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Jun 20, 2014

Joy, caution in the streets of Medellin

A look at Medellin, Colombia, the home of national team member Jackson Martinez.

MEDELLIN, Colombia -- Colombia won its match Thursday while we were in the air between Peru and Medellin, and when the pilot announced the final score, the passengers cheered. Final approach took us over lush jungle mountains, little towns and villages sparkling in the valleys. Everything I'd read described a place reborn since the death of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar two decades ago, since the previous time Colombia sent a team to the World Cup.

Walking out of the airport, three different shades of psychedelic green rose in every direction. A light breeze blew, just perfect weather, the sun out and the temperature hitting a few tenths of a degree below 70. The drive into town felt like a cruise through Tuscany, wind blowing in the windows of our car as we rushed past estates, forests and the gently rolling blur of cultivated rows. The smooth valley gave way to a dozen or more violent switchbacks descending into the city. Even its name evokes nihilism and death: Medellin, the former murder capital of the world, spread out in the valley below us, looking like the love child of Havana and San Francisco.

A local journalist, Adriaan Alsema of Colombia Reports, agreed to show us around.

He stumbled out of his bedroom, burned out from covering the presidential election that just finished; ultimately, the national team's first match in the World Cup helped decide the race. The team's win, political pundits theorize, kept the voting block of incumbent Juan Manuel Santos energized. He has been trying to negotiate an end to the 50-year war against the Marxist rebel group FARC; our driver's son did his mandatory military service and ended up on the front line of an endless jungle war. Now he can't find a job that doesn't involve a gun, and he doesn't ever want to carry a gun again.

Santos' victory is seen as the public's assent to his peace talks. He beat Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, the personally picked candidate of the hard-line former president, Alvaro Uribe; Zuluaga's campaign basically consisted of accusing Santos of selling out to the rebels. The race ended four days ago.

Now the World Cup is heating up.

"I'm really on my last legs," Alsema said.

Down the street, he stepped up to his neighborhood bodega window and ordered coffees to go from the old man who works there. Alsema went straight for the caffeine, an unlit cigarette between his fingers, coffee emerging triumphant in this battle of biological imperatives. Twenty years ago, these downtown blocks where Alsema lives and works were the front lines of Escobar's war, with bombs exploding and high velocity rounds fired from the back of speeding motorcycles.

Alsema cackled, a phlegmy smoker's laugh.

"It was statistically impossible not to get killed," he cracked.

Jackson Martinez rose from the Enciso neighborhood of Medellin to star for the Colombian national team.

The plan was to visit the neighborhood -- really, a favela -- in the hills east of downtown, where national team member Jackson Martinez grew up. In the car, Alsema noticed the same thing we'd been noticing: At least half the people we passed wore the yellow national team jersey, and on some blocks, every person had one on. Everyone had watched the game, clearly, and then they all went about their days. They expected to win and seemed happy now that they did. But nobody danced in the streets like the fans did in Santiago, Chile, the night before.

Martinez's neighborhood is called Enciso. A local soccer field, made of sandy, rocky dirt, was filled with kids. Vallenato, a style of Caribbean folk music for the displaced people who washed up in the hills of Medellin, played out a window overlooking the pitch. A kid pointed when we asked about Martinez, then volunteered to walk us to the home where he grew up. It's a blue house, on a narrow staircase rising from the main road, the front door even with the 57th step from the bottom. The air smelled like cooking chicken, and the little beer bars below filled up. Martinez hasn't lived here for years, said Javier Palacios, a young man sitting on the stoop. But his foundation was nearby, as was the coach who nurtured his talent.

Martinez was born in the jungle region of the country, in an area with only one city, the rest covered in triple-canopy forest, where people live off the land and off the sea. He left that jungle, and ended up in this one, and he escaped both. Now he goes back to the place where he was born and snatches up as many kids as he can, putting them in a football academy. His response to his childhood was to try to save as many people from it as possible.

- Thompson: Scenes from the murder capital of the world

- Thompson: Cup leaves some longing for home

- Video: Before they were stars, they were just boys

We followed Martinez's journey, from the favela down to the club where he played, and to the house of the coach who trained him. Standing on the field where his soccer dreams really began, we saw his old slum above, and the reflection of the tall chain-link fence around the neighborhood pitch. On the other three sides, Medellin stretched around the valley. The sun was setting, the lights of the city clicking on, and at night, no place is more beautiful. That perfect light breeze still blew. The cynical Alsema, who threatened to have me murdered if I bought the spin and wrote a story about Medellin rising, looked overcome.

"Now he's in Brazil," he said. "I think that's just beautiful. There are very few stories like that."

A slow, mournful Mexican song played from a nearby home.

"Oh, I'm so in love with my city," Alsema said.

It had been the perfect day. I'm always longing to fall in love with places, and I felt myself falling for Medellin, a beautiful mountain city escaping its violent past. Alsema picked out a place for dinner, an open-air grill overlooking a working-class park. Then, as we climbed in the car, he said, almost as an aside, not to roam around the restaurant.

He reminded us that this was still Medellin.

"Where we're going, we can't walk," he said. "There's a war going on. They make these invisible frontiers that nobody is allowed to cross, and if you cross it, they will kill you immediately, and since we don't know where the frontiers are, we can't walk."

The narco-traffickers still run the city, and gangs still fight for territory, but almost everyone is smart enough now to never repeat the orgy of violence unleashed by Escobar.

Alsema looked around when we parked.

Children ran up and down the streets, almost all of them wearing the yellow jerseys. He relaxed.

If kids were around, it meant an all-clear: no gang war tonight. Parents always seem to know.

We sat down, ordered pork skin and rice and beans, and a tall, cold Aguila beer. The waitress brought bowls of rich, delicious soup and a plate of arepas. The last World Cup match of the day played on television, and everything felt wonderful again in a fragile paradise still trying to escape its past.