Out on the Town in Murderville

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You'd think they'd know better by now, but Barrancabermeja's two funeral parlors still run out of coffins every weekend. The dirty oil-refinery town beside Colombia's Magdalena River, after all, has the highest murder rate in all of the Western Hemisphere, but the morticians of the Foronda and Garcia funeral parlors appear reluctant to admit how many more folks are dying every weekend in gunfights and assassinations.

The party of mourners staring, on a recent Sunday, at the dolorous, life-sized crucifix that Foronda manager Armando Ochoa keeps beside his rack of display coffins are hoping they'll still find a casket in which to bury their relative, a street sweeper shot in the head by two motorcycle riders that very morning.

Fanning themselves on benches under a shade tree outside the funeral parlor, none could adequately explain to me — or perhaps to themselves — why anybody would want to pump four bullets into a young man carrying nothing more lethal than a broom. Or why, the night before, gunmen had murdered three taxi drivers and a woman radio-cab dispatcher walking home from work on a dusty lane at twilight, hand in hand with her son. Were the killings carried out by Marxist guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) or their rivals, the National Liberation Army (ELN)? Or were they scare tactics by the right-wing paramilitary groups that also stalk Barrancabermeja? Nobody knew. Or if they did, they were afraid to tell me.

The street-sweeper's family turned down the lurid purple casket suggested by Foronda staff, settling instead for a cheaper model that looked as flimsy as a giant shoe box. Luckily, there was still one in stock — it was early, and the corpses from the typical Saturday night murder spree were only just being discovered.

Then, as is customary in Barrancabermeja, the street sweeper's mourners flagged down a few taxis — those still brave enough to cruise the town after the death of their three colleagues the night before — and attached white ribbons to their antennas before piling in for a tour of the dead youth's favorite haunts: the park bench by the church where he kissed his first girl; the billiards hall; the roller rink; and the fried-fish stand beside the wide, muddy Magadalena River.

Just across the river lies one reason why Barrancabermeja has become the murder capital of the Americas. Colombian president Andres Pastrana Arango has proposed handing over the municipalities of Yondo, San Pablo and Cantagallo to the ELN guerrillas in order to pursue negotiations with them. There's a problem, though: The FARC and the paramilitaries are far stronger in these municipalities than the ELN, and they're not about to surrender their lucrative access to 30,000 hectares of coca plantations (with obvious potential for taxing the cocaine trade), several gold mines and a multimillion-dollar black market trade in petroleum products illegally siphoned from Colombia's largest refinery.

And so Barrancabermeja finds itself drawn into a turf war between rival rebel groups and paramilitaries, in which there are on average three fatal shootings a day, and more on weekends. "These are selective assassinations," says police chief Colonel Jaime Martinez Santamaria. The killings have stepped up lately because the paras, many of them freelance hit men from the now disbanded Medellin and Cali drug cartels, are recruiting ELN rebels. "It's not about ideology, but money," says Col. Martinez. "The war has turned mercenary."

The kidnap business is slowing down for the ELN (anyone with money and common sense has long since left town) and the commanders are no longer paying their men salaries. In contrast, the paramilitaries offer $300 a month, snazzy commando uniforms and an extra bonus if the ELN guys finger their former comrades. Many of them are happy to oblige, or even to use the opportunity to take revenge on old personal enemies, and so the bodies pile up on the street.

The police colonel invites us to join his boys on a patrol of the barrios, the slums in the hills above Barrancabermeja where the FARC and the ELN are bashing it out. As we join the heavily armed unit, all wearing bulletproof vests, in a battered armored personnel carrier, our guide — a fresh-faced 22-year-old lieutenant, Andres Segura — talks earnestly about community relations. Community relations? "The people are a bit suspicious of us," admits Segura. "But we're trying." I notice that the back window, which is supposed to be bulletproof glass, has been pierced by a very large shell.

We batten down the top hatch to prevent any of the disgruntled citizenry from lobbing a grenade into the APC, and rumble off to the barrios. One enormous cop — they call him the Indian — is braced to thrust his light-machine gun through a peephole and fire at will.

The carrier stops on a dirt road in the middle of what the graffiti suggests is FARC territory. "We try to make friends with the kids by giving them cookies," says Lt. Segura gamely. "We even had a kite-flying contest." But as soon as the armed police jump out of the APC, the chickens in the lane scatter and people retreat to their doorways, ready to bolt inside. The previous night, Segura tells us, FARC gunmen went into an ELN neighborhood and singled out six men for assassination.

"We expect reprisals," says Segura, warily eyeing the tangle of jungle between the shacks. Several weeks back, he and his men were pinned down here in an ambush. The firefight lasted three hours before the policemen headed back to their fortified barracks.

This time, all is quiet. Maybe it's because the FARC guys and girls decide to "de-stress" and have a party, as they often do. Everybody else in the FARC neighborhood has to observe an 8 p.m. curfew, but when the FARC want to party, they appropriate the best sound system from one of the bars and blast the night away. Nobody else sleeps — or dares complain.

As our tour ends, my photographer takes a group photo of Lt. Segura and his platoon beside their APC. They all look cocky and invincible, full of a camaraderie forged by battle, but I couldn't help wonder how many of them would still be alive the next time I visited Murderville.

A few days later, I got an e-mail from the lieutenant, describing an operation. "It was like out of a movie," wrote Lt. Segura. "The guerrillas were armed with a mortar, a submachine gun and 30 kilos of explosive. But it couldn't have gone better for us. Somehow we avoided a great tragedy." Then he added, "We're still working to improve relations with the community."

It sounds like the lieutenant and his men have a long way to go.