Part 1 – No One to Tell Their Story
Christmas is all about the Christ child, baby Jesus.
By extension, Christmas is about the children of the world. That includes children living in the most violent place in the world. This Christmas of 2010 you can get into that horror movie by walking the short distance across the U.S. border from El Paso to Juarez, Mexico.
There is no room at the inn, no place safe from violence for any child in Juarez. The rest of Mexico is not much safer.
In early December, the Mexican Army arrested a skinny 14-year-old boy suspected of working as a hit man for a Mexican drug cartel. The boy, Edgar Jimenez, was arrested in Cuernavaca, about an hour south of Mexico City, but his mother lives in San Diego and U.S. embassy officials are advising Jimenez on his legal rights because it is possible he was born in the U.S. and is an American citizen. Beginning at age 12, Jimenez is alleged to have tortured numerous people and executed at least four people – all by decapitation -- in exchange for money and drugs. He had bloody pictures of his victims on his cell phone, according to the military.
After Jimenez’ arrest, an expert on Latin America at the University of Miami, Bruce Bagley, told The Wall Street Journal: “The kids [in the narcotics cartels] are getting younger and younger. Mexico has fallen into a spiral that will scar a whole generation. Life is cheap and getting cheaper.”
The disturbing pressure the drug wars put on children like Jimenez is easy to see in Juarez. Since the Mexican government went to war with drug lords in 2006, about 20 percent of the 30,000 drug-related murders in Mexico have taken place here.
People in Juarez are nervous about even stopping at a red light because the drug cartels hire gangbangers like Jiminez – poor children, drop-outs with automatic weapons who might as well be playing video games -- to shoot it out. The violence is often public because the cartels want to be feared as they vie for control of Juarez, the most critical junction of all drug trafficking routes into the U.S. Murderous violence hangs over everyday life in Juarez like suffocating hot air.
In this city of 1.3 million, about 3,000 people have been killed this year. Last year, the total was about 2,763. In 2008, it was 1,623. Altogether, that amounts to more than 5,000 people in two-and-a-half years. In all, 7,386 have died in Juarez in the last 3 years. And this does not include 1,900 carjackings in 2009 or the unknown number of people who have been kidnapped, tortured and blackmailed. Even more people can testify to losing family and friends to the violence.
In June, a week before my second trip to Juarez, 16 people had been killed – execution style -- in one day in Juarez. A few days before that bloodshed, a gunman sprayed a group of kids playing volleyball in park. He killed at least four. Two weeks earlier, in the nearby city of Chihuahua, 19 people had been killed in one attack.
During my first visit to Juarez in February 2010, President Felipe Calderon came here to express his sorrow for 15 teenagers who died in January from gunfire at a single Saturday night house party. But mothers of the dead stood up at his press conference and turned their backs to him to express their disdain. The Mexican president angered the mothers because he told reporters the violence in Juarez amounted to slaughter among low-life drug dealers. The grieving mothers reacted with outrage. They said their children are good kids who have nothing to do with the drug cartels; they just wanted to have some fun but could not go out to any nightclubs or even restaurants because of fear of the violence that still found them at a private house.
I had initially come to Mexico as part of a joint effort by the U.S. Embassy, the United Nations and the Mexican government. They wanted a well-known American journalist to join with Mexican journalists in speaking out against the outright intimidation, even murder, being used to silence any writing or broadcasting stories about the drug trade. Journalists here operate in a state of fright. Investigative work, stories about ties between drugs, politicians, banks and police, is stifled by fear of murderous reprisals.
Even when a journalist is killed here, there is no common expression of outrage among newspapers, TV and radio programs. There is little if any celebration of the dead journalist’s courage. In fact, news outlets are slow to report the murders of journalists and some outlets will allow defamatory suggestions that the journalist might have been involved with drugs or on the payroll of the cartels.
That assault on journalists is effectively paralyzing the flow of information about the drug war here and undermining public resolve to fight the drug cartels. Stories about mass murders get told. But in Mexico and around the world, the stories of damage to everyday people, especially children, are not being told.
Mexico’s journalism famine led a girl who looked to be about 14 to nervously stand up in an auditorium of high school students in February to ask me a question – but it felt like an accusation. The girl with pigtails wanted to know why my fellow journalists in Mexico did not report in the newspapers or TV news programs about a dead body she saw on the sidewalk near her house in a residential section of Juarez. She was scared. It was the most horrible, frightening sight she had ever seen. Yet when she looked at the newspapers and watched TV news it was as if nothing had happened because there was no mention of the horror of a life loss steps from her home.
