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Documentary : Death Goes Door to Door in Mean Barrios of Medellin : Gang warfare sponsored by drug cartels is rampant and police, fearing ambush, can do very little to stop it.


MEDELLIN, Colombia — The taxi driver first pleads ignorance ("I've never heard of this address"), then bad weather ("With this rain we'll never be able to drive there"), before finally agreeing to take two reporters to Villatina, one of this city's most violence-plagued neighborhoods.

At the barrio's entrance in eastern Medellin, about two miles from downtown, the worried driver pauses for a moment before ascending into a wandering maze of hillside shacks, slick mud and broken slabs of street.

The driver knows that Villatina, like many of Medellin's hillside slums, is in the process of tearing itself to pieces, part of an extraordinary period of citywide bloodletting. During January and February, 1,473 people were murdered in Medellin, most of them in the poorer barrios.

The murder rate has surpassed that of 1990--itself one of the most violent years in the city's history. A terrorist campaign by the Medellin cocaine cartel contributed to a total of 4,637 homicides last year--an annual rate of more than 185 killings per 100,000 people. That may be the highest murder rate in the world. It's more than six times the rate in Los Angeles, which had 991 homicides last year.

Authorities attribute much of the latest violence to rivalry between youth gangs, some of them financed in the past by drug traffickers belonging to the Medellin cartel. Two youth bands, the Porkey's and the Gang of the Entrance, have been fighting it out on the narrow streets of Villatina in recent months.

At a small brick house with a white concrete facade, the neighborhood's Roman Catholic priest, Father Sergio Duque, steps forward to greet his visitors. He has agreed to guide them, on foot, up the hill along progressively bleaker blocks.

This would be Dante's descent inverted were it not for the neighborhood's residents, bravely trying to cope with violence that is every day more extreme. Duque points out the stations of suffering: the one out of every three or four tiny houses where there lives a woman who has lost a husband, a brother, a son.

Over there, the priest says, is the home of Dona so-and-so. Her boy was killed in a shoot-out last year. In this house lives Dona so-and-so, who has lost a husband and a son.

The tales of death multiply exponentially. In one house, a woman named Novelia relates the deaths of her son and her husband, killed within a month of each other. On Jan. 18, her son, just back from the army and out of work, had his 22nd birthday. The next day, an unidentified gunman shot the young man twice in the head as he was repairing motorcycles in the family's garage.

Novelia says her son was never involved with the neighborhood's gangs. "We later received a call apologizing for his murder, saying they had mistaken my boy for someone else," she said.

Her eyes wet with tears, the mother of six recounts how the killing affected her husband, Hector. "He was completely destroyed. He stopped eating and began drinking more."

On Feb. 4, Hector, drinking beer at a nearby house, heard gunshots fired near his home. He mistook the pitched battle between two gangs for an attack on one of his remaining four sons. After returning home to retrieve his pistol, the 56-year-old man entered the fray, shooting at least one of the gang members before falling himself in the hail of bullets.

"I don't blame anyone because there was so much confusion," says Novelia, sitting beside her giggling 3-year-old granddaughter. "People tell me to move to another place, but I don't think this barrio is so bad. We lived here for many years without any trouble, and at least people know us."

Her willingness to forgive is a common attitude in Villatina and other Medellin barrios, where silence is often the only way to prevent more killings. In Novelia's words: "People know who the killers are in the majority of cases, but they don't talk about it. If you accuse someone, they kill the rest of your family."

Police rarely venture into Villatina and the other barrios for fear of being gunned down in ambushes. Last year in marginal neighborhoods, young men were collecting more than $4,000 from the drug dealers for every police officer they killed. More than 250 officers were slain before the drug traffickers called a halt.

"We try not to go into these neighborhoods unless there is a specific case that requires us," concedes Col. Aldemar Bedoya, Medellin's acting police chief.

One Villatina resident says such cases usually involve body collection. "Whenever we call to tell police about a shoot-out, they tell us to call back when it's over so that they can come and take away the dead."

Human rights activists accuse off-duty police of participating in several of this year's 18 Medellin "massacres"--killings of four or more people at a time. Private vigilante groups are also thought to be behind recent killings of drug addicts and other suspected criminals. Police blame several more killings on a war between Medellin traffickers and a rival cartel based in the southern city of Cali.

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