Juarez's Children

Drugs, death and fear in the murder capital of the world

"El Paso has been witnessing a boom," says Cesar Fuentes, a researcher at Colegio de la Frontera Norte. He says the Juárez exodus has led to economic growth in El Paso. "People used to go to Juárez on a Saturday night because there were better restaurants and bars. Now, those are opening up in their own town, and so you don't cross anymore."

Remarkably, too, El Paso has remained almost immune from its cross-canal city's violence. The Texas town is considered one of the safest cities in the States. Yet in an eerie forewarning one day this past July, a bullet fired in Juárez hit El Paso City Hall. This summer, both Mexican and U.S. governments reiterated their belief that border security is a high priority. But Mexico's outlandish crime rate—28,000 people have died in drug-related violence in the past six years—continues to make a mockery of any talk of solutions, especially because the U.S.'s appetite for drugs feeds the cartels.

U.S. drug revenues are estimated to be as high as $80 billion per year, and the majority of the cartels' weapons supply comes from the north. "There are 7,600 gun shops within 50 miles of the Mexican border, and they're selling primarily to drug lords," former U.S. National Security Advisor Robert Pastor told CNN in 2009. "We are part of this problem, and we haven't been significantly supportive."

Eight-year-old Esteban, pictured here standing outside his family's house, first saw dead bodies two years ago, in a car four blocks from home.
Luis Aguilar
Eight-year-old Esteban, pictured here standing outside his family's house, first saw dead bodies two years ago, in a car four blocks from home.
This graffiti stencil is common in Juárez. The image lines the wall of the nearly empty canal that borders the city and El Paso, Texas.
Luis Aguilar
This graffiti stencil is common in Juárez. The image lines the wall of the nearly empty canal that borders the city and El Paso, Texas.


Vows of tightening these controls have fallen short, however, as any visit to the bridge connecting the two cities makes clear. It takes the average Mexican citizen two hours to pass the tight security checkpoints heading into El Paso. But folks traveling in the other direction can cross the border in minutes, often strolling across the bridge without so much as a glance at what they are carrying.

Teresa Montero, who for the past 30 years has studied the plight of Juárez's children, often recounts an anecdote from her early years of field work: "One day, I found a 2-year-old child chained to a crib [and] left with a bottle of milk for the day," says the academic director at the Autonomous University of Juárez. "Now enlarge that image to thousands of children, and you have the history of Juárez."

As it becomes painfully obvious that more policing is not the answer, many parents and leaders are calling for better care for the young—such as Spider-Man and his friends.

"In just a few more years, these kids are going to be sucked into the narco world," says Leonardo Yánez, an early-childhood development expert with the Holland-based Bernard van Leer Foundation, which funds child-advocacy programs worldwide, including some in Juárez. "Early childhood is the point where a rupture can be made."

But there are few places for kids to go when their parents head to work, which is often. Juárez has more mothers working outside the home than any other city in Mexico—80,000 formally employed by maquilas alone. Men work, too, or have gone north, or are slowly dying off (90 percent of the post-2008 murders are of men). Yet only six of every 100 kids in Juárez have access to a day-care facility. As a result, according to Red por la Infancia, 44 percent of working mothers leave their youngsters alone at some point during the day.

Leaving small children alone in any city can potentially damage them, but in Juárez, the consequences can be grave. "You have kids exposed to inhuman levels of violence," Jusidman says, "and then [they are] left without care and support to deal with those experiences."

Through a campaign named Hazlo por Juárez (Do It for Juárez), Red por la Infancia activists are pushing newly elected leaders to fund and expand centers such as the OPI day care and to double the number of spaces available because, they say, these centers can make a difference in these children's lives.

"In 2008, when the violence got out of hand, we saw it immediately in the kids," OPI's Castillo says. The children became aggressive and talked of extreme violence as a normal occurrence, she explains.

Teachers can make a difference by asking key questions, Castillo says. When a child talks about wanting to murder his peers, Castillo explains, staff can ask, "But that would make your friend cry, right?" or, "How do you think his little brother would feel if he could no longer play with his sibling?"

"Now, the kids who were with us then are calm again," Castillo says. But, she notes, "Every time a new kid comes in, we start all over again, giving them special attention until they are able to shed that edge."

Six-year-old Guillermo's next-door neighbor is a ghost, "un niño" who inhabits the abandoned two-story brick house across the driveway from the boy's small three-bedroom home. "I can hear him sometimes," says the slight first-grader with a buzzcut. "The ghost makes noises but doesn't speak." Down the street, there are more spirit neighbors.

Guillermo's block in the middle-class neighborhood is filled with skeletons of Juárez's recent population flight: abandoned homes and storefronts with peeling paint and blown-out windows. "Those up there are really mean," the boy says, pointing toward the second floor of a vacant building on the corner. His gaze lingers momentarily on the darkness beyond one glassless window before he turns away.

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