Colombia's street children caughtin drugs crossfire

Dangers of street life for nation's displaced young
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The Independent US

To sleep rough in Medellin, Colombia's violent cocaine capital, hundreds of abandoned urchins take inordinate risks in a world where stray bullets cost lives.

To sleep rough in Medellin, Colombia's violent cocaine capital, hundreds of abandoned urchins take inordinate risks in a world where stray bullets cost lives.

Jose Lopez, an outreach worker with the British charity Let The Children Live!, sees too many die. Once, he had to bury two young boys on consecutive days.

Opening the world's eyes to the perilous lives of Colombian youngsters who hawk roses, fruit and candy on the mean street or wash windscreens at stop lights is a challenge for the small British foundation, set up by a priest who was once taken under the wing of the street children while stranded in Colombia as a young tourist.

The street urchin project is financially supported by Hope for Children, the British charity that the editor of The Independent has chosen this year as the recipient for this newspaper's Christmas appeal.

In Medellin, the staff of 16 tends 450 children each day, feeding them balanced meals, tutoring them and giving them lots of love. They might take an ailing girl to hospital in the middle of the night, or simply play games with six-year-olds on the street corners where they work. They find shelter with the state welfare office or place troubled teenagers in local programmes that treat underage drug-addicts or prostitutes.

The foundation acts as a bridge between existing agencies, but sees a need to start a halfway house for children with behavioural problems that standard schools cannot handle. One hurdle is toconvince impoverished parents that their children should work as little as possible, and few leave street vendingaltogether.

These youngsters have not run away from poverty and squalor, but are society's unwanted "throwaways" - vulnerable to beatings, muggings, rape, abuse and even murder. Let the Children Live! attempts to give them a future, and seeks out youngsters when they first come to beg on the streets. Often driven from their villages by civil war massacres, Colombian refugee families tend to disintegrate in the city.

"In the marginal barrios, life is extremely violent. A parish priest there expects to bury a murder victim every other day," explains Father Peter Walters, the British priest who started the foundation five years ago. "Some of their older brothers are in youth gangs and fight one another for turf. So sometimes children come on to the street to try to get away from the violence at home."Single-parent families find it hard to cope.

"Most of the men whom these boys know, father figures, are either dead or absent," Father Peter points out, "or they're involved with drugs or violence themselves."

As a 26-year-old backpacker, Mr Walters became stranded in Colombia after his discount air ticket expired and he couldn't get on a flight back to Britain. When his money ran out, he ended up on the street himself. "I got adopted by a group of these scruffy, smelly street children who used to beg outside my hotel. Seeing a foreigner who hadn't got any money amused them and so they decided to help me.

"They kept me out of trouble, they showed me the cheap places to eat and the places to avoid. As we became friends, they even shared their food with me," he recounted. "What made the most impact on me was the kindness and the humanity of the children who reached out to me in my need, and that's what really set the whole thing going."

One group of urchins now lives together on a farm, alongside seven street dogs. Many street children forge strong bonds with stray dogs and noattempt is made to separate them.

Father Enrique Montes said: "We keep them together. It's a form of therapy." He oversees five such shelters in Pereira, an area notorious for child prostitutes. In a room of bunk beds, one boy with a bleached fringe is still fast asleep at nine in the morning. According to Father Enrique, this is good therapy too. "One of the biggest anxieties they have on the street is sleeping alone," he explained.

One of the most energetic boys is skinny Victor Alfonso Gomez, 13. Every day, he boards buses in Medellin to sell candy and brings back his earnings to his mother.

But he is nervous after dark. "You can't stay in the street too late because where I live there are a lot of drug addicts and they could suddenly start shooting bullets," he says.

Over the years, 27 boys and girls who have come through the homes have died in street violence or from drug overdoses. But one of the first boys to join the programme just graduated from secondary school in July.

Father Peter said: "Juan Guillermo is the first to actually finish secondary school. We're very proud of him."