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

The human toll of the anti-union violence can be felt in a small home at the end of a narrow street a few miles from Santo Domingo's highly touted urban transformation. Inside, the widow of a union man remembered for his gentle sense of humor recounts her husband's killing on their doorstep.

"I heard two sounds, like when you take the cork out of a wine bottle. Then I heard something fall," says Maria Durango, 64, weeping. "He didn't cry out. I went to the door, looked down and saw him on his back. When (our daughter) went to move him, a stream of blood came out of his head."

The victim, Factor Antonio Durango, 54, moved to the city in 1996 after paramilitaries in rural Uraba threatened to kill him for trying to organize workers on a banana plantation. He got a job selling lottery tickets on a street corner, part of a booming trade in Medellin, but one controlled by paramilitaries. In 2000, he organized the lottery ticket sellers into a new union. Soon, he was being followed and receiving threatening phone calls, which he told his wife came from the paramilitaries. These armed bands emerged in the 1990s to battle left-wing guerillas on behalf of powerful landowners, businesses and drug barons.

The government assigned Durango bodyguards in 2003, but withdrew them the following year, even though a gunman had shot him through the hand in the interim. Then, in August 2005, as he approached his front door, he was shot in the head and back.

His family bundled the bleeding man into a taxi and rushed him to a clinic. "He said, 'My head hurts a lot; don't let me die,' " recalls daughter Patricia, 26, a nurse's assistant. Durango lingered for two days before leaving three children and a widow, who scrapes by on monthly union payments of $75.

The family says authorities quickly closed the investigation into his killing without charging anyone. But three months ago, with Colombia under fire for not prosecuting more union killers, the government reopened the case.

Prosecuting unsolved cases

Though other government officials have suggested that many of the activists were killed for reasons unrelated to their organizing work, Prosecutor General Mario Iguaran — who assigned 13 attorneys and 77 investigators to probe roughly 200 unsolved union killings — says: "In most of the cases, the assassination took place because of their union activities."

To date, of the 2,539 recorded murders of union members, only 80 prosecutions have resulted, according to Jose Sanin, director general of the non-profit Escuela Nacional Sindical. "More than 2,000 haven't even had an investigation," he says.

Some union leaders say an end to violence and threats would do nothing to change their thinking on the trade deal. They link a broad climate of hostility toward organized labor to the free-market economic formula that Washington has promoted in Latin America for almost two decades. Starting in the early 1990s, a wave of privatizations swept several industries, spurring job cuts, reducing benefits and leaving unions with 4.8% of the labor force, vs. 14% two decades ago.

"Free trade is killing us as much as bullets are," says Gustavo Triana, an official with the country's largest labor federation, the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores de Colombia.

For more than four decades, Colombia has been locked in an armed conflict featuring a bewildering array of left-wing guerillas, right-wing "self-defense" paramilitaries and drug traffickers. The war has taken an enormous human and financial toll. According to the World Bank, if the country had achieved peace 20 years ago, the income of the average Colombian would be 50% higher than today's $3,000.

Recovery under Uribe

In the 1990s, Colombia came perilously close to becoming a failed state. With the state seemingly impotent, drug merchants enjoyed a perverse popular appeal. Escobar, the acknowledged boss of the Medellin cartel, was even elected to parliament. Violence permeated society as presidential candidates, police officers and judges were assassinated.

The U.S. has spent more than $5 billion in foreign aid in the past decade stabilizing Colombia, which produces roughly 90% of the powdered cocaine consumed by Americans. Under Uribe, the state has clawed back. The government, long all-but-powerless in outlying regions, has, for the first time, established a police presence in all 1,099 municipalities. Nationwide, murders are down 37%, and kidnappings have fallen 78%.

In the affluent Poblado neighborhood, the scene at the Oviedo mall would be recognizable to any American consumer. Diners at Café Le Gris sip chilled wine and savor beef tenderloin in sage sauce as shoppers stroll by fiddling with their iPods. A block away, there's evidence of the local real estate boom in a half-finished office building of more than a dozen floors overlooking a second site being readied for construction.

Though fighting between the military and armed guerillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) continues, the president's signal achievement is the demobilization of more than 32,000 paramilitaries.

The turnaround is impressive but not yet complete. Uribe's credibility has been hurt by a political scandal, which revealed links between illegal paramilitaries and his closest allies, including his intelligence chief and more than a dozen members of the Colombian Congress. Uribe has denied accusations that he is personally tied to illegal gunmen.

Improved security has been the key to an economic expansion that is now in its eighth year. The accumulated total of foreign direct investment more than doubled since 2002, reaching an estimated $52.8 billion this year, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Some analysts, such as those at the non-partisan International Crisis Group, question the permanence of the recent gains, arguing the paramilitaries have regrouped as criminal gangs trafficking in drugs. Uribe says the country's future development is at risk unless Congress approves the trade deal.

Watching closely are business executives such as Guillermo Valencia, president of Industrias e Inversiones CID, which makes men's suits for U.S. retailers such as Macy's, m Dockers and J.C. Penney. jcp

Under a program of reduced tariffs designed to strengthen the economies of Colombia and its Andean neighbors, most Colombian products enter the USA duty-free. The pending trade deal would make that status, due to expire at the end of February, permanent and extend equivalent treatment to American goods entering Colombia, which are now subject to tariffs of more than 11%.

For Colombian exporters such as Valencia, a delay in approving the deal would subject their products to duties of 16% to 22%, effectively pricing them out of the American market. Just the uncertainty about future tariffs has led some U.S. companies to trim orders here. A local jeans manufacturer recently laid off 400 workers after a major U.S. customer switched to a supplier in another country, Valencia says. U.S. imports of Colombian apparel in July totaled $34.7 million, down more than 28% from July 2006.

In the company's factory here, rows of young women wearing khaki smocks churn out men's and boys' suits by the thousands. If Congress OKs the trade deal, Valencia envisions boosting daily output to 3,000 suits, 50% above current levels, and hiring 500 more workers. He frets that U.S. concerns about anti-union violence will derail those plans. "The business community has nothing to do with that violence," he says.

Economists such as Alejandro Gaviria of the Universidad de los Andes say the economy will do fine without the trade deal. Sergio Fajardo, the popular U.S.-educated mayor of Medellin, agrees. He says the deal's fate ultimately will say more about Colombia's ability to depend upon the U.S. to help repair its fractured society than about its future commercial prosperity.

"If we don't sign the free-trade deal, we are not going to die. (But) the problem gets worse for sure," he says. "And what do we have friends for? To make the problems worse? Our friends should help us to make things better. … We need you to help us solve the problems."