HE knew how to fight with a knife before he even understood how to use his fists. Manuel Gustavo Mosquera didn’t think he’d even live to adulthood. The aim, when he was growing up in Cali, Colombia, was just to get an ID. These weren’t issued until you were 18. Gustavo thought it would be an achievement to live that long. “We believed we were born to die,” he said.

Life in Cali hadn’t always been this way. He remembered a time before the gangs. He and his family first lived in an informal settlement. There had been a community then, people had helped one another. When they were moved and built their own houses, the atmosphere began to change. “People felt envy because others had better places. My family changed as well. My father became really an aggressive person. He started being very aggressive towards me, my brothers and also my mum. So we started having difficult times,” he recalled. “The neighbourhood became a really dangerous place.”

“Young people started taking sides in fights. That’s how the first gangs started. Young people started coming into gangs just to defend themselves. They were fighting for something when they didn’t even know what was the problem,” he continued. “I was accepted as part of the gang because I was strong.”

He carried a knife, for protection at first and soon that was the weapon he fought with. “When I was 13 years old I became part of the gang,” he said. “Fighting and fighting that’s the only thing I remember doing, fighting for anything but for everything.”

A friend encouraged him to box, something that had never occurred to him before. “I went to see the classes and I was very attracted by the way the young people used the techniques to defend themselves. I wanted to learn because
I wanted to be even worse on the street, I wanted to have some tools to defend myself apart the knife,” Gustavo said. It changed him. He was good. Mosquera won the national title and he was expected to go to the Olympic Games.

“Gustavo was national champion in 1993 and he was called to the national team in 1995,” his coach Jorge Aguirre said. “He was going to be part of Atlanta 1996.”

But internal politics on the squad and his life dragged Mosquera away from the squad. “It was very painful because he had potential,” his coach said.

Boxing though had done something profound to Gustavo. “My relationship with my coach made me realise I could receive good things without being a bad person,” he said.

He was stabbed but did not seek revenge. Ultimately Gustavo decided to become a coach himself. “I was warned not to do something bad but do something good with my sport,” he said. “There’s no more powerful thing I could be doing than saving lives of young people. Thank God I’m not a world champion because I think if I was successful in the sport I wouldn’t be doing what I do now. Because I see world champions not doing what I’m doing.”

world champion

He set up the Box Pantera club in Cali where he uses the sport to help young people resist the lure of joining drug traffickers or criminal groups. “Boxing helped me leave criminality and my life, I thought maybe I can help other young people to do the same. Because what I believe is many of the young people, they don’t see any other opportunities. For them life is what it was for me, being born and then dying. I thought boxing would show them a different way of life. Because through boxing also you get to know other people, you travel a little bit, you go and compete and young people start looking at things they didn’t see before,” he said.

Boxing was also intensely personal for Mosquera. After his brothers were killed it helped him deal with his emotions. “When I was going to train, I was leaving my emotions on the bag,” he said. “I would go and train and fight to express everything, try to take all these emotions out of me. But I was thinking of them.”

He developed this into a technique that he uses now. He calls it ‘The Punching Bag of Emotions.’ He gets the young people in to say what they’re punching, declare their issues out loud before they hit a red bag. Then they hug a yellow bag, announcing the positive things in their life.

A hearing centre project in his neighbourhood was looking for ways to connect with the community, to open up discussion about their issues. At first people were sceptical of Gustavo’s methods. But they tried it. “It was very surprising because young people started coming, children, old people, everyone was interested in coming to see what was happening. They cried, they expressed what they were feeling, people really expressing emotions,” Mosquera said. “For me red is related to blood, because of all the blood that criminality has left in the streets of the neighbourhood. That’s why I relate blood with negative things or bad things, that’s why I ask people to punch the red bag and also say what they are punching. It’s not just about doing it, it’s about saying what they are punching, it’s about saying it. (The yellow is just about availability, we only had two colours.) But I relate yellow with things people are grateful for and giving a hug. It’s also about understanding that life is about understanding positive things and negative things and acceptance of the bad things and the good things as well.

“So when I first did this technique, I said I’m punching this because of what my father did to my mum. The words were very liberating for me. I felt the power of saying things, not just feeling them. So we encourage people not just to punch, but also to say things. When you say things, the community hears things, it’s a healing process and that’s what we use. The power of the words and being able to express things that are on your mind.”

His Box Pantera organisation is part of the Fight for Peace Alliance. It’s helped him realise what he does is “true, that it’s not just my life. It saves lives, that for me has been the most important thing, knowing that others do that and that it works. And that’s worth fighting for it because it’s working.”