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Barrio Women and Energopower in Medellín, Colombia


This article argues that the prepaid energy system put into operation in Medellín and across Colombia worked as an expression of ‘energopower’; that is, energy as a means to govern societies. The article uses press archives and company statements, official statistics and group interviews to show how energopower operates in Medellín along three lines: that Empresas Públicas de Medellín, the city's public utility company, encouraged disconnected and displaced people as new buyers of prepaid energy services instead of citizens entitled to those services; that the implementation of the prepaid energy system coincided with the vertiginous capitalisation that allowed the city to fund its ‘Social Urbanism’ and EPM to expand operations across Colombia and other countries in Latin America; and, that prepaid electricity as a tool of energopower subjugated displaced and disconnected populations to new forms of affordability that prompted barrio women to understand and oppose its disciplining methods of domination.

Spanish abstract

Este artículo señala que el sistema prepago de energía puesto en operación en Medellín y en toda Colombia funcionó como una expresión de ‘energopoder’; es decir, energía como forma de gobernar sociedades. El artículo utiliza archivos de prensa y estados de cuenta de la compañía, estadísticas oficiales y entrevistas grupales para mostrar cómo opera el energopoder en Medellín a lo largo de tres líneas: que Empresas Públicas de Medellín (EPM), la compañía de servicios públicos domiciliarios de la ciudad, describió a personas sin conexión y desplazadas como nuevos compradores de servicios de energía de prepago en vez de verlos como ciudadanos con derechos a estos servicios; que la implementación del sistema de energía prepago coincidió con la capitalización vertiginosa que permitió a la ciudad financiar su ‘Urbanismo Social’ y a EPM expandir operaciones a lo largo de Colombia y otros países en Latinoamérica; y, que la electricidad prepago como instrumento de energopoder sometió a poblaciones desconectadas y desplazadas a nuevas formas de acceso que obligó a las mujeres de barrios a entender y oponerse a sus métodos disciplinarios de dominación.

Portuguese abstract

Este artigo defende que o sistema de energia pré-pago colocado em operação em Medellín e em outras áreas da Colômbia funcionou como uma expressão de ‘energopoder’, ou seja, energia como uma maneira de governar sociedades. O artigo utiliza arquivos da imprensa, declarações das empresas, estatísticas oficiais e entrevistas em grupo para demonstrar, em três linhas argumentativas, como o energopoder opera em Medellín: (1) a Empresas Públicas de Medellín, empresa de serviços públicos da cidade, encorajou pessoas sem energia conectada e desalojadas a serem novos consumidores de serviços de energia pré-paga, ao invés de cidadãos que gozam do direito a estes serviços; (2) a implementação do sistema de energia pré-paga coincidiu com a capitalização vertiginosa que permitiu que a cidade fundasse seu ‘Urbanismo Social’ e a EPM expandisse operações ao redor da Colômbia e outros países latino-americanos; e (3) que a energia pré-paga como ferramenta de energopoder subjugou populações desconectadas e desalojadas a novas formas de acesso, fazendo com que as mulheres do bairro passassem a compreender ese opor a esses métodos de dominação disciplinadora.

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1 The ten major urban areas in Colombia have an average population density of 37,600 inhabitants per square mile (i/mile2). The average for South America is 15,200 i/mile2 and the global average is 11,500 i/mile2. Demographia, ‘Demographia World Urban Areas (Built Up Urban Areas or World Agglomerations) 11th Annual Edition. January 2015.

2 García-Godos Jemima, ‘Transitional Justice and Victims’ Rights before the End of a Conflict: The Unusual Case of Colombia, Journal of Latin American Studies, 42: 3 (2010), pp. 487516, 493. Hernández Claudia López, Y refundaron la patria…de como mafiosos y políticos reconfiguraron el Estado colombiano (Bogotá: Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris, 2010).

3, ‘A oscuras’, 1 Dec. 2002.

