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Drug traffickers suspected in Colombia archbishop's slaying

Updated:
CALI, Colombia (AP) _ Days before this month's legislative elections, the late Archbishop Isaias Duarte claimed some candidates had received campaign money from drug lords.

Even though the 63-year-old archbishop of Cali did not name names, authorities believed his information about the ``narcos'' was explosive enough to put his life in danger.

On Saturday, those fears were realized when Duarte was gunned down outside the Buen Pastor church, where he had just presided over a group wedding in a working-class neighborhood. The two gunmen escaped. No one has claimed responsibility.

``The first hypothesis points to hot money of drug traffickers and their relationship with subversives because of the recent statements the archbishop made,'' Attorney General Luis Camilo Osorio said.

Osorio said leftist rebels, also called ``subversives,'' have been financing their 38-year war against the government by producing cocaine, which then is exported to the United States and beyond by traffickers.

The Rev. German Robledo, a top church official in Cali, said Duarte made his allegations after parish priests showed him evidence that at least three drug trafficking organizations in the area were buying votes and financing candidates.

The groups included traffickers based in the northern part of Valle de Cauca state, of which Cali is the capital, as well as the western port of Buenaventura and the center of the state, Robledo added.

``We presume this was the work of drug traffickers,'' he said.

Duarte also was a tough critic of leftist rebels and even had excommunicated them, leading many Cali residents to believe guerrillas were behind the killing. He also denounced a brutal rightist paramilitary group during an earlier posting in a conflictive northern region known as Uraba.

President Andres Pastrana, who visited Cali on Sunday, announced a $434,000 reward for information on the triggermen or those who ordered the assassination.

Two gunmen, police sketches of whom were shown Sunday, repeatedly shot Duarte as he emerged from the lime-green church. He collapsed 50 feet from the front door. A bloodstained patch of dirt has been covered with a wooden cross and bouquets of flowers.

Duarte was a beloved man in Cali, where thousands paid their respects Sunday by filing past the bishop's open wood casket. Dressed in white vestments, Duarte's body was laid out in an open wooden casket flanked by white-helmeted military police and illuminated by candles in the cool, dark cathedral.

``This city is in pain,'' said Humberto Rodriguez, a retired electrician.

Pope John Paul II named Duarte archbishop in Cali, 185 miles southwest of Bogota, the capital, in August 1995.

The pontiff said Sunday that the cleric had ``paid the highest price'' for defending human life and opposing violence.

``I urge Colombians once again to follow the way of dialogue, excluding all types of violence, blackmail and kidnapping of people and to firmly commit themselves to what are the true roads of peace,'' the pope said at St. Peter's Square in the Vatican.

Cali's mayor, Jhon Maro Rodriguez, declared three days of mourning and scheduled a citywide moment of silence and candlelight vigil for Monday.

Sister Gloria Ocampo, who attended an early morning Mass in the cathedral, described Duarte as a champion of the poor who built dozens of schools during his seven years as archbishop of Colombia's third-largest city. She said Duarte's frankness had made him martyr.

``He was a very sincere person who talked without considering the consequences,'' she said. ``He criticized the drug traffickers, the guerrillas and the paramilitaries _ everybody who was against peace.''

Colombia's civil war pits the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the National Liberation Army, or ELN, against the government's armed forces and an illegal right-wing paramilitary group. About 3,500 people _ most of them civilians _ are killed annually.

Paramilitary leader Carlos Castano said in a recent biography that he considered the archbishop ``a friend.'' Duarte reportedly was nervous about that description because he believed it could make him a target.

The death of Duarte, the highest-ranking Catholic clergyman killed during decades of violence in the South American county, evoked the memories of other Latin American Roman Catholic leaders who were assassinated.

El Salvador Archbishop Oscar Romero, shot by a sniper in 1980, had decried the brutality of the country's military during its civil war.

Guatemalan Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi was bludgeoned to death in 1998 after accusing the military of human rights abuses during its civil war.

In Mexico, drug traffickers killed Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo in 1993.

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