MEDELLIN, COLOMBIA -- High in the slums that climb the steep hills surrounding the city known as the cocaine capital of the world, where houses are built almost on top of each other, 17-year-old Jimy tried to explain why boys in his neighborhood hired themselves out as assassins.

In Villa del Socorro, one of the most violent slums of the city with the highest murder rate in the world, he said there is little choice.

"We have no jobs and nothing to do, but we have to bring money home," he said. "We hear that they will pay so much to kill so and so, and more than one of us has had to do that."

"With the money you can buy motorcycles and the clothes with the right labels," Jimy said, staring at the ground. "Then girls will look at you. Without that, you are nothing." Like others in his group, Jimy wore braided necklaces and bracelets with hanging plastic images of the Virgin Mary for protection.

Sociologists call it "the culture of death," the combination of economic and social factors that, when mixed with the fast money of cocaine trafficking, turned Medellin into the cocaine and murder capital of the world, with teenage boys as the foot soldiers.

At the height of the drug war, from March to June, Medellin, a city of 1.6 million people 140 miles northwest of the capital, Bogota, averaged 40 murders a day. Since July 27, when the cocaine barons, who call themselves the "Extraditables," declared a unilateral truce, Medellin has been living in relative, but deceptive, peace.

The murder rate has dropped to about 12 a day, still chilling but about what it was before the war began 13 months ago.

Most of the dead are unidentified males 15 to 24 years old -- killed by rival drug gangs, police seeking revenge for the killing of other policemen or in personal vendettas. Victims include more than 200 policemen, a senator, judges, journalists and other public figures.

The phenomenon of teenage guns for hire, called sicarios, has spawned a whole new academic field of study, "violentology."

Gen. Harold Bedoya, military commander for the Medellin area, said in an interview that by January, authorities had identifed 120 bands of sicarios and had the names of about 2,000 hit men.

In exchange for assassinations, the boys get motorcycles, guns and money -- keys to prestige and power for their normally short lives.

"These boys . . . are people without a future, which makes them completely skeptical about life," says a soon-to-be-published study written by two Catholic priests who have worked in the slums for years. "The fear of dying young does not exist in these people."

People from the region have developed a reputation as the hardest working in the country. They often measure their worth in terms of material possessions. While they are extremely religious, their prayers to the Virgin Mary are often for material, not spiritual, well-being.

"People are taught to make money, legally if they can, but illegally if they have to," said a sociologist at a local university. "This helps explain why people are willing to work in a business where you kill people. The cultural conditions allowed it."

In the 1950s and 1960s, Medellin grew into the booming industrial center of the nation, producing textiles, construction materials and other goods. With the boom came massive migration from rural areas. But in the late 1970s, the textile industry crashed, while the flood of rural migrants continued to expand the slums ringing the city, plunging Medellin into crisis.

At the same time, large-scale cocaine trafficking was just begining; it needed a work force and a way to recycle the money flowing in.

Drug cartel leader Pablo Escobar and others poured money into the city by building luxury apartments as well as disco and entertainment centers. They became role models as hard-working entrepreneurs, the study said.

"Within drug trafficking, it became necessary to kill anyone who got in the way of the business," the study said.

In the slums, it is difficult to convince the people that there is a viable alternative.

Jimy and others from the neighborhood met in a bullet-pocked church recently with Maria Emma Mejia, the presidential counselor for Medellin, a job recently created by President Cesar Gavira, to discuss ways to end the violence.

With the help of a local priest and social worker, some had taken the first step on their own several months ago, working out an informal cease-fire among the three main gangs in the area, involving about 300 boys. The daily appearance of bodies on the streets stopped. But after several months of effort, the only progress toward creating legitimate work for the young men was a donation of two machines for making cement blocks -- and the machines do not work.

While the government talked of the necessity of feasibility studies, the youths wanted to lodge complaints of police brutality and demanded immediate aid.

"The boys are losing interest, and more than 100 have already gone back to their old lives," said Elkin Ramirez, a social worker in Villa del Socorro. "We have a momentary peace, but without jobs and education, we will lose them all. We need help now, not studies."