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Colombia: Ministry of Defense turns to sports to combat gang recruitment of children

By Dialogo
November 11, 2013

Colombia’s Ministry of Defense recently launched a new initiative aimed at youths that promote sports and cultural activities to fight gang recruitment, illegal drug activity and teen pregnancy.
The initiative called “Playing for Life” launched in late October uses sports and cultural activities to teach values, religion and respect for the law to children. The desire to compete, outstanding teamwork and strong camaraderie were prevalent during a recent visit at one of the football matches.
“Children are very important for the Ministry of Defense, which is why we have launched this initiative based on sports to prevent the forced recruitment of minors,” Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón Bueno said during a radio interview on an Army station.
“Playing for Life. Your Responsibility Is to Have Fun,” opened in the 32 municipalities where guerrilla and organized crime groups were known to be recruiting youths. Throughout the week, children participated in games and football matches, representing schools from their municipalities.
The Air Force, police forces and municipal governments also supported the Ministry of Defense Group of Humanitarian Care for War Refugees in 13 of the 32 states.
Children were told to not let themselves be tricked or convinced by members of criminal organizations who claim to offer a good life. The youths were taught that a peaceful life comes from family, studying and living in a healthy way – free from drugs.
During the ceremonies in Puerto Carreño, Vice Minister of Defense Diana Margarita Quintero encouraged children to “fight for a future with dreams in which they can be the men and women who will change the country.”
Sports can significantly reduce the situations where children are vulnerable to threats and risks, Quintero said.
“The activities show that with their families, the schools and the authorities can build lives within the rule of law, have good values and love for their region,” according to a statement by the Colombian Air Force. “The purpose of “Playing for Life” is not to create great athletes but to help create a sense of belonging, build self-esteem and personal development for boys and girls who participate.”
More than 3,000 children received uniforms to be used during the competitions. The Army donated more than $400,000 USD to the communities for sports activities. All participants received medals and footballs. The Army gave away about 600 bicycles to the most outstanding participants.
“Participating in ‘Playing for Life’ was a great joy because I had not had a bike before; it was an important gift to reward my everyday work,” said one happy youth who competed in the state of Tolima from the Fifth Army Branch.

Football legend Mauricio ‘Chicho’ Serna talks to youths

Advisors from the Seventh Division Command, the Fourth Brigade and the Battalion No. 4 organized a concert as part of the “Playing for Life” program in the municipality of Briceño and invited one of the most popular football players in Colombia, Mauricio el “Chicho” Serna to speak.
Serna, who played for Deportivo Pereira and for Atlético Nacional, talked to about 700 youths from rural areas in Briceño. He said getting involved in “sports is a better alternative” than a life in gangs.

Officials hope the sports program will add to the military success of stopping the gang recruitment as well as motivate other youths to leave gangs.
In the first eight months of the year, the military removed 255 youths from criminal groups. Of those, 79.7 percent were taken from the FARC and the ELN. Guerrilla groups have started to recruit children as young as eight to make them part of their criminal organizations, according to the General Command of the Military Forces of Colombia.
“These programs are important and should be on-going so in the long term they may have a positive impact in communities, families and others who are part of criminal groups,” said Carolina Serrano, a researcher in peace building and post-conflict issues at the Colombia-based Ideas for Peace Foundation. “These cultural and sports programs must go hand-in-hand with educational training on peace and peace building. If we make people understand, then that understanding remains with them.”
Defense Minister Pinzón Bueno said he will continue to combat criminal groups, noting the military have forced thousands of long-time FARC and ELN guerrilla fighters and their leaders to move away.”

Dtbm. I congratulate this Ministry for the great work it has done in the community and for its vision to benefit the children and youth... I commit to God and to this Ministry in prayer... from Puerto Rico.