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Kristof: Colombians start turning their country around

  • Catalina Escobar formed the Juan Felipe G√≥mez Escobar Foundation to help teen mothers break the cycle of poverty.

CARTAGENA, Colombia

This is a story of two unlikely allies, the wealthy executive/mother and the prostitute/drug smuggler, who rescued each other.

The setting is equally improbable and hopeful. A decade ago, Colombia was torn apart by civil war and narco-trafficking. One of Colombia’s problems was an enormous gap between rich and poor, and elites who dealt with poverty by building higher walls around their compounds and topping them with barbed wire.

Yet, against all odds, that ethos has begun to change — with lessons for the U.S. and the rest of the world. Colombia itself is stabilizing and rebounding, so that, astonishingly, an increasingly popular destination for tourism is Cartagena, which, with its Old Spanish walls and cobblestone streets, is one of the loveliest cities in the Americas.

Colombia still has enormous problems, of course, for civil war has morphed into horrific gang violence in the slums. On one of my visits to a slum, residents said that if I tried to walk around the block, I would never make it back alive. The progress is, shall we say, impressive but still incomplete.

In Colombia, one of the successful ones was Catalina Escobar. She was rich, beautiful and U.S.-educated, and ran an international trading company. She had a lovely family, including an adorable 17-month-old son, Juan Felipe.

Then, one day in 2000, Escobar received a shattering phone call: Juan Felipe had tumbled over a balcony railing and plunged eight floors to his death.

Escobar spiraled into grief, compounded by something she couldn’t get out of her head. Just a few days earlier, as a volunteer at a hospital, Escobar had encountered a teenage mother who had lost a baby because she couldn’t afford a medicine costing $30.

“I had that in my pocket,” Escobar thought, and she was crushed by the realization that in poor neighborhoods, the death of a child was a common event. Escobar ultimately channeled her grief and empathy by starting the Juan Felipe Gómez Escobar Foundation to memorialize her son and help teen moms in Cartagena break the cycle of poverty.

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