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Changing Lifestyles : A New Mood in Medellin : Violent city is learning to live more peacefully.

November 08, 1994|STEVEN AMBRUS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MEDELLIN, Colombia — Jose Albeiro Espinosa spent more than two years in a trance killing people in Medellin.

He shot them from bicycles, motorcycles and cars. He killed them as a gang member and hired assassin.

"We were blind," he recalls, "on cocaine, pills or marijuana, without thought or compassion. We would kill one, two, three, four people and then realize the next day what we had done. Then we would keep killing, because we knew someone was going to come for revenge."

Today, Espinosa, 26, is in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down, the survivor of four assassination attempts. His brother and sister have been killed. And 110 "friends" from his neighborhood are dead, warriors and victims of bloody street battles.

But Espinosa is no longer involved in drugs or violence. He talks about a course in human values that he is taking, and about his job selling clothes. He talks about his need for a good wheelchair and about peace.

Espinosa, like the city where he learned to "kill or be killed," is learning to live again.

Medellin, Colombia's industrial center with a population of about 1.6 million and 6,892 homicides last year, is one of the world's most violent cities. It is the birthplace of slain drug kingpin Pablo Escobar and his Medellin cocaine cartel, the home of hundreds of former assassins who killed judges, police and presidential candidates for drug traffickers in the 1980s and early 1990s.

But today, it is also the site of an extraordinary movement of recovery. Since the death of Escobar in a rooftop shootout with police nearly a year ago, hundreds of people involved in violence in the city have stepped forward to make peace.

About 650 members of militias--illegal vigilante groups that cropped up in poor areas to combat drug trafficking and crime--signed agreements in May to stop terrorizing their neighborhoods. Many are now cooperating with police as neighborhood watchmen and clean-up crews.

Former assassins are participating in vocational training and psychological group-therapy programs. Former gang members are building wells, parks and nurseries.

There are still violent men and boys in Medellin, some still working the drug trade, others involved in radical political movements. But many sections of the city have changed sharply.

In Barrio Antioquia, two years of gang warfare claimed the lives of 220 people between the ages of 12 and 16. Then two of the most violent gangs celebrated a peace pact with rum and a pig roast. Local merchants chipped in to help the gang members buy food, clothes and medicines. The city government offered free medical service and jobs. The constant shootouts, which had made the neighborhood impassable, are now gone, replaced with concerns about work, study and the refurbishing of the local sports park.

"There are many people working in non-governmental organizations in the barrios, or trying to help people there to start up family businesses," said Jorge Mario Aristizabal, a businessman whose construction firm, Conconcreto, is subsidizing tuition and transport for former gang members who want to go back to school. "There is a strong awareness that we have a serious social problem and that we must help find a solution."

Aristizabal traces the crisis back to the early 1980s, when drug trafficking arrived in the poor neighborhoods of Medellin. It was an era when a 15-year-old, modeling himself on Escobar, could make $1,000 for an assassination and buy his shoes, his motorcycle and his respect. Many young people preferred the easy money of drug trafficking and violence to the low salaries of legitimate work.

But Medellin's problems also have deeper roots. Between 1951 and 1973, peasant families fleeing political violence and poverty in the countryside invaded the hillsides around Medellin, tripling the city's size. The new arrivals, with their country ways, became the labor force of the richer people. They felt increasingly isolated, without opportunities for education or good jobs and their children became frustrated.

The culture that resulted was a mixture of the new and the old: the absolute willingness to kill to get ahead mixed with the cult of the Virgin Mary and dedication to the family matriarch. Today, hired assassins still flock to the sanctuary of the Virgin Maria Auxiliadora outside Medellin to pray. They offer watches, chains and money to the Virgin. They ask for good luck and well-being for their mothers.

"Two cities were created," Colombian journalist Antonio Morales Riveira wrote in his book "Censored File," "and in the upper floor were born the kids of today, the third generation of violence, whose reference points since birth have been bullets."

Faber, at 17, understands those references instinctively. He killed someone for the first time at age 12. Two members of a rival gang came gunning for him. He escaped, and the next day he returned shooting.

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