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New target for Mexico's drug cartels: schools

A note left on a school wall in the town of Ciudad Juárez last month threatened to harm kindergartners. The note was suspected to be left by drug traffickers.

By Staff writer / December 19, 2008

Safe? Parents and children waited outside an elementary school in Cuidad Juárez, Mexico, last month. Parents across the city are concerned for their children's safety.

Ricardo Lopez/AP

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Ciudad Juárez, Mexico

The front entrance of the Elena Garro Kindergarten in Ciudad Juárez looks just like any other: its rainbow-colored gate leads to classrooms decorated with homemade art.

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But when it opened last month, a sign hung on the exterior wall: if you don't pay, we'll hurt the kids and you.

Nobody knows for sure who left the message here and at a handful of other schools throughout the city – there have been no arrests – but everyone says they have an idea: the drug traffickers who have wreaked havoc in this scruffy border town and beyond.

Residents here are accustomed to brutality. And since Mexican President Felipe Calderón essentially declared war on drug traffickers two years ago, dispatching troops across the country, violence has exploded.

This year more than 5,300 have been killed nationwide – double the number from last year.

It has reached a fever pitch in Ciudad Juárez, which has registered about one-quarter of all executions this year, or about 1,400.

The majority of violence is contained among rival gangs, but innocent bystanders are not just increasingly in the crossfire, they are caught in the web of activities that criminals depend on to supplement their salaries – becoming victims of threats, extortion, and even kidnapping.

"Our schools started receiving threats last month," says Ciudad Juárez Mayor José Reyes Ferriz, who quickly sent cadets and police officers to the 900 schools in the city to bolster security and subdue parents' fears. "In the past six weeks, extortion of business owners has become our most important problem."

For months, residents here have shuttered their windows and stayed in at night. But now many have a sense that even the most basic daily activities – taking their children to school, going to work, even walking down the street – are being restricted.

And targeting children is a troubling new low.

The note at the Elena Garro school, on a piece of paper taped up on Nov. 12, created a panic among parents, says the director, who refused to give her name because she says she is no longer giving interviews, except to set the record straight.

She says she did not close the school – despite media reports to the contrary – but that 20 percent of parents have kept their children home since.

One mother, who did not want to share her name out of concern for her family's safety, refused to bring her son to school for a week after the note was posted.

She only changed her mind when police cadets started patrolling.

A similar sign was hung seven blocks down the street where her daughter attends elementary school: she has not brought her daughter back since. "Now we can't even be sure they are safe in school," she says.

Mayor Reyes Ferriz sent some 400 cadets and police officers rotating among hundreds of buildings in the city.

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