In one of the central plazas of downtown Medellín there is a man-sized bronze statue of a dove. The curvy style makes it unmistakably the work of world-famous and locally-born artist Fernando Botero. This dove was once a symbol of peace and national pride.
On a rainy afternoon in June, 1996, the bird was nearly blown to bits. To this day, nobody knows or is saying who planted the bomb, or why. This is common in a country with the distinction of being a world-class exporter of cocaine and heroin, as well as the battlefield for the Western Hemisphere's longest-running civil war -- now in its fourth decade.
The strange thing is that the dove still stands, with a gaping hole in its chest. This was the artist's decision -- he called his wounded bird a "monument to the stupidity of violence."
Bernard Lafayette, director of the new Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies at the University of Rhode Island and a former Freedom Rider in Selma, Ala., walked into this setting on a visit in early September. He came to see if Medellín would make an apt site for a so-called "super center" to study violence, a place to apply what he sees as a cure, and possibly the location for an international conference on the subject in the year 2001.
What he saw was a study in contrasts. "My first impression was how beautiful the flowers were, so deep in their colors, the hills so green. I arrived at night and asked the driver to stop en route, as we came down the mountain into the valley. The city was like a huge basin of candles stretching out below me," he said.
Several days later, Lafayette, who worked alongside the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from the beginning of the U.S. civil rights movement, and was with King on the morning of his death, found himself beset by different emotions.
"I don't cry very often," said the graying, charismatic academic and peace worker. "But I found myself standing in this guy's office, and he told me a story about his father, who was kidnapped, and how his father told him not to pay the ransom, to donate the money to some worthy cause -- which he did. Then the guy's father was killed. I just broke down in tears."
There is nothing unusual about a visitor to Colombia meeting someone with an experience of kidnapping. The country is tops on that list too, with upwards of 2,000 reported kidnappings per year, plus many more that never come to light, according to a foundation that works against this crime called País Libre (Free Country).
Abduction has become a principal income source, after illicit taxes on drug crops and extortion, for the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the ELN (National Liberation Army), the two main rebel groups combating the government and paramilitaries in Colombia's prolonged conflict over social justice and economic development.
In fact, the group of exceptional businessmen who raised about $20,000 to bring Mr. Lafayette and three of his colleagues to Colombia, purposely didn't leak the news of his presence to local media "in case some nut wanted to try anything funny," as one of them put it.
Luis Javier Botero (no relation to the artist), 45, is one of these businessmen. By day, he's the head of an animal feed company. In his spare time, he's a partner in a non-government organization called Global Learn, dedicated to "non-traditional teaching methods and content, such as value-based learning and technology training." This intrepid, fast-talking idealist found his way to the Second International Conference on Nonviolence held in Atlanta last April.
When Botero found out that the year 2000 meeting would be held in South Africa, he thought with a salesman's logic, "what better place to hold the event in 2001 than in the most violent city of the world's most violent country?"
If Medellín holds that title, it is in large part due to Pablo Escobar's legacy. The king of the first cocaine cartel to make world headlines, Escobar was shot down from a Medellín rooftop in 1993. But thousands of young hit men were left out of work when the jailing of his cohorts splintered his organization, and a generation was to grow up learning easy money could be earned with a gun.
Medellín and the surrounding mountainsides also gave rise to some of Colombia's most ruthless paramilitaries. Formed ostensibly to protect wealthy landowners from the guerrillas, these groups have turned into an army of some 5,000 soldiers, constantly linked to massacres, assassinations, and kidnappings, directed at the Marxist rebels or anyone suspected of being on their side.
It helps explain why Colombia has an unsolved crime rate above 95 percent, according to some analysts. Medellín is Colombia's third largest city, with two million inhabitants.
Into this culture of combat arrived a man who took the torch from one of the century's most celebrated martyrs for peace. Retracing his life's steps in a recent telephone interview, Lafayette said, "I was with Martin Luther King on April 4, 1968, the day he was shot. He told me, 'We have to internationalize and institutionalize nonviolence. Violence will run its course and the world will turn to nonviolence. Don't give up, and don't lose your patience.'"
Lafayette, a former president of the American Baptist College in Tennessee, said: "I had a lot of questions for Dr. King, but I never got to ask them. Since then, I've worked in nonviolence training all over, including the United States, Haiti, Cuba, Peru, and South Africa."
Invited to consider doing the same in Medellín, the civil rights movement veteran met with high-level government officials, business leaders, representatives of non-governmental organizations, teenage gang members, peace negotiators, university presidents, and Catholic priests.
"Across the board," he said, "the thing that most impressed me was that, to a person, these people still have hope. They keep their heads high, face the reality, and are looking for every possible way to end the violence."
As an example, Lafayette mentioned an impromptu visit to a rough neighborhood in the hills overlooking the city. "I was in a room of 25 gang members. They all admitted to shooting and killing before. They know violence. They know it doesn't work. And they want a way out. This you cannot teach people. You just see it in their faces."
Lafayette wants to apply what he calls "a scientific approach" to the troubles of Colombia. This would start by his return in several months to "gather the best minds in the country, and find out what the roots of the problem are -- not just what the media reports, or the propaganda of politicians. I would begin just by listening, and asking the right questions."
Then, said Lafayette, he would train from his "Kingian Nonviolence" curriculum, certify others to do the same training -- or multiply the principles, and encourage those who have been trained to set up projects that apply these principles.
This process recently played out with the police force of Rhode Island, where Dr. Lafayette is based. Officers there took a workshop and then set out to practice the theory with students who had been expelled from high schools for fighting or other forms of violence.
"These kids had made mistakes, and needed help correcting their behavior," explained Lafayette, who holds a doctorate in education from Harvard University. "And the police would end up with them anyway."
So the police took them on for nine weeks, with two hours a day for nonviolence training, and an academic curriculum. "Turns out these kids went back to school and wanted to be like their teachers, the police. They became the ones who break up the fights."
Lafayette met with Juan Gómez Martínez, Mayor of Medellín, who told him similar tales of transformation. "We have a program where we've put former gang members to work cleaning up the river that runs through our city and has been polluted for years," Gomez said. "We've also drawn up 'treaties' between warring gangs. But I think the peace we're looking for has to build on social justice, and Dr. Lafayette can help us with that aspect."
In fact, the veteran peace worker places a lot of emphasis on the self as a starting off point. "When we were down south in the 60's, many of us could have fled north, and been safer, with more opportunities. But I've come to ask what is quality of life anyway? It boils down to what I call soul satisfaction, having a purpose in life."
This impressed Fabio Valencia Cossio, who called Lafayette "a man who radiates conviction." A native of Medellín, Valencia until very recently was also president of Colombia's Senate. In an unexpected move earlier this month, he announced his intentions to retire from congressional politics and search full-time for peace.
"I think the history of violence in Medellín, together with the social experiments that have already been done, plus Lafayette's techniques, will be very important for us in creating a culture of peace and nonviolence here," said the former politician. "As a country, we're at a moment where we need to take risks, and peace is the best risk."
A group of the former senator's colleagues, including Colombia's President Andrés Pastrana, just concluded a visit to Washington. They sought $3.5 billion in international aid for a plan to shore up the economy and the state -- and for more weapons to fight the rebels and drug lords. With $287 million pledged this year alone, Colombia is now third in U.S. foreign aid, behind Israel and Egypt.
The months to come will tell if what Valencia called "parallel diplomacy" -- referring to his plans, and it could be said, to Bernard Lafayette's -- are to play a role in this troubled country's future.