Other young people told me stories about living with death all around, stories that never get into any paper. At a college in Juarez a 19-year-old with long hair said he could no longer walk his dog for fear of being killed. And a 20-year-old woman said she loved playing violin but her parents did not want her to go to practice anymore because it kept her out late. She gave up the violin.
The stories of young lives trapped in the deadly mix of guns, drugs and fear stayed with me. In interviews Mexican politicians and police remind me that most of the killers and those being killed are kids – teenagers. One Mexican politician said simply there is a lot of “young blood on the floor.” He said this in passing without any emotion or emphasis. But the words stayed with me. The idea upset me.
Francisco Arce, a Mexican artist I later met in Juarez added his own twist: “The young people are between two fires – they are criminalized, held responsible for what is going on, and they are victims of what is going on.”
Part 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.
Part 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.
Part 4 – Who Would Stay?
The great hope of all Juarez is the poor and working-class teenagers who defy the gang life.
At 9 a.m. on a bright summer morning, the convention center is filled with the best and the brightest working-class children in Juarez. It is graduation day for Preparatoria Central, the top-ranked city high school that accepts only the very best students from all of the city’s public schools. Most of these students can’t afford a private college but for a year or two some will go to Juarez Autonomous University, the low-cost local community college school.
The young people are dressed in snappy Navy blue V-neck sweaters with white piping and pressed khaki pants. Their parents and grandparents -- factory workers, maids, salesmen, and cooks -- are dressed in go-to-church clothes. The mayor, who flees the violence of Juarez every night for the safety of a home in El Paso, is also at this graduation. If Juarez has a future it is in the promise of these good children.
Outside the main auditorium five Preparatoria students, two sophomores, a junior and two seniors, are seated to talk with me – a visiting American journalist -- about living with constant fear of violence. School officials tell me four families took their children out of the school this year as whole families decided they could not take it anymore and fled the violence. Two families went to other parts of Mexico and two flew north to Canada.
As the color guard lines up for the start of the graduation pageantry the young people try to be upbeat. Juan Manuel Martinez, 17, a sophomore, says he still “has hope the situation can change.”
“The worse problem is not the violence, “said senior Carmine Carasco, 17, with bright pink nails, “it is that people get used to it. They do nothing to change the situation.”
Alejandro Marmolejo, 17, a senior, describes the “real war” being fought in Juarez as the “war here between families and gangs” over young people like him. Does a teenager – he is jabbing his chest as he speaks – go for family values and education or gang values and violence.
Juan Manuel Martinez turns to Alejandro [last name?], his classmate, and describes the teen dilemma this way: “We in Juarez have the idea that everything can be done with money. The drug people, the gang people have money. But at this school we tell each other that family is more important. Education and values are more important.”
It is a tough choice. Alejandro agrees that family and school are the right choice. But he knows most young people in the city are not in school and the gangs offer easy money. “We can’t go outside, we can’t go to parties anymore, so we study,” he said. “At every moment we can be murdered -- the only thing we can do is to be aware of the situation.”
While the boys talk about making choices, the girls, including the youngest student in the group of top achievers, Nancy Soto, tell me there is danger getting to school. The Preparatoria is located in a public park. Muggers and thieves prey on the students. They hide in bushes and attack. Sneakers, cell phones and bags have been stolen from the students, ripped out of their hands. They’ve been assaulted for lunch money. And getting to school is not the only problem. It is hard – especially for the girls -- to go to practice, to games, to the movies. “My parents trust me,” said Nancy Sotto, “but they always call me – ‘where are you’ and ‘who are you with.’ They do that out of love.”
Alma Avitia, 17, a junior, tells the horror story of trying to take her little sister to dance class.
“I got out of the car and this person was dead, shot there on the street,” she begins. “I could calm myself. The problem was with my sister. She is 10. How do you explain what happened. She loves dance class. I did not know how to explain there is no class. She just cried.”
And then there is the infamous house party where 15 teenagers, including friends of Preparatoria students, were shot to death. That slaughter cancelled out even small parties among high school friends. And none of the students expect the police to solve the case
“You can’t trust the police to protect you,” said Carmine Carasco age 17. “You can’t call the police without the drug people knowing. That is so hard.” Alma agrees: “The police are inside of it…they are paid by the drug dealers.”
