By Hugh Bronstein
MEDELLIN, Colombia, May 3 (Reuters) - A long battle for control of Medellin, notorious for its multibillion-dollar cocaine trade, seems to have ended as crime rates plummet and a noisy construction boom replaces the crack of gunfire.
Drug cartel hit men no longer line up to ask forgiveness at a local statue of the Virgin Mary nicknamed the Virgin of the Assassins. Gone are the young "sicarios" who raced around on motorbikes, murdering their enemies at traffic lights.
But in some poor neighborhoods fear is now focused on right-wing paramilitary thugs who many say wield immense power after helping the army retake control of the city.
The accusations, dismissed by the government, have helped jeopardize U.S. aid to President George W. Bush’s closest ally in Latin America.
President Alvaro Uribe is in Washington this week pushing for a free trade deal and continued military assistance despite a scandal at home in which eight congressional allies have been jailed for colluding with paramilitaries responsible for some of the worst massacres of Colombia’s decades-old war.
The effort was made more difficult by last week’s murder of a Medellin human rights worker who had accused the militias of setting up a shadow government funded by extortion.
U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who chairs a key foreign aid committee, recently froze $55 million after a leaked CIA report said Colombia’s army used paramilitaries to seize the Medellin neighborhood of Comuna 13 from leftist guerrillas in 2002, just after Uribe took office.
The army denies the charges, which were probed and dropped by Colombia’s inspector general.
The paramilitaries were set up in the 1980s to fight Marxist rebels. Both groups are funded by cocaine and branded terrorists by Washington.
DRUGS AND GUNS
Comuna 13 is a labyrinthine hillside area on the western edge of Medellin where ramshackle houses are linked by alleys and winding stairways. It was long used by rebels and other groups to smuggle drugs out of the city, and bring weapons in.
One resident who spoke anonymously said she saw men with paramilitary armbands accompany army officers in Comuna 13 in September 2002, a month before soldiers started their house-by-house raid, backed by tanks and helicopter gunships.
"The paramilitaries were helping them plan the battle," she said. "Comuna 13 is a complicated area and the army needed guidance from the paras."
The woman and other residents say the paramilitaries later began forcing people to pay for protection.
More than 31,000 "paras" have turned in their guns over the last three years under a peace plan but critics say the militias have maintained their criminal businesses.
"Despite the demobilization, former paramilitaries remain armed and in control of Comuna 13," said Mauricio Romero of the National Commission for Reparation and Reconciliation, a semi-independent group monitoring the demobilization.
City spokesman Jorge Gaviria dismisses the claims.
"What we have now are common criminal gangs, which we are addressing through better police protection and economic development," said Gaviria as he sat in Comuna 13’s new public library, an investment that would have been unthinkable before the 2002 battle.
Crime has plummeted here and across the city. Medellin had 709 murders last year versus 6,349 in 1991, when it was under the thumb of drug king Pablo Escobar.
Rosario Ramos sat on the stoop of her Comuna 13 house remembering the days when guerrillas used the neighborhood to hide their kidnap victims while ransom was negotiated.
"We need to find jobs for the guys before they get bored and regroup, and there is still poverty," Ramos added. "But it’s a lot better than living in a war zone, which is what we had before."