When Athena Madan first met H., by all accounts he seemed like a normal 25 year old.
The duo met at a restaurant in 2014/2015 in an urban area of Colombia with the sound of Colombian music playing in the background.
H., whose name has been withheld to protect his identity, wore an orange patterned shirt.
He declined to eat anything, but smoked.
For the next hour and a half and under the watchful eye of two bodyguards, H. told Madan a harrowing tale of being involved in the production and trafficking of cocaine in Colombia – the country that produces the highest amount of cocaine internationally.
“It’s brutal. It surprised me that this is even happening,” said Madan, an assistant professor in the school of humanitarian studies at Royal Roads University.
“Sitting in front of H., who is a young man who has hopes for his family and the people that he cares for but has been so abandoned. He’s been abandoned by the system, he’s been a victim of so many circumstances and even just the fact that children are recruited by cocaine production was surprising to me … It was unbelievable and it doesn’t have to be this way.”
Madan documented H.’s story in a piece called Children Trafficked for Cocaine Production in Columbia. The piece was recently selected as a winner of the Global Health Now’s 2018 Untold Global Health story contest.
The contest is designed to increase visibility about important but underreported health issues from around the world.
H. was recruited into the cocaine industry when he was just nine years old. Living in the south of Colombia, he was recruited by a man from his community who was friends with his mother, who lured him with the promise that his family would be taken care of and fed.
“It started as meeting people, and then being helpful, helping someone do something else, being a guard. Little by little they’re groomed for this and they don’t realize what they’re doing is wrong,” said Madan, adding before he knew it, H. had been taken away from his family.
H. was given many opportunities to take cocaine to help alleviate hunger pangs, but he said he never consumed or got addicted to it.
Instead he used straws to sniff gasoline or caustic soda to alleviate the hunger.
While he never helped in the actual production of cocaine, he helped transport and create networks to package the drug to be shipped to the U.S., the U.K. or Europe. H. was eventually caught and arrested by police during a drug raid.
In exchange for a shorter prison sentence, he gave up information about the names of drug cartels in the area. H. was sentenced to eight years in prison.
Now, at the age of 25 and as a result of sniffing gasoline and being around other harmful substances at such a young age, H. has several debilitating health conditions.
His stomach hurts too much to eat anything more than shredded lettuce, drinking pop hurts his nose and tea hurts his throat.
Most of his meals are now in liquid form.
He has no health care and has never been to see a doctor, but Madan said he’s accepted the fact that this is his reality. It’s too dangerous for H. to visit his family as well.
While H.’s story resonated with Madan, his story is not unique. Madan said there are many who have been recruited to the drug industry who do not have access to health care – something she hopes to bring awareness of.
“It is an important story. I’m thrilled to have this platform to engage H.’s experience, promote his story and to bring awareness to his plight and the plight of so many other children like him,” Madan said.
“These are the realities of people who don’t live very far from us.”