4 Diario Oficial, No. 45.231, 27 June 2003.

5 Energy prepayment was developed during the transition from apartheid to democracy in South Africa and in countries with social and humanitarian crises such as Rwanda, Uganda or Nigeria. See Annecke Wendy, ‘“Still in the Shadows”: Women and Gender Relations in the Electricity Sector in South Africa’, in McDonald David A. (ed.), Electric Capitalism – Recolonising Africa on the Power Grid (Cape Town: HSRC Press – Earthscan, 2009), pp. 288320 . Ruiters Greg, ‘Contradictions in Municipal Services in Contemporary South Africa: Disciplinary Commodification and Self–Disconnections’, Critical Social Policy, 27: 4 (2000), pp. 487508 ; von Schnitzler Antina, ‘Travelling Technologies: Infrastructure, Ethical Regimes, and the Materiality of Politics in South Africa’, Cultural Anthropology, 28: 4 (2013), pp. 670–93. Mwaura Francis M., ‘Adopting electricity prepayment billing system to reduce non-technical energy losses in Uganda: Lesson from Rwanda’, Utilities Policy, 23 (2012), pp. 72–9. Esteves Gheisa R. Telles, Oliveira Fernando L. Cyrino, Atunes Carlos Henggeler, and Souza Ricardo Castro, ‘An Overview of Electricity Prepayment Experiences and the Brazilian New Regulatory Framework’, Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 54 (2016), pp. 710–11.

6 G. R. Telles Esteves, F. L. Cyrino Oliveira, C. Henggeler Antunes and R. Castro Souza, ‘An Overview of Electricity Prepayment Experiences and the Brazilian New Regulatory Framework’, pp. 704–22.

7 Annecke Wendy and Endelli Marialba, ‘Gender and Payment Electricity in Merlo, Argentina’, Energia News, 9: 1(2006), pp. 1820 . Wendy Annecke, ‘Still in the Shadows’, pp. 288–320.

8 Telles Esteves et al. ‘An Overview of Electricity Prepayment Experiences’, p. 711.

9 ANEEL, ‘ANEEL desenvolve estudos sobre pré-pagamento opcional de conta de energia’, 16 May 2011.

10 Portal Brasil, ‘Aprovada audiência pública sobre regulamentação de energia pós e pré-paga’, 28 June 2012. Telles Esteves et al. ‘An Overview of Electricity Prepayment Experiences’, pp. 719.

11 Ibid. , pp. 712.

13 Villareal et al. quoted in Telles Esteves , ‘An Overview of Electricity Prepayment Experiences’, pp. 705.

14 O'Sullivan Kimberley C., Howden-Chapman Philippa L., Fougere Geoffrey M., Hales Simon and Stanley James, ‘Empowered? Examining Self-disconection in a Postal Survey of Electricity Prepayment Meter Consumers in New Zealand’, Energy Policy, 52 (2013), pp. 277–87, p. 284

15 Telles Esteves et al., ‘An Overview of Electricity Prepayment Experiences’, pp. 715

16 O'Sullivan et al., ‘Empowered?’, p. 284.

17 Boyer Dominic, ‘Energopower: An Introduction’, Anthropological Inquiry, 87: 2(2014), pp. 309–33, 325.

18 Boyer Dominic, ‘Anthropology Electric’, Cultural Anthropology, 30: 4 (2015), pp. 531–9, 531–2.

19 Dominic Boyer, ‘Energopower’, p. 327.

20 El Tiempo ‘El concejo de Medellín aprobó que Emvarias sea otra filial de EPM’, El Tiempo, 8 May 2013.

21 Milford Bateman, Juan P. Durán Ortíz and Kate Maclean, ‘A Post-Washington Consensus Approach to Local Economic Development in Latin America? An Example from Medellín, Colombia’, Overseas Development Institute, Background Note April 2011, p. 2.

22 Ibid.

23 El Mundo, ‘EPM masificará la energía prepago: Junta Directiva aprobó implementar el sistema en los estratos 1, 2 y 3’, 4 Oct. 2006.

24 Caracol Radio, ‘Venderán energía prepago en Medellín’, 3 Oct. 2006.

25 Günel Gökçe, ‘Ergos: A New Energy Currency’, Anthropological Quarterly, 87: 2 (2014), pp. 359–76, 361–2.

26 Aurora, Low-Income Women's Network, group interview, March 2010. All names of women quoted are pseudonyms.

27 Spivak Gayatri C., A Critique of Postcolonial Reason – Toward a History of the Vanishing Present (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 19, 254–7.

