Rugby in Colombia: Murder in Medellin & the bet that changed a life

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Graphic showing Isabel Romero playing rugby, featuring the colours of Colombia's flag
Isabel Romero's life was transformed after her friend Andrea was killed

On 17 November 2010, a woman in her early 20s named Andrea was murdered in Medellin, Colombia.

On that day Andrea was supposed to pick up her friend Isabel, who was skipping school so they could head out of the city for a few days.

But a chance encounter meant Isabel decided not to go with her, and when Andrea was killed - in the wrong place at the wrong time - Isabel was in a different part of their home city.

As one life was violently taken, another was saved by something you might never associate with a place once known as the murder capital of the world.

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Now 23, Isabel Romero speaks candidly about the murder of one of her childhood friends in a way only possible when you have been raised in a place where death is an every day part of life. Andrea was one of 2,023 people killed in 2010 in Medellin, Colombia's second most populous city.

Isabel says the pair were "going in the wrong direction" - spending time on street corners and hanging around with people who did drugs. Isabel respected these people because they had plenty of things she did not: mobile phones, motorbikes and enough money to buy all the food they wanted.

Isabel Romero
Isabel says her mother's struggles led her to consider a criminal life

Raised by a mother who would get up at 4:30am and walk three hours to work every day just to be able to put the most basic provisions on the table, she and sister Yurani were used to a life of going without.

Isabel felt there had to be an easier way to make money. By the age of 13, she was clear in her ambition - she wanted to work for one of Medellin's criminal gangs.

"My mum worked very far away and all she left us to eat were arepas (Colombian corn cakes), butter and salt," she says.

"It seemed very sad to us and when you're in a situation like that you always want the fastest and easiest way out. For me it was that."

But Isabel had not yet offered her services to any gang and on that fateful day in 2010, she had more innocent wrongdoing in mind.

She had decided she would skip school and join Andrea and some friends in a 'finca', a house in the countryside, for the rest of the week.

Her plans changed, though, and it was all because of a bet.

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About four weeks before Andrea's death, Colombia's first rugby pitch opened in what was one of Medellin's most violent neighbourhoods.

It forms part of a sports complex in Castilla, a suburb in the north west of the city. A patch of green among houses crammed in on sloping streets, with the Andes mountains looming large in the background. The walls of the neighbourhood are awash with colourful graffiti and the mismatched buildings have the appearance of houses to which extra stories have been added in haste when money allows.

This is where Isabel is from, and she is fiercely proud of it. When asked if she was born in Castilla, she takes joy in replying: "In the very same house I live in now."

As in most of South America, football here was king, and the construction of a strange ground with H-shaped posts towering over it intrigued the locals.

The rugby complex in Castilla, Medellin
Medellin has seen significant investment in recent years, as the city moves on from its violent past

Isabel lives just half a block from the rugby pitch and when it was first built she and her schoolmates watched on as players trained. One friend bet her 20,000 pesos - about £4 - that she could not play such a physical sport.

"They said I was fat and I couldn't play," she recalls. "I didn't like them speaking about my body and saying I couldn't do something."

And so on 17 November 2010 she went, just to prove that she could, pushing back the plans she had made with Andrea.

She was immediately welcomed into the fold by Alejandra Betancur, a legend in Colombian rugby as someone with 12 years of international experience who advocates for all South American players on World Rugby's women's advisory committee.

The first thing Isabel was told to do was have a go on a tackle bag and she loved it, losing track of time and leaving with a smile on her face - the plans with her friend far from her mind.

But when she returned home there were people gathered on the street and motorbikes parked on the pavement.

"I thought, 'what's happened here?'" Isabel recalls. "That's when they told me Andrea had been murdered. They killed her really violently, they cut off her head.

"It had a big impact on me. I realised I was in the middle of some very bad things and in those situations you either have to react or, give up."

And so, after her first taste of rugby, Isabel decided to react.

Andrea's death is one of the first things Isabel mentions when asked about rugby. As if Andrea and rugby are two twines in the thread of her life story that can never be separated.

But to understand Isabel's story we must go back beyond 2010. In fact, it begins before she was even born.

