THE VIOLENCE comes from all sides in the Aguas Blancas slum of Cali, Colombia. Police. Urban militias. Gangs. But some of the young people are finding an answer in rap music. -----------------------------------------------------------------
CALI, Colombia - The lyrics are as harsh and unforgiving as the blighted urban landscape around the small concrete structure where a popular rap group sings and acts out the events of their daily lives: police drive-by shootings, gang wars, drug abuse.
"He said I was a thief, but all I did was smile. . . . Life here is made of killing, raping and getting high," sang Sweet Tang, a popular trio in the Aguas Blancas slum, one of the most violent neighborhoods in the most violent country in the Western Hemisphere.
Cali Rap Cartel
Sweet Tang and about a dozen other rap groups are part of a loosely connected musical phenomenon here called the Cali Rap Cartel - young people from the mean streets of the cocaine capital of the world. They are trying to use rap to help halt the storm of violence spawned by the cocaine and heroin cartels that have made Cali infamous.
The lyrics not only cry out against police brutality and gang warfare, they denounce drug use, the fast money handed out by drug barons and the abandonment of pregnant girlfriends - this in a neighborhood where almost every child is raised without a father.
"We are trying to create a conversation with people, so we sing about what we know: abortion, unemployment, drugs, killing," said Gerardo Moreno, the group's 19-year-old leader. "Music is a way to avoid violence; it . . . keeps us and, we hope, others from getting into trouble."
Trouble and violence are easy to find in this teeming slum. According to a Cali police report released last week, there were 1,838 killings in this city of 2 million in the first 10 months of 1996 - most of them in Aguas Blancas.
For decades, Cali thrived as a commercial and industrial center, and in recent years its growth was spurred by the infusion of millions of dollars provided by local drug barons.
In a neighborhood beset by chronic unemployment, the arrest of the cartel leaders has halted the economic activity they financed - from large-scale construction projects to the employment of bodyguards and drug runners.
80 percent jobless rate
Most of those on drug-trade payrolls, especially those with the prestigious job of bodyguard to a major trafficker, came from slums such as this one - a warren of narrow, rutted streets, tiny block-built houses and open sewers. Now, the easy drug-industry money is gone, unemployment hovers at about 80 percent, and the young men are left with their guns and few other marketable tools.
"The highest aspiration of a young person here used to be to become a bodyguard for a duro, a serious drug trafficker," said Francisco Murgueitio, who holds a special presidential appointment called adviser for peace in Cali. "Young people had a chance for easy money through criminal organizations, and that has influenced the paradigm of how to move up the economic ladder." `Social cleansing'
Life can be nasty and short in Aguas Blancas. Not only do policemen routinely drive through the slum shooting and beating up young men, but urban militia groups on campaigns of "social cleansing" wreak havoc, as do gangs warring gangs.
In their defense, police officials say the young men of the slum routinely attack them and are themselves the source of the plague of killing and robbing that afflicts the city.
Desperate to find a way out to break the pattern of violence, groups like Sweet Tang and others in the Rap Cartel have turned their energies to trying to change minds and outlooks.
Joint concerts with police
More than 20 such groups are now involved, and they have been joined in the effort by a number of policemen who have formed their own rap groups. The best known of these groups is Los Tombos del Rap, the rough equivalent of U.S. policemen calling themselves Rap Pigs.
"Rap is the only way we found to communicate" with the slum children, Murgueitio said. "The music shows clearly just how completely abandoned the young people are. As the communists used to say, we have to use every form of struggle, and rap has been the key to establishing new relations with the young people of Aguas Blancas."