Young Colombians work to prevent peers from a life of violence, crime

Gabriel Rentaria was 7 years old when he started using a gun. Never to kill, he said, just to scare people. But he saw people, enemies and friends, fall dead “in my face,” he recalled.

Sep 14, 2018

By Barbara Fraser
Gabriel Rentaria was 7 years old when he started using a gun. Never to kill, he said, just to scare people. But he saw people, enemies and friends, fall dead “in my face,” he recalled.

Now 17 and a leader in a Catholic youth movement that reaches out to other young people trapped in a spiral of violence, Rentaria divides his short life into “before” and “after.”

Left with an abusive father when his schoolteacher mother went to work in a distant city, he escaped to the street, spending as little time as possible with the man who beat him and shut him in “a hole,” sometimes for several days at a time.

He was one of seven youngsters who hung out with a few 20-somethings, doing whatever they ordered — stealing, selling drugs or shooting members of rival “combos,” or criminal gangs.

It was a way to earn cash in a neighbourhood where jobs are scarce and needs are great.

“To work, you need a diploma. If you don’t have one, you can’t get a job,” said the soft-spoken, curlyhaired teen, sitting on a wall beside St Sebastian the Martyr Church near the edge of this tropical city.

This neighbourhood, called Versalles 1, seems peaceful enough. Fr Gustavo Piedrahita is celebrating Mass inside the church, while volunteers sell second-hand clothing, provide free haircuts and lead children’s games on the fenced playground.

But there are telltale signs, if you know where to look. A few bricks are missing from the front wall of a house up the steep hill behind the parish. The two holes are just big enough to be used by a lookout or a gunman.

Rentaria and other young people from the Youth Leaders with Transformative Faith Movement are helping with a morning of activities designed to ease possible tensions between local residents and Venezuelan migrants who have arrived in the neighbourhood. It is one of many activities in which young people reach out to peers, offering them an alternative to the kind of life Rentaria knew as a child.

“I worry that kids see the leader of the group as a hero,” said Fr Piedrahita, 57, a Javeriano missionary who became pastor of St. Sebastian the Martyr nine months ago.

Drugs fuel much of the violence in the country, and children are caught up in it early, beginning with tasks such as selling drugs near schools.

“As long as drugs are the way to put food on the table, this is going to continue,” he explained.

Amid the danger and violence, parishes offer refuge to children and teens, said Fr Piedrahita, who sees his task as “building bridges between one situation and another, between one group and another.”

Rentaria escaped from criminal life when his mother returned to Medellin and took him to live with her in a different part of the city.

“I told my mother everything. She cried and prayed for me,” he said. “I put myself entirely in God’s hands.”

By age 10, Rentaria was a leader in a youth group. He finished high school and is now studying to repair airplane engines, but he also works actively to help kids who are trying to find a way out of the lifestyle that ensnared him as a child.

Milena Soto, 19, grew up in a stable, loving family that seemed far from experiences like those of Rentaria and Restrepo. But after high school, when she ventured out of her neighbourhood to do social work in other parts of town, she began looking at the familiar streets with new eyes.

“Those kids standing on street corners, they weren’t friends just hanging around. They were planning how to sell drugs somewhere, how to get a kid involved, that sort of thing,” she said.

She saw gang members charging businesses protection money, saw children selling drugs at school doors as police looked the other way.

Asked what she would like Catholics in the United States to know about young people in Colombia, her eyes brim unexpectedly with tears.

“I’d like them to know the difference between life in their country and in mine,” she said. “Sadly, ours is more violent, but that hasn’t been our fault.”

“If there were no consumers (of drugs like cocaine) there, there wouldn’t be so much violence here,” Soto said. “They are part of our history and we are part of theirs. There’s a planetary interdependence.”. --CNS

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