Adrian Cadena finds his solace in football – ever since his son, who dreamed of playing the American sport in college, was among 15 gunned down in January while attending a birthday party in Ciudad Juárez. In a nation that has become almost inured to drug-war violence, this tragedy sparked outrage throughout Mexico.
But the grieving father has put his energy into volunteering for the local team, cleaning parks, and raising money through barbecues and carwashes – both to heal himself and to try to support other parents and children in this violent industrial city. “There are thousands of boys left behind. We have to focus on the survivors,” says Mr. Cadena, a car mechanic and father of three other teenagers.
Ciudad Juárez, just across the border from El Paso, Texas, is arguably the city worst hit by Mexico’s drug war. In 2009, one-third of all drug-related murders in Mexico happened here as rival drug gangs fought for control of the narcotics trade. The streets are dotted with thousands of Mexican soldiers and mask-wearing federal police who patrol in pickup trucks. They were sent here in the past two years to try to curb the violence.
Amid this battleground, parents (like Cadena), teachers, nongovernmental organizations, and – increasingly – government officials are seeking ways to help the city’s children deal with the fear, stress, and sense of helplessness.
“It is sad; they are dealing with things that they are really too young to deal with,” says Ramon Ruiz, an elementary school teacher at the Juárez and Reforma public school in Ciudad Juárez.
January massacre was tipping point
Many here say that the birthday party massacre that took Cadena’s son was a tipping point. The government shifted from focusing solely on military efforts in the city to boosting spending on health, jobs, and social services. The killing of three US people affiliated with the US consulate, including two Americans, on March 14 (leaving yet more children without parents), accelerated that shift.
Youths are now the focus of the federal initiative, “We are all Juárez,” which includes plans for new schools, 10,000 scholarships to get dropouts back into high school, and day-care centers. The government vows to create an orchestra, provide more English classes, and expand university campuses.
“Education is a priority of the federal response,” says Jorge Quintana Silveyra, the rector of the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juárez.
The violence here has also mobilized civil society. “Youths for Juárez,” a group spawned by Facebook last autumn that has grown to more than 4,000 members, began as a voice to represent young people. Now they are working with a federal program called “Sensores” (sensors) to help detect warning signs among peers who could fall into criminal gangs.
'Children are the epicenter'
“Children are the epicenter of the problem. If the government is going to solve the problem, it has to reach out to young people,” says Denisse Flores, a 23-year-old founder of the group who just graduated with a law degree.
According to Ciudad Juárez Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz, 70 percent of those killed in the city are between ages 14 and 25. Most were members of the drug gangs.
Even when children are not touched directly, violence surrounds them. Graciela Acosta, a parent on the playground of the Juárez and Reforma school, says she walks a fine line between protecting her 8-year-old son from panic and teaching him to be prudent. “I don’t want him to begin to see this violence as normal,” she says. “So I want to explain it to him.”
Some parents have simply moved – or sent their children away. Gustavo Perez is still running his convenience store across the street from the January massacre – though he closes at 7 p.m. now instead of 11 p.m. But he sent his 11-year-old daughter to stay with family in El Paso.
Others are determined to stay. Alba Marina Sandate, a college student studying to become a social worker, says that her father now requires her to be home by 9 p.m. She doesn’t object.
During the day, she trains in Juárez’s neighborhoods, helping to fortify community relations and honing skills to become a social worker in an elementary school. “Children these days do not have a guide,” she says. “When we talk about insecurity, we have to ask where it comes from. It did not just happen suddenly. Drug traffickers were once kids, too.”