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Drug Gangs Endanger Whole Generation Of Medellin’s Young

March 28, 1991

MEDELLIN, Colombia (AP) _ Assassins strolled into a classroom and killed two teen-agers with submachine guns. At about the same time, other gunmen mowed people down at a nearby soccer field, killing nine.

Such massacres no longer shock this once-peaceful Andean city of 2 million, which gave its name to a notorious cocaine cartel and became a symbol of violence.

Police say at least 85 people, most in their teens or early 20s, have been killed in massacres so far this year. More than 1,200 killings have been reported, one of the highest per capita rates in the world.

Members of the clergy and other residents fear the Medellin cartel, with its billions in profit from selling cocaine to the United States and Europe, is corrupting an entire generation of youth.

The government appears either unable or unwilling to stop it.

Tens of thousands of Medellin’s children and young adults are unemployed school dropouts who hang out on the city’s violent streets.

″Around here, there is no law,″ said the mother of a young man killed on the soccer field. ″I’ll just mourn my boy’s death and move on.″

She said the ″violence has gotten so far out of hand″ it was impossible to know who killed Ronald, her 22-year-old son.

Ronald’s older brother, damp-eyed and bitter, insisted policemen were responsible.

Even police admit off-duty officers have murdered teen-age boys.

It is a war, some residents of Medellin say, that began when drug baron Pablo Escobar ordered his young killers to shoot policemen. Ten percent of Medellin’s policemen, or about 300, were murdered by the cartel’s gunmen in the first half of 1990.

Policemen, right-wing death squads, street gangs, urban guerrillas and assassins paid by the traffickers are blamed for killings in Medellin.

A car bomb that exploded outside the bull ring in February killed 24 people, including nine policemen, and wounded about 170. Authorities believe it was cartel vengeance for the the killing by police of two gang leaders.

There are more theories about the bloodshed than arrests.

Monsignor Javier Tobon, a Roman Catholic priest who counsels teen-agers in one of the most violent slums of northern Medellin, described the violence as ″the product of narco-trafficking.″

He said the cocaine trade ″started corrupting our people,″ undermining moral values, and ″the ambition for money is what is killing the young people here.″

Young people often are blamed for the bloodshed, but they also are its most frequent victims.

″These are the children who grew up during the city’s cocaine years, when an already violent Medellin suddenly became intolerable,″ a businessman said, on condition of anonymity.

Many youths have grown to disdain authority and idolize people like Escobar the drug lord, who gave the city soccer fields, street lamps and even cinderblock houses in the slums.

″I think Pablo Escobar should be president of Colombia,″ said Fabio, who is 16 and a former gang leader.

Drug traffickers employ teen-age killers, known as sicarios, to plant bombs and dispose of their opponents.

The youngsters, well paid and trained, have committed most of the hundreds of murders and bombings ordered by the cartel since August 1989, when the government began a war on drug gangs.

Many of the young men were left unemployed when the cartel declared a truce in July 1990.

The sicarios have the best guns, drive fancy cars and have created, in the words of Mayor Omar Florez, ″a culture of death.″

Tobon said: ″They declare their devotion to the Virgin Mary despite their willingness to kill.″

Serving the drug bosses became an honor, a way out of poverty and hopelessness for thousands of Medellin’s youngsters, but most of Medellin’s children are not sicarios.

Maria Emma Mejia, presidential envoy to Medellin, says the government is trying to help the hundreds of thousands of ″regular kids″ endangered by street violence.

It is a difficult challenge. Half the teen-agers in Medellin do not attend high school and the dropout rate in some neighborhoods is 85 percent, according to the city government. Most of the teen-agers are unemployed.

The city outlined a two-year, $87 million program to improve Medellin’s social services, with costs to be shared by the regional and national governments, but budget cutbacks have put it on hold.

Fabio, his twin brother Fabian and Edison, a friend, are in a makeshift work and recreation program started by Elkin Ramirez, a resident of their slum.

All three boys admit to having belonged to gangs engaged in robbery and other violence.

″Most of the kids here have killed people,″ Ramirez confided.

When asked who was responsible for recent murders in the slum, the boys answered: ″The law.″

Failure of the police and courts to apprehend and convict criminals has led to the formation of private vigilante groups in poor neighborhoods.

One that calls itself Medellin’s Nice Group, has announced a ″general cleansing″ campaign to rid the area of young drug addicts and ″bums.″

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