Arts center helps youths in Bogota shun guns, drugs
An arts center, run by a Colombian non-governmental organization, works with former child soldiers – leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitaries – to help them return to civilian life.
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“When they first arrive, I ask them what they want to do with their lives and who they want to be. They often answer: a drug trafficker, a soldier, or policeman. It’s usually someone with a gun and who has status using violence and guns,” said Guillermo Alvarez, an anthropologist who runs a jewellery-making class at the center. “But after several months, many have changed their ideas. Some now tell me they want to run their own businesses.”Skip to next paragraph
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In one room at the cozy youth center, a group of teenage girls and boys wearing glittering makeup and costumes dance to the drum beats of traditional Colombian music, salsa and hip hop.
Colorful murals and posters adorn the walls. One says: “We have a right to play. We don’t want to be part of the war.”
For these teenagers, the center has become a refuge from gang violence. On any given weekend, drug turf wars can claim the lives of up to five people, often young men, in Bogota’s deprived neighborhoods.
Dozens of gangs are believed to run protection rackets and drug-dealing on street corners, tapping into growing local demand for marijuana and crack cocaine.
Gang members prey on jobless teenagers and those looking to escape domestic violence and grinding poverty. They lure potential recruits into a criminal underworld based on false promises of earning a quick buck.
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Rebel groups also target teenagers they hope to use as messengers and informants.
“The conflict is not just in the jungle but in urban areas too. Teenagers living here have a high risk of being recruited by both illegal armed groups and gangs. Often girls face the added risk of teenage pregnancy, prostitution, and sexual abuse,” said Duque.
Child recruitment across Colombia’s major cities has increased in recent years, with 18,000 children caught up in armed groups and criminal gangs across the country, according to a recent report by the ICBF.
Teenagers living in Bogota’s slum neighborhoods say there is constant pressure to join a gang.
“Gang members are at school, in the same class as you. They’re always coming up to you and offering you a job and drugs. They say, ‘You’ll have a great time in our gang. You won’t have to worry about money if you join us.’ They threaten your family and close friends if you don’t join,” said Luis Medina, a participant in the center’s free dance and theater workshops.
“But being here has given me the courage to say no to them and drugs, and make other plans for my life,” said the 17-year-old, who wants to become a musician.
For him, though, gang violence and drugs aren’t the biggest dangers teenagers face.
“The biggest threat we face living here is to lose our dreams and the hope of a better life,” Medina said.
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