Thursday, October 4, 2007

USA TODAY - Colombia works to escape past

MEDELLIN, Colombia — In a city long synonymous with murder and mayhem, the neighborhood of Santo Domingo Savio was among the most deadly precincts. Heavily armed paramilitaries and drug lords, including the notorious Pablo Escobar, dueled here with automatic weapons and savage bombings amid cinder-block homes inhabited by some of a poor country's poorest citizens.

"They killed my son, two nephews, a brother-in-law," says resident Beatrice Bernal. "It was horrible, horrible. You had to run because of the shootouts."

But today, Escobar has been moldering in his grave for almost 14 years, and this hillside neighborhood no longer symbolizes a land spiraling into anarchy. An astonishing turnaround, in fact, has slashed Medellin's murder rate to less than one-tenth the 1991 figure and planted hope where despair once thrived.

A modernistic public library, which earlier this year drew a visit from Spanish royalty, shares star billing with a gleaming cable-car line linking the poor to downtown jobs. Small cafes with wooden tables and chairs open onto sidewalks full of laughing, uniformed schoolchildren. "It's marvelous!" enthuses Bernal, 46, a transit system employee. "More than anything else because the horrible violence here has stopped."

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe trumpets the reduction in violence as he seeks to overcome doubts in the U.S. Congress about a pending trade agreement between the two countries. Though U.S.-Colombian trade is a comparatively modest $16 billion — about one-third the volume with Brazil — multinationals such as Caterpillar, (CAT) Procter & Gamble (PG) and UPS (UPS) see the market as potentially lucrative. The Bush administration also argues that the deal would benefit the United States by cementing stability in Colombia, a U.S. ally in the shadow of Venezuela's anti-American President Hugo Chávez, and by promoting legitimate commerce where illicit drugs remain a major industry. By David J. Lynch, USA TODAY

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