MEDELLIN, COLOMBIA — It's a hot Sunday afternoon in Medellin, once home to a world cocaine cartel and still the murder capital of Colombia.
A group of young people gather in a dusty soccer field on a hillside slum. In this neighborhood, that used to mean trouble. But there are no threats, no trash-talking in the huddle. "Let's stress sportsmanship, fair play," says coach Jon Jairo Baus. Laughter erupts as he adds, "On and off the field."
The young players are holding a pregame dialogue, as they do each Sunday. Their uniforms identify them as part of Soccer for Peace, a group that aims to teach peace and conflict resolution through sports. Across Medellin's gang-ridden slums, there are 300 teams who wear Soccer for Peace uniforms. On any weekend there are 60 games. There hasn't been a violent incident during a game since the program began in 1996.
"This idea will go all over the world," founder Jrgen Griesbeck says. "There's potential [for this to work] in any urban setting."
"Soccer for Peace changed my life 100 percent," says Mr. Baus, who plays for and coaches a team in San Blas. Before he started playing, he spent most of his time with a group of young toughs, hanging out on street corners and pulling off small-time robberies.
"I'd probably still be with them, living off crime," says Baus.
Soccer for Peace is one of the most successful of many antiviolence organizations in this war-torn city of 1.5 million, which has between 4,000 and 5,000 murders each year.
When he first came to Colombia, Mr. Griesbeck, a German graduate student, observed that in Medellin, where gang rivalries pushed people apart, one thing brought them all together: soccer.
"Before getting here I'd never thought of soccer as a tool for peace. In Medellin, it's obvious," he says.
Despite the fact that the infamous Medellin drug cartel is for the most part defunct, turf wars between gangs still take a high toll on the city's young men. In 1996, for example 1,300 males between the ages of 9 and 19 were killed.
In some of the hillsides, young men know to the inch the boundaries of their territory and fear to cross the street into another gang's area. Soccer for Peace works to change that.
"We have kids who haven't left their barrios for 10 years - we're getting them out," says Oscar Gomez, one of the program's directors.
Mr. Gomez mentions one case of a 10-year feud in the barrio known as Castillo - the hometown of Colombia's famous long-haired goalie Rene Higuita. Over a decade, two gangs had logged some 500 casualties in a war to control Castillo.
Last summer, Soccer for Peace managed to arrange a parley of the gangs in a neutral barrio. After three months of negotiation, the gangs who had been shooting bullets at one another for years tried shooting balls at soccer nets instead. There hasn't been a gang murder for the last six months in Castillo, Gomez reports with a smile.
People interviewed in the neighborhoods were unanimous in their approval for the organization. Also, Francisco Maturano, the father of modern Colombian soccer, was so impressed he agreed to be honorary director of the program.
Each game is a workshop on getting along peacefully. Before each game the players huddle to agree on the rules. During play, all disputes must be settled between the players. There are no referees, so any disagreement unsolved after two minutes is dealt with by a discussion through an arbitrator.
At the end of the game there is another huddle to discuss what lessons have been learned. The teams get three points for winning the game, two points for a tie, and one point for a loss. Up to an additional three points are awarded to each side for good sportsmanship and attitude. "There's no trophy [for winning]," Griesbeck says. "The prize is peace in the city."
It isn't only the young getting into the game - Griesbeck says the oldest player is a woman of 75. Each team has a requisite number of female players, and the first goal in a game must be scored by a girl. In fact, girls score about 60 percent of all goals. This teaches cooperation, and Griesbeck believes it's an important experience for the boys.
Medellin holds a sad place in world soccer history. In 1994, Colombia's promising national team was knocked out of the World Cup competition when a player from Medellin, Andres Escobar - no relation to the drug lord - accidentally scored on his own net. On his return, he was shot to death in a barroom argument.
While investigation suggests Mr. Escobar was simply another victim of Medellin's constant violence, headlines across the world announced that he had been killed for the mistake he made.
"We want to counteract the legend of Andres Escobar," says Griesbeck. He hopes to persuade the Colombian national team to allow a Soccer for Peace team to enter the stadium with them in this summer's World Cup games in France.