Jorge Montoya remembers killing his first man, when he wasn't yet a teenager. But now, two decades later, he finds it hard to count the rest.
"I don't know how many people I've killed," Mr. Montoya says. "But there were a lot of them." As a leading member of the 40-strong La Machaca gang, he lived in the eye of the whirlwind for some 20 years.
His story is all too common in the sprawling ghettos of north Medellin, where power lies in the hands of heavily armed street gangs, and the most common cause of death for young men is homicide.
But now Montoya wants to walk away from the violence with the help of an ambitious program that encourages gang members to make peace in one of the world's most violent cities. If he succeeds, he will join a growing number of former gang members who have taken jobs and rehabilitated as a result of the city's Peace and Coexistence Project.
Last year, more than 4,000 people were murdered in Medellin, a city of 2 million. Shocking as it was, officials greeted the statistic as a minor victory. Ten years ago the death rate was twice as high.
Since 1995, the Peace and Coexistence project has brokered 150 local peace pacts between the warring gangs, or combos.
Thanks to the mediation program, La Machaca signed a truce with local rivals and opened a candlemaking workshop.
It was the first time many of the members had received a legal income.
In the 1980s, cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar made the city his personal fiefdom, waging a campaign of terror against the Colombian state. His foot soldiers were the teenage gunmen known as pistolocos, or crazyguns, whom he paid to kill business rivals, politicians, and law officers.
Escobar himself was eventually gunned down by police agents in 1993, but by then, the violence had gained its own momentum, and the pistolocos went freelance. Now some 300 armed gangs battle to dominate local drug networks and extortion rackets.
At 10, Jorge was already smuggling weapons and acting as a gang lookout. By 16, he was a full gang member, involved in street assaults, armed robberies, and even contract killings.
"We had plenty of money, nice clothes, and fast cars," he says. But by the time Peace and Coexistence workers started working with the gang in 1997, Jorge had also lost two brothers and countless friends. "They started asking why we were killing each other, and the truth is we didn't really know," he says.
Unlike some US antigang efforts, which rely on judicial measures such as curfews and banning orders, the Medellin project depends on cooperation with the gangs. "You can't stop a war with bullets and authoritarian measures. There has to be dialogue," says project coordinator Luis Guillermo Pardo, an ex-guerrilla.
Once a gang signs a nonaggression pact, Mr. Pardo's city-funded group provides technical advice to help the youths set up small businesses and cooperatives, like La Machaca's candle store. Local trade associations have pledged seed money toward a string of community stores and bus-maintenance workshops.
But critics of the scheme - including social workers and city cops - warn that the peace pacts often become alliances as the gangs draw up new lines of battle.
"Often they just agree to attack a different group," says Martha Gonzalez, who works with the Roman Catholic Church.
But Pardo says the alternative - asking gang members to turn in their weapons altogether - is simply unrealistic. Previous attempts to demobilize gangs and militias failed when the gunmen were unable to find work.
"When [the gang members] have started a new life, when they have training and a legal job - that's the moment to disarm, not before. We don't want history to repeat itself," Pardo says.
Jorge Montoya still wears a revolver in his waistband, and admits that many of his friends continue to rob and steal. "Until we see concrete benefits, people won't change.... But they'd think less about robbery and drugs if they had jobs," he says.
According to Luciano Sanin of the Medellin-based human rights group IPC, projects that focus on the gang members alone ignore the wider context of poverty and social exclusion which allowed the gangs to form. "You make peace with a combo, but 10 days later another one appears, because the social, economic, and cultural conditions haven't changed," he says.
Traditionally the powerhouse of Colombian industry, Medellin's economy has declined steadily over recent decades, while the city has absorbed waves of refugees fleeing war-torn rural areas. Unemployment hovers around 20 percent and some 80,000 young men are neither employed nor at school.
"Many projects concentrate on the 10,000 young men who belong to gangs, but we need to target the 80,000 who are at risk," says Mr. Sanin.
There may well be an element of pragmatism in the existing strategy. In a country awash with illegal firearms, Colombia's overstretched law-enforcement agencies can only dream of the community policing and gun-control programs that have succeeded in some US cities.
And, says Pardo, any peace process must begin with the people making war.
"We have a chance to prevent a new generation growing up in the conflict - but if we do nothing about it, the violence will just keep recycling itself. We have two choices: dialogue or war."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor