MEXICO CITY – Kids at a junior high for at-risk youth air boxed in the courtyard below their classrooms as part of an after-school program in Mexico City’s tough Tepito neighborhood – famous for championship boxers, but also its informal commerce and crime.
Others at the “telesecundaria,” where classes are taught via video and the students get a second chance at a high school education after being expelled from other schools, participated in workshops teaching cooking, drama and dialogue. Parents also participate, while psychologists and social workers offer assistance.
“All of the children come with a heavy burden of suffering violence,” Roberto Campa, Interior Ministry undersecretary of prevention and citizen participation, told foreign reporters accompanying him to Telesecundaria 91 in Tepito.
“It’s hard to find a place with as many risks for young people as here” he added, listing issues such as family violence, crime, addiction and a need to work to provide money for their households.
Tepito is one of more than 2,000 neighborhoods taking part in government programs overseen by Campa that are aimed at preventing and cutting crime through intervention in the most insecure parts of the country and fixing what federal officials describe as a fraying social fabric.
Many of these programs have been carried out quietly and with little media attention as the federal government promoted an agenda of structural reforms over its first to years in office and stayed silent on security issues.
But now, with daily protests about the 43 teaching college students who were kidnapped by municipal police in Iguala in Guerrero state and likely killed and President Enrique Peña Nieto taking flak for staying remaining silent for so long on the issue, the federal government has started to publicize its anti-crime initiatives in an effort to show it has been proactive. To the point that it’s offered press tours for foreign media members to see the programs in action.
“The regions that are suffering these crises (of violence) are characterized by having institutions that have gaps and areas left uncovered so criminals coming and seize control,” Campa said at a sports center.
“But another characteristic of these regions is a fraying of the social fabric and community problems. What we’re doing … what we’re rebuilding are both of these.”
The prevention programs were started shortly after Peña Nieto took office in December 2012. But the present emphasis on them comes at a critical time for Mexico as the students’ disappearance still stirs outrage and crime has climbed again to the top of the government agenda.
Peña Nieto unveiled a 10-point plan on Nov. 27 to calm the country – according to critics drawing heavily on ideas proposed by his predecessor, Felipe Calderón.
The plan includes initiatives to dissolve municipal governments considered infiltrated by organized crime, put local police forces under single commanders in each of the 32 states and introduce a national 911 number – among other measures.
“It depends on all of us to build and form the Mexico that we want to have, in which we want to live: a country that really is distant from scenarios of violence, from scenarios that don’t make social harmony and healthy coexistence possible,” Peña Nieto said Nov. 28. “This is what all Mexicans want.”
His comments come as Mexicans express skepticism of his administration, which marked its second anniversary on Dec. 1 with polls showing Peña Nieto having the lowest of approval ratings of any president since the mid 1990s – just 39 percent, according to the Grupo Reforma newspapers.
The skepticism runs high in places like Tepito, which has existed on the fringes for centuries, according to its residents—many of whom set up stalls and selling everything from socks to CDs, often pirated, and show an increasing devotion to the folkloric, skeletal saint, Santa Muerte.
“Tepito exists because it resists,” goes a slogan adopted by residents, who say they suffer stigma for the barrio’s rough reputation.
Anti-crime programs in Tepito include after-school initiatives, sprucing up sports centers and education programs for adults. In other parts of the country, there are soccer schools – sponsored by the Mexican Football Federation. Participants plant community gardens, paint their homes and start co-operatives to improve their incomes – all on a voluntary basis, but with materials and assistance provided by the private sector and various levels of government.
“One thing we’ve been able to achieve is getting along with each other better than before,” one participant said at a gathering with Campa in Tepito. “We now know each other better.”
It’s not the first attempt at addressing insecurity through solving social problems in the country and security analysts voice doubts that the initiatives places like Tepito will provide a long-term impact.
An initiative in the border city of Ciudad Juárez – known as Todos Somos Juárez, or We’re All Juárez – was started after 15 students were shot dead at a birthday party in 2010. Campa says the program offered some points to copy, such as seeking out citizen input and oversight and organizing roundtables for solving problems.
Whether the Todos Somos Juárez program – which address issues such as health, job training and recreation – was even partially responsible for driving down crime in what was once the murder capital of the world remains uncertain.
“They just started dumping a lot of money into it,” says Alejandro Hope, independent security analyst in Mexico City. “We don’t know what worked, and what didn’t.”
Security analysts also express concerns about the effectiveness of the anti-crime programs, saying the impact of the initiatives can be hard to measure – such as one providing kids with eyeglasses so they can read what’s on the blackboard in class and subsequently stay in school until graduation.
“In the programs that they have, some are good and others are total waste of money,” says Francisco Rivas, director of the National Citizen Observatory, a non-governmental group.
Improving the economy and legal systems – both priorities, according to Peña Nieto – would make anti-crime programs less necessary, he adds.
“How do they make it so a 17-year-old kid finds a job, doesn’t go hungry and doesn’t have to commit crime … or sell stolen merchandise,” Rivas says. “These are the real crime prevention programs we should be focusing on.”