Medellin Violence Spurs Colombia

THE terrorist violence fragmenting society and authority in this nation's second-largest city has reached a level that has shaken even Colombians who thought they had seen it all. ``Is there a civil war in Medellin?'' asks the cover of a recent ediition of Bogata's Semana weekly news magazine. Pictured on the cover are a group of people and Army troops standing around one of the hundreds of bodies that have turned up in the city in recent weeks. Authorities blame the Medellin cartel for most of the bloodshed.

Car bombings, multiple killings of police, and massacres of civilians in the city have generated a national debate about the causes of the violence.

The recent outpouring of commentary by the press and government officials shows the numbing effect of violence can be overcome. Colombians appear more aware than ever of the threat that drug traffickers present to the nation.

``The problems in Medellin have opened the eyes not only of the city, but of the entire country,'' says Carlos Lemos, Colombia's former interior minister. Drug traffickers, he adds, have so penetrated Medellin society that Colombia is in fact battling for control of its second largest city.

``Medellin should be held up as an example of what can happen in all of the country if we do not continue to fight the drug trafficking problem head-on,'' says Lemos, now a columnist for Bogata's El Tiempo newspaper.

Terrorists working for the Medellin cartel have been blamed for hundreds of recent murders, both of civilians and police on the city streets. In the first five months of 1990 there were 3,160 homicides in Medellin compared to 2,176 during the same period for 1989. The cartel's gunmen shot and killed 160 police officers from January to May of 1990. There were no assassinations of police in the first five months of 1989.

The violence is, perhaps, even more disturbing because its escalation is not only the work of drug traffickers, nor even of criminals in general, human rights activists say. Many civilian deaths have been in the form of mass killings of young people in the city's poor neighborhoods, where the cartel's hired killers are based. According to human rights reports, several of the victims' families have accused police of carrying out the massacres in retaliation for traffickers attacks on police.

Javier Tobon, the Roman Catholic vicar for the Northeastern Zone, where gangs of young hitmen, or sicarios, are concentrated, says most of the area's population believes police are behind several recent killings.

``There is a total lack of confidence in the police and in authority in general,'' Mr. Tobon says, adding that even priests now question the Colombian system of justice. ``In the United States they put criminals in jail,'' he says. ``Here they kill them on the streets.''

Col. Jorge Serrero, Medellin's newly appointed police chief, denies any of the force have been involved in massacres and says the killings are the work of rival youth gangs. Colonel Serrero admits, however, his force's image has been damaged by accusations of involvement in the killings.

Most observers agree the breakdown of authority in Medellin has helped the cocaine cartel and its leader Pablo Escobar by increasing terror and preventing an effective antidrug fight. Authorities searching the city have been unable to capture Escobar despite reports he hides there.

``One of our first orders of business is to regain the cooperation of Medellin's population,'' Serrero says. The force has taken steps, including increased patrols to boost contacts with residents.

The violence in Medellin has forced Colombians to face other realities as well, including poverty that many analysts say fuels the growth of youth gangs. Medellin's Mayor Omar Florez recently announced a program of investment in the city's poverty-stricken neighborhoods. Former Colombian President Carlos Lleras proposes a nationally funded plan to improve Medellin's treatment of juvenile delinquents and increase social outreach programs.

Many commentators say Medellin's problems, including drug traffickers' influence, faulty administration of justice, and widespread poverty form part of a growing crisis in all of Colombia.

Mario Calderon writes in a recent column in El Tiempo that Colombian's have realized that getting rid of drug traffickers will not alone stop the violence. He says traffickers merely ``used their enticements to draw on a miserable multitude ignored and taken for granted by an inept state and by wide sectors of the political and social classes.''

Lemos agrees. ``Medellin shows that the Colombian government must reform itself to increase social spending, improve education, and provide for the effective working of institutions like the courts and Congress.''

Such comments exemplify the encouraging national self-criticism Medellin's troubles have produced. The negative aspect of the discussion has been a tendency to point fingers. Some Medellin officials and press commentators accuse the central government of neglecting the city for years. Bogata residents have countered with accusations of Medellin's complicity in the drug trade.

``The city's ruling class has been compliant with drug trafficking,'' says a recent column by Ramiro de la Espriella, in El Spectador newspaper. Many of the city's leaders and residents, he adds, must ``conclude that they have not acted in the country's interest. They have contaminated all of the nation's territory with the drug trade.''

Other commentators say such accusatory language is unhelpful. ``There is a tendency to view the city of Medellin either as a victim or a victimizer,'' Lemos says. ``In reality it has been both.''

What is occurring with Medellin is the same thing that occurs with alcoholics whose first steps must be to recognize the problem, Lemos says. ``The city has taken that first step. So has the country. If the country continues to fight drug traffickers with all its force, it can win the battle.''

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