Addressing the enormous challenge of alcohol and drug addiction, Efrén Martínez is inspiring a cultural paradigm shift to help Colombian youth resist the temptations of substance abuse. Efrén applies a methodology that calls for rediscovery of personal meaning in strategies exercised in families, schools, workplaces, and the public sphere to spark national behavior change.
The New Idea
Efrén is shaping a cultural change in values and attitudes to prevent drug and alcohol addiction among Colombian youth. Through an integral, behavior-centered vision driven by a different insight into the problem of addiction, he raises young people’s awareness of each step in the dangerous chain of drug production, trafficking, and consumption. With his Here and Now Collective Foundation (Fundación Colectivo Aquí y Ahora) Efrén has designed an approach that incorporates themes of rehabilitation, prevention, and treatment into a program of workshops and interactive methods to teach youth through personal reflection to resist the temptations of substance abuse by developing a new sense of self and empowerment. As Colombians find new meaning in their lives that have long been fraught with violence associated with drug trafficking and consumption, they are better able to transform their behavior through improved resistance to influences by peers and social norms.
To render a national cultural shift, Efrén has adapted his methods to work with different social sectors that influence young people’s lives and can help impart the change in values that Efrén seeks. Apart from operating stand-alone clinics for those with alcohol and drug problems, he involves schools, universities, businesses, and families to stimulate a new mindset. These components work in sync to create a movement that have multiplied his results and impact across the country. Efrén also engages in massive campaigns to publicize the alcohol-free events and raise interest in the program, a tactic that has enabled him to forge partnerships with some of the largest stakeholders in Colombia. In this sense, his innovation is the set of strategies that he has created and marketed to an entire country.
Ultimately, Efrén hopes to influence the values and attitudes of Colombian society. In the country bearing the highest rates of alcohol addiction in Latin America, producing such cultural change to resist the temptations of alcohol abuse is challenging indeed, but by collaborating with the various actors who influence a young person’s life, he is helping to create ecosystems that nurture and reinforce positive lifestyles. Furthermore, by molding his methodology to a host of different audiences, he is creating a highly replicable scheme with the potential for broad yet direct social impact in Colombia and Latin America.
In a country where narcotics-related violence has for decades devastated the social and political fabric, the internal consumption of drugs has grown to become nearly as alarming a concern. About 2.4 million Colombians are alcohol dependent, and 51.9 percent report alcohol consumption in the previous month—higher than anywhere else in the continent. Among youth, the problem is especially disturbing: Nearly 40 percent of children under the age of 14 consume alcohol at least once a month. Youth at increasingly earlier ages are developing addictions to illicit substances, and alcohol abuse is now endemic among the 13 to 16 age group. Whereas in the past, alcohol abuse was a problem mostly among those above the legal drinking age, in recent years, an acquiescent culture that permits and even encourages consumption in the early teenage years has taken hold around society. Easy access to alcohol without parental guidance on appropriate consumption has caused teens to engage in further risky behaviors; according to some studies, minors who consume alcohol are nearly twice as likely to become alcoholics as adults, and they are astonishingly four to eight times as likely to use harder illegal drugs.
Following years of drug production and trafficking permeating every aspect of Colombia, the world’s leading producer of cocaine, it is hardly surprising that it has become a consumer culture too. The powerful cartels exploited their position in society to take advantage of incipient demand for drugs and have created inroads to distribute drugs internally. Meanwhile, narcotics tragically became almost a normalized component of a culture ravaged by violence. To stem the rising rates of domestic drug addiction, the government and civil society groups launched various anti-drug campaigns exhorting people to reduce their consumption. Despite their earnest efforts, though, they have largely failed to generate large-scale attitudinal shifts. Based on zero-tolerance prohibitions, they barely touch the deeper values that sanction and enable addictive behaviors, nor are they able to reduce the normalization of drugs and alcohol or tackle the enormous flows of money fueled by the trade. In a permissive and lax culture, a model of “just say no” is short-sighted and naïve in producing changes in attitudes and values.
