On Accepting Chance
Diego, 28, has survived in one of the toughest prisons in the world for three years because he plays football well. In Colombia, he is looking for quiet family life. But with the lockdown, he loses his job. A story about optimism in times of crisis.
The names of all protagonists have been changed to protect them from repression. Assistance: Tiziana Amico
A Spanish football team jersey has been hanging in a window of Diego's apartment since the end of March. "At first it was my son's pants," he says, but the jersey is bigger and garter. This is important because: "It shows that we need help." Colombia has been on lockdown for COVID-19 since March 25. But government aid has barely made it to the outskirts of the northern Colombian border town of Cúcuta. Diego will soon have to pay the next rent. He doesn't know where the money comes from
Every day, Diego, 28, went down before the lockdown by bike to the neighborhood where people can afford to order cocktails in bars. There he stood behind a counter, mixing gin and tonics, and his homemade drink “The Kiss”. Black, ten hours a day, paid in the minimum wage plus tip, even if he could no longer dress alone due to back problems.
He wants to give his son Mathias a future, he says. "His birth changed everything in my life." She helped him avoid certain people, let the past go. The child is also the main reason why Diego and his wife Amanda, 23, came here in the first place.
From Venezuela to Colombia.
From home to abroad.
When the two became a couple, Diego was still in prison. He ended up innocently there in 2013. "Why else would you release me after three years?" He asks. His car was involved in a kidnapping. You would normally be locked up for something like that for twenty years. For more tangible evidence, he says, he would have to put himself in danger again. "Only God and those who were there know how it really was." He could only ask to trust him. "I think you have to be honest."
Regardless of how guilty you are when you end up there: most Venezuelan prisons are overcrowded , controlled by gangs, plagued by violence and disease. In 2017 , construction workers discovered a mass grave in the prison, where Diego was also held. Some of the 15 bodies no longer had heads. A year earlier , inmates in the prison reported how the so-called Pranes, the heads of the prison gangs, made dead bodies disappear: break up the ground, stow away the dead bodies, cover them with lime and cement.
"He was known as a womanizer," recalls Amanda. "But he paid me a lot of attention." He regularly wrote to her about WhatsApp, and she went to visit him regularly. He cooked fried chicken with rice and potatoes, one of Amanda's favorite foods. You have noticed that there is more behind the facade of the womanizer. He, what really matters: That someone, despite the affairs, despite the prison sentence, is still behind him. "The prison has made Diego more mature," says Amanda. "Before that, everything was a game for him."
In Cúcuta they live like old people. "We go shopping together and walk in the park." They would just help themselves to find a new home. But whenever Diego talks about the past, he uses his thumb and forefinger to make a pistol.
Kidnapped by the police
When encountering FAES, a special unit of the Venezuelan police force, there are three options in many cases.
Option 1: you pay.
Option 2: You will be locked away.
Option 3: you die.
Diego knew that too, when he whimpered, with a pistol on his skull, that he shouldn't be killed. "I have a child," he said over and over and over again. For two days, he was locked up in an abandoned building just outside the Venezuelan capital of Caracas. His face covered. His body aching from the beatings he had received.
"I was so angry with him," says Amanda. "We had worked out a certain routine, some stability." All of this put Diego at risk when he tried to run a cocaine deal with an old friend. Mathias was born only three months earlier. Diego suspected from the beginning that something was wrong. But in Caracas, the city with one of the highest murder and crime rates in the world, it is not particularly difficult to make wrong decisions.
"We needed the money," Diego says simply.
If it were up to UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet, Diego could never have gotten into this situation. FAES would be dissolved. The suspicion is growing , she said , that the special unit is responsible for extrajudicial executions. Families of 20 young men independently described how masked officers drove into unmarked cars, broke into houses, and harassed women and girls who isolated and shot young men in the house. Guns and drugs were placed at the crime scenes. In order to fake a fight, the officers had bullet holes in the walls.
Venezuelan security forces have killed more than 18,000 people since 2016 because they "resisted state violence". More than in Brazil , where seven times as many people live. Michelle Bachelet fears that FAES could be used by the authorities to maintain social control.
