"The first two murders didn't really count," says 18-year-old Eduardo Estrada, because he did them with the Imperials, his gang. The third was a drunk who was bothering his mother. He did that job alone.
From the time he was 14, Mr. Estrada's life focused on drugs, robberies, and gang war in Medellin, once Colombia's drug-trafficking capital. Nine months ago he decided to change. "I started to think that maybe someone might come to kill me and get my mother or my little sister. I said, 'No more.' "
With 5,000 homicides last year, Medellin ranks among the world's murder capitals. The city of about 1.6 million serves as battlefield for militias and gangs. The popular image of a Medellin youth is one of a motorcyclist toting a pistol, living the fast life of drugs and robbery and hoping to buy a few nice things for his mother before he dies.
Estrada, like a growing number of his contemporaries, is turning that stereotype on its ear.
Across the city, youth leaders are springing up in impressive numbers. An index of youth groups lists some 600 organizations run by young people. Medellin still has more murders than Bogot, the capital, which is five times bigger, and many of Medellin's youths never get past their teens. But the violence has caused a rebellion of young leaders looking for a better future.
For example, these days you won't find Estrada sitting on the corner with his gang. He's enrolled in a rehabilitation program and hasn't touched drugs or carried a gun for nine months. "When I went back to the barrio my friends noticed the difference. They said, 'Hey bro, you're changing.' And I said, 'Yeah, you know, you can't be living that way all your life. And they support my decision," says Estrada.
Turning the other cheek
"I used to have a big family," says 20-year-old Martin Rodriguez, a leader of Medellin's Red Juvenil, or Youth Net.
Mr. Rodriguez lost a 14-year-old brother to a case of mistaken identity, he says, and the same militia killed his 15-year-old brother, fearing vengeance. Rodriguez himself was 16 at the time and had the opportunity for revenge.
"It's rough, you have this rancor inside you. Some guys from the city's most dangerous gang invited me to go after the guys who did it. But this way we keep killing: You kill my brother so I kill yours. It wasn't what I wanted. My brothers and I always had a different idea."