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PARAMARIBO, Suriname – At least two of the men died by gunfire. One was beaten to death with a brick. Another was doused with gasoline and set alight. Four were decapitated, two of the bodies seemingly drained of blood.
None of them had a home. Several remain unidentified. And the killer or killers have not been caught.
The unsolved murders of a dozen homeless people over the past eight years haunt the nighttime streets of Suriname's capital, and baffle the nation's police force. No one is sure if the slayings are random, or if there's a ritualistic Ripper of Paramaribo preying on the city's homeless, leaving them with a lingering taste of fear.
"I would never sleep somewhere where I am alone. I'm scared of what might happen to me," said Patrick Chin, a 46-year-old homeless man who said he tries to set up camp on a well-traveled corner near where security guards are posted.
To the outside world, Suriname may be best, if dimly, known as a place where scientists slog through tropical jungles to discover new species of dung beetles and poisonous frogs. But the former Dutch colony is a relatively tranquil place to live. It has its share of crime, but Suriname's homicide rate is among the lowest in South America. Nearly half the country's 560,000 people live in Paramaribo, a city dotted with white clapboard buildings that sprawls around a bend in the muddy Suriname River, near where it empties into the Atlantic.
When the nighttime assaults began with two shootings in February 2006, police suspected shopkeepers were trying to intimidate vagrants to keep them away. But as the attacks continued, they seemed to grow in ferocity, with burnings, batterings and decapitations. In at least two of the murders, an eerie lack of blood at the scene led investigators to suspect the bodies had been purposely drained, perhaps for some sort of ritual.
"It could be they were killed elsewhere and their body was brought back to the spot where they normally slept. But we're also taking into account the possibility that they were killed on that spot and their blood was collected," said police spokesman Humphrey Naarden. He put the body count of brutalized homeless people at 12, but said investigators could not provide a full tally of the slain.
Five homeless people were slain in just nine months in 2006, spreading alarm across the little country.
Concern among the general public faded as the pace of killings slowed. But the deaths have not stopped. The decapitated body of a homeless man was discovered in late September beneath an old concrete bridge over a trash-strewn canal in an industrial neighborhood on the capital's outskirts.
Detectives won't disclose a suspected motive, if they have one. The head of the police force's investigation unit, Inspector John Steinberg, said there is no conclusive evidence the murders are even linked. "There are too many questions still unanswered to make that assumption," he said.
Some people suspect the killings are the work of a lone serial killer. Others theorize it could involve satanic rituals or some wildly corrupted form of Obeah, an Afro-Caribbean religion that involves channeling spiritual forces.
Chandrikapersad Santokhi, an opposition lawmaker who was Suriname's justice minister when the slayings started, believes the killings have "a ritualistic nature."
Lucien Naarden, a former forensic psychologist with the government, agrees, saying the assailant or assailants likely believe they "draw some sort of power" from snuffing out lives.
Police in 2006 formed a task force to try to solve the crimes, but Santokhi said a lack of specialized forensics and crime-scene techniques has impeded the investigations.
They also have had few witnesses, even though most of the killings took place near businesses, marketplaces and landmarks.
In October 2006, a man heading to work said he saw a lone figure dressed like a homeless man attacking another with an axe. When the witness screamed, the killer ran off and appeared to escape in a car. Police at the time said it might have been driven by an accomplice.
Three wealthy teenage boys were detained weeks after the killing, and prosecutors said they acknowledged beating up homeless people, but denied killing any. They were released due to a lack of evidence.
Three months after the ax attack, witnesses saw the stabbing death of 48-year-old Humphrey Charles Brondenstein, who had come to the defense of a fellow homeless man who was being hassled by four men. Police detained four people but they were quickly released.
Deborah Winson, who manages the government's homeless bureau, said that roughly 200 people sleep on Paramaribo's streets each night. Each slaying of a street person sows terror among Paramaribo's poorest citizens and they rush to the government-run shelter, she said. "But their fears fade after a few weeks and they return to their normal routine until the next murder."
David McFadden reported from Kingston, Jamaica. On Twitter: http://twitter.com/dmcfadd