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May 6, 2009

My Girlfriend's Secret Life

chris howe photojournalist

Marilyn's mother and daughter place flowers on her tomb.

Photo Credit: Jason P. Howe

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One morning over toast and eggs a few weeks after the fixer's warning, Marylin casually mentioned that the previous night, she'd killed a woman she'd been hunting for some time. "She told me she'd persuaded a friend to help her decapitate and dismember the woman, and that they'd thrown her head and limbs into different rivers to make the body disappear," Jason says. He put down his knife and fork, unable to eat another mouthful. Feeling nauseated, he realized that something about her story didn't add up—usually the paramilitaries left the corpses of informers on gruesome display to act as a warning to others.

"What had the woman you executed done?" Jason asked her. "Was she a rebel sympathizer?"

"No," she replied. "A friend paid me $300 to get rid of her because she'd been sleeping with my friend's boyfriend."

Jason was horrified.

"This was the breaking point for me," he says. "It was one thing to kill for a cause, no matter how dubious, but quite another to be taking life purely for money. A wave of revulsion hit me."

Jason's immediate instinct was to put some distance between them, but then his cash flow dried up—rebels had blown up a power station, disabling money-transfer services—so he had to move back into Marylin's home. In such a dangerous city where few people could be trusted, it was the only safe place he knew. "It was very uncomfortable because I didn't want to be around her," he says. "But she couldn't understand what had changed, so we argued, and she cried a lot." In some ways, too, he was still conflicted about his feelings for the woman he'd shared so much with, and he couldn't let go just yet. At least, he says, his enduring sexual attraction to her no longer complicated things, since it was impossible for them to be intimate in her family's house.

One day, after yet another argument, a tearful Marylin pulled out her gun and pointed it at Jason's forehead. "Aren't you scared of me?" she screamed at him. "Why aren't you scared of me?" Jason knew there was a possibility that she might kill him, or that her superiors could order her to do so. He knew he had to leave.

PHOTO GALLERY: Marilyn's Life

His final days with Marylin were spent in a futile attempt to understand the killer in her. "I hoped she was going to say she was doing it to earn money to pay for Natalie's schooling or future, something vaguely redeeming like that," he says. Instead, "she just shrugged and said she spent the money on clothes and makeup."

In an expressionless voice, Marylin admitted to being afraid, at least when she began her career as a killer. "The first was very hard, because the person I executed was kneeling down begging not to be killed," she told Jason. "The person was crying, saying, 'Please don't kill me. I have children.' That's why it was difficult and sad. After the killing, you can't talk or eat. You just keep trembling." But the second time, she said, it got a little easier, and by the time she'd killed 23 people, she no longer felt anything at all. She just felt "normal."

"I asked her why she became a paramilitary, and she didn't have a good reason, nor did she have a good reason for why she'd started doing contract killings," Jason says. She told him that she had approached the militias herself to see if she could join up, because she wanted "excitement, and to find out if she had the capacity to kill."

Colombia expert Leech explains that many young people like Marylin who join paramilitary groups are simply desensitized to the impact of violence. "Tragically, young Colombians have lived with conflict their entire lives," he says. "It's the norm for them."

The day Jason said good-bye to Marylin, feeling a mixture of sadness and relief, he couldn't resist one last-ditch attempt to persuade her to give up her cold-blooded killing. "Maybe it wasn't my place to judge, but I told her that she had no excuse for what she did," he says. "There are millions of people in desperate, violent situations all over the world, and most of them don't go around shooting people for a living. Did she really think she was doing any good for Colombia by perpetuating the cycle of violence?" A couple of months later, he received her reply, via e-mail. "I'm sorry for the way I am," she wrote. "Nobody has ever spoken to me the way you did, and it made me think. I want to start a new life, maybe do a nursing course. But I'm afraid the paras will kill me if I try to leave." At the end, she added a plaintive request: "Please help me. You're the only person who can."

Jason was back in Iraq by this time, "photographing three suicide bombings a day." He took a few weeks to write back, but when he did, there was no reply. He tried a different e-mail address, but still no answer. Despite everything, he was still unable to break his forceful bond with Marylin, and he feared that something terrible had happened to her. Compelled to find out, he returned to Colombia in early 2005, a year after he'd left, and took the bus back to Puerto Asís.

When he arrived at the house, Marylin's father opened the door, and Jason knew instantly from the man's crumpled face that Marylin was dead. The two men shared a beer in "emotional silence" next to the hammock in the front yard where Jason and Marylin had lain in each other's arms so many times. Jason felt unbearably sad—sad for Marylin, but also for her victims, and most of all for her daughter, Natalie. What chance would the little girl have in life now? How long before she grew up and fell victim to the same destructive forces that had overtaken her mother?

Later that day, Jason contacted a local woman he knew to find out what had happened. On October 14, 2004, Marylin, then age 25, had been abducted by members of her own group and stoned to death. Her skull was crushed with rocks, and then she was shot, allegedly for being an informer. Jason has no way of knowing if this was the real reason; it could have been so many things, from attempting to start a new life to getting on the wrong side of someone after a contract killing—or even because of her involvement with Jason. He finds it too unsettling to speculate.

Today, in Bangkok, Jason is getting ready to depart for his assignment in Afghanistan, and he is fretting about how he's going to get more than 200 pounds of luggage—including his flak jacket and hard-shelled, bomb-proof suitcases—on the plane without paying any excess fees. He still has no permanent home. Appropriately enough, his assignment there is to document nomads.

He has had a few relationships since Marylin, usually with women who are working in the same danger zones as he is. "I'm attracted to women who lead fascinating lives that interest and inspire me. It's not that I'm looking to replace the excitement I felt with Marylin," he says. "I've just never gone for wallflowers." Still, due to his itinerant lifestyle, his relationships usually don't survive for more than a few months, and, while he accepts that with typical macho stoicism, he confesses that he often chokes up in movies about unfulfilled love and loss, such as The Bridges of Madison County and Atonement. "The emotion has to come out somehow," he says, smiling ruefully.

As for Marylin, Jason quotes from a journal he kept at the time: "I doubt I will ever learn the whole truth. Marylin, like the people she killed, had simply become another casualty in a dirty, forgotten war."

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