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10.19.10

The Man Who Tamed the Cocaine Capital

As mayor, Sergio Fajardo turned around Medellin, and now he’s set his sights on Colombia’s highest office. He tells Constantino Diaz-Duran why he’s for legalizing drugs—and why Obama should take some cues from Clinton.

As mayor, Sergio Fajardo turned around Medellin, and now he’s set his sights on Colombia’s highest office. Fajardo, a speaker at The Daily Beast's Innovators Summit, tells Constantino Diaz-Duran why he’s for legalizing drugs—and why Obama should take some cues from Clinton.

Sergio Fajardo, a wonky mathematician turned superstar mayor, has his eye on the Palacio de Nariño—the Colombian White House. He came close this year, as the running mate on a ticket that lost a runoff election. But Fajardo’s popularity has grown since the election, and if he continues the way he’s been going, he might get his wish as early as 2014.

To understand the appeal of this man who might soon lead one of America’s most important South American allies, we must understand the work he did as mayor of Medellin, Colombia’s second largest city and a town that became infamous for the drug cartel that called it home.

"When I became mayor of Medellin in 2004," he said, "it was clear that the city had—still has—serious problems. It was plagued by violence linked to drug trafficking. Organized crime, you see, has done immense harm to Colombia, particularly Medellin. The best way to explain it is this: Drug trafficking was like a bomb that exploded in the country 30 years ago, and the epicenter was Medellin."

The other problem he identified was an immense gap between the city’s rich and poor. "In terms of inequality," he explained, "Colombia and Brazil lead South America." According to Fajardo, this inequality fed into the crime and violence that plagued Medellin. "I have always insisted that we must fight criminals," he said, "but we can’t forget something that is rarely mentioned, which is the gateway to crime. Why does a young Colombian go into the world of crime and violence?" Fajardo’s answer is a lack of opportunities, the notion that they can aspire to nothing higher in life.

In order to close that gateway to crime, he said, we need to open others. "That way, when a young man looks ahead, he won’t see just a wall on one side and a door that leads to crime on the other. We must open other doors, the doors to opportunity, to a better education. That’s why our slogan was ‘Medellin, the most educated.'"

Drug Dealers to the StarsEducation was a central part of Fajardo’s program for the renewal of Medellín. He explains that his administration "decided to focus [its] efforts on those parts of the city where there was more violence, where the human development index was the lowest." Their flagship project was the construction of five "library parks" in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. “We sought urban transformation,” he said, “by using architecture as a social and political vehicle to achieve positive change. So we came to those neighborhoods where all hope had been lost, and it was there where we decided to build the most beautiful buildings. And why did we want to have these beautiful public works in the poorest neighborhoods? Because we reject the paradigm that, when it comes to poor people, any little thing will do—that they will be happy just to get anything at all.”

Controversial at first, his plan to pour millions of dollars into the construction of "beautiful buildings" in rundown neighborhoods seems to have paid off, and he has adapted his slogan as mayor for his push for the presidency. "Now we say ‘Colombia, la más educada,'" he asserts with a hint of pride in his voice.

Fajardo, who describes himself as "a scientist, a mathematician," left academia for politics because he got tired of always saying "things should be different."

To end the scourge of drug trafficking, Fajardo believes it is important to consider legalizing drugs as one of the first steps. "There is no question that we must fight against the drug cartels," he said. "They are criminality at its worst form. This type of organized crime goes beyond just trafficking drugs; it generates the worst kind of social decomposition in our countries. Organized crime related to drug trafficking must be attacked. But it’s not just a military problem. It’s not just about escalating military presence, escalating a war. We must understand this the way former presidents César Gaviria [of Colombia], Fernando Henrique Cardoso [of Brazil], and Ernesto Zedillo [of Mexico] recommend."

Gaviria talked about the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy in an interview with The Daily Beast last year. The commission, when he founded alongside Cardoso and Zedillo, with financial help from billionaire decriminalization advocate George Soros, seeks to end the drug war and promote an understanding of drug use not as a criminal but as a public health issue.

"Look at what’s happening in Mexico," said Fajardo. "It is so painful, that violence that drug trafficking generates. I think we need to understand this problem and view it from a different perspective. It makes no sense to jail people for using or selling drugs." Like Gaviria, Fajardo believes that "eventually all drugs should be legalized," but he emphasized that "this must be a global discussion. This is not something that Latin American countries can do unilaterally."

Any talk of legalization "has to go hand in hand with the development of a public health project," he added. "We should take our cues from what has been done about tobacco. The use of tobacco is going down, but it has been tacked from a public health standpoint and an educational standpoint." He also pointed out that legalizing drugs would not mean that the government is capitulating to the cartels. "Let me be clear," he said. "This does not mean that we are easing up the fight against organized crime. The criminals who run the drug trade must be fought. But a simplistic military approach will never solve any problems."

Fajardo, who describes himself as "a scientist, a mathematician," left academia for politics because he got tired of always saying "things should be different." He received a Ph.D. in math from the University of Wisconsin, where he became "a fan of the Green Bay Packers the Milwaukee Bucks, and also the Brewers." But the years he spent here influenced more than his loyalties in sports. They taught him something about America’s relationship with the Southern Hemisphere. "While I always found the people of the United States to be particularly caring," he said, "I also think the U.S. hasn’t given Latin America the attention it deserves. The U.S. government routinely ignores what happens in Latin America, and in that sense we need to build a different kind of relationship—one that is productive, constructive."

To that end, he said, one of his main goals as president of Colombia would be to promote scientific exchanges between the two countries. "We never talk about education programs," he says. "All we ever talk about is military programs"—an approach to binational relations that he believes is shortsighted. "President Obama," he says, "likes to talk about alternative energy sources and that sort of thing. Well, we have great wealth in terms of that in Colombia." And he would like to use that wealth to its fullest potential, with the collaboration of the U.S.

In terms of working with the United States toward a more rational approach to organized drug trafficking, Fajardo continues to have high hopes for the Obama administration. "I sense that President Obama is open to discussing these things, and I hope that we can still make some progress on this. There’s already a national debate taking place in the U.S. about legalizing marijuana, and this is a very important discussion."

A potential bid by Fajardo for the Colombian presidency is still several years away, but if he meets his goals, he said he hopes whoever is at the White House takes his or her cues from Bill Clinton. "I think President Clinton was someone who took a constructive approach towards Colombia," he said. "He supported a free trade agreement, which is very important because I think free trade is what will give us the opportunity to exploit our talents and our potential to become big players on the global stage. We really have to get over this notion that the only relationship our two countries can have is one associated with drug trafficking. We need to focus on our wealth of natural resources and seek ways to do something productive with them."

Constantino Diaz-Duran has written for the New York Post, the Washington Blade, and the Orange County Register. He lives in Manhattan and is an avid Yankees fan. You'll find him on Twitter as @cddNY.