28 Franco Saúl, Suárez Clara M., Naranjo Claudia B., Báez Liliana C. and Rozo Patricio, ‘The Effects of the Armed Conflict on the Life and Health in Colombia’, Ciencia e Saúde Coletiva, 11: 2 (2006), pp. 349–61.

29 Fassin Didier, ‘Another Politics of Life is Possible’, Theory, Culture & Society, 26: 5 (2009), pp. 4460, 49.

30 Foucault Michel, Society Must be Defended – Lectures at the Collége the France 1975–1976, translated by Macey David (New York: Picador, 2003), pp. 45–6.

31 Günel, ‘Ergos’, pp. 361–2.

32 Barad Karen, ‘Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter’, Signs, 28: 3 (2003), pp. 801–31.

33 Barad, ‘Posthumanist Performativity’, p. 812.

34 Haraway, 1992, cited in Barad, ‘Posthumanist Performativity’, n. 2, p. 803.

35 Boyer, ‘Energopower’, pp. 326.

36 Barad, ‘Posthumanist Performativity’, p. 812.

37 Harvey David, The New Imperialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 159.

38 von Schnitzler, ‘Travelling Technologies’, pp. 670–93.

39 Krishnan Rajamani, ‘Meters of Tomorrow’, IEEE Power and Energy Magazine art. no. 4457973 (2008), pp. 96, 93–4. Depuru Soma S., Wang Lingfeng, Davabhaktuni Vijay and Gudi Nikhil, ‘Measures and Setbacks for Controlling Electricity Theft’, North American Power Symposium, no. 5619966 (2010).

40 Annecke, ‘Still in the Shadows’, pp. 288–320.

41 Aurora, Red de Mujeres Populares (Barrio Women's Network), group interview, March 2010.

42 Annecke and Endelle, ‘Gender and Payment Electricity’, pp. 18–20.

43 Bedoya Jairo, Violent Protection in Colombia – The Case of Medellin from the Nineties Onwards (Medellín: Instituto Popular de Capacitación, 2010).

44 Blomberg Businessweek (International Edition), ‘The Other Medellin Cartel’, 21 April 1996.

45 Dinero,‘Nace el sindicato Antioqueño’, 21 Aug. 2013.

46 Williams Phil, ‘Transnational Criminal Organizations: Strategic Alliances’, Washington Quarterly, 18: 1 (1995), pp. 5772 .

47 Bedoya Jairo, La protección violenta en Colombia – el caso de Medellín desde los años noventa (Medellín: Instituto Popular de Capacitación, 2010), p. 95. Tubb Daniel, ‘Narratives of Citizenship in Medellín, Colombia’, Citizenship Studies, 17: 5 (2013), pp. 627–40, 635.

48 Rozema Ralph, ‘Urban DDR-processes: Paramilitaries and Criminal Networks in Medellín, Colombia’, Journal of Latin American Studies, 40: 3 (2008), pp. 423–52.

49 Bedoya, La protección violenta en Colombia.

50 Rozema Ralph, ‘Forced Disappearance in an Era of Globalization: Biopolitics, Shadow Networks, and Imagined Worlds’, American Anthropologist, 113: 4 (2011), pp. 582–93. Tubb, ‘Narratives of Citizenship’, p. 635.

51 Furlong Kathryn, ‘Water and the Entrepreneurial City: The Territorial Expansion of Public Utility Companies from Colombia and the Netherlands’, Geoforum, 58 (2015), pp. 195207 .

52 Hylton Forrest, ‘Medellín's Makeover’, New Left Review, 44 (2007, March–April), pp. 7189 .

53 Brand Peter and Dávila Julio D., ‘Mobility Innovation at the Urban Margins’. City, 15: 6 (2011), pp. 647–61; Alejandro Echeverri and Francesco Orsini, ‘Informalidad y urbanismo social en Medellín’. Newsletter No. 4 Catedra Medellín Barcelona, 24 July 2012; García Jaime Hernández, ‘Slum Tourism, City Branding and Social Urbanism: The Case of Medellín, Colombia’, Journal of Place Management and Development, 6: 1 (2013), pp. 4351 .

54 Davis Diane, Urban Resilience in Situations of Chronic Violence (Cambridge, MA: MIT/USAID, 2012).

55 Boyer, ‘Energopower’, p. 327.

56 ‘Sentencia T-25/04 de la Sala Tercera de Revision’, Corte Constitucional de Colombia, 22 Jan. 2004.

