EVEN as representatives of the Colombian government and the country's guerrilla insurgency meet in Tlaxcala, Mexico, this week for renewed peace talks, the cycle of violence perpetrated by both sides continues unabated back home.
Rebel commanders and some government officials say they expect little progress in the current talks because of the continuing bloodshed and the two sides' increasingly hard-line negotiating positions. In the last two months, the rate of killing in Colombia has kept pace with that of 1991, when more than 1,800 died in the bloodiest year of the three-decade-long guerrilla war.
The government's priority at these talks is to reach a bilateral cease-fire; the rebels are calling first for sweeping changes in the national economy and the armed forces.
About 7,000 members of the country's two remaining rebel groups - the Colombia Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) - are negotiating together under an umbrella organization called the National Guerrilla Coordination Simon Bolivar.
The organization's 12-point platform demands that President Cesar Gaviria Trujillo abandon his economic program to reduce government subsidies and allow more imports and that he restructure the military and fire many commanders. Officials say such radical demands may make the next round of talks the last.
"The possibility of a rapid solution to this conflict is extremely remote," a senior government official says. "The guerrillas don't have a realistic negotiating agenda. The government will grant them political guarantees. But sweeping economic and military concessions are out of the question."
Nowhere are the consequences of the stalemate more deadly than in Barrancabermeja, a strategic port of 157,000 people on the banks of the Magdalena River. The city, a center for the country's oil industry, is also the focus of recent attacks by both the guerrillas and the right-wing death squads.
"Barrancabermeja is a synthesis of abnormal situations throughout Colombia," said Horacio Serpa, the government's chief peace negotiator, in an interview before leaving for Mexico. "Guerrillas, paramilitary groups, and common criminals are all there, and all of these forces are uncaged at the moment."
The free-for-all has sent the Barrancabermeja murder rate soaring. An average of one killing a day last year made it Colombia's most violent city after Medellin, home to the cocaine trade.
More than half of the victims during the first two months of this year were from the poorer eastern neighborhoods, where the largely rural-based FARC and ELN enjoy their greatest urban support. Officials attribute much of the violence both to guerrillas murdering suspected Army informants and to death squads killing suspected rebel sympathizers, often with the security forces' help.
Death-squad flyers began circulating last year in Barrancabermeja announcing the start of an extermination campaign against rebel "sympathizers, combatants, activists, and collaborators." The flyers specifically threatened workers in the human rights and attorney general's offices, calling them fronts for the ELN.
The seriousness of the threat became apparent Jan. 29 when Blanca Valero de Duran, secretary for the human rights office's president, was gunned down.
The president, Jorge Gomez Lizarazo, commented last week: "It's a very grave situation because civilians are caught between these two deadly forces."
Hours earlier, guerrillas had bombed gasoline and oil pipelines at three locations outside the city. The attack cost the state oil company Ecopetrol nearly $1 million and shut down the giant oil refinery in Barrancabermeja. The spilled petroleum also polluted drinking supplies for thousands of residents.
The next day, in retaliation, a squad of assassins murdered five individuals, including a representative of the petroleum workers' union, often accused of being infiltrated by guerrillas.
Mr. Gomez and other human rights workers say the government should take drastic action. The No. 1 priority, they say, is improving living conditions in the city's poorest neighborhoods, where open sewers and lack of water are the norm. They criticize Ecopetrol for exploiting the region's petroleum wealth for decades without a concomitant social spending program.
But ultimately, others say, Barrancabermeja's fate is tied to that of the nation as a whole.
"If the country advances toward peace, this city will also advance," says Juan Francisco Sarasti, the city's Roman Catholic bishop.
Government officials say they are determined to keep moving in that direction even if the Mexico talks fail. Mr. Serpa indicated that the administration may be willing to negotiate with more flexible FARC and ELN fronts in certain regions rather than the rebels' national command. Barrancabermeja, however, may not be a good candidate for local dialogue.
"We know that the peace talks will fail and that we must prepare the people for more war," says an ELN commander in the city. "We have fought for 30 years, and if necessary we will fight for another 30 to reach our objective of social justice."