On the streets of many of Colombia’s major cities a battle rages every day – but not against armed rebel groups. It is a battle with drug addiction, and in this war there are often few victors.
While many consider foreign drug users to be the main motivation for the Colombian cartels’ global multi-billion dollar illicit business, a more sinister side of the drug problem exists within Colombia’s own borders.
National study have suggested for years that urban drug use is rising in Colombian cities.
This problem is painfully evident in Barranquilla, Colombia’s fourth largest city and busiest metropolitan area on the Caribbean coast.
Barranquilla resident Jose Julian Rojas Seohanes recently created a foundation aimed at trying to help people pull themselves out of what he described as a “hell” for those trapped within the grip of severe addiction.
In July, the Colombian government made it legal to possess small portions of cocaine and marijuana. Rojas says that, given the extreme poverty that exists in Latin America, if the Colombian government does not invest more in rehabilitation programs for those addicted to crack and other street drugs, the new drug laws will be like pouring gasoline to put out a fire.
“In the United States there are social programs where addicts can seek help if they choose to,” Rojas told Colombia Reports. “In Colombia that does not exist. People chose to look away when they see the people who live on the streets.”
Of problems caused by drug addiction there is no better example than the dilapidated streets of the “La Cachacal” zone in the city’s central district. Colombia Reports recently accompanied Rojas in a visit to the area.
Described as one of the most dangerous sections of Barranquilla, the zone looks as if demolished after urban combat. Not many locals dare to venture down the decaying sidewalks, save the desperate men, woman — and even children — who are addicted to crack and other hard drugs.
They live outside conventional law and spend their days in the pursuit and consumption of illicit street drugs.
“It is a completely different world,” Said Rojas. “They are trapped here in a vicious cycle of poverty and addiction.”
Rojas began visiting the area earlier this year with other members of his church. They earned trust after bringing food and clothing and inviting them to study the bible in the afternoons.
In mid, July Rojas finally registered his foundation “Hombres Libres,” or Free Men, believing that a legally registered non-profit will lend more legitimacy to their efforts.
Luis Arenas was once one of the addicts trapped in “La Cachacal’s” dilapidated streets, but he is now helping Rojas’ foundation by venturing into the area every day to reach the people languishing there. It was about 4 p.m. when he guided a small group including Colombia Reports after a sobering warning.
“Do not take out your cell phones and make sure you take off watches and jewelry,” Arenas told the small group.
Entering the small block immediately proved that warning. There were scores of people on the street. All wore tattered clothing, barely clinging to their thin, malnourished and battered bodies.
Two wild-eyed men in a crowd in the middle of the street tosseled each other joking in a belligerent manner, one wearing a large blade that hung from a cord around his neck.
“And that is only the knife you can see,” said Arenas. “Most of these men are armed, and if a fight erupts they will pull their blades and use them.”
As if drug addiction were not enough, a recent article by Barranquilla’s El Heraldo newspaper reported that many of the people in this affected zone also suffer from HIV infection and turberculosis.
Some sleep or lay on the sidewalks, wearing only shorts with only a section of cardboard to insulate against the concrete.
Open doors on buildings that flanked either side of the street showed dark corridors crammed with people.
In one of those buildings a dangerously thin woman wearing what appeared to be pajama bottoms and only a section of a sheet or a blanket to cover her upper body stared at the intruders.
Another woman packed a pipe with a white substance and inhaled a long dose. Her head then cocked back and forth with a vacant look in her eyes.
The man and woman ignored Arenas’ invitation to join a study group.
Arenas said that some people do accept the invitation, but most are indifferent and a few can become openly hostile.
A contingent of national police officers, wearing camouflaged fatigues and armed with M-16 assault rifles and other semi-automatic weapons, stood near a pickup truck at the end of the street, yet the people seem to ignore them.
The sun beginning to lower in the horizon signaled the end of the tour.
“The street changes at night,” he said.
When asked how one could survive in such a destitute environment, Arenas told his story.
“You rob, steal and cheat,” he said without hesitation. “I was addicted to crack for seven years on that street. I would snatch a chains and jewelry. I would look for people talking on their cell phones on the street.”
Arenas said his days were devoted to finding money to buy drugs. Addicts like him would pay a small fee to the dealers for the privilege of sitting in one of the dark rooms of La Cachacal to get high.
Many die there. Arenas said he has witnessed overdoses, and once helped carry a woman whose heart had stopped after smoking a pipe. They placed her body in a push cart to take to the hospital.
Arenas said the streets had almost claimed his own life. Arenas showed scars he said were from gunshots suffered during a robbery attempt. He was shot six times, the last leaving a thick scar on his forehead just between his eyebrows.
Arenas said he survived the attack and later had a religious epihiney that motivated him to stop using drugs. His eyes swelled as he described the others still trapped in their addictions.
“God let me live so I can try to help these people,” he said. “If I can just pull one person out of this, it is worth my efforts.”
Rojas said the foundation will keep helping the people of La Cachacal, and other impoverished areas in Barranquilla.
It is Rojas’ opinion that the Colombian government is not doing anything to address poverty and drug addiction among its citizens, so it is up to Colombians to help their fellow countrymen.
Rojas and fellow foundation member Elkin Alvarez said the newly formed foundation literally goes door to door in Barranquilla neighborhoods to ask for donations of food and used clothing to the impoverished. Both agree that charity is not enough. In his spare time, Alvarez visits a prison in Barranquilla, where with the help of the warden is beginning to organize vocational workshops to teach inmates how they can sustain themselves when they leave the confining walls.
They would like to develop similar workshops for those that eke an existence in La Cachacal, and vowed to continue to help even in the face of seemingly impossible obstacles.
“It will be difficult, yes, but not impossible,” says Alvarez. “Nothing is impossible.”
The foundation is interested in forming partnerships with church groups and NGOs outside of Colombia, and hopes to raise donations and organize volunteers.