Due to the saturation of Colombia by drugs and drug money, every Colombian is involved, implicitly or explicitly, in the problem of consumption and abuse. Therefore, the entire society must commit to finding a sustainable solution. At the same time, concerted political efforts over the past few years have managed to dismantle the major drug cartels that held inordinate influence over daily affairs. Violence and crime has decreased substantially, and Colombia is finally becoming a more stable country. As the guerrilla fighters lay down their arms and the thousands of displaced persons start to reintegrate themselves in the community, the society has begun to focus on reconstruction, starting from the fundamental level of values and attitudes. Colombia can boast of some recent positive examples of attitude change, from local communities gaining pride in their cities as the municipal governments rebuild infrastructure to law enforcement agencies collaborating to reduce neighborhood crime. The moment is ideal now for attitudinal change across society to address other challenges that have arisen from a troubled social fabric.
With the Here and Now Collective Foundation, Efrén is implementing a holistic drug treatment and prevention model that looks to spark a national paradigm shift established on finding personal meaning in life. His program is inspired by the existentialist philosophy of “logotherapy,” first spelled out in Viktor Frankl’s work Man’s Search for Meaning. Basing his philosophy on his experiences as an inmate in a concentration camp during the Holocaust, Frankl explains that humans are motivated foremost by finding meaning in their lives. Although an accepted school of existential and humanistic psychotherapy, logotherapy is still not widely practiced apart from trained therapists. Efrén, however, has found a novel means to apply the basic theories of logotherapy to a series of practical, common sense exercises taught through trainings, therapies, and workshops to combat drug and alcohol abuse among Colombian youth by enabling them and their parents to rediscover the value and meaning of their lives, which have been obscured as a consequence of destructive violence.
Efrén initially designed and launched his methodology over a decade ago to treat substance abuse in distinct clinics. He attained highly successful and lasting results by teaching the patients to adopt a new attitudinal change and reorient their lives. With his clinics to date he has treated some 2,000 people of all ages with a success rate of 70 percent, a figure far higher than the norm, as confirmed by third-party studies. Five years ago, Efrén began to see the value of incorporating models of prevention with the therapy as a means to yield wider impact with youth. Through training in preventive philosophies, youth could rediscover personal principles that would help them resist temptations in the first place. Prevention was far more crucial than therapy itself, which he could re-synthesize into new, common sense solutions understandable by youth and adults. These tools he soon redesigned and transitioned into new implementation methods that would have replicable impact in other dynamics besides actual treatment clinics.
Efrén’s prevention model is above all now directed toward school children and their parents with the goal of reducing the appeal of drug and alcohol consumption, thus generating the cultural attitudinal shift most needed for widespread change. The students learn the values of personal meaning and personal motivation, and the parents are also shown how to help reinforce these concepts in the home. The parents and students then come to organize “alcohol-free parties” and other school functions, such as proms, to highlight new and appealing ways to have fun without substance abuse. Such parties, which are freely hosted by the students and not by the foundation, make evident the type of behavior change that Efrén’s approach seeks. Now, 56 schools are cooperating with the foundation to execute the model, which has benefited about 100,000 students and parents—a figure Efrén plans to swell by a factor of five in the next three years. Efrén attracted the support of business sponsors to pay for the implementation of the model and the campaigns in a wide array of schools from wealthy private schools to the poorest public schools. This intuition gained him a diverse range of participants in his educational program, a higher profile for the foundation, and more funding to launch at other locations.
With a variety of different practical approaches to engage young participants with a new sense of purpose and meaning and thus generate a shift in behavior, Efrén guarantees a very deep impact to each student and parent involved. The foundation carries out rigorous pre- and post-intervention surveys to evaluate impact in all of the schools involved in its programs, and these have shown a clear reduction in alcohol consumption and risk-taking behaviors. An additional qualitative measure of impact is the growing incidence of the alcohol-free parties sponsored by students, which indicates that the behavior modification training not only sticks but motivates young people to spread its messages among their peers. According to various studies in Colombia and Latin America, youth who do not drink until they are 18 will consume only one-eighth the amount of alcohol and drugs over their lifetime as their peers who began drinking heavily at an early age, by instigating a major reduction in alcohol consumption, Efrén is also statistically generating impact in consumption of harder drugs around the country.
