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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.

“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.