My birthplace — Bello, Colombia — whose name means “Beautiful” — was declared one of the world’s 10 most dangerous cities in 1995. I graduated as a Psychologist in Colombia in 1992. At the graduation ceremony in Medellín, I was privileged to be asked to deliver the graduation speech.In that speech I said that as psychologists we are invited and responsible to discover all the human dimensions and connections to help others achieve health, love, peace, calm and happiness. However because of the violence in our country, there were tragic obstacles keeping our people from achieving their life goals. As such, I declared that my fellow psychologists and I were going to cure Bello of gang violence and death from the cartel.
But after drug king Pablo Escobar’s death in 1993, the killing in Bello and Medellin became worse and broke records, making our crime statistics the worst in Colombia’s history. I couldn’t just hang my diploma on the wall and start recruiting patients; instead, I went out into Bello’s mean streets to find out how I could address the bigger problem.
The young men opened up to me with their stories and talked about how life meant nothing to them – not theirs and certainly not the lives of those they were required to murder by the “important” men who paid them with wads of cash and provided them with “fine” firearms.
In 1997, I was kidnapped by the Colombian Guerrillas. It was the longest 6 hours of my life. Realizing that I was about to be killed, it became real to me that I had only that moment — the spark of life. I learned that tomorrow doesn’t exist, my career, experience and passion that I had yesterday couldn’t come and save me that day. I knew that my spark of life would end when the guerrillas decide to shoot me. I was not the owner of my life anymore and I learned that life is a privilege, a gift from God that may last a minute, an hour or 100 years.
Since that moment I’ve learned to treasure every minute of my life as a spark of life
— As an opportunity to focus on what I love and what makes me happy.
I named this project, Human Vision Decontamination, and persuaded the Colombian government to endorse it. The Human Vision Decontamination program offered an opportunity to these toughened young adults to transform their lives. They felt like they had no choices in life, but this program gave them a choice and a possibility at a better life.
We flew willing young street kids to Israel, where they went through an intense program building self-awareness and learning how to collaborate with people very different from them. They learned that it was a much more pleasant alternative to murder for money. The program also provided leadership training enabling these young men to return to Colombia and work with and influence another 500 young adults.
The homicide rate in Bello plummeted by 30% as a result of this program. The project was recognized by the Colombian government as the most creative and effective youth intervention initiative in the country.
The success of the program, however, caught the attention of the “important” men who controlled the city, annoying and frustrating them. I received a phone call saying they didn’t mind me alive, but not in Bello.
With that threat I fled to suburban New York City in 2000. Since then my return trips have kept the flame alive among the program’s original workers and their recruits. Meanwhile I continue to spread the word of the program’s success at conferences in Spain, Israel, the USA and Colombia.
Through Human Vision Decontamination I am proud that we were able to intervene with these young people in Colombia to find their spark — that they matter — that they can change their vision of themselves and others — that they are beautiful human beings.