'Hope I die before I get old', taunted The Who's yoof anthem 'My Generation'. With an average life expectancy of 22 years, the teenage contract killers interviewed by Alonso Salazar have no worries about that. 'It's hard to find a boyfriend these days,' comments a girl, 'there aren't many men left.' In 1986, most victims of violent death in Medellin, the Manchester of Colombia, were in their late thirties; by 1990, they were aged between 14 and 20. At least 190 gangs of contract killers, involving more than 3,000 members, operate in the poverty-ridden north- eastern district of the city. The cost of a killing varies between pounds 1,000 and pounds 5,000, depending on the status of the victim. In a society where the average monthly income for a family is less than pounds 100 and where 'the only law you can depend on is the law of gravity', the gangs have no difficulty in finding replacement mini-Uzi fodder.
But as Salazar points out, 'the young are drawn to a gang not just for economic reasons but because it offers them a social role that gives them identity and cohesion'. Thus, despite the fact that the teenagers are fastidious consumers with high brandname-awareness - in Medellin, Nike running shoes are to kill for - the cumulative effect of reading their testimonies is of listening to an ancient collective voice recounting immemorial rituals. 'We pray to the Old Man and to the Virgin, but mostly to the Virgin because she is the Mother of God and a mother is the most sacred thing there is. You only have one mother - your father could be any bastard.' Worshipping a permissive female deity who forgives everything, even murder, ensures that the gang's internal ethos can remain rigidly and primitively macho. Their male role models are the legendary heroes whose mythic exploits remain a continuing inspiration: 'We learn a lot from films. We get videos of people like Chuck Norris, Black Cobra, Commando or Stallone, and watch how they handle their weapons, how they cover each other, how they get away. We watch the films and discuss tactics.'
The fate of those gang members who don't get shot by the opposition or by neighbourhood vigilantes is arguably worse than death: a term in Bellavista prison, built to hold 800, currently home to 3,000, where the warders went on strike because the inmates were better armed than they were, and 40 prisoners were injured by a grenade which the mother of a rival gang member had smuggled past the guards in her vagina. Having read prisoners' accounts of life in the 'University of Evil', the question is not how the drug baron Pablo Escobar managed to escape recently, but why he chose to stay as long as he did. Perhaps he needed a rest. As one inmate of Bellavista puts it, describing another break-out: 'They escaped all right, but they're all dead now. It may be dangerous in here, but it's no picnic outside either.'