As students began to leave the school across the street from our apartment to get lunch on Wednesday, a young man was murdered near the gateway above. Lora and I were just sitting down to lunch in the upstairs dining room when we heard three loud blasts that I assumed came from a vehicle below. When a large crowd began to gather, one of the teachers who was hosting us there went out to the street to hear what happened. First parents started running to the gate to grab their children and take them home. Then the police slowly began to arrive on motorcycle and in a police van. Finally an ambulance came and the teacher reported that the mother of the deceased student was clutching her son's body as they moved to the ambulance.
The teacher shared that the boy was said to be the leader in a gang from the area. The murder could have been retaliation for more deaths over the previous Colombian Independence Day weekend. Lora wrote a blog reflecting on how this mirrors the gang violence in Chicago.
The community seemed to be shocked during the chaos of the moment - and I too would have been running to the scene in hopes that the rumored death was not my child - but this situation has become normal for people here. Two hours later everything was back to normal. The most upsetting thing for me was the reason why the teacher talking with us didn't want to see the body. It was not because the death was itself a traumatizing event, but because seeing dead bodies like that returned her to the trauma of the deaths of her father and uncle.
Are there no men who escape this life of violence?*
To answer this question I will introduce you to one young man who has stood his ground in order to stay out of the many violent activities in his community. For this article I will call him Alberto.
I met Alberto as he guided us to the right "jeep" to travel to his rural town of around 10,000 people on the border between the department (state) of Antiochia and Choco. The town is literally split in two with to governments, two schools, two hospitals, to of everything. We were with him during Independence Day weekend where all the students from both public schools marched through the streets at night and the next morning to celebrate.
Despite being outside of military territory, the local police stopped Alberto on his bike when he was 18 years old. They demanded to have his ID card and he demanded to know why. Eventually he discovered that the police were recruiting for the military and he had just been drafted. He got a letter demanding his presence at a military base that he didn't know. As he was telling this story, you could tell there was no way he was going to show up at that base. I think he received a fine for his absence, but he has avoided being redrafted for seven years now.
My initial question that led to this discussion was, "what do you hope to do with your theological studies?" It seems unconnected, as he is now 25 years old and studying in a distance learning program in Apartadó that many other pastors in the region are participating in, but Alberto is the only man of this age that I have seen active in the church. All other young men between 18 and 25 seem to be missing altogether. The only one I did meet has already done his two years in the military and turned down a permanent contract in hopes of pursuing theology as well.
Why theology? For Alberto, theology was his only other option. He had completed public school and like many youth found himself unemployed and unable to find funding to pursue further education. He spent months and years sitting completely idle on his family's small farm with no future. His mother strongly opposed his participation in the military just as she opposed his participation in the guerrilla group or the FARC. They all promote violence that they knew too well.
So Alberto applied to be a local police officer. At the same time he applied for a scholarship to study theology offered through the Presbyterian Church. He said he would have gone with either option, but he went with the scholarship because they accepted him first! This scholarship was his only opportunity to avoid working directly with violence. This opportunity is very rare in his community. He is interested in teaching theology in the future, but he really knows as much about what he will do with his degree as I know about mine (no plans here!).
This is Alberto's story, but there are many more factors just with in his small town. Another man who drives an ambulance for the local hospitals said he was approached by a man in the guerrilla to ask if he would transport drugs across the boarder. The town is close to the Pan-American highway and has access to a waterway that leads to the Caribbean Coast. Government employees like emergency response and police are less likely to get inspected at checkpoints, so they are often targeted by drug traffickers in one of the many organizations producing drugs to pay for their weapons (many of whom are partners with the US government or multinational corporations). It is dangerous to say no to these people, but this man turned them down anyway. I calculated the payoff from participating in a drug run to be around $2,000 which is almost an entire year's salary for many people. Doing it once is still not enough to get anyone out of poverty. It seems the drug dealers have found an ideal payment that gets their runners hooked into the system as well.
Other of Alberto's friends wanted to be part of the fight. They have been surround by the violent macho culture of Silvester Stallone and their local context long enough that all they wanted to do was carry a big gun. Some joined the military only after being turned away by the guerrilla. They were able to carry the big guns in the military, but they are not alive today to benefit.
A woman hosted us for lunch in Chigorodó who's son was shot and killed as he was walking through the neighborhood 18 months ago. He was a career soldier in the military fighting the guerrilla in the region. There is no safe place to be a soldier. His identity had been discovered, and during a vacation at home with his mother and family, the guerrilla followed him until he was alone at night and killed him. His body was too deformed to show at the funeral. The woman who shared this story is an elder in the church and very active in supporting others in the community as well as her children and grandchildren.
So when the United States claims it is fighting the war on drugs by supplying the Colombian military with aid to buy US war equipment and train Colombian solders at the renamed School of the Americas, I question the very basis of this action. How will violence solve any of the issues in Colombia?
There are many layers of this that I definitely still do not understand, but i can see that this is a beautiful country that has been in constant civil war for decades, a country where many sectors in the government and opposing the government are involved in some way in the drug trade to make money, and a place where violence has ruled as the way to deal with conflict just like it does in the United States.
The Presbyterian Church of Colombia says it is time for a new strategy. It is time for new opportunities for the youth of Colombia. Not everyone has the passion to seek a different option like Alberto. The church here is committed to nonviolence, social justice and community development. I pray we can work for the same goals in my context.
*(Specifically men because men are drafted into these violent organizations almost exclusively. Women, however, do not escape violence by any means.)