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Once-Feared Medellin A Lesson To Drug-Hit Juarez

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Once-Feared Medellin A Lesson To Drug-Hit Juarez

Latin America

Once-Feared Medellin A Lesson To Drug-Hit Juarez

Once-Feared Medellin A Lesson To Drug-Hit Juarez

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Medellin, Colombia, was once a drug battleground; today, it is a colonial jewel with sidewalk cafes and open-air bars. Mexico's border city of Juarez has taken Medellin's place as the ground zero in the war against drug cartels. The former mayor of Medellin will be in Juarez to talk of his city's transformation. Juarez residents, traumatized by the highest homicide rate of any major city in the hemisphere, are desperate for answers.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Cuidad Juarez in Mexico is one of the deadliest cities in the world. Thirty-two hundred people have been killed in a turf war between drug cartels in the past 21 months. So people listened when the former mayor of Medellin in Colombia came to Juarez to explain how he turned his city around. It used to be the world homicide capital.

NPR's John Burnett traveled to Juarez and has this story.

JOHN BURNETT: Last night, Juarez residents traumatized by violence packed a ballroom to hear Sergio Fajardo deliver a speech entitled "From Fear to Hope." The 53-year-old former mayor of Medellin is running for president of Colombia.

Mr. SERGIO FAJARDO (Former Mayor, Medellin, Colombia): (Foreign language spoken).

BURNETT: Here's another and another and another, he said, flashing pictures of handsome, new, multilevel schools that have been built all over his city. Fajardo, a maverick politician who favors blue jeans over suits, showed the rapt audience what Medellin looks like today: new libraries, ecological parks, cultural centers, an aquarium, an orchid garden and schools, many of them designed by renowned architects. And these bold, bright, public buildings were not built just anywhere. Some were constructed in the middle of the city's most impoverished hillside slums.

The city of Medellin was synonymous with the Medellin cocaine cartel from the 1970s to the '90s, until the death of drug lord Pablo Escobar in 1993 and the demobilization of urban militias earlier this decade. So the end of the drug war there created a space for the city to reinvent itself, but Fajardo also gets credit for breaking down the city's gross social inequality by improving services for the poor, from which the gangsters recruited. The same can't be said of Juarez.

There, the children of factory workers and poor immigrants from the interior have few opportunities for positive activities or decent wages. So they're drawn into the ranks of the narco mafias as drug mules and assassins, all of them expendable. The deployment of 8,000 Mexican soldiers to Juarez seems to have done little to reduce the violence.

Mr. FAJARDO: (Foreign language spoken).

BURNETT: There's every reason not to fight for your city, Fajardo said. There is fear, hopelessness, uncertainty, but no matter how dark the night, Medellin never surrendered. Thousands of citizens have fled Juarez to avoid the mayhem, which ranges from gruesome cartel-on-cartel violence like beheadings to kidnappings and extortions of everyday business people. Fajardo was invited to speak by Juarez Strategic Plan, a 10-year-old civic organization that's trying to save the city. The director is Lucinda Vargas.

Ms. LUCINDA VARGAS (Director, Juarez Strategic Plan): It's really in our hands to not surrender, not lose hope because, like he said, to the extent that you lose hope and that you start separating the city and emptying the city, that is the ripest fuel for violence to continue to grow.

BURNETT: If Medellin did it, so can Juarez, Sergio Fajardo concluded to a sustained standing ovation.

(Soundbite of applause)

BURNETT: John Burnett, NPR News, El Paso.

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