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Colombia: Bullets fly and dropouts rise in Medellin

Students scramble to get to school without getting shot in Colombia’s second-largest city.

School dropouts, drug trafficking, Medellin Colombia
A boy gestures at soldiers patrolling in La Silla neighborhood in Medellin, Colombia. (Raul Arboleda/AFP/Getty Images)

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.