A World Drug Capital Struggles to Get a Life

Home to cocaine cartel, Colombia's Cali tries to be normal city

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

WITH her broad smile, light clothing, and easy manner, Adelinda Wailis appears as tropical and carefree as the first impression given by the city she calls home.

But the unemployed young mother's sunny demeanor clouds over as she describes the dark side of life in Cali, a prosperous city of sugar plantations, paper mills, and textile production known from Tokyo to Topeka as home to the world's largest supplier of cocaine, the Cali cartel.

``Sure, there are killings over the drugs, and now a lot of the deaths are by the militias,'' says Ms. Wailis, referring to paramilitary groups responsible for what is called ``social cleansing'' - the anonymous killing of poor youths and others considered undesirable. Cali counted 2,224 murders last year out of a population of nearly 2 million.

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Wailis lost a close friend to Cali's violence a few weekends ago. Before that, she lost the father of her three-year-old son.

It is this picture, one of drug-trade-dominated neighborhoods, hooded killers, and the infamous cartel with its illicit lucre, that gives Cali an unenviable global reputation. Cali sanctuary

Yet, there is another Cali, one that Wailis symbolizes with her resolve to carve out a better future. ``Most people in Cali are honest, hard workers, and I want a chance to be the same,'' she says from the drop-in center where she goes for guidance and job leads. Run by the city's peace commission, the center is an effort to help youths avoid drugs and crime. ``Above all I want to change things for my child,'' she says.

What city leaders are seeking is a way to nurture the spirit of people like Wailis, when much of the population remains fearful of consequences they believe would accompany any confrontation with the city's status quo.

``The great majority dislike very much our situation and the reputation it has given us, but they are just scared to do anything,'' says Rodrigo Lloreda Caicedo, director of Cali's daily El Tiempo and a former ambassador to the United States.

They are afraid of the kind of war the Medellin cartel waged against the people and government of Colombia, with car bombs and assassinations, until cartel leader Pablo Escobar Gaviria was killed in 1993. And they are scared, adds Mr. Lloreda, that if the people of Cali did resist, ``The state would not be behind them.''

What keeps Cali from becoming ``just a city of narcos,'' [anyone involved in the drug world] he says, is a determination by both influential families and working people to debunk Cali's image. Strong industries and six universities, have made it Colombia's second cultural magnet. ``Even though it's not heroic,'' says Lloreda, ``people have decided to stay and work here.''

That desire to stay is not hard to understand. Founded 459 years ago in the fertile Cauca Valley of Colombia's Andean range, Cali came to be known as ``a branch of heaven'' for its lush floral vegetation, inviting ambience, and beautiful women.

The influx of more than a dozen US companies and construction of an international trade center would make for a progressive picture if not for the ``cult of easy money'' that observers say has accompanied the cartel's rise.

Construction of tony homes and apartments has skyrocketed as narcodealers look for ways to launder their narcodollars. Shops with cheap contraband electronics line downtown streets, pushing out legitimate businesses but providing another sure way to launder drug money.

Cauca Valley agriculture land fetches higher prices than California's most fertile farmland, as drug dealers set up horse farms and other laundering schemes.

Rural immigrants with few legitimate job prospects are attracted to that world, observers say. ``The dream of these boys with no money is to become a driver'' for the traffickers, says Dario Soto, director of Parces, the program designed to provide youth with positive alternatives that Wailis attends. Many of them become the escorts, guards, hit men, and vigilantes that are also part of Cali.

And that is where the violence comes in. Francisco Murgueito, Cali's high commissioner for peace, says he believes 80 percent of Cali's murders are at least indirectly linked to the narcotics business. At the same time, he notes that Cali is actually far from being Colombia's most violent city - the smaller Medellin, for example, counted 5,557 murders last year. And he acknowledges that Colombia's tradition of violence is partly responsible.

`Social cleansing'

In some cases as a reaction to the drug world's violence, sometimes in conjunction with it, private militias have sprung up to rid Cali of such ``undesirable'' elements as poor youths, homosexuals, and prostitutes. Last year, 250 cases of ``social cleansing'' were registered, including 150 killings of children and adolescents in the city's poorest neighborhoods.

To combat this trend, the city is putting new emphasis on human rights awareness and training. But the budget for this and other ``peace'' work is $500,000, notes Mr. Murgueito, ``which is dramatically little to fight against the economy of easy money.''

What is really needed, he says, is ``an end to convivencia'' - the Spanish word describing how legitimate Cali ``lives with'' an illicit industry and the impunity with which criminal elements operate. But for many here, that task looms larger than the forces at Cali's disposal.

``People remember that the killing of Escobar did not stop Medells violence, nor did it stop his cartel,'' says Hernan Cobo, counselor to the peace commission.

Still, a desire to end the violence and share in Cali's promise keeps people like Wailis looking for answers.

Back at the drop-in house she frequents, 15-year-old Jhon Wilmer Garavina says he, too, is here to change his life. But he cites the attitude of his friends as explanation for why he thinks broader change is going to be a long time coming. ``These days they don't trust anybody, so they refuse to come to a place like this even if I say it's safe,'' he says, smiling. ``They think it's an invitation to be killed.''

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