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.


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.

With no authority to turn to, many residents prefer to remain ignorant about the origins of the violence. Earlier this year, the 27-year-old son of Carmela Ureo was gunned down on a Villatina corner.

"I imagine it was a mistake, because it is said that the killers came from another barrio," says Ureo, standing in a dirty, tattered dress just a few feet from the site of the killing. "I don't think my son had friendships outside of this barrio, but who knows?"

Most people in Villatina do know that the Gang of the Entrance lately has started to make incursions into the Porkey's territory further up the hillside.

"The gang below apparently had ties with drug traffickers," says one resident, adding that the government's anti-drug battle has forced the criminals to look for new sources of income and new territory.

Gangs abandoned by their patrons are now common in Medellin and are one of the main causes of this year's rise in violence, says Bedoya, interviewed in his office at the downtown police headquarters.

For years, traffickers had taken advantage of the neighborhoods' high unemployment rate to organize youths into bands of sicarios , or hired gunmen. Then came a series of events that disrupted the terrorist structure.

Police killed several of the chiefs of the cartel's main terrorist squad in confrontations, and three of the organization's top leaders surrendered under a government leniency plan. The cartel's main boss, Pablo Escobar, is in hiding, unable to direct his terrorist bands, which have been left to feed on the neighborhoods through robbery and extortion.

"Pablo Escobar once had great power and control over the criminals of Medellin," Bedoya says. "Then he had to flee. . . . The gangs stayed behind with their weapons and training but without any work."

Independent criminal gangs have also sprung up, the attitudes of their members formed during years of lawlessness fomented by the cartel.

"Many youth gangs were never involved directly with drug traffickers, but they have learned from their example," says Manuel Restrepo, a Medellin sociologist. "The attitude of looking for easy money persists, and the main social reference point is still the drug trafficker."

The influence of the drug trafficker is evident, not only in Medellin's violence-torn shantytowns, but also in the wealthy neighborhoods, flooded with cocaine dollars. Just a 15-minute drive from Villatina's street rot is El Poblado, with its cool, clean avenues shaded by tall trees and bordered by palm fronds. No ramshackle dwellings here, just the flashy high-rise apartment buildings built during Medellin's latest construction boom in the mid- 1980s. One highrise with huge reinforced balconies does look a bit inelegant until one realizes that each apartment boasts its very own swimming pool.

Touch the slick surfaces of high white towers trimmed with gleaming chrome. See billowy clouds reflected in the buildings' giant windows of thick, tinted glass. Smell the clean rain beading on the Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs parked nearby. Even the most law-abiding citizen is likely to be tempted by such strong sensations and the easy money that pays for them.

Bedoya estimates that 200,000 of the city's 2.5 million residents are criminals. While car theft, kidnaping and other common crime is skyrocketing, the national and municipal governments are still trying to implement an emergency social spending plan.

"Since last year, there has been a lot of talk but very little concrete action to help Medellin," says Javier Tobon, the Roman Catholic vicar for the city's northeast side, where a majority of the gangs are based.

The lack of an official response to the violence has left people like Father Duque as the only mediators between killers and victims.

The priest climbs with his journalist charges to one of the highest, poorest sections of Villatina, to one of the barrio's most doleful houses. Inside, they speak to a woman who has lost her husband, her brother and two sons in the plague of violence.

A remaining 28-year-old son is still on crutches after he was shot four times--his mother lifts his shirt to show the bullet wounds--in a gang battle Feb. 4.

Call the young man Juan. It turns out that in the confusion of that gang battle, Juan apparently killed Hector, the late husband of Novelia, whom the journalists had met earlier.

The priest explains to Juan that Novelia has forgiven the crime and wants no more bloodshed. The young man scratches a three-day-old beard and nods in agreement.

Wearing expensive tennis shoes, yellow shorts and a loud T-shirt, Juan sits with his mother on a new couch, an incongruous piece in the dingy living room, with its dirty floor and bare brick walls.

The young man, who spent four months in jail in 1989, assures the visitors that there is no such thing as the Porkey's gang.

"We're just a bunch of guys who hang out together. The gang below has decided for some reason that it wants to clear out this neighborhood by killing us all."

He says he is still afraid but unable to move out of the neighborhood for lack of money--an explanation that leaves his visitors dumbfounded as they contemplate the risk he takes by remaining.

Finally, Duque leads the way outside into the late afternoon sunshine. Even from a vantage point amid the slums, it's a beautiful scene as the sun breaks through the clouds and glimmers on the Medellin River running through the Aburra valley below. The river shimmers as it rolls over the plain toward the shining skyscrapers of Medellin, standing in the distance like some impossible promised city.

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