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Colombia Shaken by Archbishop's Slaying - 2002-03-17


Despite 38 years of war in Colombia, Saturdays' murder of a Catholic Archbishop was the first time a high-ranking church leader has been assassinated. The killing has shaken Colombians and many people fear the country is sliding into a very dark period of unbridled violence. Archbishop Isaias Duarte was a high-profile religious leader, known for his sharp criticism of both the violence and corruption in Colombia. He had worked in some of the most blood-soaked regions of the country, denouncing the brutality of both left-wing rebels and right-wing paramilitary groups. When left-wing guerrillas kidnapped an entire church congregation three years ago, Archbishop Duarte helped negotiate the release of many of the hostages.

Monseigneur Duarte was like a father to us, explained one woman, whose family was among the hostages. He gave us the strength we needed to survive it, now, she said, we feel like orphans.

It is still unclear who is behind the murder. Two young men walked up to the 63-year-old archbishop just as he left a church where he had given a wedding mass Saturday night in Cali, the third-largest city in Colombia. The assassins shot him three times and escaped on a motorcycle. Almost immediately the police identified left-wing rebels as the probable culprits, although drug traffickers may also be involved. The archbishop recently spoke out about the problem of drug profits being used to finance the election campaigns of several members of Congress.

Colombia's president Andres Pastrana has offered a $500,000 reward for information leading to the capture of the assassins. And in the city of Cali, the mayor has declared three days of mourning. The assassination has frightened many Colombians, particularly because the Catholic church has, up until now, been the one refuge in Colombia from the violence.

Presidential candidate Lucho Garzon says the assassination signifies that Colombia is entering a dark tunnel, that has no exit.

Many Colombians share his fear.

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