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Medellín, once epicenter of Colombia's drug war, fights to keep the peace

Medellín is seen as a success story of former President Álvaro Uribe, whose successor faces a crucial test amid the resurgence in drug war violence.

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At the end of one of these gondola lines is the Parque Biblioteca España, a library inaugurated three years ago that today averages 1,500 visits a day. "It is so much calmer here now," says Maria Garcia, who owns a store across from the library, once ridden with gangs and gunfire. Elsewhere in the city, a renovated botanical garden is now the "chic" place to get married. On a recent day it was packed with schoolchildren and university students. One of the major downtown streets, perhaps the city's most chaotic, is now pedestrian-only. There are new schools and cultural centers in the poorest zones, built by the best-known architects in the country. With each project, the mayor's office imagined integrated services, so that a school would never just be a school but a place for health services, a community center, a space for adult education.

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"The idea was to stop the thinking that because people are poor they should get the poorest things," says Laura Villa, who works with an organization for the mayor's office to promote Medellín internationally. "So that people feel dignified and value their neighborhoods."

While mayor from 2003 to 2007, Mr. Fajardo adopted the slogan "from fear to hope," and the sentiment set in as public projects revitalized the city. "Something changed in the spirit of the people," says Ms. Villa. As violence dropped, Fajardo's political stardom rose. He was the runner-up for vice president in the recent national election and is said to still eye Santos's presidential office.

Fighting surges between paramilitaries

While increased security and local planning played a role, a bigger reason for reduced violence was that former paramilitaries began to demobilize in 2003 and made a truce to gain legitimacy during dialogue with the government.

The groups never disbanded, however, which allowed for the recent flare-up in violence. "The demobilization meant handing in weapons, but they did not demobilize the structure of the paramilitaries," says Aldo Civico of Rutgers University in New Jersey. They were ready to rearm when the 2008 arrest of Medellín crime boss Don Berna caused a power vacuum. "When he was in charge, the city was relatively calm," according to a June briefing from the International Crisis Group, attributing most of the 2009 killings to the 150 to 300 gangs still operating here.

Ms. Restrepo of Medellín Como Vamos says perceptions of the city are down, and the homicide rate shows improvements were not uniform. "When we talk about the transformation we have to be careful about what we are talking about," she says. "We still have two cities."

Jorge Giraldo, a lifelong resident of Medellín, says locals won't let safety deteriorate to pre-2003 levels. "There are drugs in the US and Mexico, the same as in Medellín," he says. "The reason we transformed the city here is because of the spirit of our people." Keeping it safe, however, may well depend on Colombia's new president.

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