Colombia: Bullets fly and dropouts rise in Medellin

MEDELLIN, Colombia — On a Monday morning, a scrum of students loiter on a Medellin street corner. They're not truants. They’re simply trying to get to school without getting shot.

These kids are waiting for an escort to lead them on a 10-block journey through gang-controlled territory in one of Medellin's toughest neighborhoods. A few minutes later, their chaperon shows up.

"A lot of kids don’t go to class because they’re scared," said Sandra Torres, who is part of a team of escorts hired by the city to boost school attendance. “With us, they feel safer.”

Across Latin America, many students drop out to take jobs and support their impoverished families. But here in Comuna 13, a sprawling mountainside slum that's home to dozens of gangs, kids are leaving in droves because it’s too dangerous to walk to class.

About 1,000 primary and secondary students in Medellin have quit school this year because of gang-related conflicts, according to Jairo Herran, the city's top human rights official. Hardest hit is the Estela Velez public school in Comuna 13, where nearly half of the 650 students who started the academic year have quit, said teacher Diana Tengono.

“Kids fear they’ll get hit by stray bullets while some of the older students have been ordered by gang members to stay home,” said Alvaro Paniagua, president of a local community council in Comuna 13.

Paniagua’s two granddaughters attend Estela Velez. “But on the days the escorts don’t show up,” he said, “they don’t go.”

The mountainside ghettos surrounding Medellin — Colombia’s second-largest city — have a long history of armed conflict.

In the 1980s, hit men for drug lord Pablo Escobar roamed these neighborhoods. They were replaced by guerrilla militias in the 1990s who, in turn, were driven out by right-wing paramilitary gunmen.

Some of the paramilitaries disarmed but others became heavily involved in drug-trafficking, prostitution rings and extortion schemes in Medellin. They were controlled by a paramilitary commander named Diego Murillo, but he was extradited to the United States on drug charges in 2008.

The power vacuum created by Murillo's departure has set off a wave of bloodletting as an estimated 300 gangs fight for control of the city’s slums. This year Medellin has registered more than 1,500 homicides, a 20 percent increase from 2009.

Caught in the middle are primary and secondary students. As they walk to school, they often cross invisible boundaries that divide gang-controlled territories. Some students have family members in the gangs and are viewed as spies or infiltrators when they leave their home turf.

“There are borders that you can’t cross,” said Carlos Cordoba, a teenager in Comuna 13 who hopes to graduate from high school next year. Staring at a nearby barrio, he added: “I can’t go to that neighborhood unless I’m with an escort.”

Herran, the human rights official, said 31 students this year have either been hit by bullets or killed in crossfire. Several professors have also been killed, giving rise to a “threatened teachers” association.

Another menacing tactic is to recruit students to carry guns and drugs because if they are caught, the punishment for minors is light. Then, there are the schools themselves which are fertile recruiting grounds for new gang members, prime spots for cocaine sales and easy targets for blackmail.

Medellin security analyst Max Gil points out that public schools receive city funds for education and building-expansion projects. Often, he said, gang leaders will threaten school administrators in an effort to secure payoffs or get friends and relatives construction jobs.

It’s a combustible mix. In one of the worst episodes, a gun battle broke out in August next door to the Estela Velez school, forcing students to spend the entire day cowering under their desks. The shooting finally ended after dark and the frightened students were evacuated on city buses.

The surge in violence prompted a visit from President Juan Manuel Santos, who promised to hire 20,000 more police officers nationwide. But in Comuna 13, some say the police are part of the problem rather than the solution.

A police station sits a few blocks away from Estela Velez but few residents file complaints or criminal reports. They fear the gangs have infiltrated the police and that those who speak out will be targeted.

Shortly after receiving a report over his radio that bandits were shaking down a bus driver, a police corporal voiced his frustration at what's become a vicious circle. If people don’t denounce crimes, he pointed out, there’s not much the police can do.

As a stop-gap measure, Medellin officials began hiring student escorts. The concept is similar to the non-violent methods employed by Peace Brigades International, an organization that provides unarmed chaperons for endangered human rights activists in Latin America and elsewhere. In Comuna 13, the escorts provide an official presence that makes the bad guys back off — at least for now.

“We are convincing parents to send their kids back to school,” said escort Mario Carbona, as he held hands with youngsters on their way to school.

But for many youthful scholars, the program comes too late. According to Herran, the human rights official, hundreds of families in Comuna 13 have simply pulled up stakes and moved away.