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Monday, 19 February, 2001, 18:39 GMT
Colombia's city of violence
Cocaine fields in Colombia
Illegal cocaine trafficking has fuelled the violence
By the BBC's Jeremy McDermott in Medellin

Colombia's second city of Medellin has again been billed as the most dangerous in the Americas.

Since the city became synonymous with drugs and the trafficker, Pablo Escobar, it has consistently been the most dangerous place in the western hemisphere.

Pablo Escobar
Pablo Escobar: created squads of hitmen
Last year in the city of two million there were almost 4,000 violent deaths, according to a report just released by the Department of Criminal Investigations and Judicial Support.

Whilst Escobar, the legendary head of the Menagin drug cartel, was killed in a hail of bullets during a shoot-out with police in 1993, he left a violent legacy which haunts the city today.

Escobar created an army of ''sicarios'', or hitmen, drawn from the poor neighbourhoods in the outer reaches of the city.

Guns for hire

The sicario philosophy was that it was better to live fast and die young, and Escobar lavished money on these desperate men and sent them out to do his dirty work killing rival drug dealers, politicians, judges, policemen or anyone who crossed his path.

He even promised a bounty of $2,000 for every policeman killed and his sicarios swarmed out of their strongholds and executed more than 300.

The sicarios still exist but are now guns for hire, and one of the reasons the murder rates are so high at the moment is because one of the most notorious sicario gangs, known as La Terraza - The Terrace, after a part of Medellin in which it was born - is in a fight to the death with its former paymaster, a feared right-wing paramilitary.

Bombs have been going off around the city and assassinations are commonplace.

New restrictions

Added to this already violent mix is the battle between street gangs, paramilitaries and guerrilla militias in the city.

The city authorities, in an attempt to decrease the violence, have decreed that all clubs and bars must be closed by midnight on weekdays and 1am on weekends, and have prohibited the carrying of arms.

Nobody is expecting the measures to make a huge impact on the murder rates, but they are unlikely to make things any worse.

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