Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
September 13, 1989
Medellin mourns victim of drug war

MEDELLIN, Colombia - The city's mayor stood at a podium yesterday as his predecessor lay before him in a mahogany coffin, surrounded by scores of floral arrangements.

"Why do we need more and more deaths to give us solidarity?" said Juan Gomez Martinez, mayor of Medellin. "Why are so many indifferent when the weeping already has touched so many doors?"

The inspiration for Gomez's questions lay in the coffin: Pablo Pelaez Gonzalez, the former mayor, dared to speak out against Medellin's notorious cocaine traffickers. He died because he was not indifferent.

More than 1,500 people turned out yesterday to bury Pelaez, 45, who was killed Monday morning along with the driver of his BMW sedan in a wealthy section of Medellin. The ambush was so sudden that Pelaez's bodyguard, who was wounded in the attack, did not get off a shot in defense.

While somber classical music played at the funeral service, Pelaez's mother, Helena Gonzalez de Pelaez, cradled Pelaez's 19-year-old son's head, and onlookers wiped tears from their eyes. Four Catholic priests recited prayers in unison.

Just before the casket was lowered into the ground, the top half of it was was opened. Weeping family members and friends reached over and touched Pelaez's face and body.

Pelaez, the president of a metal-fabricating business, was mayor of this industrial city from 1984 through 1986. He founded a local movement called "Love for Medellin" aimed at opposing the drug traffickers, and last month he organized a public demonstration against the cartel.

No one claimed responsibility for the assassination, but police said the attack was unmistakably the work of "the Extraditables," the group of drug traffickers who last month vowed to wage war in retaliation for Colombia's crackdown on cocaine trafficking.

The attack was the latest shock to a city that has suffered almost daily bombings and assassinations since Aug. 18, when the government began an offensive against the traffickers.

The government launched the crackdown after the cartel's gangs killed Sen. Luis Carlos Galan, a leading presidential candidate, and the police chief of Antioquia state, which includes Medellin. Both of them were anti-drug crusaders.

Pelaez's assassination - as well as several recent attacks on the property of wealthy Colombians - was widely interpreted as evidence that the drug traffickers intend to make good on their promise to target the nation's elite.

"The traffickers issued a warning that they would attack politicians, industrialists, journalists and their families if the government continued the war," said Orlando Arango, a Medellin businessman who attended Pelaez's funeral. "That seems to be true."

El Colombiano, a Medellin newspaper, editorialized yesterday that the death of Pelaez "has caused amazement and discouragement and obscures much more the hope of achieving peace and security."

Politicians, priests and civic leaders yesterday called on the citizenry to strengthen its resolve against the drug traffickers.

In retaliation, Mayor Gomez yesterday banned the night use of motorcycles, the preferred vehicle of the cartel's hit squads, and said he would maintain the 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew that has been in force for two weeks.

"Pablo Pelaez Gonzalez isn't one more name added to the headstones of our hallowed grounds," Gomez said in his eulogy. He said Pelaez's death would eventually "help us to defeat the current pain."

But the crowd of mourners who jammed Medellin's modern city council chambers to pay their respects to Pelaez did not seem so confident - they appeared to understand more the message sent out by the drug traffickers.

"It is too dangerous for me to tell you how I feel," said an older man in a tweed suit who described himself as a businessman. "This is not a good time."

Guards searched mourners at the funeral - frisking has become standard procedure at most public gatherings in Medellin in the last month - and camouflaged soldiers stood watch during the services and the burial at a sunny hillside cemetery.

But security guards are often nothing more than a minor obstacle to the hired killers called "sicarios" - as Pelaez proved Monday morning.

Pelaez's car was ambushed a little after 9 a.m. about three blocks from his house in the El Poblado section, a well-heeled neighborhood on one of the hillsides overlooking Medellin. The attack took place at an intersection where the buildings contain art galleries and upscale clothing stores.

As many as eight men in two cars - police said one of the vehicles was a taxi - cut off Pelaez's car. Witnesses told police that three gunmen quickly surrounded Pelaez's car and fired 9 mm pistols through the windows, littering the street with spent cartridge casings.

The assassins, who were said to be wearing masks and athletic clothing, then fled in their cars. Police said that neither Pelaez nor his bodyguard was able to use a machine gun and two pistols in Pelaez's car.

"It was a typical narco-trafficker assassination," said a Medellin police spokesman, who asked to remain nameless. No arrests were made.

Pelaez - a man who was eulogized as a promoter of peace, an idealist who had said he was a bohemian at heart - died shortly after he was taken to a nearby hospital.

"We are in total anguish over events in Medellin," Helena Herran de Montoya, the governor of Antioquia, said Monday, as the government stated that it was considering new measures to combat the violence that has challenged the will of the city's decision-makers.

"The mafia want to take power," said Jorge Pelaez, one of the slain man's brothers, as he stood on the grass near the plot where his brother had been laid to rest, his voice cracking with grief.

"They will keep killing people like my brother unless the government resists." home page   
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