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Chepe Ubaque survived Colombia's mean streets. Now he helps others do the same.

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Fenivar Lozada-Cubillos, a Soacha community leader and a mother of one of the workshop participants, calls the service Ubaque provides to the community "very key."

"He is giving these kids a sense of self-esteem and of leadership, to show them how they are important," Ms. Lozada-Cubillos explains.

Ubaque oversees the workshops and other activities, such as a mid-June memorial event featuring both hip-hop and street art acts held in Soacha's only park. The event honored a group of 19 Soacha teenage boys who in 2008 were allegedly murdered by the Colombian military and then disguised as guerrilla fighters so the soldiers could receive payment for the killings. The controversy – still unresolved in Colombia's courts – is known as the case of the falsos positivos, or fake positives.

"What we're teaching is that it's important to ask about things, to investigate things. Kids don't talk about these kinds of things in school," Ubaque says. "They are asking more about everything, from assassinations to what the president is doing."

Ubaque's easy charm, coupled with the sincere attention he offers to everyone he encounters, reveals little of the rough edge he had to project as a teenager in Soacha.

"It was a different life for me, when I first arrived, to have to answer to this strong violence," he says, sitting on a street curb a few blocks from his office on a quiet Saturday morning. "I had to run from things many times because people wanted to rob me or kill me. I wanted to become an adult very quickly – to get money, to get guns, because I didn't know another way to defend myself."

Instead Ubaque found the break-dancing scene. "Break dancing became my refuge, my escape, and I never got the guns," he says.

Ubaque now is guiding a group of Soacha teenagers on a similar path, says Blanca Nubia Monroy, a former Soacha resident and community activist whose 19-year-old son died in one of the falsos positivos cases.

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