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Gangster to Graceful Leader

November 9, 2022

A former combatant repairs harm in the community he once terrorized

Nearly 20 years ago, Jose de los Santos Fonseca was in a dark place. He had gained notoriety in the coastal neighborhoods he patrolled in Barranquilla, Colombia.

“People who do good form a good reputation,” explains Fonseca, “and people who do bad things also grow in fame. I was one of [the latter].”

When Fonseca was a child, he never imagined the path his life would take. “I always desired to be good,” he says. “Not a person of evil.” A former soldier, he used his experience and connections to form a group of ex-police and military officers to “clean up” Barranquilla’s neighborhoods.

“We were dedicated to taking care of the city,” Fonseca says. “I sowed terror in the poor neighborhoods and chased people who stole. Some authorities knew about us, but they still let us do the dark work.”

Fonseca aligned himself with a paramilitary group that fought guerillas during Colombia’s armed conflict. “They hired me because I had the ability to stop bad things [from happening],” Fonseca explains. “They called me from one city to another. There was rum, women, cocaine and dirty money. I was brave and felt like I was the man.”

As he became more entrenched in a criminal lifestyle, he became violent and took people’s lives. He says, “I had a motto that if you caused me or my family to bleed, I would cause you to bleed – eye for eye and tooth for tooth. In my world, there was no reconciliation, no forgiveness. If you hurt me, I would do something worse to you. I felt that this made me bigger, like people respected and admired me. But I didn’t realize it was hurting and destroying me.

Fonseca’s Capture

Fonseca had seen Sofanor several times in his neighborhood. Sofanor was a soldier, too, with a tough reputation. “He was also a man in the neighborhood,” Fonseca says, “because he had shot people.”

One day, Fonseca was at a bar drinking and got into a fight with Sofanor’s nephew. Sofanor later approached him with a gun in hand.  Fonseca lunged to take Sofanor‘s gun and Sofanor struck his head with the gun. It ended the fight but increased the tension. Soon, rumors were spreading that Sofanor intended to hurt Fonseca and his family. On that basis, Fonseca waited near Sofanor’s home. He describes the crime, “I shot him several times. Even as he was falling to the ground, I kept shooting. Then. I took a motorbike and left the neighborhood.”

Fonseca evaded police for a few months, but they finally captured him. The date, one that he remembers as clearly as a birthday or anniversary, was November 5, 2005.

Encounter with Pastor Rodrigo

Fonseca was sentenced to thirteen years in prison. When guards led him through the Barranquilla prison yard, it seemed like his enemies surrounded him.

“Many inmates who knew me were screaming, ‘Santo, kill the bandido! Here you do not leave alive. Here you will die!’ Fonseca says. “I went in fighting. I’d been a boxer when I was younger and I had the same mentality as a warrior preparing for war.”

In a sense, Fonseca did die when he was in prison – at least, his former life passed away. But he gained new life.

Every Thursday, Pastor Jose Rodrigo and the Prison Fellowship Colombia team visited the Barranquilla prison. Fonseca had no interest in religion or church but listened to Pastor Rodrigo from a distance. He says, “I couldn’t bring myself to go to the church service, but I liked to listen to Pastor Rodrigo’s story and testimony. I felt that this was how I was.”

Pastor Rodrigo’s story was indeed much like Fonseca’s. As a young man, Rodrigo was sucked into a life of crime and joined a guerrilla group for the status and money. He carried out a terrorist attack at a local hotel that led to his arrest and incarceration. Inside prison, he became a Christian and dedicated his life to ministering to other prisoners, continuing to volunteer with Prison Fellowship Colombia after his release.

Fonseca eventually grew tired and decided he was done fighting. “I fought almost every day inside the prison and almost always won,” he says. “One day, I was invited to a fight and just said no.” Instead, someone on the Prison Fellowship Colombia team found Fonseca and pulled him to his feet. “Stand up. Stand up,” the man says. “I have a plan and a purpose for you.” That day, Pastor Rodrigo was preaching and everyone was singing. “I closed my eyes and felt something that I had never felt before,” Fonseca says.

“It was something very beautiful. Since that day, I [have] started going to church and no longer fight so much.”

Repairing the Harm

In 2011, after serving six years of his sentence, Fonseca was released early from prison. He volunteered with Prison Fellowship Colombia where he learned about restorative justice. He participated in the Prison Fellowship International’s Sycamore Tree Project and learned how crime’s impact ripples outward.

“The idea that that crime causes damage to the victim’s family and the offender’s family stuck in my mind, and I will never forget,” Fonseca says.

Fonseca wanted to meet people he had hurt in his former life like Sofanor, who had survived the shooting and was partially paralyzed, but he didn’t know how. Lacides Hernandez, Prison Fellowship Colombia’s Executive Director who spearheads the organization’s restorative justice efforts, contacted Sofanor and learned he was open to meeting Fonseca.

Hernandez led Fonseca and Sofanor through a restorative process that ended with them becoming friends. “I took responsibility for the harm I caused Sofanor and he forgave me,” he says. “It’s beautiful when someone who is hurt forgives. You feel like you are set free and that many chains are broken.”

Ron Claassen, an early restorative justice pioneer in the United States, says that shalom is “an absence of fear from being harmed.” Through his reconciliation with Sofanor, Fonseca has glimpsed shalom. When the men hugged, people asked Fonesca, “Aren’t you afraid he will kill you, that this forgiveness is not genuine?” Fonesca replies, “No, it doesn’t scare me.”

A Homecoming and a Healing Community

Fonseca traveled to different parts of the country but ultimately returned home to Barranquilla – the place he caused so much harm. “I felt this was where I had to be,” Fonseca says. “Just as when the enemy used me to do bad things, now God was going to use me to do good things.”

He has served on the Prison Fellowship Colombia team for more than ten years and now helps lead a community sports project that mentors at-risk youth. In the neighborhoods he once terrorized, he now shares his testimony to teach the youth that when they harm someone, it also harms a family and damages an entire community.

Fonseca also facilitates classes for the Sycamore Tree Project and Restorative Communities, a project that helps communities torn apart during the armed conflict to heal, inside prison.

“I’ve seen the transformation of many inmates and many people in the communities where I’m working. When they come, they arrive closed. But once they complete the program, they share and let go. It helps them release the burden of the crimes they had committed.”

Fonseca’s life is now a positive force that ripples outward: a witness to grace and love.

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