Johan Benitez knows what it’s like to live by the law of the gun. But he also knows that there is hope.

Benitez, who lives in the city of Medellin, Colombia, was addicted to cocaine and carrying a gun by the age of 11.

When one of his brothers, a gang member, was tortured and murdered, it was expected that Benitez would seek vengence for his death. Instead, Benitez was introduced by a friend to Club Deportivo, a Christian sports club based in the city targeting children and youth at risk which, for the past five years, which has been working in partnership with the UK-based Christian relief and development agency Tearfund.


KICKING GOALS: Youths playing football at Club Deportivo in Medellin. PICTURE: Jim Loring (Tearfund)

“Playing football is absolutely key to keeping children from what happened to me,” says Johan Benitez. “I would have been dead because of the life I lived. There were 40 people in my gang. There are only two of us left.”

It was a move which transformed his life and led Benitez, now aged in his 20s and a Christian, to want to offer the same hope to others.

Benitez is now a coach at Club Deportivo which, for the past couple of years, has run a soccer competition called the Peace Negotiators’ Cup.

Involving up to 1,000 boys and girls aged from below 10 to 18 and over, the aim of cup competition is to teach children how to sort out their differences without resorting to a gun. Instead, in games which have no referee, they are encouraged to use mediation and other non-violent techniques to sort out any issues that arise under the guidance of one of the leaders of the club.

“Playing football is absolutely key to keeping children from what happened to me,” says Benitez, who alongside his involvement at Club Deportivo, is a professional, FIFA-accredited, referee.

“I would have been dead because of the life I lived. There were 40 people in my gang. There are only two of us left.”

Benitez’s story is not unusual in Colombia where, according to information from the Conflict Analysis Resource Center in Colombia and the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey, more than 475,000 people were killed by the use of firearms between 1979 and 2005.

A recent report from the groups says that civil conflict - involving the government, rebel groups and drug lords - has claimed just over 38,800 persons since 1988, meaning that the greater threat to human security “is actually posed by criminal violence, both organised and common”.

It’s estimated that there are roughly four million guns - including about 2.4 million unregistered weapons - in the country which has a population of about 46 million.

Club Deportivo developed the Peace Negotiators' Cup in a bid to help children break away from the culture of violence in Medellin. Known as the “city of eternal gunfire”, in 2003 it was reported that there were as many as 15 killings in the urban area every day.

Each team in the competition chooses a leader and then shares with them the rules they would like to play by. Both team leaders then meet and agree to the game’s rules before play commences. Children are encouraged to intervene as a group if violence looks likely between particular players and if people are playing unfairly, they are brought together and confronted by their team mates.

Another of the club’s coaches, Danilo Valencia, is a former crack addict and thief who witnessed his mother stab a woman to death in the street and whose 17-year-old son was killed in crossfire between two armed groups.

“Sometimes the social injustice people experience deepens their violent streak,” he says. “With the club, the children enter a different dynamic than just hanging around the streets, carrying arms for adults or smoking marijuana. Becoming a good sports person is becoming a good citizen.”

Steve Collins, from Tearfund, says the competition is playing a “crucial part” in helping young people learn how to resolve their differences without resorting to violence.

‘”They are getting skills which enable them to interact with each other and stand up for their rights in a way which emphasises mediation and non-violent conflict resolution,” he says.

“Tearfund is priviledged to work with a club which uses the beautiful game not just for enjoyment but also to save young lives.”