No one will ever mistake Cali, Colombia, for an Amish community, but it’s way more peaceful than it was 10 years ago, when God began to transform it.

As home of the world’s largest drug cartel, it was the murder capital of the world, with an average of 15 homicides a day. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency called the cartel the largest, richest criminal organization in history. It terrorized the 2 million citizens with a kind of lawless violence not seen in even the wildest days of the Wild West.

The top drug lords had incomes up to $500 million a month, and they lived on heavily guarded estates. (The cartel owned 1,200 properties, one of which boasted a 5,000-seat soccer stadium!) When the gates of an estate swung open to emit the typical convoy of cars, all other drivers would pull over and stop. Why? Because if they didn’t, they would probably get shot. Even a fender-bender with a minor cartel employee would quite likely be fatal.

Kidnappings and other crime were rampant, and city government corruption was not far from total.

The underlying problem, as usual, was spiritual. While the cartel leaders regularly consulted mediums and witches, the city’s 200 pastors bickered and fought among themselves. The ministerial “association” consisted of 200 address cards in a shoebox nobody wanted.

But in 1995, one dauntless pastor, Julio Ruibal, finally succeeded in cajoling the others into sponsoring an all-night, prayer-and-fasting meeting for their people. To their surprise, 30,000 born-again types showed up to pray for Cali. God was already at work.

But the real surprise came 48 hours later when the newspaper El Pais came out with the headline, “NO HOMICIDES.” For the first time anyone could remember, Cali had gone a whole weekend without one murder.

Now, the drop from 30 murders to zero could have been a statistical quirk. But just 10 days later, one of Cali’s seven main drug lords was arrested by authorities. Then 900 cartel-linked policemen were fired.

Much encouraged, the Christians pressed on. They held more all-night vigils and marched in the streets. Thousands prayed for the city as they rode around it in chartered buses.

The pastors quickly applied for permission to hold their next all-nighter in the city’s largest stadium. They not only got it, but the mayor was moved to say, “We cannot charge you for using this stadium. In fact, we will cover the expenses for the sound system, security and advertising.”

On the appointed night, 60,000 people squeezed into the 55,000-seat stadium while 15,000 more milled around outside, then began walking through the nearby neighborhoods, singing and praying for hours. Inside, the courageous mayor declared to the throng, “This city belongs to Jesus Christ.”

Then to almost everyone’s shock, Ruibal was murdered. (It was not a surprise to his family because God had spoken to Ruibal about his murderer very clearly just days before his death in these words: “He is going to cause you great damage, but out of it will spring a great revival.”)

This galvanized all the pastors. At his funeral, they repented of their quarreling and pledged themselves 100 percent to the transformation of Cali. That turned another corner.

The snowball grew. In March, 1996, the praying bus riders capped their efforts by circling the city a symbolic seven times (a la Joshua at Jericho). Two weeks after that, the federal government sent in 6,500 elite troops and rounded up all six of the remaining drug kingpins. This event was astonishing, as the drug cartel was the government.

The murder rate is now the lowest in 18 years, corruption is down dramatically, and kidnappings are down even more. Things are going so well that Colombia’s president has reached a 70 percent approval rating. But they still have a very long way to go. Reuters compared Colombia to Europe, and its murder rate is still 30 times higher.

Clearly, however, Cali is improving rapidly. City leaders are appealing for more Christians to get into government, and newscasters are free to speak the truth on television without being promptly assassinated. Churches are booming, the largest having 35,000 members, and 95 neighboring towns are starting to experience their own transformations. I’ve spoken with Ruibal’s widow, Ruth, and she tells me that Cali has transitioned from fear to hope.

The Cali story is told in the video documentary, “Transformations I.”

Moral: Although government programs may help from time to time, real transformation of society springs from its spiritual base.

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