The Magazine

Trading with Colombia

President Uribe achieves a miracle--why won't the Democrats help him?

Dec 10, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 13 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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Medellín, Colombia

Gregory Meeks is walking casually through what used to be the most dangerous area of the world's most violent city. "This is unbelievable," says the five-term Democratic congressman from New York. "It blows my mind."

This city was made infamous in the 1980s by drug lord Pablo Escobar and his murderous cohorts. But the Medellín of 2007 has come a long way from its brutal past. The transformation is perhaps most visible in this hillside slum, known as Santo Domingo Savio. Where gun battles used to rage among guerrillas, paramilitaries, and narcotics gangs, children are running through the streets, laughing and eating ice cream. As dusk falls, the neighborhood is bustling with activity, a sign of the vastly improved security climate.

What is especially striking, says Meeks, is how quickly it changed. When he first visited Medellín in mid-2003, "members of Congress were forbidden to come here." Now they can ride straight into the neighborhood via cable car and see the new Library Park España. Medellín had over 6,300 murders in 1991. That year, according to Newsweek, "the annual murder rate was 381 per 100,000 people--more than 500 homicides a month. In 2002, it was still 184 per 100,000. Last year, it fell below 30, making Washington, D.C., look bad in comparison."

The progress in Medellín reflects a broader Colombian renaissance. By virtually every metric--security, political, economic, and social--the long-beleaguered South American country has made remarkable strides. Much of the credit goes to President Alvaro Uribe, 55, the Harvard-educated lawyer who took office in 2002 and was reelected in a landslide last year. He has pushed the right-wing paramilitaries to disband, while continuing the fight against the left-wing guerrilla groups and the drug cartels. Between 2002 and 2006, homicides dropped by 40 percent, kidnappings plummeted by 76 percent, and terrorist attacks fell by 63 percent. Uribe's policies have reduced corruption and made Colombia a hot new magnet for foreign investment.

"The improvement in Colombia," says Meeks, who has visited the country several times since 2003, "is nothing short of a miracle." The weekend before Thanksgiving, he was part of an official U.S. government delegation led by Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez. The group included a handful of congressmen, mostly Democrats, and one senator, Oregon Republican Gordon Smith. By bringing U.S. lawmakers down to Colombia, the Bush administration hopes to boost support for a bilateral free trade pact awaiting congressional approval. In late June, Democratic House leaders announced they were postponing a vote on the agreement until Bogotá showed "concrete evidence of sustained results" in reducing violence, especially violence against organized labor. Senator Hillary Clinton has cited Colombia's "history of violence against trade unionists" as part of her opposition to the trade deal.

That "history of violence" is all too real, but also needs to be seen in perspective. In 2002, there were nearly 200 documented murders of trade unionists in Colombia. So far this year, there have been around 30. Uribe has created a labor subunit in the prosecutor general's office and also established a special security program to protect trade unionists. According to the U.S. embassy in Bogotá, "In 2006 and 2007, not one trade unionist enrolled in this program was harmed." Meanwhile, the number of convictions in cases of violence against trade unionists is slowly but steadily increasing.

Democratic opponents of the free trade agreement also point to extrajudicial killings by the state security forces, which remain plagued by corruption. "There have been some recent reports on extrajudicial killings," says a Bush administration official. "Their stats seem to run counter to the longer-term trends that have shown an overall decrease in violence in Colombia, so the issue needs to be looked at closely. We take very seriously extrajudicial killings, and the Colombians have said they share this view and are working to continue their efforts to stop the violence."

The other cloud hanging over Uribe is the "parapolitics" scandal. His push to demobilize the paramilitaries--to date, more than 30,000 have laid down their arms--revealed their deep political infiltration. Uribe has supported and cooperated with the investigations, but the scandal has weakened his administration and bruised its image abroad. Many Colombians fear that the demobilized combatants will return to illegal activity.