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In the 1980s, Medellin was known as the most dangerous city in the world during the height of violence between drug lord Pablo Escobar's Medellin Cartel and rival organisations.

Things began to change after Escobar's death in 1993, but urban militias continued to contribute to the unrest.

When Isabel was young, the violence was so bad at times that it became too dangerous to leave the house. She casually describes the causes of conflict in the manner of someone well-accustomed to shootouts taking place outside her front door.

"There are always people who look after the neighbourhood, the famous criminal gangs," she says.

"But there are others in surrounding areas who want to have a go against them. What's dangerous is when outsiders arrive wanting to make problems, and those who look after the neighbourhood aren't going to let that happen."

Why was rugby being introduced in one of the poorest and most dangerous neighbourhoods in Medellin? The choice of location was no accident.

Medellin Council's Institute of Recreation and Sport (Inder) selected their spot deliberately to spread the message: In Colombia, rugby would be a sport of the people. And it is flourishing.

Colombia women celebrate reaching the play-off v Kenya
Ranked 29th in the world, Colombia are the closest they've ever been to securing a place at the World Cup

Isabel is living vindication of Inder's choice to place their pitch in Castilla, now the centre of Colombia's growing rugby scene.

Her talent for the game quickly became clear, and she has been part of Colombia's national team since 2012. She and her team-mates have already competed in sevens at the Olympics in 2016.

Now, Colombia Women, ranked 29th in the world, are the closest they've ever been to securing a place at the World Cup. A play-off against Kenya stands between them and a spot in the qualification repechage tournament, where a win would see them through to the main event in 2021.

Competing at a World Cup would have been unfathomable for Isabel a decade ago. When the contrast between her life then and now is pointed out to her, the Colombian's characteristic bubbling torrent of words is finally stopped, but only for a moment.

She soon bursts forth with a laugh: "I would never have imagined my life would be like this. That I would be a sportswoman who would discover the world.

"Without rugby, I would have ended up dead or in prison. I would be with people who I shouldn't be with, in places where I shouldn't be and doing things I shouldn't be doing.

"Rugby completely gave me my life back."

Isabel Romero and her team-mates pose for a photo
Isabel (far left) says her neighbourhood of Castilla is no longer dangerous

While Isabel has changed personally over the last decade, she says Castilla has changed around her too.

The question of whether it's a threatening place to live is met with no fewer than eight nos before the unwavering affirmation: "Castilla is not dangerous."

Things do seem to be improving in Medellin as a whole. In January there were fewer murders than in any month over the last 40 years - 24, compared to 54 in January 2019. And it was celebrated that on 12 separate days in the month there had not been a single killing.

"The same people from the gangs before support me, saying I have to play and train. Everyone is always supporting me and saying I am the pride of the neighbourhood," Isabel adds.

"Rugby can absolutely save lives in Colombia. Kids see rugby as an alternative to make a change."

Isabel's story is an incredible one, but there are so many more to be told among the impassioned group dedicated to making rugby's foray into Colombia a success.

There is Alejandra Betancur, who introduced Isabel to rugby and will continue to introduce many others because she knows that the power of the sport is much bigger than any one player at any one time.

There is Jose Manuel Diosa, who was going to be kicked out of school before he found rugby, turned his life around and went on to captain his country.

There are the indigenous people living in a remote village on Colombia's northernmost Caribbean coast, where children play barefoot on a clearing between clay huts, a makeshift pitch without posts.

There is the 2019 Panamerican Games bronze medal tearfully dedicated to coach Lucas Caro who was killed at the age of 31 after being caught in the crossfire between two gangs.

There are now around 18,000 rugby players in Colombia, more than 6,000 are women, and that number continues to grow.

Just like Isabel, every single person involved in the game - and indeed all Colombians - seem hardened from the many battles the country has faced.

Every team knows loss and this one has experienced much worse than defeat on the rugby pitch. But armed with a love for their sport, they are ready to move forward.

When Isabel and her team-mates pull on a Colombia shirt, it is about much more than rugby.

"We are thriving," Isabel says. "This is something we represent 100%. We feel very proud because we are showing what Colombian women are made of.

"When I play rugby I feel like I am not vulnerable. I am indestructible."

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