Red Juvenil, or Youth Network, was founded in 1990 in the poor barrios of Medellín, Colombia, “to promote youth participation in political life,” says the Red’s Milena Meneses, a political science student at the National University who also teaches inmates in Medellín’s prisons about their human rights. “We promote an alternative youth culture to that of gangs and sicarios,” or hired assassins, she says. “We use theater and art to reach out to the city’s youth, and we are tied to the larger popular movement of the left in the barrios.” Many members of the Red are former gang members who found new direction after experiencing a Red presentation in Medellín’s schools.
Medellín’s poor barrios are as much a part of Colombia’s war as the campesino communities across the countryside. Medellín’s Zona Centro Oriental, where the Red was founded, was the site of the 1992 Villatina massacre. Nine youths were killed by police in civilian clothing in an act of “social cleansing” against gangs and lumpen culture. The families were eventually indemnified after the city government was forced to concede complicity in the massacre.
October 2002 saw an army sweep code-named Operation Orion in Medellín’s Comuna 13 district, which had become a stronghold of an urban guerrilla militia known as the People’s Armed Commandos. Days of street fighting left as many as 35 dead. In this and other outlying poor districts that climb the steep hills overlooking the city center, the notorious Metro Bloc of the right-wing paramilitary group, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), is waging a quiet war of extermination against street gangs and urban guerrillas. Red Juvenil is part of a network of community centers in these violence-ravaged districts attempting to promote education, self-help and human rights.
The Red also organizes support for Colombia’s conscientious objectors to the military draft. Eighteen months of military service is obligatory at the age of 18, and those who do not enlist lose their right to work or attend university. The Red was among the groups that supported Colombia’s first conscientious objector in 1996, Luis Gabriel Caldas, who deserted from the army and served seven months in a military prison the same year.
Like the Peace Communities now dotting rural Colombia, Milena says the Red promotes “active neutrality in the war as a posture for the popular movements.” The Red has hosted several national meetings in Medellín, such as the December 1999 Youth at the Millennium conference and concert, and the International Conference on Active Nonviolence and Resistance to War held August 11-16, 2003. The latter conference brought together anti-militarist and human rights activists from all over Colombia—most of whom were in their twenties, and some even younger. Also in attendance were young draft resisters and their supporters. Every July 20 the Red protests Medellín’s Independence Day military parade, standing along the parade route with signs bearing anti-militarist slogans, such as “Ningún ejercito defenda la paz” (No army defends peace).
One challenge for the Red has been the official embrace of the term “nonviolence” by Antioquia’s government. With aid from the King Center in Atlanta, Georgia, Antioquia’s Governor Guillermo Gaviria Correa encouraged local community assemblies in the department’s 124 municipalities to discuss national problems and promote a “road to nonviolence.” In April 2002, guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) detained Gaviria and his peace advisor Gilberto Echeverri Mejia, a former defense minister, as the two were accompanying church leaders and some 1,000 supporters on a cross-country march to promote the “nonviolence” campaign. Gaviria and Echeverri were abducted 45 miles northwest of Medellín. In May 2003, they were among ten hostages killed by the FARC during an army rescue attempt. Gaviria has become very popular in martyrdom, and Antioquia’s interim governor is carrying on the campaign.
Because Gaviria was from the same Liberal Party as Colombia’s ultra-hardline President Alvaro Uribe, the Red Juvenil finds that the official “nonviolence” campaign has in some ways made their work more difficult. Says the Red’s Adriana Castaño Roman, who recently completed law school: “It puts us in a paradoxical position. The communications media are in their hands, so they are changing the popular perception of nonviolence. They certainly do not support the right of conscientious objection. And it’s especially easy to dismiss us because we are young.”
Still, Adriana claims the Red Juvenil’s efforts are beginning to have an impact in terms of popular consciousness in Medellín and Antioquia, and mainstream legitimization of the term “nonviolence” has also allowed the Red to assert a dissident alternative to the official campaign “Now we are acknowledged as having at least a minority position,” she says. “Even if they call us anarchists and utopians.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bill Weinberg is author of Homage to Chiapas: The New Indigenous Struggle in Mexico (Verso Books, 2000) and editor of the online weekly World War 3 Report (www.ww3report.com). He is currently working on a new book for Verso on popular resistance to Plan Colombia.