After a failed peace pact raised the spectre of gang violence, music and dance have thrown the youth of Colombia’s Chocó region a lifeline
Photo Credit : The Guardian
A rat skitters through the prison cell where Harold Cuesta sits handcuffed, beads of sweat dripping down his brow. He says his imprisonment means the delicate peace pact that his gang and others negotiated with the mayor of Quibdó is now dead.
Since April, Cuesta, a key figure in the peace talks, has languished in the deprived Colombian city’s overpopulated Anayancy prison, alongside a dozen other ex-gang leaders. Cuesta’s list of convictions over the years is exhaustive, a catalogue of time in and out of prison for offences including extortion and, this time around, the alleged murder of his former lawyer.
Yet it wasn’t always this way. Cuesta was once on track to realising his dream of becoming a professional footballer, until life took a turn for the worse and he turned to criminal activity to make a living. Now he has
“The peace process has no future here,” reflects the 29-year-old, under the watchful gaze of the guards.
The problem is not unusual in Colombia, where the Bogotá government has struggled to enforce a national peace accord in parts of the country where it holds little sway. Quibdó, however, has previously bucked that trend.
The city, where the authorities struggle to provide basic services, has long felt abandoned by the state. Its predominantly black population sought to deal with their own safety. The pact over Quibdó’s street warfare once distinguished it from other Colombian cities, riddled with violence and poverty.
Now they find their reconciliation process threatened by the same question rocking Colombia as a whole: how should gang members who agree to turn in their arms account for their crimes?
The Quibdó pact, signed in September, was an attempt to lower the crime rate before Chocó’s famous San Pacho festival. The gangs agreed to lay down their weapons in exchange for the promise of access to education and work opportunities. Murder rates and vandalism dropped dramatically.
“There is one simple problem,” says Quibdó’s mayor, Isaias Chalá. “These kinds of processes usually start from the top and work their way down … from the presidency down. But we started it the other way round.”
Quibdó’s Reposo 3 barrio, built to provide temporary accommodation for people forced to flee their homes, has become a permanent installation. Photo Credit : Nadege Mazars/Hans Lucas
In April, the Colombian vice president, Óscar Naranjo, travelled to the region, applauding the pact for its success. Three days later, without warning, came the arrests. Chalá claims the order to jail Cuesta and the other gang leaders came from the national police, “as a restorative justice process needs to be carried out”.
A former slave-trading hub on the Pacific coast, Chocó remains one of Colombia’s most impoverished and marginalised regions.
“Chocó is a region that has been marginalised, stigmatised and abandoned by the government, since the time of post-colonisation,” says Edwar Calderón, a Colombian academic at the University of Edinburgh.
Since the signing of Colombia’s peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in late 2016, a power vacuum has been created in areas where the guerillas demobilised, allowing criminal armed groups to expand.
Edwar Calderón, the Edinburgh-based academic who organised the workshop, observes an exercise designed to promote unity. Photo Credit : Nadege Mazars | Hans Lucas
“What has happened with the Farc leaving these areas are territories without control. What we are seeing now is the same violence as before, sometimes even worse, but without control,” says Calderón.
Amid the renewed violence, he wanted to try to find a way to stop young people from joining gangs. Calderón hit upon the idea of using funds from an academic project to create a workshop involving Colombian artists and musicians.
With the help of Mr Klaje, a Colombian music group who create instruments from recycled materials, and a group of artists from Fundación Casa Tres Patios in Medellín, a week-long workshop was held in late April.
Tatiana Gamboa, a 29-year-old mother from the impoverished Obrero neighbourhood, took part.
Workshop participant Tatiana Gamboa. Photo Credit : Nadege Mazars | Hans Lucas
“It’s important because all of the people who are here have had some kind of issue with one another,” she says.
Another participant, Luis Romaña, 26, talks about displacement in his hometown. “Quibdó has seen a big increase in population over the last decade, a lot of it due to the arrival of displaced people as a result of the armed conflict. The population began to grow, there was no control over this, and we lost security in the city.
“There are some neighbourhoods that are like colonies of other municipalities. For example, there are neighbourhoods here filled with people solely from Bojayá, where the massacre took place in 2002 [about 100 people were killed when a rebel mortar aimed at paramilitaries fell on a church full of refugees]. There are also people from Bayudo, where a big indigenous population was displaced,” he says.
On the final day of the workshop, young people from a variety of backgrounds, and from rival neighbourhoods, took part in a parade. Old buckets and paint tins were transformed into drums and carnival costumes crafted from sequins and feathers as the participants called for an end to violence in the city.
Yeiner Belalcázar Paz, 40, better known as Candyman, is a teacher and the frontman of Mr Klaje. He comes from a neighbourhood in the Colombian city of Cali, where he grew up surrounded by gang crime.
Yeiner Belalcázar Paz, AKA Candyman, takes a photo of the workshop participants before the parade. Photo Credit : Nadege Mazars | Hans Lucas
“We believe that art has a power that can help with the kind of processes that are happening like the one in Quibdó. It is like a magic tool. The young people here like to dance and sing. They live through art. When they hear a drum it runs through their veins.”
Among those taking part was a group of about 15 young people from Reposo 3, a neighbourhood taxi driver won't go near. One was Barron Palomeque. “We don’t have a football pitch, a community centre or anywhere to carry out recreational activities, so the dance group is the only thing we have,” he says. “It is helping to keep a lot of these kids off the street and has brought young people from rival neighbourhoods together. The government must do more though.
“If there is no investment in youth, it is going to be very difficult [to end violence] because the solution is not just to arrest people or put more armed forces on the streets, but to create opportunity.”
A practice session before the march. Photo Credit : Nadege Mazars | Hans Lucas
Many of the workshop attendees told of their childhood in the Chocó region.
Rosney Mosquera, 29, has just finished her high school diploma. “I’ve been a victim throughout my life. A victim of displacement, moving from neighbourhood to neighbourhood all my life. I’m a victim of rape and of armed conflict.
“There is a lot of violence in the neighbourhood where I live. People have always been fighting and killing one another.”
The organisers were pleased with the outcome of the event. “When the young people realised that they could work together, they started to integrate, and when this happened they said that they didn’t know why they thought about people from other neighbourhoods the way they did before,” says Candyman.
The parade passes along the streets of Quibdó. Photo Credit : Nadege Mazars | Hans Lucas
“There were a few young indigenous people there, and the black population of Quibdó. Both usually kept to their own groups. But when we started to do the activities, they started to come together.”
On the final day, as the parade made its way through the puddle-laden streets of the city, onlookers peered from balconies, tapping their feet to the infectious rhythms and listening to the young people as they chanted: “Our neighbourhood is your neighbourhood, our street is your street. No more violence, Quibdó.”
At one point they went past the prison where Cuesta is being held, reflecting on the ruined pact he built.
This article originally appeared on : The Guardian