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02/18/2011 02:36 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Colombia Drug Gangs Overtake Villages As Families Flee

MONTELIBANO, Colombia -- On a November morning, several drug runners sat down at a bar in the quiet hamlet of El Palmar. They had told the bar's owner, Pedro Tapias, who doubled as an operator of the town's boat, not to allow river crossings after 6 p.m.

The armed men demanded music and beer, said several residents. Shortly after 3 p.m., they got up, and pumped Tapias with no fewer than 13 bullets. Then, they slit his throat, turned up the music, locked the door and left town. The song played on. It was a vallenato -- a traditional ballad often about loss and longing.

The next day, Tapias' wife and 16 other families fled. In three months, El Palmar had lost a quarter of its population. "This was a big village, but now many houses are alone," said Marelis Tapias Lopez, a niece of the murdered boat operator.

Across the northern department of Cordoba, residents are leaving en masse as drug gangs murder villagers and issue death threats. Drug violence is growing across the country, and has reached particularly alarming levels in Cordoba.

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