Just outside of Caracas, in an abandoned building, Diego negotiated the price of his life. The officials wanted $ 20,000, Diego was making just 40 a month. But he did two things: to drop the officials down to $ 1,500 and get friends abroad to raise money. He could pay, he was released. Amanda had not known where he was for 48 hours. The two never entered the shared apartment in Caracas again.
Escape to a new life
Amanda and Mathias came to Colombia on foot in February 2019, as some 1.8 million other Venezuelans have done since the decline of their homeland. They crossed one of the three bridges at Cúcuta. Diego, without a passport, came across one of the illegal paramilitary guards through the river on the border. "I was very scared," he recalls. Again and again the "Paracos", as he calls the paramilitaries, would hang lists of names in the city on the other side of the river. Anyone who reads his name had to flee or he could be cut to pieces while he was alive.
In Colombia, mostly on the border with Venezuela, a Venezuelan is murdered every day . Researchers see the reasons for xenophobia, lack of access to jobs and social benefits. "People don't want to talk about their problems," says Diego, "that's why they talk about migrants." He was asked several times by strangers whether he was selling his body. Amanda didn't get a job because of her background. Unemployment in the Cúcuta district was 18 percent before the lockdown. Nevertheless, Diego found friends. It wasn't for the first time that his football talent helped him.
In order to get his family through, Diego smuggled into Colombia after his arrival. In the city on the other side of the river, he bought groceries and toilet paper and brought them to Colombia illegally. He had earned 10,000 to 15,000 pesos, three to five francs a day. But he worked his way up to the quarter with the bars, to his own apartment, to a new circle of friends.
September 2019, a derby is coming, without a referee. Diego's team against that of a neighboring district. "I've played football wherever I've ever been," says Diego. There, in Venezuela, where he managed to play in the second division and the pre-selection of the national team. There, in prison, where he was allowed to play in the Pranes team and made it up in their favor. Here, on the outskirts of Cùcuta, where dust dances in the spotlights when he passes the ball to his new friends.
On the concrete steps between the square and the street, where smugglers sell petrol during the day, a handful of spectators are waiting for the game to begin. Amanda and Mathias are also among them. Again and again Diego kicks the ball up. As a child, he once stopped brushing his teeth, he said shortly before. All good footballers would have had bad teeth. And Diego just wanted to be one thing: like her. He named his son after a professional player, "so that the name always drives him to sport." Diego's team won the derby 6: 4. Meanwhile, 150,000 Venezuelan soldiers are marching across the border on the orders of their president.
While still in prison, Diego joined the Free Convict rap crew. His first texts dealt with violence, brutality, his everyday life there. "Everyone has to do things in life that they don't want to do," says Diego. Especially where evil rules every step. The music helped him to process his surroundings without glorifying them. "Before I wrote, there was only soccer in my life." Diego had a new goal: to get better than the other inmates.
The prison is now a thing of the past, as are the words about violence and brutality. But there is still an environment that needs to be processed. In Cúcuta, where hundreds of other Venezuelans sleep on the streets, where thousands of them have to spend their meals to avoid starving, Diego writes about life as a migrant. It was important to him to bring a different perspective, then in prison to today in Cúcuta. He wants to create added value for society and be a role model for his son.
"Relatives of the migrants who have suffered, struck by all the known evil, despite the hunger that we have not given up, are welcome to see the change that music makes by turning the negative into positive."
- Excerpt from one of Diego's texts
There is a Bible in Diego's kitchen. On the open page it says: "Even if a thousand fall to your side and ten thousand to your right, it will not affect you." The lockdown in Colombia lasts at least until July 1st. It hits people hardest in the illegal and informal economy. Almost all of Diego's neighbors also hung red rags or towels in their windows. "God willing," says Diego, everything will be fine. He recently calls his texts "Cold Poetry".
Impressions of Cúcuta in the lockdown:
This article was supported financially by the media fund ‹real21 - understand the world›.