True cost of Scotland’s cocaine: Street children are the victims

True cost of Scotland’s cocaine: Street children are the victims

COLOMBIA’S street children are exposed to a distressing daily diet of drugs, prostitution and violence.

Kids as young as six sleep on the streets of Medellin and huddle together in a desperate bid to stay warm.

Largely ignored by locals and known as "disposables", their harrowing stories will chill the blood of every parent.

They are victims – of the killings, poverty and corruption that surrounds the cocaine business.

With so many orphaned by violence, they end up sleeping rough and, with a sad inevitability, soon end up taking drugs and falling into prostitution.

One girl who has been robbed off her childhood is 11-year-old Juanita.

She was playing with her little brother Enrique, at Casa Walsingham, the HQ of charity Let The Children Live! when Father Peter Walters introduced her.

Juanita was too embarrassed to talk until Enrique, eight, was put out of the room.

Nervously, she said: "I used to sniff alot of glue. I was introduced to it by a friend when I was 10.

"I then became involved in prostitution. About three months ago, I was very concerned that I was pregnant but it turned out I was not."

Last month, Juanita was stabbed in the arm by another girl on the streets.

She also deliberately cut her own wrist in a bid to kill herself.

Juanita’s harrowing story began when she moved from the countryside to Medellin after her father was murdered.

He was a victim of the drug-fuelled violence which plagues Colombia and, like many thousands of others, his family fled to the city to safety. But their hope turned to despair.

Martin Gonzalez, the charity’s chief street educator, said: "When I met Enrique, he was seven and going to different day centres.

"But they got fed-up with him because he was a tremendous handful and he kept getting expelled for fighting and bad language.

"He started sniffing glue when he was seven and he always had a bottle with him."

Project workers managed to tame the tearaway and even arranged hospital treatment for him recently after he suffered an ear infection.

Both children are now back living with their mother.

Jose is one of the best examples of the difference the charity can make.

A shooting in the street had left him with a large scar and one leg 7cm shorter than the other.

He said: "I was selling sweets in the street. I don’t know if it was a stray bullet or aimed at me. I lost feeling in my leg and fell to the ground."

Today, Jose, 14, is one of eight children who live at Casa Bannatyne.

He has a plate in his leg and, with the support of the charity, has since had surgery to correct the difference between his legs.

The residential home was bought by Fr Walters after Dragons’ Den star Duncan Bannatyne donated £60,000 to the charity in 2004.

Half the charity’s £400,000 income comes from kind-hearted Scots.

Fr Walters and his 50-strong team are helping around 800 people, many of whom they have found during weekly dawn patrols, where they hand out rolls and hot chocolate.

Gabi, 17, was taken under the wing of the team last year when she was seven months pregnant. She now has aseven-month-old baby.

She first tried marijuana at the age of seven and was using it seriously by 11. Then it was glue and cocaine.

She said: "I became involved in prostitution when I was 12. I was hooked on drugs and I had to pay for my habit."

This went on for four years and, on agood day, she would earn £11.

The Gomez family, who were displaced from the countryside as a result of the violence, were also helped by the charity. They had spent eight years living under a bridge in Medellin with their four kids.

After being found by the charity last year, they were given a flat – the first time their eight-year-old son had lived in a house with a window.

Fr Walters said: "The youngest children we have found living alone on the streets are six-year-olds.

"We consider ourselves the organisation of last resort.Our idea is that we never give up with a child."

But his job is getting harder and a lack of funds has meant building work on an extension to Casa Walsingham has been stalled.

But his first and last concern is the children – and right now he is worried that the speed with which they are going on to hard drugs is quickening.

Fr Walters said: "Children who go on to the street generally go through a process.

"They start sniffing glue and that is almost compulsory because if they don’t sniff glue, the other children will reject them.

"They will go from glue to marijuana and then bazuco, which is the by-product from cocaine and heroin.

"It used to be a gradual process and once a child gets to the bazuco stage, it is very, very hard to help him or her.

"But a process that used to take months or years is, in some cases, only taking weeks because there are many more places they can find it."

Fr Walters has an affinity with Scotland. His mother, who died last May at the age of 92 while visiting him, was from Corstorphine, Edinburgh.

But he wants more users to realise the heartache their habit is causing.

Fr Walters said: "We feel very strongly that the people who buy drugs in countries like Scotland are fuelling the violence and corruption that causes so much misery here.

"They are the ones who I hold accountable for the suffering and death of so many children over here.

"Colombia gets a very bad press but most Colombians in no way benefit from drugs.

"They just suffer from all the violence and the poverty and the corruption that it causes."

Arley Hernandez was the first street kid Fr Walters met when he started working in Medellin.

Arley, who the priest called his "eldest son", spent seven years with the charity and managed to break away from drugs and street life.

But, while working in the town of Arauca, on the Venezualan frontier, he was shot 23 times.

No one was ever charged over his killing. Fr Walters carried out his own inquiries and, the next day, someone he had spoken to was killed.

Arley’s ashes were interred in the chapel at Casa Walsingham.

A plaque to commemorate his life features a quote from a Colombian song.

It reads: "If you want me to improve my failures and my errors, give me time and see if I can fly."

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