Colombia works to escape its past

In a city long synonymous with murder and mayhem, the neighborhood of Santo Domingo Savio was among the most deadly precincts. Heavily armed paramilitaries and drug lords, including the notorious Pablo Escobar, dueled here with automatic weapons and savage bombings amid cinder-block homes inhabited by some of a poor country's poorest citizens.

"They killed my son, two nephews, a brother-in-law," says resident Beatrice Bernal. "It was horrible, horrible. You had to run because of the shootouts."

But today, Escobar has been moldering in his grave for almost 14 years, and this hillside neighborhood no longer symbolizes a land spiraling into anarchy. An astonishing turnaround, in fact, has slashed Medellin's murder rate to less than one-tenth the 1991 figure and planted hope where despair once thrived.

A modernistic public library, which earlier this year drew a visit from Spanish royalty, shares star billing with a gleaming cable-car line linking the poor to downtown jobs. Small cafes with wooden tables and chairs open onto sidewalks full of laughing, uniformed schoolchildren. "It's marvelous!" enthuses Bernal, 46, a transit system employee. "More than anything else because the horrible violence here has stopped."

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe trumpets the reduction in violence as he seeks to overcome doubts in the U.S. Congress about a pending trade agreement between the two countries. Though U.S.-Colombian trade is a comparatively modest $16 billion — about one-third the volume with Brazil — multinationals such as Caterpillar, cat Procter & Gamble pt and UPS ups see the market as potentially lucrative. The Bush administration also argues that the deal would benefit the United States by cementing stability in Colombia, a U.S. ally in the shadow of Venezuela's anti-American President Hugo Chávez, and by promoting legitimate commerce where illicit drugs remain a major industry.

But Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, say the trade pact won't proceed until Colombia quells a type of killing that almost always goes unpunished here: the assassination of union activists. Since 1986, 2,539 union members have been killed in what Colombia's unions describe as a systematic anti-labor campaign by paramilitaries aligned with the state. Uribe insists his government already has reduced the annual number of unionists' murders from 197 in 2001 to 23 so far this year. After years of inaction, the government also is providing more than 1,200 union officials with bodyguards or bulletproof vehicles and has formed a special unit to investigate such killings.

The Bush administration talks of pushing for a congressional vote this fall, once Congress completes action on a separate, less controversial agreement with Peru. But it could be next year or even 2009 before Colombia gets its chance. Along with concerns about labor conditions in Colombia, the trade deal is buffeted by broad U.S. unease about globalization, as well as political score-settling between Democrats who control Congress and a Republican administration that paid them little heed during earlier trade battles.

"In the long run, the debate over the Colombian free-trade agreement isn't really about Colombia," says Daniel Restrepo, director of the Americas project at the Center for American Progress in Washington.

Anti-union violence

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