MEDELIN, COLUMBIA — MEDELLIN, Colombia -- For most of his 21 years, Juan Martinez was what you would call mean.
At 14, when most children are still playing games, Juan Martinez (not his real name) started transporting drugs, robbing people at gunpoint and getting into shootouts with the police.
His hero was drug lord Pablo Escobar -- another poor boy who did well illegally but did not forget his old neighborhood.
"Pablo sent food to the poor people in the neighborhoods. He is good to us," Mr. Martinez said shyly.
Until recently, Mr. Martinez was a "sicario," one of at least 6,000 young criminals who live in Medellin and commit 75 percent of all the crimes in this bustling, industrial metropolis 60 miles northwest of the capital, Bogota.
More than 500 gangs exist in Medellin, many made up of youths between the ages of 12 and 21. These gangs hire themselves out to drug traffickers and other criminals to carry out vendettas and do dirty work.
Law enforcement officers say the violence in Medellin is largely the product of the illegal drug trade, but priests, social workers and others say it also has been generated over the years by the abandonment of thousands of children.
Mr. Martinez is just another generator of crime statistics, a product of social injustice and official neglect in Medellin, experts say. Born in a poor neighborhood, he mainly had criminals to emulate.
"My brother and I were left alone in our neighborhood. My mother, who sells fruit downtown, worked all day and came back at night to feed us. When I was 14, I was asked to join the gang in my neighborhood. It was a way to earn money," Mr. Martinez said.
"We had a man who used to come by our neighborhood and ask us if we wanted guns. Of course we wanted guns. He would say, 'OK, I'll bring you the guns, and in the future when I need a job done I'll come back and ask you guys to carry it out.' "
Most of the money Mr. Martinez earned this way was spent on drugs, liquor and clothes. "I would give my mom money sometimes, but she would question me so much. I used to tell her, 'Until you see me doing something bad, don't say I am,' " he said.
Mr. Martinez left his old life a few months ago and joined a rehabilitation program run by private and governmental organizations in this city.
The program takes in former sicarios, teaches them a trade and finds them a job. Mr. Martinez is learning to be a locksmith. He hopes to open his own shop, buy a motorcycle and then save money to buy a car. His dreams are big, he knows, but he is willing to give them a try.
"But I don't have a lot of time to waste. If I can't get a job in six months, I'll have to return to my old ways," he said.
In Medellin, all are aware they are working against time. The social programs were started last summer, after vicious warfare between police and sicarios left a toll each month of 400 dead police officers, sicarios and bystanders.
Mr. Martinez's rehabilitation is financed by donations from middle-class professionals and wealthy members of the city's upper class. It costs about $200 to train each reformed delinquent. Eighteen youths graduated from the first training session in November; about 1,500 are waiting to enroll.
The government of President Cesar Gaviria also set up a special advisory commission to deal with social problems in Medellin posed by the sicarios. "We need the cooperation of everyone to win back Medellin," said Maria Emma Mejia, head of the commission.
Said Hector de los Rios, a social scientist involved with the rescue effort: "Medellin has always been completely segregated. The poor people hang on the hillside neighborhoods, looking at the other half full of wealth. That's a factor that encourages violence."
Mr. Martinez is aware of the second chance he is being given but is not sentimental about his future.
"I've had a dozen friends killed. I remember the funeral of a friend, where a group of men armed with shotguns entered the area where the coffin was set up and ordered everyone against the wall, opened the coffin and began shooting at it. . . . I don't like to remember those things," he said sadly.