A Colombia Comeback

Posted: Nov 22, 2007 7:42 PM
A Colombia Comeback

MEDELLIN, Colombia-- In what was once the most dangerous neighborhood of this, the world's most notorious city, a Sunday afternoon is a bustling, joyful affair. The scampering children and people sitting at tiny sidewalk cafes on the narrow streets would be fit subjects for a Colombian Norman Rockwell.

"Look," says New York Democratic Rep. Gregory Meeks, part of a congressional delegation visiting from the United States, "they're cooking pizzas, they're eating ice cream, boyfriends and girlfriends are holding hands -- this is amazing, this Medellin! We're supposed to be dodging bullets."

The late drug lord Pablo Escobar made this city into one of the most violent on Earth. Men like Sergio Fajardo -- the outgoing mayor, a mathematician who is a leader in a citizens' movement that arose in opposition to the violence -- made it into a city that belies its reputation. In 1991, 6,500 people were murdered here; in 2006, 700 were. Medellin's murder rate is now lower than Baltimore's.

Fajardo is like a cross of Rudy Giuliani (in his absolute commitment to the assertion of lawful state authority) and Marion Wright Edelman (in his advocacy of social programs to give people hope). His approach is an application of the axiom often attributed to Gen. David Petraeus -- that counterinsurgency is 20 percent force, and the rest is dependent on political and economic progress.

Medellin is a microcosm of Colombia. President Alvaro Uribe has forged extraordinary security gains by taking the fight to the country's hellish brew of left-wing guerrillas, their paramilitary opponents and narco-traffickers. The strength of the main guerrilla group, FARC, is down an estimated 40 percent from its peak, and more than 30,000 paramilitary fighters have been demobilized. Murders have dropped 40 percent from 2002 to 2006, and kidnappings almost 80 percent from 2000 to 2006.

But security is not enough. Colombia is awash in displaced people, chased from their homes by dueling guerrilla armies, and young men who have to be resocialized after lives of violence. They need jobs. That's why the Colombia-U.S. Free Trade Agreement is so important. It is pending in Congress, where Democratic leaders might let it die in the gravest act of strategic short-sightedness since their attempted rebuke of Turkey.

Uribe is an ally of the United States and a wildly popular democratic leader who saved his country when it tottered on the brink of collapse. That Congress would kick him in the teeth strikes Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez, the Bush administration's chief evangelist for the deal, as scandalously senseless. He escorts as many members of Congress as he can to Colombia, on the theory that when it comes to the greatest comeback story in the Americas, seeing is believing.

What the congressmen see is a Uribe resolved to confront his country's problems. He takes this congressional delegation to a slum on the outskirts of Cartagena where shacks line dirt roads flooded with fetid water. He holds a town-hall meeting with residents who greet him rapturously but make plain their desperation for more housing and services. It's as if President Bush showed up in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, willing to field all complaints.

The congressmen can't help but be impressed. What holds Democrats back from supporting the trade agreement is union opposition back home. The unions hate the deal even though most Colombia exports to the U.S. already benefit from trade preferences, and the deal would remove duties on U.S. goods going to Colombia. They complain about violence against Colombian union leaders, but attacks against unionists have tracked with general trends of violence -- as killings have declined since 2002, so have murders of union leaders.

Rep. Meeks, an advocate for Afro-Colombians, supports the deal. He calls progress in the country "nothing short of a miracle," and blames the image of the "old Colombia" for limiting the deal's support. "If you come here," he says, strolling out into the streets of this revived neighborhood, "it's a no-brainer."