Colombia discovers the art of keeping young people off the streets

After a failed peace pact raised the spectre of gang violence, music and dance have thrown the youth of Colombias Choc region a lifeline

A rat skitters through the prison cell where Harold Cuesta sits handcuffed, beads of sweat dripping down his brow. He says his imprisonment means the delicate peace pact that his gang and others negotiated with the mayor of Quibd is now dead.

Since April, Cuesta, a key figure in the peace talks, has languished in the deprived Colombian citys overpopulated Anayancy prison, alongside a dozen other ex-gang leaders. Cuestas list of convictions over the years is exhaustive, a catalogue of time in and out of prison for offences including extortion and, this time around, the alleged murder of his former lawyer.

Yet it wasnt always this way. Cuesta was once on track to realising his dream of becoming a professional footballer, until life took a turn for the worse and he resorted to criminal activity to make a living.

The peace process has no future here, reflects the 29-year-old, under the watchful gaze of the guards.

The problem is not unusual in Colombia, where the Bogot government has struggled to enforce a national peace accord in parts of the country where it holds little sway. Quibd, however, has previously bucked that trend.

The city, where the authorities struggle to provide basic services, has long felt abandoned by the state. Its predominantly black population sought to deal with their own safety. The pact over Quibds street warfare once distinguished it from other Colombian cities, riddled with violence and poverty.

Now they find their reconciliation process threatened by the same question rocking Colombia as a whole: how should gang members who agree to turn in their arms account for their crimes?

The Quibd pact, signed in September, was an attempt to lower the crime rate before Chocs famous San Pacho festival. The gangs agreed to lay down their weapons in exchange for the promise of access to education and work opportunities. Murder rates and vandalism dropped dramatically.

There is one simple problem, says Quibds mayor, Isaias Chal. These kinds of processes usually start from the top and work their way down from the presidency down. But we started it the other way round.

Quibds Reposo 3 barrio, built to provide temporary accommodation for people forced to flee their homes, has become a permanent installation. Photograph: Nadege Mazars/Hans Lucas

In April, the Colombian vice president, scar Naranjo, travelled to the region, applauding the pact for its success. Three days later, without warning, came the arrests. Chal claims the order to jail Cuesta and the other gang leaders came from the national police, as a restorative justice process needs to be carried out.

A former slave-trading hub on the Pacific coast, Choc remains one of Colombias most impoverished and marginalised regions.

Choc is a region that has been marginalised, stigmatised and abandoned by the government, since the time of post-colonisation, says Edwar Caldern, a Colombian academic at the University of Edinburgh.

Since the signing of Colombias peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in late 2016, a power vacuum has been created in areas where the guerillas demobilised, allowing criminal armed groups to expand.

Edwar Caldern, the Edinburgh-based academic who organised the workshop, observes an exercise designed to promote unity. Photograph: Nadege Mazars/Hans Lucas

What has happened with the Farc leaving these areas are territories without control. What we are seeing now is the same violence as before, sometimes even worse, but without control, says Caldern.

Amid the renewed violence, he wanted to try find a way to stop young people from joining gangs. Caldern hit upon the idea of using funds from an academic project to create a workshop involving Colombian artists and musicians.

With the help of Mr Klaje, a Colombian music group who create instruments from recycled materials, and a group of artists from Fundacin Casa Tres Patios in Medelln, a week-long workshop was held in late April.

Tatiana Gamboa, a 29-year-old mother from the impoverished Obreroneighbourhood, took part.

Workshop participant Tatiana Gamboa. Photograph: Nadege Mazars/Hans Lucas

Its important, because all of the people who are here have had some kind of issue with one another, she says.

Another participant, Luis Romaa, 26, talks about displacement in his hometown. Quibd has seen a big increase in population over the last decade, a lot of it due to the arrival of displaced people as a result of the armed conflict. The population began to grow, there was no control over this, and we lost security in the city.

There are some neighbourhoods that are like colonies of other municipalities. For example, there are neighbourhoods here filled with people solely from Bojay, where the massacre took place in 2002 [about 100 people were killed when a rebel mortar aimed at paramilitaries fell on a church full of refugees]. There are also people from Bayudo, where a big indigenous population was displaced, he says.

On the final day of the workshop, young people from a variety of backgrounds, and from rival neighbourhoods, took part in a parade. Old buckets and paint tins were transformed into drums and carnival costumes crafted from sequins and feathers as the participants called for an end to violence in the city.

Yeiner Belalczar Paz, 40, better known as Candyman, is a teacher and the frontman of Mr Klaje. He comes from a neighbourhood in the Colombian city of Cali, where he grew up surrounded by gang crime.

Yeiner Belalczar Paz, AKA Candyman, takes a photo of the workshop participants before the parade. Photograph: Nadege Mazars/Hans Lucas

We believe that art has a power that can help with the kind of processes that are happening like the one in Quibd. It is like a magic tool. The young people here like to dance and sing. They live through art. When they hear a drum it runs through their veins.

Among those taking part was a group of about 15 young people from Reposo 3, a neighbourhood taxi drivers wont go near. One was Baeron Palomeque. We dont have a football pitch, a community centre or anywhere to carry out recreational activities, so the dance group is the only thing we have, he says. It is helping to keep a lot of these kids off the street and has brought young people from rival neighbourhoods together. The government must do more though.

If there is no investment in youth, it is going to be very difficult [to end violence] because the solution is not just to arrest people or put more armed forces on the streets, but to create opportunity.

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Marissa SafontColombia discovers the art of keeping young people off the streets

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