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Former cocaine capital shakes off bad reputation

MEDELLÍN, Colombia – The 18 hippos are the biggest attraction at the 'Hacienda Napoles' amusement park, 99 miles from this Andean city.

Their home was created by Pablo Escobar during his reign as Colombia's most notorious drug lord.

He built the luxurious ranch with 20 man-made lakes, six pools, an airport, a hydroelectric power plant and a zoo filled with zebras, hippopotamus and other exotic animals. 

Nowadays, the once highly secured hacienda is visited by 50,000 tourists annually, underlining the change in the city and province that was once ground zero for a bloody war between powerful cocaine magnates and the state. 

Hugo Angulo / NBC News
Children play in the fountains of a Medellin park.

Almost two decades later, business is thriving and most Medellinenses remember almost daily explosions as nightmares from the past. 

The former textile capital of South America is again making clothes for companies such as Diesel, Naf Naf, Levis, Tommy Hilfinger and DKNY.  The growing transportation system is another source of pride for many in Medellin, the only Colombian city with a metro and an aerial cable car network that connects downtown to its hilly suburbs.

And the United States is committed to helping Colombia continue to achieve greater security across the country. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently announced the new "Defense Cooperation Agreement," reached on Aug. 14 and expected to be signed in a few weeks. It is aimed at helping strengthen security and tackling the illegal drug trade. 

(Some South American nations fear that the U.S. is using the agreement as a way to create military bases in Colombia – a charge Clinton was quick to deny. Still a group of Latin American leaders will meet this Friday, Aug. 28 to discuss the Washington - Bogotá agreement.)

Escobar's rule

But Medellin's return to relative normalcy was an uphill climb. During the 1980s and early 1990s explosions were such a normal occurrence in Medellin that people started naming the bombs after the locations where they blew up to distinguish them. 

"We called the bomb in front of my building the 'Auto Pan bomb' because Auto Pan was the name of the bakery at the corner," art curator Felix Angel recalled. A May 1990 explosion was known as "The Intercontinental bomb" because it detonated in front of the Intercontinental Hotel.

Escobar ruled the slums surrounding this mountainous city, 160 miles northwest of Bogotá, Colombia's capital. His turf included an entire neighborhood where he built more than 400 new homes for poor families and was rewarded with their undivided loyalty. Police did not dare to enter. 

At the time, drug lords had offered to pay $4,000 to anyone who would kill a police officer. In the first six months of 1990, 100 police officers were killed.

Investigators attribute 2,000 deaths to Escobar, including the assassination of a presidential candidate and the 110 people killed when an Avianca Boeing 727 blew up over the skies of Bogota in 1989.  Two of the Avianca victims were American.

On Dec. 2, 1993, Escobar's reign ended. Police intercepted a phone conversation he was having with his son, zoomed in on his hiding place, and shot him dead near Medellin.

More than 15 years after the death of the so-called cocaine king, crime has gone down, but remains a threatening concern.  There were 1,097 murders in Medellin from January to June of this year, according to law enforcement statistics. That's almost double the 575 homicides from the same period in 2008, according to Medellin's mayor's office.      

Still, residents note the improvement since the years of Escobar's all-out war against the state. At its worst, in 1991, there were 12 to 17 murders a day in Medellin, earning the city the dubious distinction of having the highest homicide rate of all major cities in Latin America. 

"Sicarios," a term used to describe the hit men who kill on behalf of drug traffickers, are believed to be behind many of the recent deaths. Investigators say seven out of every ten crimes can be linked to "sicarios," the result of gangs fighting each other for control of the illegal drugs' market.

Investing in education
Despite the current violence, Latin American expert Peter deShazo says the city has experienced great security improvements since the days of Escobar, which he credits to the tough tactics of Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe. 

"This is the result of the strengthening of the military, sustained under Uribe, more money being spent on security, new military units protecting infrastructure, sort of success breeding more success," said deShazo who leads the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Americas Program based in Washington. The improved security has increased public confidence, he said. 

"In the 1980s people were terrified of going to malls because a bomb might blow up, now people go shopping and that has helped small business owners," said downtown cafeteria owner Guillermo Restrepo.  He says he has gone from barely making ends meet to tripling his restaurant's profits in the past 15 years. 

Restrepo and other Medellin residents laud former mayor Sergio Fajardo Valderrama – a University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate – for transforming the city by building new schools and libraries. 

Fajardo's goal was to give children a strong education and self-esteem to prevent violence in the future.  He wanted Medellin to be known as the best-educated city in Colombia and came up with the slogan in Spanish "Medellin: La Mas Educada."  

Fajardo left office in 2007 with an 80 percent popularity rating to consider a possible run for the presidency.  His successor, Alonso Salazar Jaramillo, vows to carry on Fajardo's goal of beautifying the city while offering the poor better educational opportunities.  

Five giant library complexes have been built in Medellin in the last three years, most in the poorest slums and all surrounded by parks. The cost: $35 million. Money well spent, business owner Restrepo believes. "We have to kill the venomous serpent of drugs and violence with education," he said. 

Felipe Gil Barrera, the education secretary of the state of Antioquia, where Medellin is located, recently told the newspaper La Reforma that Medellin has gained ground against the violence with educational and cultural weapons. He said Medellin's commitment to education can be seen by the amount of the city's budget allotted to education:  a full 30 percent of Medellin's budget goes towards education, as opposed to 8 percent of Mexico City's budget.

Still, a long way to go

So does Medellin have a chance of winning the war against crime? "It will take continuous effort on the part of the Colombian government to continue strengthening the professionalization of the police, to continue to combat drug trafficking and the effects of drug trafficking and to continue to generate legitimate employment," said deShazo.

Still, the city has a long way to go – the State Department warns Americans to avoid visiting Colombia, citing violence by guerillas, paramilitary groups and narco-traffickers.