Medellin, Colombia: home to the world’s most powerful cocaine cartel until the elimination of Pablo Escobar in December 1993. Car-bomb capital of the western hemisphere. The city of teen-aged hired assassins. This city of two-and-a-half million is Colombia’s industrial powerhouse. Medellin’s working-class foundations are evident, yet it is also an aristocratic city. Old men stroll the streets in suits and fedoras. Bejewelled, exquisitely coiffed, perfumed women wear the latest European fashions.
On a bus taking me to the mountains a school-teacher sits beside me. She’s a hometown booster. "Medellin is great. The best climate, the best people. Not like Bogota, which is just big and crazy." She speaks with pride of the late drug-lord; "Pablo," she calls him familiarly. "The government was out to get him, but the people loved him. When he escaped from jail he never left Antioquia. He knew the people wouldn’t turn on him.
This neighborhood is Barrio Pablo Escobar. He built all these houses for the poor. When Pablo was killed, there were eight full days of grief and observance. Longer than Jesus Christ gets at Easter! Tens of thousands of people lined the route to the cemetery."
Friday night. I push through the crowds celebrating the onset of the weekend. By 7:30, half the male population of Medellin is drunk, careening down the narrow sidewalks or passed out in doorways. The security forces patrol in groups of a dozen or more, in full battle gear, M-16s pointed at passersby. They spreadeagle search young men on streetcorners.
The bus to Santa Fe de Antioquia the next day crawls through the downtown traffic before ascending the hills where hawks circle. Beyond stretch mountains and valleys, laden with the olive-green bushes that are Antioquia’s life-blood.
Coffee arrived early in this century. By 1932 Antioquia was producing half of Colombia’s crop on small, cost-effective family farms. Able to ride out depressions by growing their own food, farmers became a class of fiercely independent peasant entrepreneurs. When the political winds shifted in the 1950s, they would be a target of the terrorist campaign launched by the state and large landowners. Antioquia was one locale of La Violencia, the virtually unreported civil war that killed 300,000 Colombians between 1948 and 1956.
We pull into Santa Fe, founded in 1541. It has thatched-roofs, brick churches, carved window grills, and cobblestones. It’s a peaceful Saturday and I go for a walk. Suddenly, the sound of screams. I round the corner. A man is chasing another, flailing a machete, while his intended victim tries to ward off the blows. Among the onlookers a woman howls, tears streaming down her face, begging for peace.
The machete-wielder is 10 metres away and closing. I run like hell until the battle proceeds away from me. Still the machete flails. The defenseless young man has his wits about him. He spies a shovel protruding from a heap of dirt, grabs it, raises it. There is a metallic clank, and the machete falls to the ground. The young man grabs it and walks away. His attacker watches impotently. The crowd dissipates.
Colombia’s homicide rate is three times higher than that of any other country in the world. In Colombia between 1987 and 1992, there were an average of 77.5 homicides annually per 100,000 people. The countries next on the list-Brazil, Panama, and Mexico-are so far behind they’re not even in the game: 24.6, 22.9, and 20.6 respectively. Colombia’s murder rate is nearly 10 times that of the United States, and almost four times the Colombian level of only 20 years ago. Eighty percent of the victims are male. Three cities-Bogota, Medellin, and Cali-account for over half the deaths. Medellin, with a quarter of Bogota’s population, had virtually the same number of killings.
For every 100 crimes committed in Colombia, only 21 are reported to authorities. Of these, 14 come to trial, and only three end in sentencing. The probability is 97 percent that a delinquent will go unpunished. According to Amnesty International, many acts of violence go unreported for the simple reason that the authorities themselves are the perpetrators or are beholden to them.
But where in Medellin are the corpses? The killings happen mostly in the shantytowns on Medellin’s outskirts. This is the Medellin of lawless roads, where even the security forces fear to tread.
In 1990, Alonso Salazar, a social scientist, published a shocking book, Born to Die in Medellin. It gives oral accounts by the young assassins who hire their services out to drug lords and businessmen, or kill to settle scores with rival gangs. In Colombian cities the drug-and state-related violence of the 1980s was aggravated by the brief presence of guerrilla organizations like the M-19. The guerrillas trained "popular militias" to serve as protectors during the delicate period following peace negotiations with the government. When the peace accords collapsed, the militias remained: well-trained, with stockpiles of arms. "Things got so difficult we had to close the camps and head off into the hills again," an M-19 guerrilla tells Salazar. "Some of the kids…stayed in the city and began to form gangs. They used the military training we’d given them for their own purposes."
Foreign weapons and mercenaries, particularly from Israel, flooded in around the same time, increasing the scale of the killing. "Self-defence committees" arose to assassinate the assassins and bring "law and order" back to the streets. In 1989, 70 percent of homicides in Medellin targeted 14-to-20-year-olds.
I’ve killed 13 people personally," a 21-year-old tells Salazar. "If I die now, I’ll die happy. Killing is our business. We don’t care who we have to give it to, we know it has to be done, that’s all there is to it. Whoever it may be: I have no allegiances."
There is the theme of the Absent Father. The elimination or absconding of males lies at the core of family breakdown, and has several results. The first is a pathological mother-worship: "You only have one mother, but any son of a bitch can be a father," runs the saying in Medellin. The cult of the mother brings greater respect for female life than male-hence those wildly disproportionate casualty rates. "If one of your relatives gets killed, you go out and get the bastard who did it, or one of his family; but we never touch women."
The Absent Father motif also feeds into an extreme machismo that is tantamount to gender suicide. From Salazar’s book: "`It’s hard to find a boyfriend these days, there aren’t many men left,’ a young girl jokes, putting curlers in her hair."
