What is left of this ghost town is being picked clean by scavengers. A word has been coined for them: valancheros, or "the avalanche people."

Coming from towns across Colombia, they spend nights as well as days stripping cars and machinery and digging up appliances, canisters of insecticides, cylinders of gas -- whatever can be salvaged, dusted off and sold to receptive junk dealers.

Residents of Armero were among the most prosperous in the region, and some were known to keep cash hidden in strongboxes. To unearth one of these private treasures is a prize find for a valanchero. Several jimmied metal boxes, now empty, can be seen among the ruins.

Rafael Ruiz, the Army major designated mayor of Armero after the catastrophe, said he is powerless to control the stealing. A shoot-to-kill order against the scavengers that he issued in November was quickly rescinded under instructions from Bogota authorities. The 120 soldiers and 36 police under his command, said Ruiz, are not enough to maintain a protective cordon.

Army patrols sometimes check traffic passing through Armero. But many paths lead in and out of the buried town. Giant signs at the north and south entrances of Armero warn travelers that roaming the area without written authorization is prohibited and violators will be detained. But the notices seem to have little deterrent effect.

Plans to make Armero into a national park have not moved beyond the drawing board. "The only thing that's happening there is that anyone can go in and do what they want," said Alberto Donadio, an investigative reporter for the Bogota daily El Tiempo, which ran a series in February critical of the recovery effort. "There has been a free-for-all in Armero."

Carlos Alape, 23, a drifter from Venadillo, was seen with two friends searching Armero's remains for aluminum sheets. He folded the pieces he found, stuffing them into a large cloth sack. Alape, shirtless in the heat, said he would receive 40 pesos (about 25 cents) from a local dealer for each kilogram of aluminum scrap.

Did he feel guilty about taking from the dead? "No one is using this stuff anyway," he shrugged.