12:00 AM CDT on Wednesday, September 23, 2009

By ALFREDO CORCHADO / The Dallas Morning News

In Ciudad Juárez, message from Colombian ex-mayor of Medellin, stirs hope

12:00 AM CDT on Wednesday, September 23, 2009

By ALFREDO CORCHADO / The Dallas Morning News

CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico – In this city of mayhem, they came to listen to Sergio Fajardo, clinging to hope.

GUILLERMO ARIAS/The Associated Press

GUILLERMO ARIAS/The Associated Press

A soldier guarded the scene where two men were fatally shot in Juárez late Saturday.

And he delivered. Standing alone on a stage like an evangelical preacher, the former mayor of Medellín, Colombia, once one of the world's most violent cities, talked about turning the tide against crime by making tough political decisions.

Ciudad Juárez, now Mexico's murder capital, can do the same, he said.

"Juárez, too, can make the transition from fear to hope," said Fajardo, who touts his accomplishments in his bid for the presidency of Colombia. "It starts by closing the doors to organized crime, reducing violence and providing opportunities to those without hope."

Addressing a crowd of more than 1,500 people packing the Cibeles Center on Monday, Fajardo talked about reducing violence by creating opportunities and providing dignity to the poor by building parks, schools and arts centers. He talked about turning gritty, gang-infested neighborhoods into trendy avenues, with sidewalk coffee shops and libraries.

The Juárez crowd, listening intently, went wild, clapping and giving him a standing ovation.

But it will take more than an inspirational speaker to lift the broken spirits and confidence of Juarenses, whose city, according to a top U.S. official, now rivals Baghdad and Kabul as one of the world's most dangerous and violent cities.

"He was inspiring. He offers hope," said Marisela, 35, who didn't want her last name used because she fears that her family may become a target of organized crime. "It's something we all needed to hear, but restoring confidence and beginning the healing process will take a long, long time."

Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso, is the scene of a drug cartel turf war that has killed more than 1,720 people this year and sent thousands north in search of safe haven in cities like El Paso, Dallas and beyond.

Drug violence and U.S. drug policy were also topics at a two-day conference at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Speaking in the conference, Juárez Mayor José Reyes Ferriz complained that U.S drug policy is laced with inconsistent messages about illegal drug use. For example, on a day when a Juárez policeman was killed, U.S. law officers declined to prosecute Olympic gold medal swimmer Michael Phelps for apparent marijuana use after he was photographed using a drug bong at a party.

"What is the message being sent?" asked Reyes, adding that 66 Juárez city employees have died since 2008 in the turf war. "That drug flow is not OK, but drug use is OK?"

But Anthony P. Placido, the assistant administrator and chief of intelligence for the Drug Enforcement Administration, said the "answer is not to decriminalize drug abuse," as some have suggested, "but to stop substance abuse."

Across the border in Juárez, residents were looking for answers from Fajardo, a 53-year-old maverick who favors blue jeans over business suits.

In 1991, Medellín had 381 killings per 100,000 people. Over the years, particularly after the death of drug baron Pablo Escobar in 1993, the killings fell to 26 per 100,000 by 2007. Credit, in part, went to Fajardo's vision of narrowing social inequalities.

"Hope is built," he told the crowd, "and you Juarenses can build it."

"We're clinging to hope," said Lucinda Vargas, director of the Juárez Strategic Plan, which is trying to rebuild the city's image and which sponsored Fajardo's visit. "But like Medellín, we have no intention of surrendering, no matter how tough our situation gets."



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