The wall-encased, affluent heart of this Colombian city is surrounded by slums so miserable that public-health officials compare conditions there to life in sub-Saharan Africa.

Share story

CARTAGENA, Colombia — Inside Spanish ramparts built to repel pirate attacks lies a gem: the historic heart of Cartagena, on Colombia’s northwest coast, complete with $500-a-night hotel rooms, stylish restaurants and newly renovated apartments at Manhattanlike prices. To the government of President Álvaro Uribe, Cartagena symbolizes a new Colombia, vibrant and prosperous.

But outside the 400-year-old walls, away from the cobblestones and charm of the old city, is a swath of slums so miserable that public-health officials compare conditions there to life in sub-Saharan Africa. Unlike those who live in and visit Cartagena’s affluent heart, most of the residents of the ramshackle barrios are black. Drug trafficking is rife, children are malnourished and preventable diseases are common.

United Nations data show that Colombia remains one of the world’s most unequal societies, a cause of the country’s 45-year-old conflict.

“The poverty is immense,” said Adil Melendez, a human-rights lawyer and activist who works in Cartagena’s poor neighborhoods. “And then there is a small pocket of very rich people who maintain a life of extreme opulence.”

Yodiris Parra, 32, one of 55,000 people who arrived in Cartagena during the past decade after being displaced by war, said her life has changed very little in recent years.

Her home is a wood-plank shack in the Villa Hermosa slum. There is no running water, and raw sewage flows in the streets outside. Though Parra’s husband works in construction, supposedly benefiting from a building boom, she said the typical meal she serves her three children is soup filled out with a bone.

“Meat is too expensive,” she said. “Sometimes we can get ground beef, maybe chicken, but not usually.”

Signs of prosperity

Although senior Colombian officials acknowledged the great gulf between classes, they also cited government statistics showing that poverty and inequality have dipped in Colombia as the country, as most others in Latin America in recent years, has prospered.

Poverty fell from 51.5 percent of the population in 2002 to 44 percent in 2006, the last year for which figures are available. Homicides have fallen from nearly 29,000 in 2002, when Uribe took office, to 16,359 last year. The economy has grown by an average of 6 percent a year in the past seven years, and $40 billion in foreign investment has flowed in, making Colombia among the most important destinations for investment dollars in Latin America.

The Bush administration strongly supported Uribe for leading an offensive that disrupted a once-surging Marxist guerrilla movement. Analysts said the Obama administration is expected to continue support for this strategic ally, which is important to the United States because of Uribe’s commitment to its war on drugs. This decade, the United States has provided nearly $7 billion in mostly military and anti-drug aid.

Inside Cartagena’s ramparts and along an adjacent stretch of luxury seaside high-rises, it is easy to see signs of investment and feel the optimism that has come with it.

Churches and houses that were falling apart have been renovated. Boutique hotels have replaced backpacker dives. The number of cruise-ship passengers arriving in Cartagena has grown fivefold since 2003. And six times as many hotel rooms will be added this year as were added in 2008.

Spazio Urbano, a company that builds luxury apartments and remodels fading architectural jewels, is among the winners in the new Colombia. Its brochure declares, “The hour has come to invest in Colombia.” Fortunately for Spazio Urbano, many are heeding the call, paying million-dollar sums for apartments in the old city.

Strolling through a 4,300-square-foot apartment, part of a former convent next to the residence of Colombia’s Nobel laureate in literature, Gabriel García Márquez, a Spazio sales rep shows off the ocean views and sealed-coral floors that have attracted buyers from as far away as Paris and New York.

Handling the “dark side”

But to Jesus Mercado, who takes tourists on carriage rides, the city that tourists see is far from the real Cartagena. “They show the tourists and the foreigners the good face of Cartagena,” he said. “But the dark side, the southeast side, they do not show that. They hide it.”

In the city of 1 million people, 600,000 are poor, and tens of thousands are destitute. The percentage of residents lacking basic necessities — a yardstick used by demographers to measure poverty in Colombia — is 26 percent, nearly three times the rate in Bogotá, the capital.

Cartagena’s mayor, Judith Pinedo, who took office in 2008 after years of corrupt governments, has broken sharply with her predecessors by acknowledging the scope of the problem. Her administration has embarked on a program designed to identify the poor, catalog their needs and channel the necessary aid.

“For a long time, we built two cities: one the city we show off, the city that seduces the world, and the other a city closed off by lack of opportunities and poverty,” Pinedo said in a recent interview. “The city is not viable if it continues to be a city with so many people who cannot live up to their potential.”