WHILE Colombia's most popular comedian, Jaime Garzon, mugs behind a pair of dark sunglasses on live television, his interviewer ventures a serious question about the country's most violent city. ``How do you view Medell'in?'' asks Mar'ia Emma Mej'ia, the host of the government-financed program and the nation's presidential counselor for the city.
``Medell'in has an identity,'' answers Mr. Garzon, stressing in a rare moment of earnestness the city's strong regionalism. The comedian goes on to praise its reputation as Colombia's industrial center, saying that ```Made in Medell'in' means prestige.''
The exchange is one of many on the program ``Arriba Mi Barrio'' (Up With My Barrio) aimed at fighting Medell'in's crisis of violence by improving the city's self-image. In the Colombian and foreign press, Medell'in has become nearly synonymous in recent years with cocaine trafficking and the social chaos it generates.
Despite recent surrenders of several Medell'in cocaine bosses under a government leniency plan, city violence has worsened.
Col. Aldemar Bedoya, Medell'in's police chief says about 3,000 residents have been murdered so far this year. A majority of the killings occurred in the northeastern comuna, a collection of 40 poorer neighborhoods where 26 percent of the population lives. The killing rate has surpassed that of 1990, when a terrorist campaign led by the Medell'in cartel contributed to a record total of 4,637 homicides in the city of nearly 2 million.
Human rights groups say increased killings by private vigilante groups and off-duty police to ``clean'' neighborhoods of criminals have contributed to the rising homicide rate.
Colonel Bedoya says such death squads are just part of the problem. Now that cartel leaders are surrendering, he explains, their gangs of hired killers are fighting each other and undertaking other criminal ventures, including kidnapping and car theft.
``Common crime is this city's greatest problem, and it will continue,'' says the police chief in a Monitor interview in his downtown office.
At the nearby ``Arriba Mi Barrio'' studio, Ms. Mej'ia admits that her task is daunting. Medell'in's first presidential counselor is leading the federal government's effort to stop the city's disintegration with a two-year emergency plan of social spending totaling more than $16 million.
The administration of President C'esar Gaviria Trujillo is focusing half the total on Medell'in's inadequate education system, which this year is failing to provide classes for 160,000 children.
``Arriba Mi Barrio,'' which is broadcast on a regional television station, represents a less costly, but perhaps equally important effort to reach city citizens under 24 years of age. This group accounts for 53 percent of the population. Mej'ia says the program focuses on teenage males, the group most affected by Medell'in's violence, according to police.
The two-and-a-half hour program on Friday afternoons begins with an interview of a guest role model, ranging from television stars to sports figures. In the final half hour, Mej'ia and her journalist co-host, Alonso Salazar, lead a forum of experts and Medell'in residents in a discussion of issues confronting the city. Topics have included mothers' roles, childrens' rights, and violence.
The guest segment and the forum are separated by a popular movie, such as ``Cocoon'' or ``Aliens.'' The film, says one assistant producer, is ``meant to get the boys in front of the set.''
Following the movie, other short film clips feature Medell'in residents expressing their opinions on everything from health care to unemployment.
One of the vital functions of the experiment in community television is to let residents speak their minds and, more important, be heard. Mej'ia and others say news media reports of Medell'in violence have helped stereotype the comuna's youths as sicarios (hired killers).
Those angered by the image can express their opinion on live television by simply calling a studio number flashed across the screen at intervals. During each program, ``Arriba Mi Barrio'' workers field some 60 calls, often from disgruntled young men.
Ana Mar'ia Sierra, one of the program's production assistants, says that many of these youths ``put a certain address on their resume, and are already as good as rejected [by employers].''
She adds that Medell'in's youths need public space to debunk the media myth that they can only grow up to be sicarios. Youths in the northeastern comuna say they have found that space on the television program.
Walking through the neighborhood of Zamorra on a recent Saturday, a reporter found that several teenagers had seen at least one of the program's 11 transmissions. Elver Alexander Areiza, an 18-year-old student, says the program has given a voice to people in northeastern Medell'in. ``In the comuna, what people want most is to talk,'' he says.
Another male student, 16-year-old Robin Quintero, says ``Arriba Mi Barrio'' is dispelling northeastern Medell'in's bad image by showing most of its residents are hard working and respectable.
``People always think of the comuna in terms of sicarios, violence, theft, and robbery, and it is not like that,'' Mr. Alexander says.
While acknowledging a rising murder rate, Mej'ia points to several new community groups as evidence that Medell'in's opinion of itself has changed for the better.
``If you compare this city a year ago with what it is today, you will find another atmosphere, one of hope,'' she says.
Many residents agree with her, saying surrenders of cartel leaders, have added to the optimism. But even the most sanguine observers say city problems are not likely to be solved without years of work, which have just begun.
Discussion of the problems, including residents' mistrust of authorities, often erupts unexpectedly on the live TV program.
While interviewing a group of children, Garzon, the comedian, asks little Viviana Morales what she would do if she were Colombia's president. The nine-year-old wastes no time answering that she would stop police abuse in her neighborhood.
``The government sends the police in a very cruel way, telling them to kill,'' she says somberly.
For the first time, the bucktoothed Garzon looks uncomfortable as he faces the camera and says childrens' answers are spontaneous and do not represent views of ``Arriba Mi Barrio.''
Perhaps not. But Viviana's statement seems to symbolize the government's promising, albeit risky effort, to let Medell'in speak.