Colombia the Most Dangerous City

Welcome to Medellin, coke capital of the world

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While drug-related violence once touched mostly those in the business, no one is safe today. Basuco, a crude, habit-forming derivative of coca paste, was introduced into the local market by the cartel in 1984, when it had excess low-grade Colombian coca paste on its hands. Now there are thousands of addicts in the city, many of them knife-wielding street criminals who will kill for the price of a fix, less than a dollar. "Ten years ago you could stroll the city streets after dark," recalls Gomez. "That's suicidal now."

The city's 1,200-member police force is overwhelmed by the violence. Minor offenses like a traffic violation generally receive more attention than serious crimes because they are easier and safer to deal with. "The cartel cannot be tackled in Medellin alone," Jaramillo says. "It is a worldwide problem and one that is created by demand in the U.S. Why doesn't the U.S. tackle consumption and then stop things like U.S.-made guns from reaching the cartel? Then we might get somewhere."

Five years ago there were 15 private security companies in Medellin, with perhaps 1,500 men on their payrolls. Now the city has 32 such firms employing 5,000 guards. Scores of new gun permits are issued weekly to private citizens. "People are afraid, even in their own homes," says the manager of the city's largest security concern, whose guards carry shotguns and pistols. "They are turning to us for help."

Sicarios, paid killers, will fulfill a contract on someone's life for as little as a few hundred dollars. The cartel uses sicarios frequently, though many murders have no apparent perpetrator or motive. Early last month, for instance, Jorge Antonio Restrepo Monslave, 29, a shop assistant with no known drug connections, was shot in the head outside his home by two attackers who took nothing from him. His murder was one of a dozen that day, none of which received more than a token investigation by police.

With all its wealth, the cartel need not stoop to violence to get its way. Up to 80% of the police force in Medellin is suspected of working for the Mafia. Last December the cartel was able to secure the release from a Bogota jail of Jorge Luis, a brother of Jorge Ochoa Vasquez's, a reputed drug billionaire whose sudden release from a Colombian prison last January infuriated the Reagan Administration.

Though their leaders are seldom seen on the streets, many of the hundreds of cartel employees -- the hit men, the chemists and the so-called mules who transport the cocaine, among others -- move about openly in Medellin. They can be spotted spending freely at the glitzy restaurants and nightclubs, some of which are said to be owned by the Mafia, on Las Palmas road. Young women in stone-washed jeans and high-heeled shoes often accompany the members of the drug-industry proletariat. On occasion the four-wheel-drive vehicles they favor cruise the streets in force. The cartel's thugs will sometimes clear a traffic jam by blazing away with their guns pointed in the air.

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