57 CODHES (Advisory Office for Human Rights and Displacement), La atención a la población desplazada en Medellín, 2005.

58 CIER (Regional Energy Integration Commission), ‘Estadisticas de la CIER’, 2008.

59 Comisión Reguladora de Energía (CREG), ‘Resolución número 067’ de 2004, Noviembre, Diario Oficial Nr. 45.707, pp. 2–3.

60 El Tiempo, ‘Cómo utilizar la energía prepago’, 18 Jan. 2005.

61 El Tiempo, ‘EPM experimenta con energía prepago’, 21 Nov. 2004.

62 El Tiempo, ‘Así son los morosos de EPM’, 2 Dec. 2005.

63 Ibid.

64 Corte Constitucional de Colombia, ‘Sentencia C-278/07 de la Sala Plena’, 18 April 2007.

65 Comisión Reguladora de Energía (CREG), ‘Resolución número 067’, Diario Oficial No. 45.707 (2004), pp. 2–3.

66 El Tiempo,‘Hace dos meses 2,993 usuarios residenciales tenían los servicios públicos suspendidos – pobreza desconecta a Medellín’, 8 May 2010.

67 Boyer, ‘Energopower’, pp. 326–7.

68 Harvey, The New Imperialism, p. 159.

69 El Mundo, Guillermo Maya Muñoz, ‘Privatizar EPM, tarea pendiente’, 16 March 2015.

70 Sergio Fajardo, ‘Del miedo a la esperaza’. XXIV Reunión de Consejeros del Tecnológico de Monterrey, febrero 15, 16 y 17. Monterrey, Mexico, YouTube, 13 May 2009.

71 Compromiso, ‘Energía prepago: la nueva forma de conectarse legal’, 32 (Nov. 2007), p. 3.

72 El Colombiano, ‘EPM lanza otro plan de energia prepago – “Todos conectados”’, 6 June 2009.

73 El Tiempo, ‘La energía prepago de EPM atiende a 42 819 usuarios’, 16 April 2010.

74 El Colombiano, ‘Energia prepago llega a todo el departamento’, 22 Nov. 2009.

75 SUI (Sistema Único de Informacion de Servicios Publicos), Energía – consulta de informacion facturacion y recaudo EPM. 2004–2011, available at

76 Alcaldia de Medellín, ‘Encuesta Calidad de vida 2004. Población’ (Alcaldia de Medellín, 2005).

77 Boletín informativo EPM [EPM Information Bulletin], ‘EPM logró la mayoría accionaria de las electrificadoras Santandereanas’, 26 Feb. 2009.

78 Furlong, ‘Water and the Entrepreneurial City’, p. 195.

79 El Colombiano, ‘Aguas y energía, retos de EPM en Panamá’, 7 April 2010.

80 ‘EPM adquiere el negocio de distribución y comercialización de energía más grande y más solido de Centroamérica’, Boletín informativo EPM, 21 Oct. 2010. Semana, ‘EPM compró la Empresa de Energía de Guatemala’, 21 Oct. 2010.

81 El Espectador,‘EPM adquiere negocios de electricidad en Panamá y El Salvador’, 20 Jan. 2011.

82 Prensa Libre, ‘Guatemala servirá a EPM para sondear el mercado de Centroamérica’, 10 Oct. 2010.

83 Dinero,‘EPM da pasos de multilatina’, 24 April 2013.

84 El Colombiano,‘EPM explora más negocios’, 23 Feb. 2011. El Colombiano, ‘EPM entra a México con filial de aguas residuales’, 22 May 2013. Furlong, ‘Water and the entrepreneurial city’, p. 198. Semana, ‘El multimillonario negocio de EPM’, 23 April 2015.

85 CECACIER (Comité Regional para Centro América y el Caribe de la Comisión de Integración Energética Regional), ‘Noticias del sector eléctrico de Centroamérica y el Caribe’, 1 Feb. 2011.