To accomplish cultural change on a further scale, Efrén was a key catalyst for the passage of a national underage drinking law in 2010 that enhances enforcement against underage drinking and the supply of alcohol to minors. His recognized advocacy has opened several new opportunities and connections for him to expand the work of the foundation. Efrén has forged alliances with some 50 new schools, as well as families and businesses to implement specific initiatives with the same methodology as a means to reach greater compliance with the new law. Efrén has purposefully directed his initial attention to schools mainly located in wealthier neighborhoods of Bogotá because of their larger visibility and influence around Colombia. He knew that attitude shifts among these students would have a positive rippling effect among youth with fewer resources who tried to mimic the upper classes. As a result, he has constructed a high profile media campaign on the success he observed at these schools, especially publicizing the alcohol-free events they hosted, in order to boost public awareness and better cultivate a national transformation of social attitudes.
Other partnerships that Efrén has made with businesses have been instrumental in opening new pools of potential beneficiaries. Most notably, an international beer manufacturer with the largest coverage in Colombia and Latin America has become one of Efrén’s closest allies. With a strong mission to combat underage drinking and an interest in the foundation’s emphasis on discovery of personal meaning, the corporation has developed with Efrén major media campaigns and a new platform to teach his methods to employees and their families. In turn, they have contributed US$1 million to the foundation, about 21,000 new families are undergoing the workshops, and given tremendous visibility to the project. Such natural alliances are crucial for Efrén as he designs ways to implement his methodology and expand his impact to different audiences.
Armed with a proven strategy and a wide assortment of partners, Efrén has begun to leverage his success on a national scale. He has concluded agreements with flagship high schools and colleges in Medellin and other cities, and he is preparing materials for a new master’s program at a number of universities that will teach his empirical and practical tools, based on the logotherapy philosophy, for addressing substance abuse. The program is also easily adapted to other large corporations who have expressed interest in paying for his values curriculum, and it may also serve for institutions in the public and citizen sectors who also work with families dealing with addiction. Most recently, Efrén contributed his efforts to a working group known as Constructing Sense, an initiative financed by the United Nations OIM and the Colombian government to provide psychosocial attention to about 7,000 refugees and guerrillas displaced by the Colombian civil conflict. The foundation provided two months of workshops and trainings to help the displaced persons rediscover their values and sense of meaning, helping to reinsert them into society. Such a wide range of partners, from large corporations to organizations providing relief to the marginalized, demonstrates the powerful flexibility and capability of Efrén’s foundation to render large attitude change across society.
Furthermore, the evidence of incredible success in preventing drug and alcohol abuse among students at the cooperating schools, publicized through the program, will enable Efrén to have even wider social impact. He has already established relationships with organizations and schools in Argentina, Ecuador and very soon in Mexico, with the hope of fomenting cultural change on an international level. Representatives from Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, and Iraq have also traveled to Colombia to observe his methods working with displaced populations. Since Efrén ultimately hopes to engender widespread attitudinal change, his various tactics to raise the profile of the foundation are crucial to expanding the social impact of his work.
Efrén grew up encircled by the tragedy of drug abuse. Raised in the Colombian highlands close to the Venezuelan border, he experienced the violence that arose due to the production and traffic of cocaine in the area. Many members of his family were drawn into the drug-fueled conflict as paramilitaries or guerillas. As an adolescent, Efrén struggled with alcohol and drug abuse, an experience that strongly marked his life and has given him tremendous empathy with youth who face these societal challenges and with the patients with whom he works.
At 17, Efrén moved to Bogotá to study chemical engineering at the Antonio Nariño University, but began to feel out of place among his peers who seemed solely motivated by money. In college, he discovered Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, which outlines logotherapy. The book changed Efrén’s life, and he soon changed his major to psychology. He was taken with Frankl’s descriptions of personal freedom, will to meaning, and a motivation to find meaning in one’s life. Volunteering at the university Center for Personal Growth, Efrén began to work alongside patients with substance abuse problems, and he started to incorporate themes of logotherapy at the center. He also began to speak at university lectures on the subject, and he managed to convince his university to introduce a Certificate in Drug Addiction, a specialty that he designed and later, with which he graduated.
Efrén continued his education to eventually obtain a doctorate in cognitive and existential psychology in Buenos Aires, Argentina while carrying out field research for his ambitious dissertation in Colombia. The issue of substance abuse was always a strong component of his academic study and his practical therapy experience. In his work with patients, particularly in the early stages of launching his own substance abuse clinics, Efrén came to understand that only through large-scale psychological and cultural shift in attitudes could people develop the personal strengths and convictions to reject substance abuse and turn their lives around. Through the efforts of the foundation, Efrén hopes to give each person the tools to rediscover the meaning of their lives and purge themselves and their society of addiction.