Escaping Escobar – A Herald of Hope

"You're going to Manrique? Better be careful!" I hear that a lot here in Medellin, in reference to this rough and tumble neighborhood where I have been volunteering my time lately. To Colombians, there is still a stigma of violence associated with Manrique. After all, in the 80´s and 90´s, this barrio was once ground zero for the Medellin Cartel's cocaine wars. Pablo Escobar, the most infamous of Colombia´s drug lords, used Manrique as a base of operations, flashing shiny guns and hefty pay-outs to lure young kids into his racket as assassins, drug-dealers and bodyguards. Though these ramshackle streets are a world away from my beloved Chicago, I can identify with the residents of Manrique. After all, on countless occasions in my travels, I have been greeted with the same gangster stereotype: "You´re from Chicago? Al Capone – bang bang!"

Actually, the parallels between these two hoodlums run deep. Al Capone recognized a demand for contraband and used his smuggling expertise to distribute his product and amass his fortune. Pablo Escobar´s contraband may have come from coca plants in South America, but the destination (like Capone´s whiskey) was the same: the streets of America, a place where intoxicants are always in high demand and millionaires are born everyday. By providing the logistics to distribute cocaine on a massive scale, Escobar´s operation raked in $30 billion a year and in 1989, he was ranked the seventh richest man in the world by Forbes Magazine. Interestingly, both gangsters were larger-than-life figures with extravagant lifestyles who tried to gain public approval by sponsoring social works programs. But behind the façade of Capone´s soup kitchens and Escobar´s churches and soccer stadiums, both were ruthless business men who relied on raw power and murder to intimidate their rivals and maintain their lucrative operations. By increasing the scale of their illicit business, each created formidable criminal organizations: Capone´s Chicago Outfit and Escobar´s Medellin Cartel. Both also had a hand in planning major attacks; Escobar helped finance the M-19 militia´s take-over of the Colombian Palace of Justice, wherein eleven of the Supreme Court Justices were killed, while Capone carried out the bloody St. Valentine´s Day Massacre against his enemies (which took place three blocks from my home in Chicago). In the end, both were both hunted down by US federal agents and both died painful deaths (Capone the victim of syphilis and Escobar the recipient of a hail of gun-fire).

Though Chicago has outgrown the Bootleggers (Capone died sixty years ago), Medellin has not quite exorcised Escobar´s ghost. In the 80´s, Escobar provoked a bloody wave of violence here in order to maintain his grip on the burgeoning drug trade – call it the Power of the Gun (Poder de la Arma). Though the violence was felt throughout the city, the result was especially gruesome here in Manrique, a shanty-town perched upon a hill overlooking the city center. Residents tell me they wouldn´t set foot outside their homes after dark, afraid they would become another statistic, caught up in the crossfire of a conflict they never asked to be involved in. Even more disturbing is the fact that the cartel used intimidation, threats and delusions of grandeur to ensnare innocent kids into their dirty business.

Forty percent of Manrique´s five hundred families are internally displaced people (desplazados) that arrived in the city after fleeing the civil war ravaging the Colombian countryside. Little did they know they would be victimized by yet another plague of violence. Many of the families live in run-down shacks with inadequate access to safe drinking water and sewage systems. Although rampant poverty, high unemployment and drug abuse still abound today, the drug wars have ended and peace has returned to the streets of Manrique. And in the last year, hope has emerged in this marginalized community, thanks to a local NGO called Poder Joven (Youth Power), which was founded by local university students in 2000 in another down-and-out area called Barrio Triste (Sad Neighborhood). After a few years of volunteering with the children on a regular basis as college students, the graduates decided to take their efforts to the next level by building a community center to provide sanctuary for the kids in order to teach them values, keep them in school and provide them with counseling, attention, hot meals and self-esteem. After spending time with the director, teachers, psychologist and social worker, I am very impressed with the project´s mission and the professionalism of the entire staff. The organization is very-efficiently run with an eye on the bottom line and stringent book-keeping. Most importantly, the project has recently increased its own sustainability by establishing a recycling business that already pays for all of their administration costs. After six years of success with their initial project, Poder Joven opened their second home last year, here in Manrique. Every day (half in the morning and half in the afternoon, as the kids only go to school for half a day in Colombian public schools), seventy kids enthusiastically arrive at the center, armed with schoolbooks and bright smiles. When I walked in for the first time and heard the joyous sound of children diligently tackling their homework, it was clear the results are already being felt. Seeing these effervescent children learning and playing, I couldn´t imagine being here one year ago, when these kids had nothing to occupy their time besides the temptations of the street. Now that I see the results, the alternative is too sad to consider.

Though Escobar is no longer around to recruit these kids, there are still many negative influences to battle, such as living in the streets, sniffing glue, prostitution and crime. The cocaine wars may have ceased, but there is still a battle being fought on the frontlines of Manrique, one child at a time. In order to combat these vices, the staff rely on their own weapons: affection, security, attention, nutritious food, fun and most importantly, self-esteem and hope for a better future. Before Poder Joven arrived, many parents here sent their children into the city center every day to sell sweets or beg for money. Since integrating these children into the educational system is the number one priority, school attendance is a prerequisite for every kid in the project. It is heartbreaking to hear eleven year-old Sandra tell me she is only in the second grade, but hey, better late than never. In addition to the activities, counseling and teaching, Poder Joven also provides each child with two meals a day, which lessons the economic burden on their parents, so they won´t rely on their kids´ meager incomes. Over eighty percent of the kids diagnosed with malnutrition before the project opened last year are already making marked imrpovements in health. Unfortunately, the $25 it costs to send their kid to school per year is often too much for these families to handle, which is an unfortunate reality in a community where the average household income is $63.

In order to address the dire situation these kids of Manrique face, we have donated $400 of our funds raised to Poder Joven, so that we can send 16 more kids to school for the upcoming school year. That´s 16 kids that won´t be sniffing glue out of plastic bags, begging for coins or sleeping on the street. That´s 16 kids that will have the nutritional intake they need in order to learn, grow and enjoy their childhood. That´s 16 kids that will go from the Power of the Gun to the Power of the Youth. Thanks to all of my financial backers that are helping us all win this battle on the streets of Medellin, Colombia. With time and more financial assistance, even more children will benefit from this project´s amazing work. It may be true that violence begets violence, but education, security and self-esteem can beget a whole lot more. Rise up children of Manrique – the future is yours!

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