FREDDY RODRIGUEZ smiles widely when he admits that he'd rather play soccer than be in school. ``I love soccer, but I don't love school,'' says the tall high school senior. ``I play soccer every weekend and sometimes after school.'' School gets out at 12:15 and Freddy usually spends his afternoons at home watching TV or sleeping. When asked why he doesn't play soccer every day after school, Freddy pauses and smiles again, ``I don't know, I guess no one organizes the games.''
How the millions of Colombian teen-agers spend their out-of-school hours is of prime concern to the country's educational authorities. Long known as the country of origin for marijuana and cocaine smuggled to the United States, this South American nation now finds itself suffering from a serious drug problem of its own.
In its first attempt at combatting the growing problem, the Colombian government has concentrated on creating extracurricular activities for high school students.
``In a society where drugs are becoming more prevalent, teen-agers who have nothing to do will be more likely to take drugs than those who participate in a full range of activities,'' says Angela Escallion, an education ministry official working on a program that was launched two years ago, called ``Creative Use of Free Time.''
Government officials say they don't expect the drug problem to be solved overnight, admitting that the program was adopted in part because of its low cost. The budget is $2 million for two years. But critics say that with so few resources, the program is bound to fail and have called on the government to target drug use more directly.
The drug problem began in the early 1980s when international drug traffickers in Colombia, who supply at least 75 percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States, began dumping the drug's main ingredient, coca, onto the local market because overproduction had caused prices to drop. The coca was then used to make a highly addictive and dangerous drug called bazuco.
Bazuco use has grown rapidly among the middle class and wealthy in the past year, with the health ministry estimating that 300,000 to 500,000 of the country's 28 million residents smoke the drug regularly. They add that bazuco contains residues of leaded gasoline, sulphuric acid, and kerosene, substances associated with serious brain, liver, and lung damage.
The extracurricular activities program - which was undertaken with the United Nations fund for drug abuse control - aims to involve 800,000 of Colombia's 5 million teen-agers by the end of this year.
There are a number of reasons why few after-school programs have been available to Colombia's public high school students. One is that, until recently, most students stayed at home after school under their mothers' watchful eyes. But with the liberalization of social norms and the country's increasing economic problems, many women have joined the work force in the past 10 years, leaving millions of children unsupervised.
Another reason is that neither the Colombian government nor its citizens have placed a high priority on education. Only 15 percent of children attend kindergarten and only 44 percent graduate from high school.
The structure of Colombia's school system also makes it difficult to offer extracurricular activities. Most schools have two separate sessions, one from 6:45 to 12:15 in the morning and the other from 12:30 to 6 in the evening, so school grounds and classrooms are in constant use.
High school students in Bogot'a welcome the program. Adrianna Gonz'alez, a junior at Camilo Torres high school in downtown Bogot'a, would like to ``play basketball, take dance, or swim.''
Like many other public schools, Camilo Torres, a rambling three-story structure with 2,000 students in the morning and 2,000 more in the afternoon, offered no extracurricular activities before this program was initiated.
The effort to create sports teams, dance clubs, or theater groups - and thus reduce the temptation to consume drugs - is plagued by the same problems responsible for there being few activities today.
The tight budget has forced the program to be highly decentralized, allowing local school authorities to disregard it. The program also has few funds to hire teachers or outside instructors to supervise the extracurricular activities.
Still, school officials say they are optimistic that they can tackle the drug problem by offering after-school alternatives for high school students.
``We'll have to overcome many obstacles, but I think we can create a successful program,'' says Isabel Escobar de Covelli, principal at August'in Nieto Cabellero High School in Bogot'a. ``We Colombians are very resourceful people.''