Colombia the Most Dangerous City

Welcome to Medellin, coke capital of the world

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In the outer office of the mayor of Medellin, a thickset bodyguard cradles a Remington pump shotgun in his arms. A revolver is shoved into the waistband of his trousers, and a two-way radio is recharging in a unit near his feet. Down the hall, only a whistle away, are more armed men. Outside city hall, a uniformed policeman shoulders an Israeli-manufactured Galil automatic rifle as he casts a careful eye on passersby.

Who said you can't fight city hall? For more than a decade, the drug barons of the Medellin cartel have been using murder and corruption in an attempt to cow or co-opt elected officials of this pleasant, bustling Colombian city of 2 million people and turn it into the world capital of the cocaine business. In the process, Medellin, known locally as the "city of eternal spring" for its mild mountain climate, has become the city of eternal violence. More than 3,000 people were murdered there last year, a homicide rate about five times . as high as New York City's and most likely the world's steepest. In one 18- hour period at the beginning of February, Medellin police reported 13 killings. "It has other values not known to the world," says a defensive Mayor William Jaramillo Gomez. "But yes, as a result of drug trafficking we have to admit it is also a dangerous city."

Jaramillo, an outspoken critic of the cartel as well as of Washington's drug policies, leaves office this week to make way for the first freely elected mayor in the city's history. Some 12 million Colombians went to the polls on March 13 to elect the mayors of nearly 1,000 cities and towns. The exercise in democracy -- until now the country's mayors have been appointed by Bogota -- is designed in part to give cities like Medellin new powers to fight such menaces as organized crime and drugs. Some feel that an administration with a direct mandate to govern will find it easier to face these challenges than an outside appointee with no popular support. Yet many fear that decentralization of power will make cities even less governable than in the past. Nowhere are the concerns greater than in Medellin, where the cartel, a loose association of drug lords who control an estimated 80% of the cocaine entering the U.S., has long wielded lethal power.

So dangerous is Medellin that the U.S. consulate was closed in 1981 mainly for security reasons. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration pulled its employees out in 1984, and two months ago the U.S. State Department issued a travel advisory warning Americans not to visit Medellin. Those who do come find a city in which past and potential violence are quite visible. Guards outside apartment blocks carry shotguns, police shoulder automatic weapons, and occasionally a pistol is glimpsed tucked into a civilian's waistband. Some of the drug barons maintain armories that include U.S.-made AR-15 automatic rifles and Israeli-made Uzis with silencers and infrared sights for shooting at night. Says Jaramillo, pointing out of his office window to the hills: "They could be taking aim at me from two miles away over there." A U.S. embassy official in Bogota is more specific. "They will know you are there and what you are up to the minute you arrive," he warns a visitor.

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