Child of the Coca Culture

Tuesday, December 4, 2001

T. Christian Miller

The Los Angeles Times

BOGOTA, Colombia — The girl named after a theme park knows things that many
other girls do not.

She knows that your hands turn yellow when you pick coca leaves all day. She
knows what it feels like to be groped by strange men in a brothel. And she
knows the trauma of losing two stepfathers to the violence of this country's
endless civil war.

Her name is Disney, and her story stretches from the cocaine labs of the
south to a rundown bordello in the capital's industrial heart. She is
growing up in one of the hardest places in the world to be a child:
Colombia.

More than 1 million children have been forced to flee their homes in recent
years because of the war. Eleven thousand more fight as soldiers. More than
2,500 younger than 18 die in homicides each year. One child is kidnapped and
held for ransom every other day.

In a country with the world's largest illegal drug trade, an alarming crime
rate and a 40-year war between leftist rebels and the government, children's
problems tend to be forgotten. As a result, Colombia's future can be seen
begging on street corners, for sale in dimly lighted whorehouses and
shrouded in black plastic body bags on jungle battlegrounds.

"The suffering is tremendous, especially for the youngest children," said
Ennio Cufino, deputy director of the UNICEF office in Colombia. "They live
in a climate of violence where anyone might be killed."

Disney is one of the lucky ones. She was rescued from the bordello and
placed in a rehabilitation program for children involved in Colombia's sex
trade. She will graduate this month to search for a new life.

In that way also, Disney is different from Colombia's other children of
violence. She has a chance.

"I feel like the old part of my life is over," Disney, now 17, said one
recent afternoon. Her last name is not being used because women who have
worked in prostitution are stigmatized in Colombia, a staunchly Roman
Catholic country. "Now I have to get on with my own life."

Cocaine has been a part of Disney's life from birth.

Her family, like tens of thousands of others in southern Colombia, were
small-time coca farmers, growing a few acres of the scrubby, green bush that
is the base for cocaine and working on bigger farms at harvest time.

By the time she was 8, Disney was working as a raspachin — a coca picker. It
is backbreaking work, requiring laborers to straddle the 5-foot plants and
strip off the rough leaves. It would blister her hands and stain them
yellow.

It is a measure of her involvement in the business that she can still recite
the names of the chemicals used to turn the leaves into coca paste: sulfuric
acid, gasoline, sodium carbonate and other ingredients.

"It never bothered me too much. I didn't get rashes like some of the other
people," said Disney, whose mother took the name from the California theme
park because she liked the way it sounded.

When Disney turned 9, her mother and stepfather moved farther south to a
village in Putumayo, a province that long has been a front in Colombia's
war, which pits leftist guerrillas against the government and right-wing
paramilitary groups. Disney's father abandoned the family when she was 3.

Putumayo is frontier country, a lawless sprawl of rolling green hills, heavy
jungle and flowing rivers along the Ecuadorean border. It produced nearly
half of the world's cocaine supply until the crop was sharply cut back by a
U.S.-financed aerial fumigation program.

When the family arrived, the lot they bought was virgin jungle. They hacked
out a clearing and built a house of plain wood planks. There was no running
water, electricity or telephone. The nearest school was an hour's trudge
away on muddy roads. Disney made the trip often enough to finish fifth
grade — her last year of schooling.

Their town, El Vergel, was under the control of rebels with the
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the largest guerrilla army.
The rebels were, in every way, the law. They controlled who entered and left
the town. They set curfews. They settled disputes.

So when Disney's first stepfather began beating her mother, the woman
complained to the guerrillas. Disney remembers a few of them visiting the
house and warning her stepfather.

A short while later, her stepfather lost his temper and beat her mother
again. He disappeared a few days later.

She recounted the incident matter-of-factly, as one would talk about a
friend who got a traffic ticket.

"They told him, 'You have to behave, or we'll kill you.' And then they
killed him because he broke their rules," Disney recalled. "The guerrillas
solved a lot of problems that way."

Disney's mother, Judith, soon began living with another man, Efren Camilo.
Judith began to suspect that Camilo was attracted to Disney, who said the
two had a close relationship, but nothing sexual.

In any case, mother and daughter began quarreling. Disney's rehabilitation
counselor, Viviana Blanco, said poverty in rural areas often turns women
against their teenage daughters in competition for a man's attention.

"In some cases, [mothers] have to sacrifice their kids in order to continue
having husbands and the economic stability that they represent," she said.