Gang life allows a youth to lead a briefly opulent existence, imitating the films and T.V. shows gang members watch devotedly-studying Rambo movies and old episodes of The A-Team for everything from fashion tips to military strategy. "Lots of 18-year-old kids round here have luxury flats in E1 Poblado (a wealthy suburb), farms, cars, motor bikes," says one Medellin priest. "The only problem is that very few of them live beyond 20 to enjoy it."
Patrick Vercoutere is a 34-year-old Belgian who spent his youth in state-run institutions. He was seized from his parents on grounds of poverty, domestic violence, and his own delinquencies. He reformed, moved on to study social work, then spent eight years as an independent businessman. Profitable years, apparently: "I had my Porsche, my Maserati, my houses"-houses, plural.
In 1993 he took the standard gringo trail through South America and realized there was more to life than making money. "Not everyone can be great," he says, "but anyone can be good." He talked to the urban street kids who sniff glue and smoke cocaine paste. Deciding there was something he might do with them, he returned to Belgium, sold everything, and flew back to Cartagena to buy the Hotel Viena and work with street kids.
Why a hotel? You can meet with people more intensively than in a pizzeria, say. You can sensitize travelers. Traveling should be more than just seeing the outside. Cartagena is the heart of the Colombian tourist industry. Perhaps travelers will take this project back to their own countries and work for change.
It made sense to start in Cartagena, because there are only about a hundred street kids, while Bogota has about 15,000. Here you can get to know them all personally."
Only one institute-the Colombian Institute of Family Health-deals with the problem of street kids. "And they’re paperwork people," Patrick says. "I don’t want to criticize them, but they’re bureaucrats."
The hotel is stage one of a larger plan. "Next we want to open a house to offer a place to every street kid under 14 in this city-that’s about 40 kids in all. They’ll have beds, showers, medical attention, a place to eat, and somewhere to talk with adults in a normal way. They have no effective role models."
There will be limits to the hospitality. "They can stay at the house only from 8 p.m. to 10 a.m. up to maybe three months. Then we’ll see if we can get them back together with their families, or find another family for them. That’s stage three of the project: returning them to a normal life. We’ve already begun to do this, though we’re still raising funds for the house." The emphasis on the under-14s arose from hard experience. "Over that age, it gets difficult to change their ways."
Why do children take to the streets in the first place?
You have to understand the culture here," Patrick explains. "Men commonly have children by several different women. A taxi driver, when he’s finished his day’s work, will go home to his wife but in the evening he’ll make a couple of stops at other women’s houses. And contraceptives aren’t standard equipment.
Street kids commonly say that they’re out of the house `because I was fighting with my brother or sister, and it was always made out to be my fault.’ Usually the `brother or sister’ they’re scrapping with has a different father. The man in the household favors the kids that belong to him. To the other kids in the family, he says, `You. Get out.’
The second most common explanation is violence, the notion of `mano dura’-the heavy hand. To discipline children, especially boys, men beat the hell out of them."
Then there’s the poverty. "Take Enrique, one of the boys here. I’ve visited his house. His mother works cleaning clothes, earning 50 cents for four hours’ work. She’s six months behind in her rent payments. So one day she says to Enrique, `I can’t feed you today. Go out and find your own food.’ Enrique goes out onto the street, finds nothing, comes back. Next day he goes out again. After a week, he spends his first night on the street. From that point, there’s no turning back.
Then his group decides to travel together. All kids that age are adventurous. They hitch rides in trucks-first day trips, then months, then months become years. It’s an exciting life. They have liberty, friendship, and for the difficult moments-glue. A bottle costs 300 pesos, and there’s no law against selling or using it. You sniff to forget-that you were gangraped on the street, maybe, or that your best friend was killed.
The glue retards their growth, so 14-year-olds look nine or 10. You can’t get them off it by persuasion, but only by changing their situation. They didn’t use glue when they had a family. And when they have one again, not only do they stop sniffing but they’ll deny they were ever on glue."
The ratio on the street is about five boys for every girl. "A girl is not as likely to be a disruptive presence in the family. A boy will be clobbered when a girl will just be chastised. If a family is too poor to support all the children, the one who gets expelled will be a boy. If a girl does land on the street, she’s more likely to be taken in quickly by another family-often a good, wealthy family. They won’t take in boys, and if they do, the boys are likely to rebel. If a girl leaves home at an older age, 13 or 14, she’ll probably get into prostitution. Or maybe she has a boyfriend on the street. She gets pregnant by him, and stays on the street with her boyfriend and her child."
Galit, a young Israeli woman with journalistic aspirations, has been following the conversation in the Hotel Viena’s lounge. "What about getting these kids adopted by people overseas?" she asks. "Isn’t it better than the life they’re leading now?"
Patrick shakes his head. "Co-lombians are proud. Why do you think the authorities reacted with such force one week ago, when they heard I was keeping two street kids here? [Foreign travellers at the Viena had told me of the midnight raid by police and the Colombian Institute of Family Health.] Because I’m a foreigner. They thought I might be pandering the children to foreign pedophiles, or taking their eyes out to sell on the international organ-transplant market. That happens. You can go to Leticia (a city in southeast Colombia) and see nine-year-olds wandering around with empty sockets. Colombians don’t want to see their kids sold to the highest bidder overseas. Forget that. The only way to change this situation is here, through education over two generations."
Mentioning the raid by the police and the Institute of Family Health, Patrick grimaces. "A big mistake on my part. I didn’t bother to formally notify the Institute. But they imagined a black picture about what might be happening here. So I’ll play it by the book in the future."
Adam Jones is a PhD student in Political Science at UBC. He is writing a book to be titled Guns and Orchids: A Journey through Colombia.