The students of Preparatoria have each other and their teachers and their families. That is all for the moment. Every one of them wants to make a future in the city but no one is sure it will be possible.
Alejandro makes the case for trying to outlast the violence by saying Juarez has a lot of international business opportunity because it is a border city and even larger than El Paso, the U.S. city across the border. He wants the drug war that has defined his high school years to end even if it means having the government troops pull back and allowing the drug cartels to once again have a free hand.
“I want to stay,” he declares. Then he looks down and one of the city’s bright young men has a moment of doubt. “Who knows?”
If Alejandro and his classmates leave, it will be all over for Juarez.
Behind a guarded gate, far from the tough neighborhoods of Libertad or Morelos and distant from even the striving students at the Prepatoria, is the campus of Monterrey Institute of Technology. It is one of Mexico’s leading private colleges and the best school for higher education in Juarez.
The Juarez campus features modern buildings and a manicured campus.
The school’s main campus is in Monterrey but in Juarez, the school serves nearly 2,000 students. This is an elite group. Students here are bright and their parents have the money to send them to a private college. Monterrey Tech’s students are the children of this city’s business, political, media and cultural leaders. They are well on their way to following their parents as the future leaders of northern Mexico.
But family money can’t insulate the students from the chilling violence in Juarez. That became clear on March 19 on the big campus in Monterrey.
Two students, one a doctoral student and the other studying for his master’s degree, left the Monterrey campus’ school library that evening. They did not know a 40-minutes-long gunfight raged next to the campus between federal police and drug dealers who boldly tossed grenades from three cars. Witnesses said one of the drug cartel’s cars was armor plated and bullets bounced off it.
The students, ages 23 and 24, both winners of academic scholarships in engineering, found themselves caught in the crossfire on the edge of campus and died from gunshot wounds.
Today, a dozen Monterrey Tech students on the Juarez campus agree to talk with me about their fairly closeted lives as well-to-do teenagers in the violent city. They position themselves at desks pushed to the edge of the room to form a large rectangle with me in the middle. As we get started, several students immediately ask if I know about the students who got shot in Monterrey.
Karen Apodaca, 19, wearing a kelly green dress, says she was going to the Monterrey campus for law classes but stopped after the violence there. “My father said: “Don’t go there – it’s too dangerous.” She stops for a moment. “It is more dangerous in Juarez, but if you are here, you are close to the family. I can get home.” She looks down. “My future is being blocked by killers, drug dealers.”
Marisol Rodriguez, a beautiful 18-year-old, saw a dead body hanging from the bridge she has to cross to get to Monterrey Tech’s campus. Her mother, who runs a nursing unit at night, came into the house that morning and warned her about the ghastly sight.
“I thought the police will remove it by the time I have to go to school. But it was still there.” She said she started to feel sick and looked away. In the next car she saw a child, eyes wide open and staring at the swinging corpse. “It is not healthy for a little girl to see that,” she said.
Since then, she has seen three more dead bodies on the street.
Rodriguez also has to worry about her mother treating the shooting victims. Some hospitals refuse to treat people who have been shot because gunmen have been known to go to the hospital to finish the kill. But if hospitals refuse to help then friends of the victim sometimes arrive with guns to insist that nurses and doctors treat their friends. “This is what we live with,” Marisol said.
Some in the room are wiping their eyes.
Carlos Coutino, 20, says his neighbor was killed two weeks ago. “The worst thing of all is that I am saying this in a normal voice,” he said. He says people ask him daily why he does not leave Juarez. A girl says her relatives in Canada tell her to come there, but she says she want to live in Juarez. Coutino says he want to stay, too, but he is coming “close to the line.”
Marcia Lourdes Valdez, who has brought her camera to take pictures of our meeting, says her upper class neighborhood now has several vacant houses. In the last year the neighbors just left out of fear. It is hard to find a restaurant or club, she tells me, because no one wants to be trapped when the shooting starts. Marisol, the 18-year-old, says she can go to nightclubs across the border in El Paso but “the drinking age there is 21, so that’s no good.” The students start laughing.
Diana Batista says the fear extends to weddings. “I sing at weddings and my boss told me if the shooting starts, throw yourself on the floor. I said ‘Okay, I feel better now.’” Again the room fills with laughter.
