From Drug Addict to Family Man (1)

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One might think that a man who was a part of a criminal group, who was ready to do anything for drugs; rob, participate in murders, even cheat his friends, would never get out of such situation.

When we asked Milton Paniagua to share his life story with us, he was hesitant. Not so much because he wouldn’t want to tell it but because it always upset him and he needs a couple of days to calm down.

Milton Paniagua – testimony is his mission

But he knows that testimony is his mission. With his testimony he honors God, who intervened so drastically in his life, right at a time when his life was hanging by a thread.

Love turned into anger

“When I was four, I remember I wanted to do something nice and important,” says Milton.

At that time, I wanted to help my mother who was baking bread and pastry at home, so that we the children could sell it on the street. I wanted to help and contribute so that we could have a better family life. My mom invested all her energy in this work; she worked hard, took care of the household, paid the bills, saved money for our school. All that just to succeed. I respect her very much.”

There were seven children in the family. Milton was the one before the last. Their father was a truck driver and the children rarely saw him. Sometimes he was away for a whole year or even more.

“When he came home one day, he was completely drunk. He was violent and beat our mother in front of our eyes. It was hard to watch, and there was anger starting to build inside me towards him. This is where my trauma originates from and that changed the way I was thinking and behaving.”

I was helpless

When he was 5 years old, he went to a pre-school. The anger that plagued the little boy began to appear outward.

He got into fights with his classmates and he even beat the girls in his class. Every game he joined ended with violence. The children didn’t like him and never accepted him, which made his feelings of anger and contempt only stronger.

“What I really wanted at the time was to get even with my dad. From that first outburst on, he would torture our mom every year as he returned home drunk, and I couldn’t do anything to stop it.

Boarding school

He was six years old when he entered the first grade of elementary school in Santa Cruz and seven years when his mother sent him to a boarding school, because, as Milton says, he was problematic and unbearable.


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Those beautiful and courageous wishes to help his mom were long gone. In fact, they turned into their own opposite.

“At the boarding school I lived together with children of all ages and classes; with those from the street, with children without parents, with those who, like me, came from violent families, and, consequently, they had, of course, many bad habits.”

He ran to the street

There Milton met an elderly boy who smoked cigarettes and marijuana. Milton was attracted to him like a magnet and he taught Milton to smoke as well. Milton stayed at the boarding school for three years, then ran away with a friend, and from that time on, he lived with him on the street.

The Arenale park in Santa Cruz – a wonderful park by day. But at night, it’s dangerous.

It didn’t last long before Milton uncovered the Arenale park, where all the worst things were happening at that time: young people were using drugs, they were stealing, mugging and beating each other. The park became Milton’s new home, where he got a lot of new friends, began to use drugs and learned to steal wallets and gold from passers-by.

Defending mom

“I lived on the street for six years. I was thirteen years old when I met my mother at the market one day. I hadn’t seen her since she had sent me to the boarding school. She hugged me and was crying. She asked me to come home and not worry about my father. I missed my mother because I loved her very much, and I was already tired of the street too.”

On the day Milton returned to his mom, his father came home again. There was nothing new. He was drunk, as always, and harassed his mother, as always. Milton, who was now a young boy, bigger and stronger, wasn’t afraid of his father anymore. He confronted him and threatened to beat him if he didn’t leave his mother alone.

“But my mom pushed me away, saying I couldn’t do that since he was my father and I had to respect him. I accepted my mother’s wish, because I knew that despite everything she still loved him. But that night, at three AM, I returned to the street again.”

The gang and cocaine

And that was also the night when he fist chased away his anger and desire to revenge with cocaine – along with his old friend from the boarding school.

“We were drugged and went to a disco. We met a girl there, danced and had fun with her. But when she went home, we followed her and robbed her parents’ house, stole the money and everything that was valuable,” recalls Milton.

“We were so excited over the success, so we decided to form our own gang and continue to rob houses. We needed money for cocaine, so we continued robbing, attacking people, intimidating them and stealing money and property.”

Young and daring

The guys found a big abandoned villa somewhere outside the city. All fifteen friends that were in the gang moved there. The cellar of the villa became their shelter and at the same time the treasury, where they brought money and stolen valuables.

“None of the gang members was older than thirty. I was the youngest in the group, but nevertheless, one of the main planners and organizers of robberies. I was ambitious and brave. Around the castle there was a settlement called ‘Plan tres mille’, although very poor, but many well-off people lived there. Every night we would rob in one area of the settlement.

New skills

The more Milton’s addiction to cocaine and other drugs strengthened and deepened, the more he had to earn to keep up with his habit. Drugs gave him courage, boldness and pretension.

When he was 18, he left his gang. He met a much older person (45 years old), who was an expert in car theft. He needed a co-worker, so he invited Milton to the partnership. Real money, as he claimed, was in the sale of cars.

Of course Milton didn’t hesitate. He accepted his invitation and spent a long time with him, training in skills and knowledge that he hadn’t yet had.

He learned how to break into a car, how to start it without a key, how to do it unnoticed and, above all, how to sell the car.

“Over time, I myself became an expert in car theft and it was time for me to perform my first independent robbery,” Milton tells.

“I needed drugs, so I also needed money. I wanted to earn all the money for myself, so I had to do it myself. So I stole my first car, drove it to a settlement where there still is a center for selling and dealing drugs, and replaced the car for four kilos of cocaine.”

From Bolivia to Sao Paulo and back

That was a new milestone in Milton’s life. The time of great and daring steps, which only led to a bigger darkness and descent.

Another man, a former soldier, joined their partnership. He collaborated with other former soldiers and accompanied them regularly to Sao Paulo, where they dealt exclusively with car theft.

“That man took me to the border with Brazil, where I met ten others, all of whom were former members of the military, both Bolivian and Brazilian. I traveled to Sao Paulo with them and continued my activity there for some time. We took the stolen cars to Bolivia and exchanged them in Santa Cruz for drugs.”

The desire to change

In Sao Paulo they had their own house, so they could stay in Brazil for longer periods of time. Even on the border with Brazil, they had a house as a kind of ‘import and export’ center. For three years, they traveled from Bolivia to Brazil and back, always with new cars.

For three years, they operated between these two countries. Milton no longer lived on the street or in some abandoned villa. The gang had its own house, where they lived together and took drugs together. Lots of drugs.

Silva, Milton and sister Desiree, who has known Milton and his story for a long time. She helped us with the conversation.

Then Milton wanted to change. He was twenty years old, tired of constant adrenaline rushes, travelling and living on the edge. But he was heavily addicted to drugs, for which he needed a lot of money. More and more.

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In my next article I’ll write about how Milton’s story developed, how deeply addicted he was and how fatal and dangerous decisions can be the result of such addiction. Second part of his story you can read here.

But you will also read how God can intervene and put a man back on his feet so that he can walk after Him and follow Him.

Christmas for the poor and homeless

We will collect the money for the missionary sisters of ‘Fraternidad El Camino’ as long as Silva and I stay with them. The sisters will organize a Christmas celebration for the poor and homeless in the streets of Santa Cruz, in a hall with a Christmas feast and gifts.

Homeless people stay in the channels. The sisters and volunteers regularly bring them food.

Thank you very much for all the donations you have already given us. I would especially like to thank the Slovenian Franciscan community in Lemont, United States, for the financial gift.

Read more about our charity campaign by clicking the ‘Donate now‘ button under this article.

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We are not paid for the work we do; the money is not our motivation and doesn't drive us in our endeavours working with (and for) the poor from the edges of our society. But of course, without financial resources, we could not implement our goals and activities.

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