The matter came to a head one night when Disney was 12. Her mother exploded,
hitting her with the flat edge of a machete. Disney fled to a neighbor's
home, then returned, only to have her mother chase her out.

"Don't go to the neighbors and don't run to anybody in our family!" she
recalled her mother screaming. "I don't want to see you anymore."

That was more or less the end of Disney's childhood.

She worked briefly as a maid for a family friend before taking a job as a
waitress at a discotheque in a ramshackle village on the Caqueta River, a
principal transit point for the drugs and guns that feed Colombia's war.

The disco was a favorite hangout for the FARC's 15th Front, one of its
oldest and best- financed units. The fighters, many in their teens,
impressed Disney. They were poor rural farmers just like her, but different:
They had money, guns and respect.

"It seemed to me like they were good people," she said.

One young guerrilla, who went by the alias "the Swan," befriended her and
showed her how to take a gun apart and put it back together. Disney can
still explain how to slip a clip into an AK-47 or clean a trigger mechanism.

He wanted her to join the guerrillas but told her that if she signed up, she
could never leave. Instead, Disney decided to accept the offer of another
friend she had met at the disco, a teenager who promised she could get them
both jobs in a cafeteria in faraway Bogota.

"I was bored where I was," she said. "I always dreamed about going to other
places."

She arrived in Bogota in March 2001, astounded at the busy streets and
soaring brick skyscrapers and unused to the cold mountain air. Her friend
took her to a two-story building in one of Bogota's industrial districts.

Inside, Disney found herself surrounded by mirrors, half- naked women and
drunken men. The friend said she was going out to look for work, then
vanished, never to be seen again.

Disney had been abandoned in a brothel in a strange city. She was 14.

"It was a horrible place, filled with drugs and prostitutes," Disney said.
"On this stage, the women were doing striptease."

Disney was put to work selling drinks to men. Working from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m.,
she got $3 a night, plus 30 cents for each drink the men bought. All she had
to do, she said, was sit and talk with the men while they drank, buying her
drinks as well.

In interviews, Disney said the men never touched her. But Blanco, the
rehabilitation counselor, said Disney has told her that the men would grope
her throughout the night.

"It was sexual abuse," Blanco said. "There is no other way to put it."

Disney spent about two weeks in the brothel before she was found by a worker
from Fundacion Renacer — the Rebirth Foundation — which makes regular rounds
through Bogota's brothels in search of children.

Disney — scared, sick and missing home — immediately accepted the offer of
shelter.

"We told the owner that we were taking her out for a medical checkup," said
Stella Cardenas, the foundation's director. "We never took her back."

Disney is small and solid, her dark hair cut in a girlish bob. She has a
broad, smooth face with high cheekbones and skin the color of wheat.

She is quiet and serious, rarely speaking unless spoken to. She listens to
vallenato, Colombia's twangy, accordion-based country music. But mostly she
studies and keeps to herself.

For 2½ years, she has risen through the rehab program's hierarchical
structure to become the leader of her residential facility, a modest,
two-story building in an older section of Bogota.

She spends her days with 30 other youths in classes or counseling sessions.
Some of the girls play hopscotch in the brick courtyard. Others choke down
HIV medicine in the nurse's office.

As part of the program, she and her mother reconciled recently. Judith made
the 11-hour bus trip to visit her daughter, and the two spent three days
together at the home. It was only the second time in three years that Disney
had seen her mom.

Mother and daughter made progress, but Disney won't be going home when she
graduates this month. She has no home to go back to.

Two years ago, right-wing paramilitary fighters killed her stepfather as he
was visiting his family's home in a nearby province — possibly because he
was suspected of being a guerrilla for having come from a rebel-held region.
Then, last year, armed men kicked her mother off the family farm, giving her
two hours to leave. The family now lives in a relative's one-room farmhouse
70 miles west of El Vergel.

Disney plans to live with an aunt in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in
southern Bogota. She hopes to find work in a restaurant or as a secretary —
anything, really, that will enable her to save enough money to go to college
someday.

Although only about half the girls in the program give up their work in the
sex trade, people who know Disney said they thought she would succeed.

"She is a good, dedicated student," said Ramiro Bustos, her math teacher.
"She has the ability to go far."

It's something that Disney herself believes.

"I want to better myself," she said. "There are lots of opportunities and
lots of ways to fail.

"Everything depends on me."