Flowers are cultivated in the environs of Medellin. Flowers that are exported to the United States and elsewhere; a flourishing business. Drugs are exported from the city itself! Medellin is the distribution centre of most of South America's drug trade. Nearly all drugs exported to North America and Europe are controlled by the Drug Barons of this city.
Of the suburbs of Medellin, Aures is one of the most violent. Ask a taxi driver to take you up its precipitous slopes after 8 o'clock at night, and like as not you'll get a surly refusal - unless he knows of Don Bosco City, and the work it does.
I don't know whether the farsighted Salesian founders of Don Bosco City 30 years ago deliberately chose Aures because of its reputation. But there it is! An oasis of calm, of constructive work, of hopefulness and of faith in a desert of gun fire, of destruction, of deprivation and of crumbling families.
Who are the people who get killed in the drug-related gun fights and brawls? Why, the fathers of the teeming youngsters in the slums. What happens to them when Dad gets killed? When Mum finds she has to spend long hours, from the very early morning till way into the night, hawking a few vegetables or some of those flowers on the streets of Medellin? When Mum perhaps takes in a new boyfriend who dislikes his stepchildren, or abuses them? When Mum possibly turns to prostitution to earn the housekeeping money? Why, they give up, they run away, they abandon the disintegrated family. They drift on to the streets. They become gamines - guttersnipes.
They live on the street it becomes their home. The gutter becomes their life, the filth of the gutter becomes part of their nature. The grime of the street gets ingrained in their souls. Within days they are on drugs themselves; glue as a minimum. A gang will buy a can of DIY glue and share it amongst themselves. They put it into bottles, and hide it under their tee-shirts. They guard it with their lives. They will sniff it constantly. It turns them high. It eases their pain. It masks their loneliness; it gives them security. It becomes their Teddy Bear, their comfort rag. And soon they are on to harder drugs.
How do they eat? Why, they pilfer, they shoplift. They become muggers. These are no angels these boys. They are filthy dirty. They are foul mouthed. They are aggressive , with one another no less than with those they meet. They smell. They are not popular. City worthies want to get rid of them. There are campaigns to 'street cleanse' them. They are the victims of violence. They disappear. Hooligans shoot them. Their bodies are found on dumps, in the gutter: Nelson, December 1993, Nancy, October 1994, Diego, November 1995, Herson, May 1996. All children I have known.
Trying to help them is not easy. Adults are the cause of their troubles. They took away their security. They are the source of the violence they suffer. They do not relate to adults they are suspicious. They are wary. But the Salesians are not in Aures for nothing They are not the sons of St John Bosco for nothing. Caring for street children is in Salesian blood. And they are not alone.
Working with them is Fr Peter Walters, an Englishman who is now secular priest of the diocese of Medellin, and whose vocation, too, is to work with the street children of Colombia. He is doing so, because they helped him in his need. As a young student for the Anglican ministry, exploring Colombia fifteen years ago, he found himself with his pocket money gone and two weeks to wait for his return flight. He ended up sleeping rough and eating every second day. It was the gamines who befriended him and showed him the ropes. When one of them had a fit and almost died at his feet, he carried him off to hospital, and found that the cost of the cure was only 10 pence! He had low blood sugar and all he needed was some glucose.
"Why was no-one else helping the street children?" he asked angrily. And he determined to do something about it. Fr Peter through Let the Children Live! has helped develop and finance the Salesian initiatives in getting the gamines out of the gutter. They have initiated a stairway, a rescue ladder of five rungs, aiming to raise the sights of the gamine from the gutter, gradually up the hillsides, to that pinnacle in Aures - to Don Bosco City - where there is hope, where there is a future.
Work begins when the boys are at their most vulnerable - very early in the morning and very late at night, three times each week. A little knot of people sets off from the playground of a former Salesian school, adjacent to the Church of our Lady Help of Christians (where Fr Peter said his First Mass last September), to find the bundles of rags and cardboard and plastic - looking for all the world like body-bags left by some defeated army - which are the sleeping children of God, and beginning to befriend them with a cheery joke, a cup of hot chocolate and some biscuits.
After many weeks of this some boys will be persuaded that some adults are trustworthy This trust, gained from these 'Friendship Walks' is the first rung on the rescue ladder. The second rung for them is to risk a step inside the school playground - to risk a day in safety! To take a step inside to a drug-free day, to a day of friendship, to a day with showers, to wash themselves and the rags they wear. A day with two hot meals and endless football.