APARTADO, COLOMBIA -- It's only a short walk from the funeral home to the city cemetery, and residents of this dusty town travel the route frequently.

Residents of this banana-growing region along Colombia's Caribbean coast are caught in a cross fire between right-wing death squads, Army soldiers, Marxist guerrillas and criminals. Violence has claimed 200 lives since January.

On a single day last month, three youths died in a criminal assault and two union leaders were assassinated, sparking a week-long strike that ended only after the government promised to investigate.

Analysts said that what is happening here, along the Gulf of Uraba, is happening throughout the nation.

"Uraba is a microcosm of all the different violences in Colombia," said National University sociologist Eduardo Pizarro. "Uraba is what Colombia could become -- generalized anarchy."

Pizarro was one of 10 social scientists appointed by the government to study what has emerged as the central problem of Colombia -- the slaughter of its citizens. There is widespread concern that Colombia is on the threshold of another bloody epoch like the time known as la violencia, when more than 200,000 people died in a decade of killing set off by the assasination of populist leader Jorge Eliecer Gaitan in 1948.

The commission's 300-page report, issued in July, quickly became a best seller following a series of dramatic murders that riveted public attention on the issue of violence.

On Aug. 14, gunmen crashed a jeep through Pedro Valencia's home in Medellin and shot him 23 times in front of his wife and four children. Valencia's name joined the list of more than 450 members of the leftist Patriotic Union (UP) party murdered since the party was launched last year.

Five days later, the bodies of 11 men belonging to a peasant self-defense group created by the Army turned up in the Cauca Valley, victims of an ambush by a another paramilitary group set up by a local police inspector.

And on Aug. 25, a day that rocked Colombia, university professor Dr. Hector Abad and a colleague were shot to death in Medellin as they left for the funeral of another professor murdered that morning. During national student protests against the three deaths, police killed a demonstrator in Bogota.

No one can be certain of the number of casualties of political violence. Estimates of the number of victims last year range from 1,600 to 11,000, but analysts agreed that the rate is rising.

Medellin, a city of 1.5 million, had more than eight homicides a day last year, according to commission statistics. Medellin is the headquarters for Colombia's cocaine kings and the birthplace of a a new kind of killer who has come to symbolize the current wave of violence -- the nameless teen-age assassin.

Criminal organizers recruit street urchins from the slums, train them in the use of guns, give them motorcycles and send them on killings contracted by third parties, according to Antonio Caballero, editor of the weekly news magazine Semana. The price for a death can range from as little as $40 to as much as $8,000, the amount agreed upon for the murder of Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla in 1984, he said.

Although one of Lara Bonilla's young killers was killed and the other was caught, the men behind them were not. As the issue of violence moves to center stage in Colombia's political arena, a single word sums up the question the government of President Virgilio Barco must answer -- who?

There are many theories, but no proof. Some suggested that the killings are the work of guerrillas bent on destabilizing society. Others said military intelligence officers are waging an Argentine-style "dirty war" against the left. Some accused drug traffickers and their hit men of working with one side or the other.

Last year former attorney general Carlos Jimenez charged that security forces had mounted a campaign of "official violence." The human rights group Amnesty International accused authorities of complicity in 600 deaths in the first half of 1986 alone.

Pizarro said elements in the Army have unleashed a clandestine war against the left, but he said he sees the war unfolding against a backdrop of several violent struggles having their roots in regional disputes. Clashes between drug traffickers and government forces may prevail in one zone while in another the dominant conflict is between peasants and Indians battling for farm land, he said.

"The difference between Colombia and El Salvador is that in El Salvador the violence is very clear: it's guerrillas against the government," he said. "In Colombia, there are eight, nine, 10 kinds of violence."

In sheer numbers, street crimes, drug trafficking and personal disputes account for 90 percent of the homicides, according to the commission. But Pizarro and other analysts said the struggle for political power is still at the center of the problem.

Killers have targeted leaders of the leftist Patriotic Union Party, the political arm of Colombia's oldest and largest guerrilla movement, the Soviet-line Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC.

The launching of the Patriotic Union last year was one of the few concrete results of former president Belisario Betancur's effort to draw Colombian guerrillas into peaceful politics. The party was created to run candidates in the 1986 congressional and presidential elections and in Colombia's first mayoral elections, scheduled for March.

"All the candidates of the UP are condemned to death," said Alfredo Vazquez Carrizosa, a former foreign minister who is now chairman of the private, nonpartisan Permanent Committee for the Defense of Human Rights. "The UP is playing a peaceful political role, but they're killing them like they were guerrillas.

"It's undoubtable that a 'dirty war' organization exists," Vazquez said, referring to the secret assassinations of suspected leftists conducted by the Argentine military when it held power. "Nobody can deny it."

Vazquez said the war is aimed at at those who would pry open Colombia's tightly controlled two-party rivalry to allow more players into the political game. The Liberal and Conservative parties have held a monopoly on power for more than a century.

Although the Patriotic Union's presidential candidate won only 4.4 percent of the vote in balloting last year, it was the left's greatest electoral victory in Colombian history. Some regional Liberal and Conservative leaders have expressed fears that the FARC will use its control of many rural regions to elect a large number of Patriotic Union mayoral candidates next year.

In Apartado, an elected Patriotic Union mayor already runs city hall.

The Patriotic Union won a plurality of seats on the city council last year, and by tradition that allowed the party to pick Alba Lucia Lopez for mayor.

Lopez, a lawyer, is credited by businessmen, government officials and labor leaders with running an energetic, honest administration that is more concerned with paving the town's dusty streets than with leftist revolution.

She and her husband, a Patriotic Union congressman, are dedicated to the party, however, and that has made them a target for violence. On the day I interviewed Lopez in Apartado, she was advised by party members in Medellin that two assassins had been contracted to kill her. She took it in stride.

"One sees comrades falling every day, but you have to go forward," she said.

In December, a member of her party, Alonso Macias, was taken out of his house at 5 a.m. and shot. The party said Macias was killed by soldiers, but the military has denied the charge.

Human rights committee chairman Vazquez, a Conservative, favors incorporating the guerrillas into electoral politics. He said he believes it is for this reason his name appeared on a death list turned over to the attorney general's office in August.

Betancur did not require that the FARC lay down its arms when the peace plan was negotiated, a fact bitterly criticized by the military. Although formally in a truce, FARC guerrillas have staged occasional attacks that they said were retaliations for Army violations of the cease-fire.

Retired major general Luis Andrade was the only military man to serve on the government commission on violence. Andrade agreed that there are signs of a clandestine war by some military personnel aimed at Patriotic Union members but said he does not hold the leftist party blameless. Some of its members have emerged directly from the guerrilla movement and may still be engaged in the armed struggle, he said.

Those who subscribe to the "dirty war" theory see great significance in the murder of Abad, 65. Amnesty International has asked the Colombian government to begin an immediate investigation into his death.

Abad was a Liberal Party candidate for mayor of Medellin, but his popular appeal was widespread and nonpartisan. "It's like they killed the little grandfather of us all," one resident said.

Caballero, Vazquez and others said political assassins have moved from murdering those directly linked to the guerrillas, such as rebels amnestied by Betancur and Patriotic Union leaders, to killing nationally known advocates of the right to dissent, like Abad.

"I don't have any proof, but there are so many signs that point to the armed forces that they can't be allowed to continue preventing an investigation," said Caballero.