each year, the state hosts a contest to celebrate what young girls have done. Similarly, a state-wide academic Olympics lets the students compete in a series of events that culminates in Fajardo, tie and all, hosting the finals on public television. He glowed in describing the young girl from the countryside who won the most recent contest.

The unlikely politician is applying his mathematical training to solving the problems within Antioquia. It is a rather simple premise for him, “Lets start with the problems that we want to solve.” Improving education appears to be his solution to the most pressing problems.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.