JUAREZ – Editor's note: Writer and Fox News political analyst Juan Williams traveled to Mexico earlier this year as part of a joint effort by the U.S. Embassy, the United Nations and the Mexican government. The invitation was extended because both governments and the United Nations wanted a well-known American journalist to join with Mexican journalists in speaking out against the outright intimidation being used to silence any writing or broadcasting stories about the effects of the drug trade on Mexico. Williams' reports are in five parts and will be featured on FoxNews.com throughout the month of December.
Pt. 2: Libertad
In Libertad, a hard-edged West Side Juarez neighborhood is at the foot of Ball Mountain with its rough-hewn, rock-chiseled image of Mexican liberator Benito Juarez on the side of the mountain above. This neighborhood is known in the city as home turf for many of the young men who join violent gangs. One study estimates that 45 percent of Juarez youth between ages 13 and 24 have little education and are unemployed. Most of those young people are in gangs.
The gang that runs this area is called M-13. The M stands for miners, since people in the area once mined the mountains. The 13 stands for the 13th letter of the alphabet, M. The teenaged boys here tell me the name is about showing pride in Mexico. Now, heroin addicts, the homeless and criminals sleep in the caves of Ball Mountain.
On the East side of Libertad are rows of railroad tracks next to large warehouses, several of them standing vacant as a reminder that the industrial economy here is hurting or already dead. Since 2008, Juarez has lost 25,000 jobs. High fences and razor wire protect the empty warehouses with their broken windows and vacant parking lots. In between are junkyards.
In the middle of the warehouses on the east and scraggly mountains on the west is Libertad -- one tough Juarez neighborhood. Speakers attached to two shanties carry loud evangelical preaching about the penalty for robbery and murder. Radios are crackling with Juarez’s own brand of hip-hop, complete with the sound effects of helicopters, gunfire and champagne bottles popping open.
Libertad is made up of tin-roofed cinderblock shacks and unpaved streets covered with dusty, crushed rocks that kick over from Ball Mountain. Most of the people in the houses are squatters; they just put the cinderblocks in place to give themselves a place to live.
The only bright spot here is the red railing and the yellow warning stripe along the ground next to a new aqueduct that runs through Libertad. It was built after creeks flowing down from Ball Mountain flooded the area in 2006, wiping out hundreds of shanty homes.
On the day that I visited, my tour guides are two teenagers, Carlos Garcia, 16, and Gustavo Mendez-Garcia, 17, and their friend, 21-year-old Hector Savino. I met them through Americans who started an arts program to create something positive by painting over the gang graffiti with uplifting messages.
The sun was merciless. It was so hot that the armored SUV that brought me here overheated and the engine began intermittently shutting down. We called for help and tried to put the car in neutral and roll along slowly in the hope that the engine might cool enough turn over. That prompted the Mexican federal police, handguns drawn, to surround the vehicle and demand identification and explanations of what we were doing in Libertad. It was only after we showed U.S. passports and answered shouted questions about the armored SUV and the officers had a terse back and forth by radio with their supervisors and the U.S. consulate that we were allowed to proceed.
By that point, it was over 100 degrees and waves of heat rose from the dusty earth and the SUV. We got the vehicle started and slowly rolled into this eerily silent, run-down section of town. In the mid-day heat, the streets were empty but I could see faces in windows watching the streets from the shade. As we park, three young men, the mural artists, emerge.
One of the young painters, Hector, tells me he dropped out of junior high. The dropout rate here is well over 50 percent. Factory jobs only require a 6th grade education, so it’s not surprising that a 2005 government study found that a quarter of the 12-year-olds in Juarez were not enrolled in school.
But there are fewer and fewer jobs for the teenagers with the “Maquiladoras,” the so-called “twin plants” run here by American companies seeking low-wage workers across the border. Those factories on the Mexican side are closing with disturbing frequency now because Mexican and American executives no longer want to deal with the out-of-control violence.
For unemployed teenagers, joining a gang, having a gun and becoming a hired hand for drug cartels is the top paycheck in all of Juarez’ criminal enterprises. Below that is the quick money that can be found in the vast and violent chaos that rules the streets. Fast and fearless teens make up most of the pickpockets, robbers, muggers, carjackers, kidnappers and extortionists. They also perform grudge killings that have little to do with drugs but pay well and have little risk because the police are so overwhelmed here that few murders are investigated and fewer prosecuted.
The big, unfinished mural the young men are working on is essentially a morality tale. It shows floating hands with fingers pointing at two dark, masked figures – young men robbing a house. One of the youngsters is climbing out of a window and another is carrying a bag of stolen valuables. The Spanish word for “shame” is written in bold letters at the top of the mural as the disembodied hands -- grandmothers and uncles and neighbors -- point accusingly at the teens and knowingly at what is going on.
Another set of murals in this neighborhood includes one showing crosses on row after row of graves. Two boys stand before the dead holding hands over their fearful, crying faces. In the background are trucks filled with masked and helmeted federal troops carrying automatic rifles as they ride through the city in back of pick-up trucks. Next to it is a mural showing the boys of Libertad with clenched fists raised in a power salute. The words on this one read:
“It takes the silence of the city into wet, bloody rivers…I feel the sensation of power to change the world… the strength to change…We have the power to be free without being afraid…we can achieve the impossible with love and tranquility.”
It is a wonderful, upbeat message. But it is clear that the odds are against these kids. The gang life and the law of “kill or be killed” seem to be the unwritten message.
Juan Williams is a writer and Fox News political analyst. Look for Part 2 of this series tomorrow in Fox News Opinion.