MEDELLIN, COLUMBIA Some people run hotels in Beirut. Some build houses on the Love Canal. Some sell sunscreen in Seattle.
Jorge Daniel Mejia knows the feeling. His job is to bring tourists to Medellin, Columbia.
Mejia describes Medellin as a beautiful city where five-star lodging costs less than $90.
|Medellin started the year with an average of 25 homicides per day in January and February.||But Medellin isn't just any beautiful city. It is variously known as the world's "murder capital," "cocaine capital," and "kidnap capital." It is also the home of Pablo Escobar, the world's most famous alleged drug trafficker.|
And this year in Medellin started with an average of 25 homicides per day in January and February twice last year's numbers.
As the city's tourism director, Mejia is Medellin's number-one promoter. It isn't an easy job.
MEDELLIN HAS THE HIGHEST KIDNAPPING RATE anywhere so high that one newspaper regularly features ads from families to their loved ones who have been abducted.
Assassins riding on the backs of motorcycles became so common in 1990 that the government banned those carrying more than one person. The universities have "violentologists," experts in the study of violence.
Mejia isn't deterred. On the contrary, he's inspired. He says the worst days are over, the days when residents fled for Miami. The worst nights are over, too the nights when no one would venture out of the house for fear of getting killed in the cross-fire.
Nowadays, Mejia said, Medellin's problem is bad publicity, not massacres.
"It's true that in Medellin there is violence, kidnapping, extortion and drug trafficking," he said. "But you find the same problems in Europe and the United States."
|Medellin is starting an ambitious public relations campaign to attract visitors from North America and Europe to its lush hills and valleys.
Mejia, who works in a restored 19th-century mansion, oversees a staff of 45, three branch offices and a $6 million budget.
|One resident jokes that some days there are more workers in the tourist offices than tourists in Medellin.|
One resident jokes that some days there are more workers in the Medellin tourist offices than tourists in Medellin.
Mejia, 38, ignores the barbs. Like many Medellin residents, he beams with pride when he talks of the city's parks, factory outlet stores, silver shops, poolside buffets, bullfights, beauty pageants and the August flower festival.
He has visions of foreigners, especially Canadians and Germans, swarming in from Colombia's beaches for shopping weekends. He sees Medellin as the ideal convention spot at the crossroads of the Americas, and less than three hours by air from Miami.
Although the hotel occupancy rate was 15 percent last year, it has tripled this year, Mejia said.
|Instead of "Welcome to Medellin", a billboard on the highway warns: "Damned Kidnapper: Your End Is Near."||The Medellin area is filled with whitewashed buildings with red tile roofs. Potted geraniums hang from porches, and palm trees tower over public plazas.
As beautiful as the city is, it can be daunting for tourists.
Another, with the logo of the Columbian army, says simply, "We Will Win" a reference to the battle against several leftist guerrilla groups.
Mejia, who has served as Medellin's tourism director twice before, realizes he has a long way to go to polish the city's image. First, he has to persuade some of Medellin's pioneer families to come back from Florida and other places. His three brothers and sisters live in the United States, but he says they went there to study, not to escape Medellin.
Medellin used to be known as the "City of Eternal Spring." It was famous as the birthplace of artist Fernando Botero.
Now Medellin and its suburbs are infamous as the home of Pablo Escobar, who surrendered to authorities June 19. Escobar is the alleged head of the Medellin cartel, one of two Colombian drug rings that control most of the world's cocaine supply.
|Last year was "impossible" for attracting tourists, Medellin Mayor Omar Flores said. "There were car bombs going off, massacres of 20 to 30 people. We were in full war."
With Escobar imprisoned and talking about peace, Medellin is flush with optimism, the mayor said.
|People are nervous when they come here, but then they say: "Where are the dead people? Where are the killers?"|
MEJIA HAS GONE TO TRAVEL FAIRS as far away as London to boast of Medellin's good side. In the next year, he plans to go to trade shows in Paris, Berlin and Milan, Italy.
He is armed with brochures in several languages. They tout Medellin's arts and crafts, the Christmas pageant, the traditional delicacies such as roast stuffed pork, coconut candy and waffles filled with jam.
Medellin is the capital of Antioquia state, in northern Colombia. Paisas, as the inhabitants are known, are renowned in Colombia as entrepreneurs Mejia is quick to rattle off statistics: Antioquia home to 48 percent of the nation's industries, 82.5 percent of the textile production and so forth.
Medellin is building Colombia's first subway. It is home to some of South America's finest heart surgeons. The hospitals are so good that Medellin promotes "health tourism."
Ironically, the paisas' industriousness brought about one of their biggest problems: They took over the fledgling cocaine business in the 1970s, from the coca plants in Bolivia and Peru to the marketing in Miami and New York.
Today, police say, there are 150 well-armed gangs operating in Medellin.
The daily Medellin news bulletins can be frightening. A sampling: 12 young customers shot dead in less than five minutes in front of a Charlie Chaplin poster in a bar, six teenagers shot dead on an empty lot, a newborn baby that vanished from Leon XIII Clinic, and 12 cars stolen per day.
Colombia's government has started a multimillion-dollar emergency project to build apartments, soccer fields and youth halls in the slums creep up the hills above Medellin.
And like promoters of Washington, D.C., Mejia stresses that violence is confined to neighborhoods where tourists don't venture.
His assistant, Margarita Maria Fernandez, said newcomers had a common reaction after a couple of days in Medellin.
"People are nervous when they come here," she said, "but then they say: 'Where are the dead people? Where are the killers?'"