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Bloodshed returns to Medellin

Residents paint a terrifying picture of life at the intersection of the drug war.

Soldiers patrol the violent Comuna 13 neighborhood in Medellin, Sept. 18, 2009. (Albeiro Lopera/Reuters)

MEDELLIN, Colombia — Even the prescience of 13-year-old Luis Serna Varela couldn't save him.

He worried he would find himself caught in a shootout, or even with his finger pressed to the trigger of a gun, just another teenager unable to escape the gang warfare in his poor neighborhood atop Medellin. He asked his mother one morning: "Why don’t we leave from here?”

Now it's too late for his mother to do more than wonder about what she could have done differently. Luis went to buy eggs and cheese for his family’s breakfast in January when he was killed by a stray bullet.

He is yet another homicide victim in a city where 10 year olds carry guns and where the police's "necro-mobile" patrols the streets nightly, collecting dead bodies.

Yet for a few years it had looked as if this violent city might have found a path to normalcy. Thousands of right-wing paramilitary gang members started demobilizing in 2003 and the government made it a priority to increase basic services. Murder rates plummeted.

(Read about how Medellin tried to shed its violent past.)

Now bloodshed has returned.

“There’s more of everything now. There’s more people, more money and more drugs,” said Jaime, a pseudonym for a drug-trafficker in charge of several of the city’s most violent neighborhoods.

Last year murders jumped by 100 percent to 2,899 in a city of 2.5 million, according to the National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Science. Behind the wave of violence is a battle for control of the city’s drug-trafficking trade between two warring factions of the “Office of Envigado,” a network of criminal groups.

Residents and community leaders, who did not want to be named for security reasons, paint a terrifying picture of life at the intersection of the drug war.

“There are kids in high school who can’t cross from one street to another because there might be a shoot-out,” said Juan Pablo Mora, 25, who lives in the poor, violent neighborhood of Santo Domingo, where he carries out social projects with the Franciscan religious order.

Ever more criminal bands are demanding extortion payments — known as "vaccinations" — from shopkeepers and bus drivers. Young women who refuse to be the girlfriends of gang members may face death. Children and women are often used to transport weapons or drugs.

The gangs are stepping up their efforts to recruit youths as murder rates put a dent in their membership. Jaime had 15 of his 150 men killed in four months. One mother said her 22-year-old son was told by paramilitary gang members to carry out a job. “When he refused, they told him he should leave, or stay and be killed,” his mother said. Her son moved outside Medellin.