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New Life in a Culture of Death

Hope for Colombia dwells inside its most lethal killing field - Bellavista Prison.
2004This article is part of CT's digital archives. Subscribers have access to all current and past issues, dating back to 1956.

Thousands of red brick homes, the shade of dried blood, enfold mountainous Medellín like the memory of an infamous killing. Death, Colombians say, is pan diario (daily bread), as commonplace as that staple of life. This culture of death yields 3,000 homicides a year in Medellín alone, by knife, machete, pistol, machine gun, grenade, and bomb.

Where Medellín's mountains touch the valley floor stands Bellavista. This prison complex, constructed of that same blood-red brick (painted blue and white) is where hundreds of Colombia's worst criminals and guerrillas have met an evil end in vendetta slayings. Fourteen years ago, violence reigned over Bellavista. But through the persistent efforts of Christians, Bellavista has become a spiritual clearinghouse where Colombians, deeply divided along religious, economic, and political lines, may reconcile their differences.

In Bellavista's chapel, white voile curtains cover the barred windows that overlook the prison's courtyards, where inmates once slaughtered both guards and other prisoners. Each Thursday, inmate small-group leaders from each of Bellavista's cellblocks fast, pray, and study Scripture. On this particular summer morning, a clutch of eight gathers in the chapel's corner office for worship, singing along with a videotape:

Sana nuestra tierra
("Heal our land")
Escucha hoy mi oración
("Hear my prayer today")
A tí levanto mi clamor
("To you I lift my cry")

Eyes closed, hands clasped or arms raised, the inmates lift their prayers for the salvation of Colombia. An hour later, the men prostrate themselves on the floor alongside an open Bible in the center of the room. As they weep and wail, ...

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