In Colombia, government and social organizations alike are turning to the enduring draw of sports to break the cycles of bloodshed that continue to govern much of the country.
Child recruitment continues to play a troubling role in perpetuating violence in rural Colombia. Boredom, a lack of opportunity and education, coercion, kidnapping and displacement all contribute to take minors from their homes and families and inject them into brutal, seemingly endless warfare.
Leaders in both the public policy and social organizing sectors see sport as a constructive alternative to guerrilla combat, which experts say is one of the few viable options in many parts of the country, even in cases where involvement isn’t forced by violence or the threat of violence, or motivated by a desire for revenge.
Sport Diplomacy, a government initiative spearheaded by Colombian Chancellor Maria Angela Holguin, is indicative of a number of programs being tested out in different parts of Colombia by different players in the public policy spectrum. The initiative supports sports programming for at-risk teens in areas impacted by violence, building sports facilities, offering training and programming, and sending groups abroad as “ambassadors” of the country, before reintegrating them in their communities as “promoters” of the sport.
At the moment, a rugby team comprised of 14 teenagers from the Cordoba department, still one of the regions where violence is heaviest in Colombia, is touring England, where they will “collect experiences” to share with friends and other minors back in their local municipalities.
According to Ministry of the Exterior statistics, the program, part of a broader government plan to showcase Colombia on an international stage and encourage cultural exchange, has sent some 400 minors from across Colombia to 29 countries abroad, since its creation in 2011.
Social groups, too, are attempting to use sport to engage Colombian youth torn by conflict.
The Nation Organization for Indigenous Colombians (ONIC), for example, will play host to the first ever Indigenous Copa America next spring, in part to stave off the widespread recruitment of indigenous teens by rebel groups. The armed conflict, says the ONIC, continues to exert disproportionate pressures on Colombia’s indigenous communities, many of which are at risk of extinction.
While, sport-oriented outreach has drawn attention within Colombia, though, it’s unclear how effective a strategy it will be in the absence of other, more comprehensive solutions.
The Colombian government has been quick to capitalize on the publicity Sports Diplomacy has received in national publications, like the one that included the initiative in its list of the “100 Ideas That Are Changing The World”. But neither the Chancellor’s office nor the Ministry of the Exterior have made available any longitudinal statistics suggesting the program’s efficacy, and critics bemoan a lack of thorough rural development and investment, a problem they say is largely responsible for allowing violence to continue.
In the very Cordoba department that produced the rugby team currently visiting London, for example — and indeed, in several of the municipalities where the players themselves come from — community organizers have spent over a decade pleading for assistance to stem what international watchdogs have called a “human rights crisis”.
In the same week that 14 local teenagers toured the British countryside scrimmaging English rugby teams, human rights groups in Cordoba reported several incidents of paramilitary units working in conjunction with military forces to intimidate and threaten local labor organizers — a well-documented practice reports indicate has gone unchecked for years now, often preceding other documented incidents of real and gruesome violence and human rights abuse.
As one human rights worked who’s collaborated with Sport Diplomacy programming– and asked to remain anonymous, because she does not speak for her organization — told Colombia Reports, “[The program] is good. It’s fine. Anything that helps is good, especially for the children. And for some, it’s a great opportunity to travel, and see things they would never be able to. The kids like sports, and it’s good to get them involved. But we need real help, especially from the government — real solutions. Soccer balls can’t fix everything.”
- Interview with anonymous community organizer
- El rugby, una herramienta de inclusion social (Kien y Ke)
- Chanciller of Colombia official website
- Official website of the President of the Republic