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WORLD CUP USA '94 : Southland Colombians Shattered Again : Reaction: Nation and reputation have taken a beating because of violence and drugs. Escobar's murder won't help.


Only two weeks ago, a cheerfully painted bus packed with Colombians living in Los Angeles left the Cali Viejo restaurant and roared through the San Fernando Valley toward the Rose Bowl for a game between Colombia and Romania, its occupants dancing and singing in the aisles, waving their flag.

This morning, the same bus--followed by a caravan of perhaps more than a hundred cars--will make the same journey to the Rose Bowl, this time in a procession of mourning, not only for Colombian soccer player Andres Escobar, who was murdered Saturday, but for a brutal killing that has once again shattered efforts by Colombians in Los Angeles to improve their violent image.

"Usually we go to the games with happiness. This time, it will be pain," said Cali Viejo owner Gilbert Cruz, whose Van Nuys restaurant has been a gathering spot for Colombian soccer enthusiasts, and where dozens of people who come from a country consumed by drug wars and carnage nonetheless sat in stunned disbelief over the latest news.

Among them was restaurant patron Orlando Echeverria, who had just learned that gunmen who faulted Escobar for accidentally scoring a goal against his team in a World Cup game with the United States shot him to death in Medellin, Colombia.

"Colombia has suffered so much due to drug trafficking. It has battered our image. Soccer was our only hope for restoring it. With this death, we are back to square one," lamented Echeverria, a salesman and retired teacher's aide.

Echeverria and other Colombians in Los Angeles said the death would only enhance their image as violent people. Even before Escobar's death, Echeverria said, people who learned he is Colombian inevitably asked when he would sell them drugs, or how much cocaine he stocked in his house.

"They relate Colombians with violence. They think we will assassinate someone over nothing," he said. "Colombians in L.A. had hoped to stand out in something positive, something wonderful. Like soccer."

At Hollywood's Colombian Chibcha restaurant, owner Carmen Zambrano wiped tears from her eyes. "Everyone thinks we are barbarians," she said. "I feel terrible, terrible."

Nearby, auto repairman Henry Vasquez was equally despondent. "This is the worst thing that could have happened for Colombians in the U.S. Our image already was in the toilet," he said.

"Sports are sacred. How could they do this? They have killed soccer in Colombia with this player's death. Who will put their lives on the line now just to play this sport?"

Vasquez said he and others at the restaurant are planning a meeting outside Colombia's consulate in Los Angeles to protest the government's seeming inability to control the continuing carnage in their homeland.

Dukardo Hinestrosa, publisher of the El Colombiano newspaper in Los Angeles and director of the Colombian Cultural Circle, tried to put the best face on matters. He noted that Colombians are joined by England and Italy in their propensity for violence after soccer games. "El Salvador and Hondurans had a whole war over soccer," he said. "We are not alone. We are not the only soccer fanatics."

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