Volume 19 Number 4
Standing up for the Ghetto
01 August 2006

He was born in Cali, one of the biggest cities in Colombia, and has lived in Comuna 16 for many years. Life expectancy in the ghettos in this district of Cali is around 22 years.

JAIR HERNÁNDEZ BARONA looks around the office in London where he is going to talk about his work as a human rights activist, then he points to his bag and observes: ‘This is my office, it's all I take on the streets’.

He was born in Cali, one of the biggest cities in Colombia, and has lived in Comuna 16 for many years. Life expectancy in the ghettos in this district of Cali is around 22 years.

Hernández’s own childhood was marked by poverty and, despite the fact that he does not smoke or drink, he had to sell marijuana in order to pay for his studies. When he joined the Grutela theatre group as an Afro-Caribbean dancer, his life took a different course. The group shaped him socially and politically and it was with them that he visited Comuna 16 for the first time. As a result, he founded La Casa de la Juventud de la Comuna 16 (The House of Youth of Comuna 16), which runs projects for children, women, indigenous communities and ‘high risk’ youngsters.

Drug trafficking permeates every area of society. Most of the homicides committed are directly linked to disputes and vendettas between drug gangs fighting for control of the cocaine market and the trade routes.

Hernández’s main passion is working with teenagers and young adults, who are routinely exposed to drugs, delinquency, street violence and police corruption. Alternatives are limited. The government does not offer accessible educational programmes where they can develop artistic or other skills. Public activities such as improvised street concerts and break-dance gatherings are repressed.

The common name for the youths who live in ghettos is desechables or ‘disposable people’: the police can kill, torture or beat them because their lives do not have any value. ‘Many human rights are abused in Colombia,’ says Hernández, ‘but the one that is more abused than any other is the right to live.’ He works not only with gang members informing them about their rights, but also with police officers. ‘The police are ignorant of what they can and can’t do in their profession; they ask me: “Why do you defend delinquents and not us?”’ They assume youngsters are delinquents just by the way they dress; and they feel they can bully them. Sometimes they take young guys to the police station and produce false documents saying that they found them with drugs. Later, they ask their families to pay for them to be released,’ says Hernández.

La Casa de la Juventud offers spaces where young boys and girls can create a community life and show off their talents as rappers, hip-hoppers and graffiti artists. Zona Marginal, now a popular band in the underground Latin American music scene, was born in La Casa de la Juventud.

Because of his work, Hernández has been threatened by paramilitary forces and some years ago he was forced to flee to Switzerland. But he did not stay away from Cali for long.

Hernández does not have a salary because working in a normal place would not allow him to be available 24 hours a day. Instead, he is supported by his wife, who is a nurse, and from time to time he gets some remuneration from international NGOs. One can hardly imagine that such a man has to be accompanied by three bodyguards when he works.

When he visits Switzerland he enjoys hiking. ‘Sometimes I go out on my own and I cry and cry. In Colombia I’m like a cup into which people pour all their problems. Here I can take distance and give myself some time to reflect.’

But as he says: ‘I’m not interested in staying in Switzerland eating chocolate.’
Andrea Cabrera Luna

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