Why you should care

Because physical fitness could be societal fitness.

It’s archaic, uninviting. Pretty hideous, actually. We’re at Villa Olímpica, the 30-year-old facility that passes for a recreation center here in Villavicencio, a small blue-collar city in central Colombia. There’s a handful of ramps for skateboarders and BMX bikes, and some indoor space with gym equipment. Hey, it’s something to keep the kids off the streets. Except here, it’s more like, keep the kids away from the paramilitary forces over in the jungle. It’s better than nothing.

Now comes a replacement for all this, an athletics Shangri-La. It’s called Las Malocas, and a promotional video (which itself is pretty mind-blowing) depicts a sprawling, thoroughly modern complex with two arenas, a basketball court complete with ceiling-mounted, NBA-style scoreboards, a center devoted to BMX bikes, tons of parking and tons of trees, tracks for running and walking. It’s a chance to save the kids, sure. But there’s another story here.

A decade ago Meta’s homicide rate was 22 percent higher than that of Camden, N.J., last year’s U.S. murder capital, and is now about the same as Baltimore’s.

After decades of ugly war — and the continuing plummet of oil prices in a region where oil is the primary industry — this Colombian state is making sports and recreation part of its recovery strategy. Leading the Las Malocas effort is state agency IDER Meta, which runs the local athletics leagues, educating kids and adults about sports and rec as an alternative to drugs and violence. Federal money will fund the estimated $60 million sports facility, projected to open by the middle of next year. “We’re in a very important era,” says Atherson Esparza, the baby-faced deputy director of IDER Meta, who sees incredible potential in what Las Malocas could do for the state.

The state of Meta is the gateway to Los Llanos, a mostly undeveloped area in southeast Colombia riddled with guerrilla and paramilitary activity. These groups — first and foremost the infamous FARC, which just struck a peace accord with the government —have often recruited youths who feel they have nowhere else to turn. Southeastern Meta was the site of a 1997 massacre that occurred when the federal government allowed paramilitary forces to execute Llaneros believed to be aiding the FARC, what Colombian investigators later found to be a violation of human rights. The number of people killed, some of them tortured, their bodies put on display in the streets, remains a mystery: more than four dozen, according to witnesses, but only 12, according to the government, which later apologized for its involvement in the crime.

In the past 10 years, Meta has seen the murder rate fall from 90 to 39 per 100,000 people, according to statistics from the Fundación País Libre, a nonprofit organization that tracks progress and violence in Colombia. To put that in perspective, just a decade ago Meta’s homicide rate was 22 percent higher than that of Camden, N.J., last year’s U.S. murder capital, and is now about the same as Baltimore’s. In other words, big improvement but room for much more. These societal gains are partly because of President Alvaro Uribe, famous — or infamous, according to a Supreme Court investigation probing his past for war crimes — for taking a hard line on his country’s history of violence during his two terms in office, which ended in 2010.

Sports is now aiding Meta’s transition to reconciliation and resocialization, as it has elsewhere. South Africa, serving as the host nation at the 1995 Rugby World Cup, moved even further from more than 40 years of apartheid with a stunning victory, a development depicted in the 2009 film Invictus. Germany turned to soccer after two world wars and today is the defending World Cup champion. And a U.S. Table Tennis team visit to China in 1971 later led to President Nixon’s visit to Beijing and the reopening of diplomatic relations between the nations.

Other places in Colombia have similar ideas. Take La Macarena, a Meta town accessible only by plane. Known for being a FARC stronghold and the primary access to the “river of five colors” at Caño Cristales, the town last year joined the local sports leagues. Youths can participate in everything from soccer to karate, and compete with fellow Llaneros in Villavicencio. Yes, the guerrilla presence persists in the undeveloped areas not far from the town, but the rebels are no longer lurking in the central plaza, automatic weapons in hand, overseeing the sale of cocaine paste across the street from the church.

To be sure, sports could never be the cure of all ills. Maria Consuelo Jauregui, executive director of the Fundación País Libre, says recreation helps, no doubt, but it’s important to remember that not everyone is a natural athlete, nor wants to be. “There needs to be other possibilities like art, music, among others.” Sports can be a unifier, she says, “but we need to start reaching these kids when they’re very young, to promote the value of education.”

Colombia is on the verge of hosting a major event, the FIFA Futsal World Cup, the indoor soccer championship, and Meta officials would like some of the games at Las Malocas. Federal officials are optimistic that Las Malocas will be ready. But progress will continue, with or without the games, with or without speedy trials for surrendering FARC members and any peace talks that could follow with the country’s other guerrilla and paramilitary groups. And time will tell how well this strategy scores.

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