MEDELLIN, COLOMBIA — "The first two murders didn't really count," says 18-year-old Eduardo Estrada, because he did them with the Imperials, his gang. The third was a drunk who was bothering his mother. He did that job alone.
From the time he was 14, Mr. Estrada's life focused on drugs, robberies, and gang war in Medellin, once Colombia's drug-trafficking capital. Nine months ago he decided to change. "I started to think that maybe someone might come to kill me and get my mother or my little sister. I said, 'No more.' "
With 5,000 homicides last year, Medellin ranks among the world's murder capitals. The city of about 1.6 million serves as battlefield for militias and gangs. The popular image of a Medellin youth is one of a motorcyclist toting a pistol, living the fast life of drugs and robbery and hoping to buy a few nice things for his mother before he dies.
Estrada, like a growing number of his contemporaries, is turning that stereotype on its ear.
Across the city, youth leaders are springing up in impressive numbers. An index of youth groups lists some 600 organizations run by young people. Medellin still has more murders than Bogot, the capital, which is five times bigger, and many of Medellin's youths never get past their teens. But the violence has caused a rebellion of young leaders looking for a better future.
For example, these days you won't find Estrada sitting on the corner with his gang. He's enrolled in a rehabilitation program and hasn't touched drugs or carried a gun for nine months. "When I went back to the barrio my friends noticed the difference. They said, 'Hey bro, you're changing.' And I said, 'Yeah, you know, you can't be living that way all your life. And they support my decision," says Estrada.
Turning the other cheek
"I used to have a big family," says 20-year-old Martin Rodriguez, a leader of Medellin's Red Juvenil, or Youth Net.
Mr. Rodriguez lost a 14-year-old brother to a case of mistaken identity, he says, and the same militia killed his 15-year-old brother, fearing vengeance. Rodriguez himself was 16 at the time and had the opportunity for revenge.
"It's rough, you have this rancor inside you. Some guys from the city's most dangerous gang invited me to go after the guys who did it. But this way we keep killing: You kill my brother so I kill yours. It wasn't what I wanted. My brothers and I always had a different idea."
Rodriguez and a dozen others in Youth Net work in gang peace programs throughout the city. They promote nonviolence and recreational programs in some of Medellin's roughest areas. Rodriguez knows how easily kids in Medellin fall into a life of crime and violence.
"Young people are frustrated because they have no opportunities. Friends I know thought they would do just one cruce [slang for a gang errand, from buying drugs to contract assassination]. But then the cruce comes off a little too well. They live well on the money, and then when it runs out, they do it again," says Rodriguez.
As well as he knows the violence, Rodriguez knows the frustration of the many closed doors for young men in Medellin. He has applied to the National University in Medellin three times with no success. It's the only university that would give him financial aid. The country's private schools remain far beyond his means. He will apply again next year, and in the meantime, he continues with the Youth Net's outreach programs.
"The best ideas come from the young people themselves, not from the experts behind their desks," says Beatrice White, who might consider herself just such an expert. She works for the Colombo-Swiss Presencia Corp., an organization with private funding from Switzerland and Colombia.
Battling legacy of violence
Presencia is one of the oldest programs addressing youth issues in Medellin. The organization lasted through the terrifying years of Pablo Escobar's drug cartel and the early 1990s, when Escobar was in open war with the state. During those years, Escobar was offering several thousand dollars reward to anyone who could prove to have killed a policeman. "It was a sad time above all, and it left the youth with a lot of pain. But perhaps they learned from the experience," says Ms. White.
Ana Rojas works in one of Presencia's most successful projects in the war-scarred barrio of La Iguana. The neighborhood fits into a crack between the dirty Medellin River and the highway. Houses of clay bricks and corrugated tin pile into every open space along one street. The barrio lost many young people during the Escobar years, but now it is gang-free.
Ms. Rojas commutes from another infamous Medellin slum to teach preschool in La Iguana. "You always have the option of one path or the other. Those of us that chose life, we're moving forward," she says.