Group aims to rescue Colombian youth from lure of drugs, guerrillas

In New York City neighborhoods, there is a battle to keep young New Yorkers out of the grasp of drugs like crack. Mayor Edward Koch has asked for tougher sanctions against drug-source countries like Colombia as part of this battle. Mayor Koch has advocated cutting foreign aid to Colombia. He has also said he would support requests by the Colombian government to send United States military personnel to bomb drug traffickers or to send tanks into Medell'in, the center of cocaine cartels.

Colombians were very interested to hear the mayor's comments, made during a visit in April by Andres Pastrana, the new mayor of Bogot'a, says Jairo Arboleda. Dr. Arboleda is director of programs in Colombia for the private voluntary organization Save the Children.

Most Colombians were outraged at the mayor's suggestions, he says.

``That's like saying you should bomb New York City to get rid of crack,'' Arboleda says, pointing out that Medell'in is a city of 1.5 million people. ``It becomes difficult with those kinds of statements to discuss the issues. This has to be looked at as an international issue.''

In Colombia, too, young people come under the influence of the lucrative illegal drug cartels that are major suppliers to the American market. In addition, they feel the pull of guerrilla movements that feed on the discontent of rural youth with limited opportunities. So Colombia is waging its own battle to bring a better life to its young people.

Save the Children, which is headquartered near New York in Westport, Conn., is beginning a new program in Colombia aimed at children who have finished elementary school, usually around age 12.

``The economy is not strong enough to take in those 60 to 70 percent of the boys and girls that for financial [reasons] are not allowed to continue school,'' Arboleda says. As a result, these children form a fertile recruitment ground for illegal drug activities or to enlarge the guerrilla base. These young teen-agers, he adds, are at an age where they are idealistic, often rebellious, and sometimes bitter at the few options given them.

``We are trying to make sure that we don't abandon this important segment of the population,'' Arboleda says. The two big ``employers'' in many rural regions are drug traffickers, who hire many people to work in the coca fields, and the guerrilla movement.

There is a false impression that everyone becomes a millionaire in the drug trade, he says. But most workers are simply paid as farmers doing hard labor.

The way some young people see the guerrilla fighter is that he has a reason to be doing what he is doing in an effort to change things for the better, according to Arboleda. Most political assassins in Colombia are young men in their late teens or early twenties.

But Arboleda says his group's efforts should not be seen as simply an attempt to combat the drug cartel or guerrilla groups. The emphasis is on providing constructive and productive alternatives for poor rural youngsters. Without adequate opportunities, he says, all the military intervention against these two groups will be misspent.

The base of the new program will be an education and employment fund which can be used to help students continue their education or give them loans for income-generating activities.

Young people who take loans for projects will be encouraged to pay interest or give work-in-kind, as will students who receive schooling through the fund. A serious commitment to come back to their community will be expected of them. Rural areas have great need for persons trained for medical service, water systems, economic development, and municipal administration.

Another part of the program will be to open small specialty stores in rural areas that double as a coffee shop and gathering place. Young intellectuals will be able to buy books there and have access to office supplies such as paper and copying machines. In the evenings there could be music or poetry readings. And it will all be managed by the kids.

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