In Altos de Cazuca, a shantytown in Bogotá, Colombia known for its violent criminal activity, children are choosing soccer balls over guns, thanks to a program by non-profit, Tiempo de Juego.
Tiempo de Juego, or "game time" in English, is an organization established in 2006 as a project for the Communication for Development program by the Universidad de la Sabana in Bogotá. After three years of studying the Cazuca slums, it became apparent that the two main contributing factors to violence in the area were the youth's lack of education and excess free time. Gang activity, rape, murder, drug trafficking, and early pregnancies are all prevalent problems in the neighborhood.
"I realized that kids had too much free time and this made them vulnerable and easily recruited by gangs and paramilitary groups," said Tiempo de Juego founder, Andres Wiesner in an interview with Al Jazerra. "We understood that occupying their free time with football [soccer] and the arts would be the best instrument to move them away from the evils of the neighborhood."
These days, children as young as five and teenagers up to the age of 18, have other options. Tiempo de Juego established a community center where classes in art, cinema, computers, crafts, music, literature and dance take place. The professional soccer field, as well as free cleats and uniforms for players, has attracted over 700 youth who play on teams. According to the Tiempo de Juego website, the foundation uses the Football for Peace methodology which, while teaching soccer skills, seeks to instill values such as solidarity, fair play, team work, gender equity, winning with humility, accepting defeat with dignity, tolerance and respect.
"If they changed their gun for a ball, then everybody can do it," said Cazuca resident Julio Pinilla, gesturing toward children wearing soccer uniforms.
"And if we all do it," Pinilla continued, "Cazuca as a whole can change."
Tracy López is a bilingual writer living outside the Washington DC metro area. She is the founder of Latinaish.com.