Another student says her neighbor was kidnapped: “We think, ‘Why did this happen to this guy – he is such a nice man, he always smiled at us.’” She hears from her parents that the kidnappers have called the man’s wife to tell her they are watching her. The wife has been warned not to leave Juarez. But no one has asked for money and her smiling neighbor, the doctor, has been gone for a month. She looks puzzled. She asks questions: Was he a doctor to the cartels or the gangs? Was he a dealer or an investor in the drug business? Is a victim because of the money he made as a doctor?
Maria Mercado, a professor of political communication, joins the conversation to say that too many young people, including the highly educated and the rich, are being seduced into the drug business. “There is so much money,” she said. Some of the young people in the room nod in agreement. It is also true, she said, that the police, the prosecutors and the politicians are all suspected by these college students of being on the take.
Hector Servin, 20, in a white T-shirt and waving his hands, says the police can’t protect anyone. “So no one talks to the police and the law breaks down,” he tells me. “Anyone who want to rob or kidnap or extort is doing it.” The criminals get cell phone numbers, bank and credit card numbers, he said, and use it to blackmail and threaten people. “Just picking up your cell phone can be scary,” he said.
The same goes for stopping at a red light. A car can pull up alongside, he explained, and put a gun in the window. So other than going to school and football practice he has stopped going out. “I don’t stop – I don’t go anywhere else but here.”
For these children of the rich in Juarez, this is a time to close their eyes, lock their doors and whistle past the graveyard. They can afford to leave. Most say they want to stay, but my guess is that they will leave once they finish college. There is too much risk here for anyone with money. The future in Northern Mexico belongs to the bright working class kids who can’t afford to leave.
Part 5 – Survial, Not Superman
For young people, rich or poor, the violence here can be thought of as a disfiguring facial birthmark. It changes the way the world sees them and the way they feel about themselves and the future.
The battle between narco-cartels and a beleaguered federal government have made Juarez, just across the border from El Paso, Texas, synonymous around the world with senseless murder.
And for the young people who live hear, that environment has made life cheap and hope the rarest commodity.
The art of the young people reflects the way they feel.
‘Words in Sand’ is a literature project run for children by Laura Ramirez. She wanted the children to write because so often they did not speak of the terror around them. She describes the city’s children as its “most resilient” citizens.
“They do everything to retain a normal life,” she said. “One child told me he does not cry because he does not want to worry his mother and make her cry. So they suppress emotions. They have learned how to live in a war zone.”
Ramirez tells the story of how one of her elementary school students came to school with bloody sneakers. He was silent when she asked him what happened to his sneakers. Later, his older brother told her that the boy was holding hands with his father when the father was shot dead.
“He did not tell me a story, draw a picture,” she said. “His art was letting me see the bloody sneakers and the fact he was wearing them meant to me he was telling me what happened but not with words, not with tears or shouting. He wore those sneakers as a sign, a symbol of his life and his father’s death.”
Francisco Arce started a comic book project for Juarez teens. It is called “656 Comics” as an insider nod to the city; 656 is the Juarez area code. Arce wanted young people to tell their stories through the most popular literature here, comic book art and narratives.
He wanted to give them the chance to see themselves as heroes. “The idea was to let their imagination break out in their comic books.”
The comic books the young people drew and wrote featured themselves, their parents, teachers and friends as ordinary people escaping danger. The police, the drug dealers and the gangs emerged as a powerful evil force and most often represented the danger. But what struck Arce is that the comic books had no characters with the power to leap buildings find the bad guys and defeat them. The children of Juarez did not imagine superheroes coming to save the day.
“The comics they created had no X-Men, no heroes with superpowers…,” said Arce. “Just a lot of average Joe problems, paying the rent and surviving. I think part of the Mexican identity is not to have heroes with beyond human powers. In the comic books the children just want to be able to live – to be normal.
In the Christmas Gospel, safe haven for the Child Christ – Jesus Christ – is a manger, nothing more than a farmer’s shed. But no matter how small and damp and drafty it might be, Mother Mary and Joseph used that old shed as a safe resting place to watch over the Child Savior. The cradle in the ancient manger was surrounded by farm animals but free of danger from a king who dreamed that someone greater was born, a leader for the world.
Today there is no safe place in Juarez to welcome a savior, to protect the children that embody faith, hope and love for the future of Mexico.
Juan Williams is a writer and Fox News political analyst.