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. 3 – Prisoners From Birth
The violence starts with the littlest ones.
Lourdes Almada, a mom in her 30s, wearing a green T-shirt with the image of two small children holding hands, is a child development specialist.
She organizes day care centers for poor parents in Juarez. Her goal at the moment is to get small children, those 18-months to 6-years-old who attend her daycare program, to once again come outside to play. Parents stopped letting children play outside long ago for fear of getting caught in gunfight.
“They are victims by being closed indoors all the time…” she explains. “They are so depressed, so many children and they get angry and can’t let it out. In day care we see they are emotionally depressed… the teachers think that is why their grades suffer.”
And when the children start school in Mexico these days, they have “shootout drills,” the equal of fire drills for children in the rest of the world. “Upon hearing gunshots near the school zone the teacher will immediately order all students to lie with their chest to the floor,” reads the instruction guide from Mexico’s secretary of education. “Avoid all visual contact with the aggressors.”
Before starting school, there is the simple matter of a child wanting to go outside to play.
So Almada’s solution is to put up ropes and cordon off intersections to create what she calls “Safe Streets.” These are closed blocks free from fights among the drug dealers that spill into neighborhood streets. She is telling parents as well as the kids to come out and play.
Almada who has a master’s degree in human development, worked to put together a book of drawings by children, ages 4 to 8, about their lives. One child in Almada’s group drew pictures of fabulous homes, including hotels with rooftop swimming pools and golden door handles. She was pleased until she asked the child if he knew people who live in such resplendent places. The child told her: “The winners.” By that he meant the big drug dealers. To the little ones, the good life is a winning drug dealer’s life.
“We asked ourselves what broke, when did the break occur for these children that they are accustomed to this violence,” she said. “We found that what broke was family ties and ties to people. The thread of family is attachment and violence is detachment…they are not tied to others, so many do not feel for the dead. They do not have empathy.”
Almeda tells the story of seeing a 4-year-old standing by himself in a crowd next to a dead body on the street. She initially tried to comfort him. But as he walked away with her he told her that he had seen dead bodies before. When she asked if he was afraid he said “not anymore.”
In fact, Almeda says it is common in Juarez for parents to take children to see freshly killed, bloody, bodies on the streets. “It is a show, a spectacle for people to see it and they come out of their houses with the children,” she said. People gather around the murdered, she said, and share stories about the shooting and how it started. It becomes a neighborhood happening before the police arrive.
“It is a defense against emotion: ‘The pain of others does not affect me.’ It is like they are watching a game, a video game.”
Almeda charts the impact of violence on Juarez’ children as a matter of degrees. At the top of the pain scale are children who have lost a mother, a father or both to violent murder. Then there are children who have lost a brother or sister followed by children who have lost cousins, friends, the parents of friends and neighbors. And then there are children who have witnessed the violence as it happened and saw people killed. There are also children who come on the shocking scene afterward. Finally there are children who live in fear, hearing all the talk about the shootings and warnings not to go outside.
“So many children pee in the bed here,” she said as we talked about the impact the violence has on their lives, “they are scared. Big children here still want to sleep with their parents.”
And in their frightful dreams, the biggest door of opportunity they can see is the gang life with its glitter, money and big guns to give them security. The reality for most is a far cry from a gangbangers’ palace.
In Morelos, a neighborhood near the U.S. border, young gang members get high on paint thinner. It is by far the most popular drug for Juarez youth because it is the cheapest. It also makes you jumpy, erratic, given to violence and an easy recruit for gangs. The second most used drug among young people here is cheap, heavily cut, muddy-colored heroin; what is left behind of shipments headed for the United States. Juarez is the capital of heroin shooters in Mexico. Marijuana, crack and powered cocaine are also easy to access but they are more expensive than paint thinner and heroin.
Father Hugo Orozco, a slim, 42-year-old bearded Salesian priest, runs three youth centers in Juarez that serve about 3000 poor teenagers a month. Gang fights led to the murder of a 20-year-old at one of the youth centers two years ago. Three years earlier, a similar confrontation led to another gang murder of a 15-year-old. But given that this is Juarez, Father Orozco says two boys killed in five years is evidence that the centers are safe places for young people.
“The gang boys come to the centers to play basketball and (soccer) so we watch them to prevent selling here,” Father Orozco said. “We are priests and they respect that.”
After his three years in Juarez the priest defines his ‘job’ as giving young men an alternative to gang life. He describes the boys who come to the centers, some of them roughhousing on a shaded outdoor basketball court as we are talking, as from “weak family structures.” The mothers are generally absent during the day to work in the factories where they are considered more reliable than the men. The unemployed fathers feel “degraded,” and “useless” and that leads to a lot of violence against the women. By the time the children are teenagers, the priest said, most of the fathers are gone.
To save money, two or three mothers will rent an apartment leaving their children crowded inside. By seventh grade the boys have generally dropped out of school and they are searching for something to do. So Father Orozco runs classes in car repair and painting, sports, music and dance groups. But he knows the centers are no match for the allure of gang life.
“For many of the children joining a gang is part of a life of low expectations,” Father Orozco explains. “It is also generational with their father and brother in the gangs. So they think it is natural.”
And the natural “process” of gang life here, as charted by Father Orozco, is for little boys to begin as “Falcons.” They fly low by serving the dealers as a watch-out for the police and rival dealers. Then they start selling before graduating to controlling drug deals over a few blocks to then branching out to take control of other drug dealers in a section of the city. There are constant battles for control among the small-time drug dealers, with tactics including murders, extortion, kidnapping and more. The top gang members eventually go to work for the big drug cartels and get big money packaging, moving and smuggling drugs across the border.
“It is too easy to buy a gun here,” Father Orozco said, holding his head for a moment. “You can get an AK-47 for 4,000 pesos (about $320). They want to be recognized by the community as somebody and their hormones are pumping…with a gun he can do anything.”
What the poor male children of Juarez do well is kill. The amount of their killing has made Juarez world famous.
Juan Williams is a writer and Fox News political analyst. Look for Parts 4 and 5 of this series tomorrow in Fox News Opinion.