National Geographic : 2005 Mar
that a contract had been taken out on her life and paid-which means the killers will be very difficult to deter. Two months before I met her, she learned that sicarios had arrived from the cap ital city of Bogota to kill a "tough little lady cop." That's why I'm surprised when after several interviews under high security, Maria suggests that we go to a local mall with her daughters and leave the bodyguards outside. She's tired of prison-like vigilance, she says, and besides, I've asked to meet her daughters. After a series of phone calls, we rendezvous at a table in the food court. Without bodyguards to keep watch, Maria's eyes dart back and forth over my shoulder as if she's watching a tennis match. I think of some thing I've learned but rarely remember: Never sit with your back to a door when speaking to someone who might get shot. Maria leaves us for a few minutes so that her daughters can speak with me privately, but they're shy, and pressing them on the danger of their lives, or their mother's, feels wrong. "We can't ride our bicycles outside anymore," the older one ven tures. Her sister adds, "I'm proud that my mom catches bad guys and makes the city safe." Maria returns to the table. "When my oldest was really little, she said, 'I want to be a fiscal like my mom,'" Maria says with a sad smile, "but now she wants to be a doctor like my sister." I ask Maria what makes her job worth the ulti mate risk. "I believe that if Colombia's ever going to change, people have to be involved," she says. Like many of Medellin's heroes, Maria doesn't look like anyone special. You might even say she's hiding in plain sight. An execution victim (above) adds to the grim toll run up by paramili tary gangs and leftist rebels fighting for control of Medellin's barrios. Today the murder rate is falling as police work to disarm the combatants. Yet streets still brim with desperate children (left) who sniff glue and often die young.