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Colombia tells a story of mutual rescue

Posted August. 12, 2013 07:00,   


This is a story of two unlikely allies, the wealthy executive and mother, and the prostitute and drug smuggler, who rescued each other.

A decade ago, Latin American country Colombia was torn apart by civil war and narco-trafficking. One of Colombia`s problems was an enormous gap between rich and poor, and elites who dealt with poverty built higher walls around the poor people.

That ethos began to change and Colombia was stabilizing. One evidence is that an increasingly popular destination for tourism is Cartagena, a port city famous for its Old Spanish walls and cobblestone streets. Changes in Colombia are still in progress since the country has enormous problems due to gang violence in the slums.

In Colombia, one of the successful women was Catalina Escobar. She was rich, beautiful and American-educated, and ran an international trading company. She had an adorable 17-month-old son, Juan Felipe. Unfortunately, in one day in 2000, Juan Felipe tumbled over a balcony of her home and died.

Escobar spiraled into grief, compounded by something she couldn`t get out of her head. Just a few days earlier, as a volunteer at a hospital, Escobar had encountered a teenage mother who had lost a baby because she couldn`t afford a medicine costing 30 dollars. Escobar was crushed by the realization that in poor neighborhoods, the death of a child was a common event.

Escobar ultimately channeled her empathy by starting the Juan Felipe Gomez Escobar Foundation, to memorialize her son and help teenage mothers in Cartagena break the cycle of poverty, by offering them job training, health care and child care.

The program was transformative for young women like Yurleidys Penaloza. Despite being grew up in the slums, she was smart and bold. At age 7, a relative began raping her regularly. Finally, at age 9, she walked into a police station and announced that she wanted to report a family member for rape, and the relative was imprisoned. Yet this did not end the oppression of poverty. A few years later, Penaloza`s mother needed 400 dollars in medical treatment. At age 12, Penaloza dropped out of school and became a prostitute, being used for drug smuggling. On one smuggling trip, she and a teenage partner were pursued by police, who shot her partner dead and tortured Penaloza with red-hot iron rods.

Penaloza started over after getting out of prison. A 14-year-old ex-prostitute and ex-drug smuggler, she returned to school and eventually found a place in Escobar`s Juan Felipe foundation, where she received training to work. Currently, she`s interning as a waitress at a fine coffee shop.

Penaloza seems to have snapped that cycle of poverty, thanks to her grit and to Escobar. Meanwhile, Escobar has also found a path out of her grief by working with these girls from the slums. "It`s my therapy," Escobar said. Colombia has turned around as well. Colombia`s wealthy shoulders a security tax to pay for improved policing and foundations are sprouting to address social problems. Escobar has turned a tragedy into inspiration and also reminded people that rich and poor alike ultimately share the same boat, and the same obligation to help each other.