86 El Espectador, ‘Hidroituango, en detalle’, 31 Aug. 2012.

87 Bedoya, Violent Protection in Colombia.

88 Alcaldia de Medellín, ‘Encuesta Calidad de vida’, 2004. Población

89 Hernández García, ‘Slum Tourism’, p. 44.

90 Monclús Javier, ‘The Barcelona Model: And an Original Formula? From “Reconstruction” to Strategic Urban Projects (1979–2004)’, Planning Perspectives, 18: 4 (2003), pp. 399421 .

91 Echeverri and Orsini, ‘Informality and Social Urban Planning in Medellín’, p. 139. Hernández García, ‘Slum Tourism’, p. 47.

92 Francisco Gutiérrez Sanín, María T. Pinto, Juan C. Arenas, Tania Guzmán, María T. Gutiérrez, ‘Politics and Security in Three Colombian Cities’, Cities and Fragile States, Working Paper, 44 (2009), p. 12.

93 Samper José, ‘The Role of Urban Upgrading in Latin America as a Warfare Tool Against the “Slum Wars”’, Critical Planning, 19: (2012), pp. 58–16, 63.

94, ‘Ciudadela Nuevo Occidente’, Camino al Barrio, 21 June 2015.

95 El Mundo, ‘EPM masificará la energía prepago’, 4 Oct. 2006.

96 Semana,‘A oscuras’, 1 Dec. 2002.

97 Red de Mujeres Populares, group interview, March 2010.

99 ‘Ley 812 de 2003 por la cual se aprueba el plan nacional de desarrollo 2003–2006 hacia un estado comunitario’, Diario Oficial, Nr. 45.231, 27 June 2003.

100 Günel, ‘Ergos’, p. 362.

101 Comisión Reguladora de Energía (CREG), ‘Resolución número 067’, Diario Oficial, Nr. 45.707 (2004), pp. 2–3, author's own emphasis.

102 Red de Mujeres Populares, group interview, March 2010.

103 EPM, Informe de Sostenibilidad social 2010, p. 98.

104 CIER (Comisión de Integración Energética Regional), ‘Evolución de potencia y energía entre 1980 y 2007’.

105 Harvey, The New Imperialism, p. 159.

106 Red de Mujeres Populares, group interview, March 2010.

107 Fajardo, ‘Del miedo a la esperanza’, 17 May 2009.

108 Echeverri and Orsini, ‘Informalidad y urbanismo social en Medellín’, p. 142; Hernández García, ‘Slum Tourism’, p. 49.

109 El Tiempo, ‘Atención de emergencia’, 11 Aug. 2004.

110 Personería de Medellin (Medellin Office for Human Rights Issues), Human Rights in Medellin, 2005.

111 Gloria Naranjo Giraldo, Seguimiento y balance sobre el desplazamiento forzado, la población afectada, y las políticas públicas, Medellín 2004–2007 (University of Antioquia: Medellín, 2007), p. 53.

112 Personería de Medellín, Derechos humanos en Medellín 2005; Informe ejecutivo de Derechos Humanos en Medellín 2009, p. 24.

113 El Tiempo, ‘Los atractivos que construyó Medellín para convertirse en sede de Juegos Suraméricanos’, 17 March 2010.

114 Victoria, group interview, March 2010.

115 Günel, ‘Ergos’, pp. 361–2

116 Group interview, Local Women Leaders, East Central Districts, March 2010. Own emphasis.

118 Telles Esteves et al., ‘An Overview of Electricity Prepayment Experiences’, pp. 715.

119 Von Schnitzler, ‘Citizenship Prepaid’, p. 913.

120 Hernández García, ‘Slum Tourism’ p. 47.

121 Tubb, ‘Narratives of Citizenship’, p. 638.

122 Group interview, Local Women Leaders, East Central Districts, March 2010.

123 Furlong, ‘Water and the Entrepreneurial City’, p. 199.

124 Davis, Urban Resilience in Situations of Chronic Violence.

125 Günel, ‘Ergos’, pp. 361–2.

126 Annecke, ‘Still in the Shadows’, p. 292.

127 Ruiters, ‘Contradictions in Municipal Services’, p. 499.

* I wish to thank the Red de Mujeres Populares, and Local Women Leaders from the East Central Districts in Medellín; the staff in the Centro de Estudios Regionales at Universidad de Antioquia for hosting my visit during 2010; the Swedish Research Council Formas for funding this research and especially the anonymous referees from JLAS who read my early drafts and provided valuable feedback.

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