JUAN WILLIAMS: The Children of Juarez, Parts 4 & 5

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. 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.

Pt. 5 – Survival, 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.

For Behind the Scenes videos with Juan Williams discussing his visit to Juarez click here.

Juan Williams is a writer and Fox News political analyst.