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Young Killers Find Solace at Center


BUCARAMANGA, Colombia — They are the faces behind Colombia's grisly statistics: the addict who killed for drugs, the vigilante who killed for revenge, the rebel who killed for adventure and the soldier who killed for fun.

Violence was a way of life for many of the men and boys of the OBAT Rehabilitation Center, a former motel beside a river outside the northeastern city of Bucaramanga.

The center, one of 26 OBAT Foundation operations that house and counsel about 250 criminals, is run by Christian convicts. OBAT, founded three years ago, is the Spanish acronym for Prayer, Deeds, Fasting and Work.

During a half-hour interview, Jairo, 28, admitted murdering dozens of people, first as a young thief, then as a member of a right-wing death squad, a leftist rebel, and finally as a drug dealer.

He hit rock bottom in February while living in a rat-infested hotel in the coastal city of Barranquilla. Enemies from all sides--other drug dealers, police, friends of victims--had him cornered.

Frightened, alone, down on his luck and high on drugs, Jairo made a desperate telephone call to his sister, who arranged for rehabilitation.

With OBAT, Jairo says he may have found Jesus, "but the devil still gets inside me from time to time and I start to feel desperate."

Theories abound on what turns men like Jairo into killers: Colombia's history of civil strife, unequal distribution of wealth, a corrupt legal system, an abundance of weapons, the lure of quick riches from drugs.

More than 28,000 homicides reported in 1992 make Colombia the world's most violent country not involved in civil war. The United States, with a population eight times larger, had 24,020 homicides in 1991.

Many of the 20 former killers, thieves, drug addicts and male prostitutes at Bucaramanga described having felt worthless and empty while on the streets. Under guidance from the counselors, many now reject killing and crime.

Jorge Luis, 33, said he joined the M-19 rebels in the mid-1980s as an adventure and because he "wanted to be accepted by a group of friends."

Gonzalo Toro, a founder of OBAT, said he became involved in drug dealing and gang activity at age 8 in Medellin. He now spreads the word of God, but a bullet scar on his jaw and the scorpion tattoo on his arm betray his past.

As an adult, Toro became a member of the army's elite Special Forces, but the uniform did not stop him from dealing drugs. He ended up in jail.

"I think the Special Forces chose me because they knew I had no qualms about doing anything," he said.

Jairo described dragging people from their homes in the middle of the night and shooting three or four at a time. As a death-squad member in the early 1980s, his mission was to help rid Colombia of rebels and their supposed sympathizers. He said he was just obeying orders, killing people suspected of collaborating with guerrillas.

After years of killing for various armed groups, Jairo says he went mad. Paranoia overcame him, he says, and he opened fire with a machine gun on a group of innocent people sitting under a tree. He said he does not remember how many were killed.

Government officials want OBAT to contribute to peace in Colombia by changing the killers, replacing adventure with work and lack of feeling with Christian morality.

Anyone at Bucaramanga is free to leave, but those who stay must follow the rules: up by 5 a.m., in bed by 9 p.m., no drugs or alcohol, no sex, no fighting, no disrespect and no laziness.

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