BOGOTA, Colombia — This country plunged into mourning Sunday for the archbishop of Cali, Isaias Duarte Cancino, whose slaying marked a savage new milestone in its internal conflict.
Duarte was killed late Saturday as he left a mass wedding at a church in a poor neighborhood of Cali, Colombia's third-largest city. Two men approached and shot him four times at point-blank range, according to witness and police accounts. Another priest was injured.
Thousands of mourners waited hours to pass by the 63-year-old Duarte's body as it lay in a glass-topped coffin in Cali's cathedral. In his weekly address in Rome, Pope John Paul II condemned the killing, saying the outspoken prelate had paid a "high price" for his work for peace.
"This conflict has become so degraded that it has reached the level of pure barbarity," said Father Gersain Paz, a spokesman for the diocese. "Who would strike out against someone so beloved?"
The identity of the assailants remained unknown Sunday, though speculation focused on drug traffickers. The list of suspects was long. Duarte was blunt and harsh in his attacks on the perpetrators of Colombia's violence. In recent months, he had taken on drug dealers, left-wing guerrillas and corrupt politicians.
President Andres Pastrana called an emergency security council meeting in Cali to coordinate efforts to find the killers. The government offered a reward of more than $400,000 for information leading to their arrest.
Alvaro Uribe, the leading candidate in upcoming presidential elections and a close friend of Duarte, said the killing was a tragedy for the country.
"It is a grave and irreplaceable loss," said Uribe, who canceled campaign appearances for the day.
No matter who killed Duarte, the slaying of a top church figure is a sign of growing desperation among the many armed groups in Colombia's conflict.
The 38-year-old war pits government and right-wing paramilitary forces against leftist rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish initials as the FARC, and the National Liberation Army, or ELN.
In the background are drug dealers and common criminals who account for the bulk of the nation's violence. Of about 27,000 homicides each year in Colombia, only about 15% are due to the war. The rest stem from feuds, drug assassinations and other crimes.
But only rarely have church leaders been killed, especially one as high-ranking and well-known as Duarte. Church leaders were protected even during the depths of the battles between drug lord Pablo Escobar and the Colombian government in the early 1990s. The last killing of a church figure in memory was the ELN's torture-slaying of a bishop in northeastern Colombia about 12 years ago.
In Latin America, where the Roman Catholic faith runs deep, the death of a church figure has often marked a turning point in a nation's violence.
The 1980 slaying of Archbishop Oscar Romero by right-wing assassins in El Salvador first gave notice of the growing brutality of the country's civil war, raising questions in Congress about U.S. support.
And the bludgeoning death of Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi of Guatemala in 1998 produced an outcry that resulted in the first successful prosecutions of members of that country's feared intelligence service. Gerardi had denounced the military as responsible for the vast majority of the more than 200,000 deaths in the country's civil war.
"Obviously, we are in a complicated situation now," said Ana Teresa Bernal, the director of one of Colombia's largest peace groups. "We can only hope that this murder does not lead to more retaliations and violence."
Duarte gained fame after being appointed in 1988 as bishop of Apartado, an impoverished city near the Caribbean coast that has been the scene of some of Colombia's most brutal fighting in recent years.
In the region around Apartado, all sides fought over territory and access to the Caribbean, a lucrative transportation route for the drugs that both the paramilitaries and the rebels use to finance their activities. Duarte was critical of both groups, winning respect even from those he criticized.
One of those was Carlos Castano, the leader of the paramilitaries. In a recent autobiography, Castano called Duarte a friend and said that the archbishop had helped set up meetings between Castano and top government leaders.
"If there has ever been a priest that has been balanced in this war, it was him," Castano recounted in his book. "Don't doubt that he internationally condemned the guerrillas and us. He criticized both sides."
The mention stunned Duarte, who in a recent interview said he was considering leaving the country.
After Duarte became Cali's archbishop in 1995, he found himself in the midst of yet more violence. In 1999, rebels from the ELN staged two spectacular mass kidnappings, including one in which they seized 144 churchgoers after Mass in a wealthy section of Cali.