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Media : Colombia Tries to Program a Better Image for Medellin : Through the TV show 'Arriba Mi Barrio' the government is showing that the city is more than a lair for drug lords.

June 18, 1991|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEDELLIN, Colombia — "Can you tell me something unusual about your neighborhood?"

The TV host's question sparked imagination in the alert faces of his guests: 10 children, ages 7 to 12, from the crowded barrios of Medellin. Several hands shot up.

"My neighborhood celebrates Christmas and New Year's very united," boasted 11-year-old Elisa. "We make Nativity scenes during school vacations."

"We have sales," chimed in Natalia, 8. "We sell little meat pies and share the money with the poor."

"Good!" exclaimed the host, pleased by the positive images beaming to viewers throughout the Medellin valley.

Then it was Jerson Herrera's turn.

"The most curious thing about my neighborhood," began the 12-year-old boy, eager for this chance to speak his mind, "is that we don't need the army or the police to tame us. We're not beasts, but they come and brutalize us. We can live more peacefully without them."

Welcome to "Arriba Mi Barrio" (Up With My Neighborhood), Medellin's attempt through unfettered talk on live television to face up to--and live down--its infamy as one of the world's most violent cities.

An Andean metropolis of 2 million people known as the cocaine capital of the world, Medellin has recorded an average of 20 homicides a day so far this year, most of them a result of gang warfare spawned by the drug trade. That is about seven times the 1990 murder rate in much larger Los Angeles.

Sicarios , the hired teen-age killers at the center of Medellin's mayhem for years, have been pitied, romanticized and explained in popular books and films, darkening the shadow of notoriety over the entire city.

"Arriba Mi Barrio" is the government's answer--the showpiece of an emergency project to improve the image and the reality of Medellin's slums. Aired every Friday afternoon, the 2 1/2-hour TV show gives a voice to the whole community, especially to struggling civic boosters.

"Medellin is a caldron of life and death," said Alonso Salazar, author of a best-selling collection of sicarios ' oral histories. "We have spoken enough about death. Now it's time to speak a little about life so we can help the city get out of this crisis."

From his new perspective as one of the TV program's hosts, the 31-year-old journalist notes: "In every corner you can find a committee, a group, an association of people trying to save the city."

The task of harnessing this energy belongs to Maria Emma Mejia, a 36-year-old documentary filmmaker who is the co-host for the show. President Cesar Gaviria appointed her last August as his counselor for Medellin, the only city to get such top-level attention.

With a two-year budget of $16.7 million, she was charged with getting 74,000 idle children into school, creating jobs for 130,000 unemployed adults, restoring the people's lost confidence in the police and other government institutions and sustaining a network of 280 civic action groups that have sprung up in recent months.

Despite some progress--425 new teachers hired and 90 civic projects funded--the killing has not abated. The notorious Medellin drug cartel is in retreat, throwing its newly jobless sicario enforcers into a life of disorganized crime.

Private vigilante groups are rising to "cleanse" the city of the sicarios , drug addicts and other suspected criminals. Off-duty policemen often join in the killing spree, human rights activists say.

This anarchy makes Mejia optimistic that the worst is over.

"It sounds absurd, but this is natural in a postwar situation," she said. "There is more violence today because there is more disorder, but in social and psychological terms the city is not as terrorized as it was a year ago," when the drug mafia openly confronted the government. "There is an atmosphere of relative hope."

Trying to nurture that climate, Mejia persuaded Teleantioquia, the regional station, to develop a community-oriented show. The University of Antioquia and the privately funded Regional Corp. joined the project, and "Arriba Mi Barrio" made its debut March 29.

The program is packaged around a popular Hollywood movie each week to entice viewers from the soap operas on national channels. Before and after the movie, paisas , as citizens of Medellin are known, speak their minds in random interviews from their neighborhoods, as invited guests in the studio or over the telephone on live TV.

"We're an escape valve," Mejia said. "People use the show to confront the authorities. It's a form of non-armed aggression."

Hosts try to elicit upbeat comments. But no subject is taboo, and the city's dark side gets aired often.

One woman called to ask whether she should take her 10-year-old son, who was stealing in the neighborhood and violently mistreating her, to the police station to be left in jail. "Where did I go wrong?" she asked. A man phoning from a drug rehabilitation center repented his past as a killer.

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