MEDELLÍN — One chronicler, years ago, described Medellín as "a pretty girl." Others call it gaudy, with its pylons and cement, its bridges and overpasses bearing the names of engineers and Catholic saints, and its somewhat misshapen historic center. Perhaps a quintessential example of the Medellín style, as it were, are the colorful (and horribly ugly) pyramids one mayor built as the dividing strip for one of the city's avenues.

Associated a generation ago with the drug cartel of Pablo Escobar, Medellín has more recently been touted as an "innovative" place. But for starters, that would require the buildings and urban development projects had any kind of social sense or purpose. Sadly, though, the city's leaders have given more thought to the concrete jungle than to its human inhabitants.

But more to the point, this is a city — along with several other towns and nearby suburbs — in the hands of an industry called crime. Because the other industry, with its factories and smokestacks, disappeared years ago.

Medellín's particular facade of bricks and tarmac interspersed with the odd trumpet tree is deceptive. Crime prevails here, and entire neighborhoods are ruled by gangs that do as they please, particularly in Comunas (districts) 1, 2 and 3, where groups like "Los Terribles," "Los Triana" and "La 29" flourish, as a recent article in the weekly Semana revealed.

The mayor insists otherwise, saying it's a high-tech city. And he scoffs at suggestions that the authorities "share" control with bandits, or that gangs have a "gun pact" in place to divide the city between them. Authorities also point out that the homicide rate has dropped in Medellín. That's a good thing, though hardly proof that all is well. What about all the other crimes — extortion and protection payments, mobile phone thefts, drug dealing?

All indicators suggest there is a parallel authority in Medellín, where gangs now control an extensive territory, from downtown to the suburbs. A particularly disturbing example is Villa Santa Fe de Antioquia, a public housing estate for poor families where an armed gang sells drugs, extorts residents and in some cases throws people out of their homes. It is not the only case in Colombia of criminals creating a refugee problem inside cities.

The future of a city — Photo: Colores Mari

Sure, Medellín seems pretty in its way, and generally quiet, even if buildings tend to collapse from time to time and its center is utterly polluted and much hotter than the rest of the city, with whole areas bereft of any greenery. It has its flashy trams and overground trains, and one sees police officers standing at street corners (more often than not checking their phone messages, not the street). But it's also overrun by extortionists combing every shop and kiosk for their money. They even go into people's homes, telling owners to pay up or "see what will happen, you little shit."

In the historic Prado district, where the rich used to live, someone has put up cheeky posters saying "Prado-Centro for Sale, interested parties contact Mayor Aníbal Gaviria." The posters point to popular frustration with the way officials have neglected this area — perhaps as a prelude to high-rise construction? That would be no surprise given that Pardo is the only part of Medellín to be declared a cultural heritage site, and from what I know, officials usually despise and fear culture.

I'll admit Medellín has a pretty girl's face. But there's nothing attractive about its body and spirit, which are dominated by dark, ugly interests. In that sense, things don't seem to have changed much since the old days of political feudalism, when every area was controlled by a local boss who'd say, "Around here, I'm the one in charge."