So solidarity crew

When a bunch of rappers started protesting about Colombia's bloody civil war, they ended up on the front line. Julia Stuart meets Zona Marginal
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The Independent Culture

Zona Marginal, the Colombian hip-hop crew, is used to watching its back. While the three young men haven't yet received a written death threat, they have heard through friends that there are some who would like to see them"chopped into little pieces".

Zona Marginal, the Colombian hip-hop crew, is used to watching its back. While the three young men haven't yet received a written death threat, they have heard through friends that there are some who would like to see them"chopped into little pieces".

The group, who come from one of the country's poorest and most violent shanty towns, have put their lives on line for daring to speak out - or, more specifically, rapping - against the human-rights abuses in their country.

Last year, in Colombia, where a 40-year-old conflict is pitting two leftist rebel armies against right-wing paramilitaries and the government, more than 3,000 civilians were murdered and about 2,200 were kidnapped. In the past 20 years, 70,000 people are thought to have died in Colombia's armed conflict, almost all of them civilians killed in non-combat events.

And, should the Zona Marginal crew ever become another statistic, it's unlikely they'd even be afforded the dignity of a funeral: last year, 600 people in Colombia simply "disappeared".

When we first meet, the group, who have none of the swagger of American rappers, are happily taking photographs of each other in front of Big Ben. They're here to take part in London's first Latin hip-hop festival, sponsored by Amnesty International, and this is their first time in Britain.

Half an hour later, sitting in a pub talking about life at home, they're more sombre. Fernando Valencia Pino, 27, Jhon Jairo Ulloa Angulo, 28, and Ricardo Hernan Valencia, 28, have all lost relatives and friends in the conflict. When I ask them about it, Jhon quietly replies: "Please don't make us cry. We don't want to remember."

The three musicians first hooked up in 1995 through their affection for hip hop. But, as the effects of the country's conflict became more horrific, their music gradually became more politicised. One song, "Desaparecidos" (Disappeared), talks of those who have simply vanished, never to be seen again: "Where do my memories go? My people and all my dead? They disappeared and now only silence is left. How they tortured my brothers, killed them, mutilated them, buried them. For so long we looked but never found them. We searched the rivers and the bushes. Where do the disappeared go?"

Their music is too subversive to get radio play or to earn them a record deal, but they gig at universities and clubs and at demonstrations, and they produce their own CDs. They were brought to the attention of Amnesty International by the British-based Colombia Solidarity Campaign.

Even without their political stance, as young men living in the Aguas Blancas area of Cali (Colombia's third-largest city) their lives would still be at risk. Last month, five teenagers hanging out on a corner in their neighbourhood were murdered by a group wearing balaclavas. How were they killed? "Bala, bala," they reply, pulling imaginary triggers.

"There are three kinds of violence in Colombia," Ricardo explains. "There is the violence that the media will talk about, which is between the armed groups: the guerrillas, the paramilitaries and the army. There's the violence meted out to the civilian population by all the armed groups in the conflict. We know this because this is our reality, because we live this.

"Then there's the urban violence. Decades of fighting have left communities broken down. Our young people have no future and end up on the streets, involved in drugs. It's very easy to buy arms, and a lot of young kids get involved in gangs. There's rape, sexual abuse of girls within families, and a very sexist culture against women."

According to an Amnesty International report last month, violence against women - abduction, rape and mutilation by security forces, opposition guerrillas and army-backed paramilitaries - in some rural areas has extended to the imposition of rules of conduct and dress codes. Women have had their heads shaved for wearing cropped tops, and have been publicly stripped and humiliated for wearing shorts and threatened with punishment for wearing low-slung jeans. Other punishments meted out have included floggings and mutilation with knives. One 14-year-old was found dead, with her breasts cut off, after reportedly having been raped by three men who were believed to have been paramilitaries.

Fernando, Jhon and Ricardo always keep in touch by walkie-talkie and never venture out alone at night. In June, another band they know were arrested after playing at a demonstration: they've been in prison ever since.

"Friends we know who have joined the army-backed paramilitary groups have commented that paramilitaries have heard our music and made death threats against us," says Jhon. "We don't know what's going to happen at any moment. We could be arrested or disappeared, or accused of being terrorists, or assassinated by hired killers or paramilitaries.

"But what I find calming is that we are not just sitting back with our arms folded. We're denouncing what's going on and telling the truth and being active about it. We could sing any type of commercial music to get out of the situation we are living in, to try and make money, but the fact is we can't just be there with our eyes closed."

Why are they prepared to put their lives so overtly on the line? "It's not a question we have ever really asked ourselves," Ricardo says. "We simply want to try and find solutions for the community. But we know that if we do get killed because of our music, the government will turn a blind eye and say it was because we were thieves or robbers. That's the reality of any Colombians involved in any kind of social activism or community work. People are murdered all the time and the murders are never investigated. It's just said that they were criminals, especially in the shanty towns. But what is more worrying from one day to the next is whether the work we are doing is going to have positive results."

As well as trying to reach young people with their music (they are bringing out their second album, International Detail, in February) Zona Marginal also run music workshops that are funded by non-governmental organisations. "In such a hopeless situation, we are trying to bring something positive and a bit of hope to people, and to say that just because we are poor and don't have education and the opportunities from the state, it doesn't mean we must resort to violence and terror. We have to find ways of educating ourselves," Ricardo says.

Part of that involves trying to deter youngsters from being lured into joining the paramilitaries, who pay recruits about £300 a month, double the minimum wage. But there is always the fear that, through their work, the group will be double-crossed; informers are often paid up to £200 for information about a "subversive".

"The saddest thing about all of this is that the main participants are young people," Ricardo says. "It's the young who are the paramilitaries, the young who are guerrillas, the young who are the policemen and the young who are the soldiers. And it's young blood that is being spilt, and young people who are dying. But we have hope. That's why we do what we do."

Zona Marginal will be playing on Sunday at the Latin Hip-Hop and Reggaeton Festival at Koko, Camden High Street, London NW1. For tickets, call 07905 896448 or go to